Feather-haired Heather and her inbred-looking little toady Tammy were mean girls who backed me against the lockers, grabbed my undershirt, and demanded why I didn't wear a bra. They were easily the worst of seventh-grade PE. The second worst was running "The Hill," a mile out-and-back that wrapped behind the school. Heidi and I walked "The Hill" after two or three minutes. It's not that we were lazy. We rode our bikes, walked a mile to the drugstore for Spree candies and Otter Pops. We just hated running.
Along with the undershirts, we wore prairie dresses, knee socks, and clogs, oblivious to the allure of tight jeans, Maybelline Kissing Slicks, and boys. We spoke a secret language and had special names. Our dramatic enactments involved one on her deathbed wrapped in a sheet, the other weeping on the floor after days of unrelenting but failed nursing. We said "Prithee," and called each other "Dear Sister." Like Anne and Diana in the Green Gables books, we were "bosom friends." Other kids thought it was weird that we held hands.
When we finally got our first real crushes-my-stomach-churns-and I-think-I-might-vomit-when-I-see-the-back-of-his-head-down-the-hallway type crushes-sharing the minutiae of that day's sighting or dissecting each blundered encounter was much more of a thrill than the boys themselves.
In our junior year it ended. One day we broke up, and I never exactly got why. There was sudden jealously over a new, lesser friend; a series of abruptly cancelled plans; tense exchanges of the records and clothing we'd entrusted to each other for months, in some instances, years. New dramas swept in-more boys, different friends, sanitizing each day's history for parents-and I moved on. In college we tried meeting for coffee, but it just didn't work. Our lives had been so enmeshed; if there wasn't that same exclusivity, there wasn't anything.
Nearly twenty-five years later, we see each other at a Christmas party, literally across a crowded room, and lock eyes. I'd know her anywhere. We introduce our husbands; shield this sudden collision with instinctively polite, meaningless chitchat about our children.
When we get together at a wine bar, it's like a first date, guarded and tentative. Then one of us brings up one of those dramatic deathbed plays and the reservation falls away. There is so much joy in finding this friendship again. We plan more dates, email almost every day.
A few weeks later it happens. Heidi is diagnosed with Stage 3B breast cancer and needs an immediate and radical treatment plan.
After the double mastectomy I come to as many chemo sessions as I can, speeding from school and preschool drop-off to sit, pick the best chocolates out of the candy bowl, and watch the bright pink goo slide into her veins. I swear, make off-color jokes and inappropriate remarks to keep her laughing until the Benadryl kicks in and knocks her out. Driving from the hospital-after she's fallen asleep and her Mom takes the less glamorous duty of getting her home and finding something to eat that doesn't make her vomit-I fall apart. I turn up AC/DC and Metallica and scream while tears and snot run down my face. She can't die. I lost her once and I'm not going to lose her again.
One session I bring our junior high yearbooks and we laugh at what a freaky little pair we were, she towering more than a head over me. This was Eugene, Oregon in 1980. The Running Capital of the World. Steve Prefontaine had crashed his car just a few miles from our school. Though we hated "The Hill," we'd written "Pre Lives" all over our yearbooks.
I need something else for us to think about. I can't keep coming to these things and drive home begging a God I'm not sure I believe in to keep her here in this world with her family, with me, please please please.
"After you finish with all this," I say to her, "we'll run the Helvetia Half Marathon."
Heidi gets through chemo and the radiation, her hair's grown a little and she's become a brunette like me. Starting with two miles, we begin training.
On our runs, we excavate. I have the better memory, the detailed catalog of names, numbers, and conversations. Which party it was where she first made out with Brian K (the one in Springfield where I was so mortified by my lack of a boyfriend that I went off and drank three beers in the street with the dog). She has more general, but insightful recollections. That at thirteen I seemed to have two personalities, even two voices: one for my parents and one for everybody else.
When we run, her lymphedema swelling goes down, and she doesn't wear the compression sleeve so much. As the runs build to five, six, seven miles, we chip away at what broke us up. There are the surface details. Time apart-a whole summer spent traveling, a month as an exchange student. Diverging interests-music and AP classes, debate and marijuana. But for the first time we look at how the balance of power shifts when one friend is pretty and one is not. When one is deluged with boy-attention and the other is in the way. And how much it hurts when someone you love suddenly becomes the competition.
We talk about the mean girls. One of them married and divorced before she turned twenty-one. On her Facebook page she looks like a worn-out prostitute. These are not nice observations, but they get us through long training runs, as do the men of our pasts, men we might have ended up with other than our husbands. The imagined details of life with these men make us laugh. Our pace quickens.
We laugh a lot. We laugh at the tummy pooches left by four Cesareans between us, little pooches that don't go away when we hit ten, eleven miles. We even laugh that Heidi sure doesn't need Glide for nipple chafing anymore.
At Helvetia's start line, we're far in the back, and I'm pointing out all the women in singlets and coordinated running skirts. The skirts are straight and sleek, with built-in support shorts. No thighs visibly rubbing together. We're wearing repurposed yoga pants, still off the fashion grid even after all these years.
Right at mile six-and-a-half, we scream Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" ("Oh, we're halfway there ..."). Some people look away. Others look annoyed. We giggle and hoot and don't give a rat's ass- caring even less now than in seventh grade. High on endorphins and Clif Shots, we ask why anybody coughed up fifty-five bucks for a crappy cotton t-shirt if they didn't plan to have fun.
At mile nine, Heidi can't go on unless I sing to her. Oklahoma. Fernando's Hideaway. The "Grease" soundtrack. Tunes from our days in sixth grade chorus. At mile thirteen we start up a duet of "You Light up My Life." And cross the finish line holding hands.
Stacy Larsen writes development and marketing copy for a science museum, raises two effervescent children with her outrageously handsome husband, and squeezes in attempts at essay and memoir when she isn't running in beautiful Portland, Oregon with her friend Heidi (who is cancer-free). Her work has been published in MARY Journal, Portland Family, and Goodness magazines, and Lituanus, a Journal of Lithuanian Arts and Culture.