We were the silliest of girls.
We rode around our neighborhood on ten-speed bikes belting out The Song that Never Ends, stopping to scoop up dead critters from the side of the road and burying them in the “cemetery” at the edge of the woods behind my parents’ house. We’d mark the resting place of squashed squirrels and flattened frogs with cinder blocks scrawled with our own Sharpie blessings.
We dressed up like old men (complete with Vaseline and coffee ground beards) for a middle school Speech class project and entertained our fellow students with our best senior citizen impressions, stopping once to giggle so hard at least one of us peed our bib overalls.
When we went shopping (occasionally my mom was brave enough to bring us to a mall), we gathered the most outlandish floral muumuus we could find into one dressing room and took turns trying them on, posing for one another in front of the full length mirror. Then we’d pull our Z. Cavaricci jeans back on and tuck in our shirts, pulling a section of t-shirt through our open flies before meeting up with my mom again, trying not to laugh and give it away as we waited for her to notice.
One summer, we wanted a fort so badly. We asked my dad if we could use the scrap wood in the garage to build one and managed to nail together a base and a couple vertical studs before abandoning the wood project for duct-taped refrigerator boxes in my friend’s backyard. We taped small boxes inside for storing our treasures, and, with a box-cutter, cut window flaps all around. That night we dragged our sleeping bags into our fortress, and as we whispered secrets and snacked on crackers, we heard footsteps outside, then a scratching at the cardboard wall. Paralyzed with fear, we shone a flashlight at the window as a giant, furry black head came through the flap. We screamed in terror before realizing it was her German Shepherd trying to get in on the fun.
We watched the same movies a hundred times, then passed notes back and forth in church or Pre-Algebra class with scribbled lines from The Goonies, or, our favorite, a quote spoken about a dead man in Dances with Wolves: “Somebody back east is saying, ‘WHY DON’T HE WRITE?’”
We visited both of our grandmothers and her great uncle at their homes, always coming away with pocketfuls of Oreos or mini Twix bars. We got such a kick out of old people, loving the way they welcomed us and made time for us, but also being thoroughly entertained by them — especially by her grandmother’s musings about green monkeys and other things she saw on “that television.”
When we walked past the Catholic church, we chuckled at the parked cars belonging to little old ladies with Jesus statues mounted to the dashboards. Then we’d skip up and down the sidewalk singing, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus!”
Years passed. Our interests changed. We turned our attention from old ladies to young boys. We discovered Wet n’ Wild nail polish and White Rain hairspray and teasing combs. We grew boobs together.
We traded cardboard fort camp-outs for biking down the dirt road, past the sand pit, to the secret trail leading to the lake. We hid our bicycles in the bracken and ran through the woods to Big Rock, grinning because we could hear the boys already splashing in the deep water.
We flirted the afternoon away, loving life, loving all of it – the sunshine, the clear water, the freedom.
That fall, we were freshman, and things began to change. We met new people – older, interesting, exciting people.
My friend rode in cars with boys I didn’t know. She listened to music I’d never heard. She stayed out later I was allowed to stay out.
And though we smiled at one another across the busy locker room, we knew the friends we stood with were never going to be friends with each other. Still, she always waved from the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s car when she passed me walking home from basketball practice. And I never stopped missing her.
We’re in our thirties now, with a slew of our own kids – girls for her and boys for me.
We live only ten miles apart, and when we see each other from time to time, I always basically feel the same way — like I want to run to her and tackle her to the ground and roll down the grassy hillside.
Like I want to tuck beach towels into our swimsuit straps and bike down the dirt road, towels flapping behind us like capes.
Like I want to visit the “cemetery” to see if any of the marker still remains on our critter headstones.
Like I felt when we were 11 — before the boys, before the boobs, before the world became different and difficult.
A few days before Christmas, I stopped at our mailbox on my way home from work. It was dark out, but the gold key shone in the streetlight as I turned it in the lock. Inside the flap was a small wrapped package from a return address I recognized. I dropped my bags immediately inside the front door and tore it open, wondering what could possibly be inside.
I pulled out a small box and laughed out loud as I read the description.
Enlightenment on a spring! Use anywhere you need a spiritual lift.
The small bearded figure inside the box sported a white gown with a brown sash. Leather sandals peeked out from the hem.
It was my very own plastic Jesus.
Jesus is on my dashboard, now. He bounces up and down on a spring and sways from side to side on curvy back roads.
My boys get quite a kick out of him and have helped me create nicknames for him based on his moves.
The Swinging Savior.
The Jammin’ Jew.
When we listen to Christian music on the radio, they boys chuckle in the back seat as they watch him. “Oh, he heard his name! He liked that!”
A couple days ago, my husband and I test drove a vehicle, and as we drove to the dealership, he asked if Jesus could please come off the dashboard for the next hour.
“Nope,” I grinned, thinking of my friend, “He’s there for good.”
Yesterday, my two older boys (7 and 5) spent the afternoon playing with their neighbor friend. She is a few years older than them, and perpetually patient with their antics. They played outside in the crusty snow and bounced back and forth between her yard and ours, wielding sticks as guns tapping in on their never-ending supply of pretend scenarios.
As I watched them play together, I thought of my childhood, of my neighborhood friend.
I know how precious these days are — days when the world is uncomplicated and neighborhood kids are reliable playmates no matter the age or gender.
I know one day they’ll look on these slow afternoons in the snow or the sandbox or the sprinkler as some of their very best moments. And I know that no matter what happens in this complicated world, they’ll treasure the memory of pure and simple friendship as much as I still do.