I’m abundant in friends. And I’m grateful. But, have not always been a good friend. The truth is that when it mattered the most I fucked up. Now, I take pride in my being a loyal friend, but it can be knocked down with one moment. A choice. Complicit in my inaction to stand up for a friend, I chose to abandon her. Annoyed by truth, I broke the promise made to help her. And like all stories that haunt, this one is no different.
It starts cliché enough, Sophia, that’s what I will call her, and I bonded over our hate of gym, junior year of high school. Side by side on the bleachers we concocted excuses to get out of class. But, it wasn’t until a year later that Sophia went from: my I hate gym class buddy, to: friend status. Worried and upset, I confided in Sophia, after being caught shoplifting in the West Village, the fall of senior year. Held captive by my story, Sophia offered to lend me the hundred dollars to pay for the shoplifting fine. Desperate to pay, and fearful of Mami finding out, I accepted, though stunned by Sophia’s offer and also that she had the money. And with only a wrinkled ten in my pocket, I was most grateful that Sophia cared. Cared that I was scared and helpless. The next day she held out five twenties. “Don’t worry, pay me back when you can,” Sophia said. But, only after I hesitated towards her outstretched arm.
Social researcher, Brene Brown, says that trust is built in small moments.
It’s no surprise to me that after that moment Sophia became my confident. In the spring both accepted to Hunter College, we decided to attend. The shoplifting incident in the past, Sophia and I were thrilled for the future. College was fun, then Sophia became ill late in the summer before sophomore year, left paralyzed from one day to the next. She was hospitalized for two weeks as the doctors searched for answers. It took countless tests and examinations to diagnosis Sophia with a rare and hard to pronounce with way too many syllables, disease. I visited almost everyday at the hospital, and brought with me: pizza, whopper juniors, and cookies, in hopes to distract Sophia from the fact that at nineteen she would have to learn to walk again. As the days passed, Sophia gained some mobility, and was soon discharged from the hospital able to walk a few steps. One arm left so weak she had to pick it up with the other to move it. Numbness and tingling became everyday sensations, and intense rehabilitation was needed. Sophia hoped to go to school next semester.
And as weeks passed and later months, Sophia grew strong and found herself walking, arm weak and limp, rested by her side. Sophia registered for the next semester, and I was hopeful for times past. When we use to charge our credit cards like mad, fancy dinners in the City, great finds after hours rummaging through CDs at Tower Records, and nights at the Angelika in the East Village. But, Sophia grew quiet and what mattered before, now didn’t. She stopped attending class and spent most of her days in her bedroom. And when I graduated, she was semesters behind.
Now, decades later, I can decipher her behavior as depression, but at that time I thought myself better. I was a survivor. She was not. My own depression propelled me into action, as if busy could out run sad.
There is more, always is. I recall a request, from Sophia one of those early days she was hospitalized. And one that Sophia echoed often after that.
“Do you know the doctors tell me they know so little of this disease,” Sophia laid across her hospital bed. Balloons and flowers decorated the room.
“I still can’t believe this happened to you,” I said. I sat at the foot of the bed.
“They said I’m lucky that I gained the ability to move my hands and feet right away. That there is no cure. That this now part of me.” Sophia’s eyes on mine, they searched to be understood.
I looked away.
She persisted. “The doctors told me about some studies that have been done,” Sophia blinked hard. “People that have this,” she gestured at her body, “it usually occurs in their late teens or early twenties, and then…”
“Sophia, don’t think about that,” I grabbed her foot over the sheet that covered it, and squeezed it.
“But what if it comes back?” Sophia’s voice shook.
“It won’t,” I said. But I worried.
“It comes back worse… What about if I turn forty and I am just a head?”
“A head?” I laughed. “What are you talking about?”
“I will be a head. Paralyzed from the head down.” Sophia took a breath before she spoke again. “That’s what happens.”
Scared I forced myself to speak. “You gotta believe it won’t,” I said.
“If it does…” Sophia started.
“Sophia!” I stood up.
“But if it does happen… and it happens like it did this time while I was watching television… I don’t want to be a head.” Sophia swallowed.
I held my breath.
“Will you… will you help me?” Sophia asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“I don’t want to ever live like that. Promise me you will help me!” Sophia’s voice was like the beeps from the machines in the hospital, urgent. “I don’t want a life where I am paralyzed and can’t do anything.”
I nodded, agreed to help her.
The summer after my college graduation I embarked on a trip to Colombia. Determined to write a novel, my time in Colombia would be spent writing. And I could get to know more of my roots as a bonus. The truth was I wrote very little, and looked for distraction, and Sophia and I hatched a trip for her to come visit me. I was ecstatic. Three months into my trip in Colombia, Sophia’s two-week trip turned into a two month stay. We ran through Barranquilla the way we did the City. We spent money like we were Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Sophia had bought a wad of money, which she borrowed from her credit card. It was during that time that Sophia met and became involved with one of my cousins. Once back in the States, their relationship continued, and they eventually married. Sophia and I were thrilled, now official family.
Their marriage was troubled early on. And I knew it, but remained silent. Afraid of conflict, I avoided Sophia’s marriage troubles like driving in the snow. It terrified me. But, the more Sophia’s life was fucked up, the more I took a sigh of relief in mine.
It was seven years before Sophia walked out on her marriage. Now, years later I wonder how long Sophia spent getting it all sorted in her mind. Years. Months. Days. Hours. But, she told me in minutes, in a bathroom that Thanksgiving.
“I’m leaving him.” Sophia sat on the toilet. She was composed and matter of fact.
I wasn’t. “What’s going on?” I asked. I had my son to my breast. He was a little over a year and unable to wean him I still found myself nursing him to nap.
“I don’t want to be married to him anymore,” she looked down.
“Tell me…” I braced myself.
“He’s not good,” Sophia whispered.
My back ached from the weight of my son in my arms, but I leaned in closer. “Why?” My mind drifted like it always did and does when I’m scared. I studied all the bottles of creams and hair products my sister had lined on the back of the toilet.
“He hurt me.”
“He hits you?”
“No, but I’m scared of him. He…”
I heard only no, and didn’t want to hear anything that followed. And said the words that I have regretted since then, “but he doesn’t hit you right?”
Sophia’s eyes brimmed with tears. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to leave him.”
There so much more to this story, like any story it has many layers to it. But, I write this not to understand their relationship. Nor my relationship with him, that’s complicated, and for another essay. This is about Sophia and how I failed her. How I chose to leave Sophia during a time when she needed me the most.
Two weeks after Sophia’s confessional in Joann’s bathroom we made dinner plans. We went out for Thai and I slammed down one mango-tini after another. I tried to convince her to work it out for the sake of her son. She wouldn’t budge, said it was over. We walked along Third Avenue as it snowed, I was silent and drunk.
“We will always be friends. ” A statement, but the way she lingered at the end, it became a question.
I responded with silence. Angry at Sophia for putting me in the middle. I looked ahead. Distance had already wedged itself between us, she walked ahead and I stumbled behind. I watched the snow dust her hair, and I hated her at the moment. I vowed that I would never put myself before my family. She was selfish. I was better. Better woman. Better mother.
It was the last time I saw Sophia, and it’s been near a decade. I no longer think that I’m better than her. Sophia saved herself. I don’t think Sophia was ever the same after her diagnosis. That diagnosis handed her a sense that life was finite. When she became trapped in her marriage she walked out before she became paralyzed. And when Sophia asked for my help I failed. I did not keep my promise.
Two weeks ago my daughter came across my old high school year book. She flipped through the first few pages and then came to search for me. I sat in the living room reading one of my writer friend’s work. My laptop balanced on the arm of the sofa.
“Wow!” Holden entered the living room. “You use to be so mean,” she flopped herself on the sofa beside me. The yearbook in her hands, opened like some great tome.
I looked up. “What are you doing looking at that,” I said annoyed.
“Like did you sit in your room for hours and come up with all these names?” Holden’s eyebrows arched high with surprise. “Wow Mama these are terrible.”
“Let me see that,” I swiped the year book out of her hand. I flipped through the rows of graduation pictures and read the names written above each shot. Names like: Whopper, Bird Beak, ET Neck, Negative A, Planet of the Apes, Dragon, and Pinto Bean scrawled in black marker. Other names are there too, ones heavy with racial slurs I’m to ashamed to write.
As I flipped through the pages I saw Sophia’s picture. I had spared her a nickname.
And with the yearbook on my lap I realized that beside this mean streak that I had. And, now work to extinguish. I always used others to measure myself against and make myself feel better. My year book is proof. Yeah, it can be attributed to adolescent dumb-assness, but something else lurked behind all those terrible nicknames I jotted down over people’s pictures. I couldn’t see beyond the surface of a person. I made on sight judgements of people and laughed it off as a joke.
Maybe Sophia knew this, and made me promise loyalty that day in the hospital certain I would not deliver. But she hoped.
I hope to never repeat my mistake again and fail a friend. I’m older now and can admit I fucked up, and this essay is my attempt to loosen my shame. I was wrong, but I am sorry.