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Saturday, August 20, 2005

My friend K

Thinking about music, I dug out an old tape, dusted off my Walkman, and started listening to the mix tape that changed my life. Well, the person who did.

I met K at my first job out of college. Six months into it, and two girls started inviting me to eat lunch with them in the staff lounge. They were sweet, and I was lonely, but we didn't have a lot in common besides being the entirety of young people at ALA. One day, a new girl sat with us. One of the girls (a Polish girl whose name I have long since forgotten) usually dominated the conversations, and this day talked about her neighborhood, Hyde Park, in slightly derogatory racial terms. I don't remember exactly what, but it was the sort of talk that made me feel uncomfortable immediately, but nothing so outragiously heinous that you could pinpoint it and say something against it. Or, nothing I could. But K called her on it. She challenged what the girl was saying, and eloquently debated her side. I was horrified to be part of the group, and thrilled at her arguments. I wanted to tug on her sleeve and say, "I'm not with them. I don't agree with what she says. I'm different."

Somehow she must have known already, for in the next week or month, we ran into each other again; she put her hand on my arm, looked into my eyes, and asked how I was in a way that made me believe she really wanted to know, and did I want to have lunch. I fell partway in love with her.

She was completely free of artifice or casual office chitchat. She could talk to anyone about anything, and our conversations, stolen throughout the day through instant messages and afternoon breaks to the cafe next door to work, slid immediately into the deep end of pool: relationships, hopes, and dreams. When we met, she had just been dumped, cheated on by a suave, beautiful, dreadlocked reggae musician who was well known in the Chicago music scene. I never understood how any sane man could treat her badly, or why she would put up with it. If I hadn't heard the stories, I would have envisioned her in a really healthy, loving relationship with an incredible guy.

She was the person we all wanted to have a drink with. To have K come to one of your parties was a coup. At one of mine, she came late and spent most of the time drinking and smoking on the back porch (she claimed shyness and being uncomfortable at parties), but with her came an entourage of interesting people. Her beautiful, Peruvian not-boyfriend cleared a space in the living room for dancing and broke several hearts that night. I fell for another of her beautiful friends, a Mexican man with long silky hair and a shy smile, whose undocumented status allowed him only to work as a restaurant advertiser, or, the person who drives around stuffing building foyers with restaurant menus. She laughed and smiled and taught me what to say to him. It was always startling and slightly exotic to hear fluent Spanish come out of her, for she was a blonde Swedish giantess.

Once after work, we walked to the House of Blues to catch a free Indigo Girls early concert. Half the city must have known about it, because people lined up for blocks to get in. K was always affectionate, holding arms, a kisser-goodbye. As we walked, she grabbed my hand, and we walked for blocks like that. Given the large turnout of lesbians in the line, I wondered if it had something to do with that, but it also seemed so innocent; there were no conspiratorial glances, yet I secretly hoped people thought we were together.

About kissing girls, though, she always said, "Don't do it. It just gets you into trouble," and quit drinking tequila because of that.

She taught me to accessorize. I was still an awkward country girl who suddenly had to dress for the office, for drinks out, for parties, for meeting cool and interesting people. I've never been able to pull off a sarong like her, and I realized that nothing I did or wore would be as cool as her, for it wasn't even the dress, the accessories, chunky necklaces, flowing scarves; it was the air that K exuded.

The mix tape came from an evening of wine, candlelight, and the perfect joint. We were laying around her living room, listening to music, and she found out I loved folk. So she made me the mix of Greg Brown, Ricki Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin, and so on. I listened to it so much that I could hear one line from a song, and know what song followed.

We didn't hang out as much as I would have liked to--part of that was an abusive boyfriend who hated me spending time with her--but when she'd hear about a feminist art show, she'd invite me. In the fall, we drove up to Wisconsin for a stretch of country road filled with potters' open houses, antique barns, and fall festivities: pumpkins for sale, hot apple cider.

One Friday, she invited me to the Flat Iron building in Wicker Park for their First Friday open house. K had caught the attention of a lesbian artist at a street festival who invited her to the opening, and she didn't want to go alone. We drank beer and walked in and out of artists' living rooms and studios. She found her artist friend and they went off to talk. I was left to make friends myself in whatever studio I had been left. Something I both feared and appreciated was being with her--or not with her--at parties. She didn't pander to my shyness, but expected that I could make my own way and meet people the way she could. I wandered into a huge loft space where a rave was taking place, and out onto the metal fire escape that hung over the intersection of Milwaukee and Damen. I shared a joint with the boys out there, and, warmed by the high, I felt myself melt into the city night.

What I have always loved about drugs and large parties is the insularity, the perfect aloneness. I can't remember a thing about the rave, nor the guys who shared their smoke with me. I only remember myself and my thoughts, how the orange glow from the street signs and bar lights created a new world for me.

Eventually I stumbled out of the party, and somehow found K. We drove to Clark's, open all night, for breakfast, and she laughed at my wide smile and love for everything, and chided me for not finding her when they were passing around the joint.

After a year or two, she left Chicago to run a school in Mexico. My problem back then was not understanding why she wanted to be my friend. In the face of her friendship, I wanted to be confident, an equal counterpart, but I never believed someone like her could truly want or need the friendship of someone like me. So I fell out of touch. How much would I like to have done things differently?

But perhaps she existed in my life so shortly for a specific reason, to show me the person I wanted to be.


Blogger Jen said...

How should she not want you as part of her life? I know I couldn't imagine not choosing you. So funny that you who question yourself got to live more of the life I would have loved to live. So funny that you never knew that I found you the free one when I had shackled myself...

I guess it's all about perspectives.

10:40 PM  

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