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The One That Got Away

By Alexandra Smyth

ASmythPicOur friendship was the kind of all-consuming comradeship that only teenage girls and young women can experience. The core of it lasted less than a year, while we both worked at a large bookstore famous for becoming the center of its employees’ lives. I noticed her immediately on my first day – Betty Boop come to life, cheerfully manning one of the many cash registers. She wore a vintage cardigan with a white and brown fur collar, and a kicky pleated skirt, with adorable brown kitten heeled shoes. Her hair was a mess of brown curls and every so often she would throw back her head and laugh and laugh while ringing up customers. I knew she was the kind of girl I longed to be: wild and free.

We met at one dive bar or another. All of the employees at this bookstore liked to drink – excessively and together. Shortly after I started working there, I began making the nightly pilgrimage to neighborhood watering holes with my coworkers, hoping to make some new friends. She and I started chatting about some topic or another and soon we were cackling like a pair of old biddies. I felt a giddy rush unrelated to all the booze walking to the train that night: I had found one of my own.

Soon we were tangled up in each other’s hair and each other’s lives. She helped me get in with the cool crowd at the bookstore and taught me how to roll my own cigarettes. We spent our fifteen-minute breaks together on the side of the store chain smoking Bali Shag rollies and cracking each other up, posturing like gang molls to keep errant men from approaching us.  We drank cheap champagne mixed with lemonade on the lawn of Prospect Park and went to dance nights with our other female coworkers, giggling and goading each other into flirting with the older, predatory men in order to get them to buy us shitty, slushy alcoholic drinks we would then share. We were broke but deliriously happy. Alive. I had never felt so accepted in my life. After years of feeling out of place in my various teenage cliques, I was part of a tribe, because she took me under her wing.

We spent a summer like that, counting the hours at the bookstore by day, howling at the moon together at night. One of our coworkers took to calling us the Trouble Twins because we constantly wore each other’s clothes, because our dark hair and curvy figures sometimes made it difficult to tell us apart. She was my partner-in-crime, consistently pushing me out of my comfort zone, cracking me open and forcing me to live with abandon, instead of worrying about doing everything right like I had in the past.

When I stumbled in this frightening and thrilling new way of living, she would patch me up, literally and figuratively. One night, after drinking way too much champagne and lemonade in the park, I fell coming up the subway steps.  She noticed my bloody knee before I did, as we waited in line at the bodega on the corner to buy beer, and she helped wash and bandage it as I wobbled back and forth, my leg kicked up on the kitchen sink Rockette-style, my arms wrapped around the shoulders of two of our strapping male coworkers, who were, of course, in love with her. When one of those boys broke my heart, she nursed me through the pain with beer, cigarettes and embarrassing stories of him in years past.

The most fun we ever had was when we went to see the Dirty Projectors play a free show at the South Street Seaport, just the two of us, completely out of our gourds. The opening band was terrible, so we retreated into the air-conditioned oasis that was the South Street Seaport mall. We were moments away from getting second piercings in our ears at a Claire’s when The Dirty Projectors started to play. We bought bejeweled cat masks instead, and watched the concert from the balcony, looking like a pair of feline Holly Golightlys. We went back to my apartment afterwards, and stayed up all night drinking, smoking, and talking, waiting for friends of mine who were driving up from Virginia for a visit to arrive. When they finally showed up at 6:30 in the morning, we were still wearing the masks, and took them to a greasy diner for breakfast, then slept all day only to get up and do it all again the next night. And so it went, as the summer lazily dragged on.

Like all torrid love affairs though, ours slowly burned itself out. As the days turned shorter, we both quit our jobs at the bookstore in the name of self-improvement. She was going back to school.  I was moving on to a better position at a bookselling company. Without the bookstore to orbit around, we started seeing less and less of each other. She got a part-time job at a very hip clothing store and made new friends there. I applied to grad school and began seeing the man who is now my husband. Life got in our way. There was no fight, no fall out – it was just that in order to grow, we had to grow apart.

She eventually left the city, decamping to New Hampshire with her then-boyfriend. She moved back a year later, but I was entrenched in a full-time job and an MFA program, leaving little time for running with the she-wolf from my past. I bump into her from time to time, and there is always such a rush of warmth and love between us, but the all-encompassing, swept-up nature of our friendship is gone. I think back on that time in my life so fondly, and will always be grateful for the girl who taught me how to live life wide open.

Alexandra Smyth is a graduate of the City College of New York’s MFA Creative Writing Program. She is the 2013 recipient of the Jerome Lowell Dejur Prize in Poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Sixfold, Poets and Artists, and Keep This Bag Away From Children, among others. Alexandra recently completed her first poetry manuscript, titled That Kind of Girl. She can be found at alexandra-smyth.tumblr.com.

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