35: Once Removed

35: Once Removed

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Once Removed

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.

~Aristotle

It was my first day of college at the University of South Carolina and I feared that my roommate wasn’t coming. “Don’t worry,” my mother comforted me, “I’m sure she’ll be here.”

But enough time passed that even she grew concerned. We wiped our perspiring brows and listened to the jarring sounds of the dormitory elevator doors and loud shrieks of the other girls as they lugged suitcases to their rooms and began discussing dinner plans. For weeks now, I had imagined how this experience might unfold: meet my roommate, decide on a color scheme for the room, venture to the cafeteria together to taste an unfamiliar meal, and begin the regular habit of saving seats for each other. The minutes ticked away.

Oh, God, I can’t do this alone. She isn’t coming!

Finally the heavy glass doors swung open. A young woman rushed in, petite and winded as she dragged her suitcase behind her. She had perfect cheekbones and the most enviable chocolate-brown hair, as rich and flowing as Julia Roberts’s cascade of curls in Pretty Woman. Even after a lengthy car ride, this girl was stunning — amazing hair, tawny tan, and slender figure. I wanted to hate her.

“I’m so sorry I’m late.” She smiled nervously, lowering her eyes so that a shyness was revealed, and her vulnerability disarmed me. “I’m Candace,” she said reaching out her hand for mine, and after some introductory chatter, we lugged our things up to our room.

We found our new home amid a crowded maze of darkened hallways, ill-prepared for how much it resembled a cheap motel. “So this is it,” I announced, as we opened the door to what would become our cramped but cozy refuge. Opening the blinds allowed light in to reveal generic concrete walls, exposing the disappointing plainness of the room.

Candace was exotic to me because she was originally from California, a seemingly sharp contrast to my South Carolina roots. We sat Indian-style on our stiff beds and shared stories. She wanted to be a movie producer and planned to major in media arts. Her rhythmical voice was soothing and neutral, a contrast to my Southern drawl. Her belongings consisted of a fluffy black and white comforter, framed photos of her boyfriend, a large Blues Brothers poster, and an absurd number of troll dolls with bright shades of hair that flew in all directions when spun around. My decorations complemented her clutter: my complete stuffed dog collection to remind me of my beloved dog back home, a calendar displaying a calming photo of swimming tropical fish, and a boldly multi-colored bedspread. Our color schemes didn’t match, and neither did our accents, but we learned we were very much alike. We talked straight through dinner, and stayed up all night, discussing the boyfriends we had left back home.

“Do you think you’ll marry him?” she had asked, gesturing to my boyfriend’s picture.

“Are you kidding?” I laughed. “I’m just getting started!”

All night the words and topics flowed easily — she thought she would marry her boyfriend, “... maybe not anytime soon... but someday.” We discussed hairstyles and agreed that ponytails were an unflattering look for us both, reveled in our appreciation of retro fashion, and lamented over our less-than-desirable bra sizes.

“I have a great padded one,” she giggled, unable to resist the urge to show it right there in the middle of the night, snapping on the lamp to pull it from a drawer. Squinting in the light, I reached out to feel its thickness, insisting we must go out the next day to buy one just like it for me!

And when talk turned to a shared habit of staying up too late on summer nights, we discovered an important, abiding connection: late-night sitcoms. We spent the rest of the night, back-and-forth, like a ping-pong game, spouting television trivia through muffled eruptions of laughter. We watched Three’s Company together through a fuzzy picture on a bunny-eared television set, reciting Jack Tripper’s lines of dialogue in unison, laughing until we cried. The next day we woke giddy and sleep-deprived, operating on solely the energy of newly-discovered friendship. We were tickled beyond belief at finding pieces of ourselves in one another.

Sixteen years later, Candace is still my best friend. There were times during these years that Candace and I lost touch, but we always made our way back to each other. We have always been this way. I was there for silent support when her father died during our sophomore year in college. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and helped her make the transition to life in New York City when she was accepted into graduate school at Columbia University. She helped me survive an ambulance ride to the emergency room when my knee dislocated during a college dance class. She was my maid of honor who put pink roses in my hair for my wedding, and helped me through each and every painful labor contraction before my daughter’s birth.

In the hospital room, Candace stood apart, as if the moment of my daughter’s first breath belonged only to my husband and me. Noticing this, I protested, “No, Candace, you come here too,” reaching my hand out to her before the final push. Even though I was completely consumed by the miracle that was taking place, there was still the significance of Candace’s presence in my life: the path from matching the right shade of heels for meaningless sorority parties until this moment, and I knew I wanted my friend by my side.

Candace has seen the best and the worst of me, and holds me in her memory like a safety deposit box. Her knowledge is more significant than any legal will or photographs would be for my daughter, and she fills in the details, the spaces between the puzzle pieces that complete me. Candace is me once removed, and for this I am filled with gratitude.

~Donna Buie Beall

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