From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

Letters in Cement

A friendship can weather most things and thrive in thin soil—but it needs a little mulch of letters and phone calls and small silly presents every so often—just to save it from drying out completely.

Pam Brown

Digging deep into my hope chest, through the layers of my life, I find a lumpy fabric bag tied closed with string. I hesitate before opening it—getting into this veritable Pandora’s box could take all day. Inside this ordinary looking bag are no fewer than thirty handwritten memories, wacky correspondence thick in their letter-size envelopes, colored with felt marker, stuck with snazzy stickers, postage stamped and sent halfway around the world. An entire year of one person’s life. And not just any person, but my best friend.

Looking back now with the wisdom that ten years post–high school provides, I clearly see that my friends, my true friends, those who supported me during those formative teenage years, knew me better at the time than anyone else could have. Essentially, my friends were a part of my family, the people I saw every day at school, and the ones who saw me at my best and at my worst. It wasn’t my parents who had a handle on where I was in life—it was my friends. Well, actually, one friend in particular: Lianne.

Lianne and I met the first day of seventh grade. We were the shortest two in the class. The similarities ended there—she loved cats, I had dogs; she was dark haired, I was blonde; she went away to camp every summer, I stayed home and joined 4-H; she was popular, I was awkward and goofy. We were always comfortably ourselves with each other, something that laid a lasting foundation for the wonderful, sometimes convoluted, journey ahead.

Fast-forward to tenth grade. I took my cues from Lianne as to what to wear, how to act around boys, what was cool. Lianne always had an easy time of making new friends. Awkward and shy, I did not. High school intimidated me, and my self-esteem suffered.

One chilly November morning, Lianne swallowed a whole bunch of Tylenol. I couldn’t understand why. I was angry but at the same time relieved that she hadn’t come to me with her problem. I was a naive fourteen; I wouldn’t have known what to do. She recovered completely, the whole ordeal making her more accessible to me, more human. I saw her less as the “popular one,” and more as another confused teenager, just as I was. From that point on, we were exclusive best friends.

There are your parents’ rules—don’t drink, don’t smoke, home by midnight. And then there are the real life lessons your friends teach you—what it feels like to be kissed by a boy, how to smoke a cigarette, how to laugh your head off for hours at a time. Both provide equally valuable life lessons. Lianne taught me to not take myself too seriously. She could make me crack up with just one look, just one quip.

To say I loved her like a sister would be wrong—I have a sister—it wasn’t that way at all. Yet I loved her more strongly than that generic term “friend.” She was almost a part of me: a limb, or an organ. When she left for a yearlong student exchange to New Zealand at the end of twelfth grade, it felt like someone had lopped off a very important part of me and sent it away with her.

I was happy for her—what a great opportunity to see the world, to get away from whatever it was at home that made her try to kill herself a few years earlier. Selfishly, I was absolutely miserable. I was lost without her. I wrote my first letter to her before she’d even flown across the Pacific Ocean. Being so accustomed to sharing every last detail of our lives with each other, a thick letter arrived every other week, the envelopes decorated with stickers and markers. We had a pretty good schedule—a letter from me to her one week, and one back the following week, and so on. Nothing at home could be as exciting as the life she was leading so far away—sailing, mountain climbing, vacationing with her host family, parties with her new friends. Celebrating her eighteenth birthday. Freedom.

Things hadn’t been the same for me since she’d left—I was reeling from the gap left by Lianne’s departure, and any support system I had was two weeks away by mail. I just didn’t trust anyone besides her, couldn’t ask anyone else what to do, couldn’t talk to anyone else like I could talk to her. New friendships felt artificial. Yet, I finished high school while she was away and started university. I began dating and fell in love with the man I would later marry. I did it all on my own, proving to myself that I was strong enough to live, strong enough to be independent, strong enough to figure it all out by myself. I had grown up.

I had made a new life for myself during the year Lianne was gone, forged a very important relationship, taken some giant steps away from the girl I was and toward the woman I hoped to become. It took what seemed like forever, but the gap that she had left behind had closed before I’d even realized.

One day, after keeping the date of her return a secret, Lianne appeared at my door. We spent the next few days and nights together. While I had missed her very much, I felt completely monopolized by her. The love of my life was wondering why I had suddenly disappeared. Finally, after one drunken night, Lianne fell apart. Lying on a cot in her new room, in her new house (sadly, her parents had separated while she was gone), I could hear her sobbing down the hall. Things were really not the same—I knew it and I think she did, too, but our friendship was all that was familiar to her, all that was certain, and I had failed her.

Ironically, it wasn’t until after Lianne returned home that our lives became officially separate. We drifted, hardly speaking to each other throughout the space of a year or two. Then one day, moving into our new house, I came across her letters while I was cleaning up. I went to throw them out and then hesitated. I started reading and realized that these had become as much her journal to me as my letters had been to her. I thought about sending them to her as a record of her time away, but the strings of my heart tugged me away from that idea. I thought she probably wouldn’t want them and I would hate for her to toss them—so many hours of writing, so much thought put into them, not to mention the entertainment value of marker-scrawled inside jokes written from one seventeen-year-old girl to another, the hilarity of our simplistic view of the world. No, I would need to hold on to these for myself.

The electronic age facilitated my “reunion” with Lianne. I ran into her by chance one night and got her e-mail address. We rekindled our friendship in much the same fashion as we had kept it going when she was halfway around the world: through correspondence. Our e-mail is riddled with, “Do you remember when . . .” and “Can you believe that. . . .” Gone are the markers and stickers, gone are the gaudy envelopes, but in their place is mail that still makes me smile, still touches me, still makes me try to restrain my out-loud laughing at the office. Still my best friend, my soul sister.

I got an e-mail from Lianne a few weeks ago. She informed me that she had found a box with the letters I had sent to her in New Zealand. She had packed it years ago, numbering every single letter. She said that some were sad, but they were mostly funny and that we should get together and read them; maybe it was crazy, but she’d kept every single one of them. One whole year of my life.

Now at very different stages in our lives, Lianne and I live four hours apart and try to get together whenever she’s home. Maybe it wasn’t healthy to be such exclusive best friends as we were, especially being only seventeen, but there are only certain people who can make you laugh hysterically, and only special ones who are privy to your innermost thoughts, and only the privileged few who have seen you cry. Lianne was the best friend who prepared me for life, the one who set the bar so high for my next best friend and soul mate: my husband.

Indeed, though we may travel in and out of some lives but once, there are others through which we tread constantly, even if we’re not always around. Lianne certainly weaves her way through my life every day because I carry her, and the spirit of who I was when I was around her, in my heart always. In the grand scheme of life, those years from junior high until the end of high school are very short. However fleeting they are, it is the decisions then and the people we choose to interact with that lay the foundation for who we will be for the rest of our lives.

To say that Lianne is but one brick in that foundation would be modest. I would say that one day we rented a cement mixer, went shopping for some cute outfits to wear, guessed how much sand and water to pour in, and turned out two pretty snazzy foundations upon which we continue to build our lives. Oh yeah, and we each cast our handprints into the other’s wet cement.

Jennifer Nicholson

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