Everybody should have a friend like Emma. I don’t know if I deserved her, or if that’s even a word you can ever use about your friends, but I’m really happy she’s my friend. Or that she was my friend. Or possibly is, I don’t know which word to use since I haven’t seen her in almost thirty years.
It’s always been like that, though. Not that you always don’t see her for thirty years, but it’s always been Emma who’s chosen the level of friendship we were going to have.
Her first words to me were, “We’re going to be friends forever.”
My first words to her? “OK.”
Is that one word or two words, or neither? I don’t know but I do remember that after I had mumbled my reply to her, Emma grabbed me by the hand and walked me through the long corridor, past the lockers and the kids’ drawings on the walls, and the kids standing and staring at us. We walked out the door, through he schoolyard and through the gates, not speaking at all, but holding hands all the while.
When we were outside the schoolyard, Emma let go of my hand and hopped to my other side.
“Ladies should always walk on the left side,” she said.
That was the first thing she taught me but there were countless others. The second thing she taught me was that I shouldn’t let other kids push me around. She told me that walking home from school on my left side that day.
“I won’t,” I said.
“I mean it. You’re too good of a guy to be bullied,” she said.
“But I’m not being bullied.”
“I think you are,” she said.
She was right, I was being bullied, but I didn’t realize that until years later when I also realized that the bullying had stopped the second I had walked out of school holding hands with Emma. It was strange, in hindsight, because holding hands with a girl wasn’t what cool kids did at that age – we had just hit double digits – so one might think that doing that would have made me even less cool in the eyes of the other kids. And maybe it did. Somehow Emma’s presence was enough to block all that.
I’ve never understood what she saw in me or what it was that made her want to become friends with me, but she was right: we are going to be friends forever.
We were close all through school, but we never dated. That, too, was a thing that Emma saw clearly from the beginning, and without saying a word she made me understand that we’d never be a couple. Whatever she saw in me as a friend, she didn’t see in me as her man.
She took me to our prom, she was always in the stands when my soccer team had a game, and she never forgot my birthday, or my mom’s birthday, and she would give me small presents at random times.
No. Not random times. She always gave me a small present when I was feeling, let’s say “blue”.
Most importantly, she was there.
There’s that past tense again. “Was”.
Then I moved out, out of my childhood home, out of our hometown. I left town to go to college in a big town, with my big dreams and my big plans in my small bag. Emma stayed back home then, but by the time I came home for Christmas, she was gone. She had told Mom she was going to see the world – like she always told me she would – so that she would then know how to make it better.
That was before Internet, before texting, before we all got phones in our pockets, but if I was a betting man, I’d be willing to wager a hefty sum on Emma still being off the grid. Why? Firstly, because she was like that as a person, very private, I don’t think she had many friends, and possibly only one who ever really knew her, and secondly, because of the postcards.
Every year, I got a postcard on my birthday. They were always cheerful, and written as if she’d continued on a conversation that I just hadn’t heard.
Turtles are so smart, you know, much smarter than you’d think, considering their brain size. Like you. Happy birthday! Now playing: Walk the dinosaur – Was (Not Was). Emma
Crazy how much stuff people collect. Tibetan monks only own 11 things. Be like a monk, not like a monkey. Happy birthday! Now playing: Everybody wants to rule the world – Tears for Fears. Emma
Sometimes, though, the cards would arrive out of the blue, just when I needed a word of encouragement, or some guidance. In other words, just when I missed Emma the most.
When I graduated from college, I got a postcard from her. It said, “OK, TD. The training wheels come off now, go out there and make it your world. Now playing: Irene Cara – Fame.”
When I lost my first job: “Walt Disney was fired from his first job for not being creative enough. Now playing: Toni Basil – Mickey.”
When I met my wife: “Well played, sir. Now playing: Bachman Turner Overdrive – You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
And so on. You get the picture. My wife, Anna, called Emma my guardian angel, our children called her “Daddy’s invisible friend.” That’s also what they called the Spotify playlist they put together of all the songs Emma had mentioned in her cards.
The funny thing was that the postcards kept arriving even when I, and later we, moved around, too, but there was never a return address on her cards. I could see from the stamps that they were sent from various places around the world so I guess she was moving around. The came from India, Japan, France, even Canada.
Not being able to reply to her, I did the next best thing. Every year, on Emma’s birthday, I wrote a letter to her. Some of them were long, others short, all of them recapping my year, all of them thanking her for her advice, her cards, her wishes – and all of them saved on my hard drive. Just like this one.
Anyway, my birthday is in three days. Now playing: Bruce Springsteen – Bobby Jean.
Maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere
In some bus or train traveling along
In some motel room there’ll be a radio playing
And you’ll hear me sing this song
Well if you do you’ll know I’m thinking of you
and all the miles in between.
This is a part of an ongoing series of stories, mostly flash fiction, inspired by 80s pop songs. You can find them all here.