Hi, Fire: Tumors, pleated khakis, and when you stopped talking to me

Last Saturday night, I was helping a girlfriend pack up her apartment, when I received a text:

“Hi.”

And that’s all she said.

I had wanted to delete her number out of my phone many, many moons ago, but I could never bring myself to do it. We had had a bad fight, and I thought I was standing up for myself. Things were said that needed to be said on both sides; we intentionally hurt each other, and then she stopped talking to me.

She was the only friendship that I ever regretted letting go of during my thirty years. Some friendships naturally dissipate and others need to end, like the ones that seem to suck the life out of you and make you feel emptier than ever before. But this one particular ending, this one stung at odd moments, like whenever I used the bookshelf she put together with my father, or whenever I wore the silver bracelet she had given me, the one with the single ladybug charm. I never did have the heart to add more charms to that bracelet.

I had even tried to apologize through texts and emails, but she wasn’t having any of it. I felt like she was trying to punish me for being happy, and so I moved on. At least, I thought I did.

Then, during the summer of 2014, the one time in my life when I needed someone the most, well -- she wasn’t there for me. I really needed her, too: I was going through a layoff, a rather tumultuous long-term breakup, and two frantic moves, all in a matter of three months. I wanted her shoulder to lean on, and I knew she would help me if I called her and actually asked for it.

But how could she have really been there? She wouldn’t have understood who I even was at the time. We had moved our separate ways, and I got that. I kept reminding myself that she owed me an apology for everything that she said and, mostly, my pride got in the way. And so I kept my issues drawn, and I largely dealt with things alone.

As a writer, emotional solitude is my familiarity. It's what defines my professional (and personal) life. It's comfortable, and I prefer it. I can delete what I never intended to say. I can refine my awkwardness into a polished clause, and I can flesh out what a face-to-face conversation could never cover. I can unspool my most private thoughts, and publish them for the world... in my own time. Being alone and being upset is when I get my best writing done, because it's automatic for me to retreat -- I go into my thoughts, and into myself. And, for exactly this reason, I’ve always struggled to immediately open up to people... coworkers, friends, neighbors, men especially, strangers, and basically anyone.

I require time; I require many drafts.

My really dear friend Katie is the exact opposite of me. She has really sweet, wide blue eyes, and blonde hair that’s wavy on some days and straight on others. She has a friendly face that draws strangers in, and she’s the type you should approach for directions. She's really gentle with her words, and if you sit down with her for long enough, you will want to tell her everything. I do.

Katie's also quite the open book, and she's known for engaging random strangers into the most intimate conversations. Whenever I used to walk down the street with her in Baltimore, where we both used to live, she waved at almost every single neighbor and passerby.

"Hello!" "Hey, how are you?" and "Hi!" were among the few of her sample greetings.

Katie knew everyone's names, their pets, and where the firemen hid biscuits in the cracks of the bricks for her dog, Libby. She knew whenever someone's pet died and the name of the man who tended to all of the potted plants on the street. Whenever I was with her, I felt like I had stepped into some sort of new neighborhood, like I was with Mr. Freaking Rogers all of a sudden. I always expected a horse-drawn ice cream truck to come dingle dangling down the alley, toward us, when we were out and about. She just has that sort of kind of magic about her.

"How do you know all of these people?" I asked quietly.

"Well... I don't know. Just from living here. I just started saying 'hi'. You should try it more," she said, teasing me.

I remember blushing, right there in the middle of the park. She was right, and I knew it.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not some rude curmudgeon who refuses to speak. I say hi to plenty of people -- I'm just not as outgoing as Katie, though, who can initiate conversation with someone she knows that she will never meet again. I prefer to keep to myself, and get from point A to point B, and so I rarely say hi to strangers on the streets. In fact, the last time I said "hi" to a complete stranger, about a month ago, was when I was walking to my car. I figured I'd address the man's rather direct stare to try my hand at being outwardly friendly, like Katie, and so I said:

"Hello."

It was a gesture that the man took as a cue to beeline toward me, backing me up against a wall. He began aggressively barking three inches, and then two inches from my face.

"Hi," I said, following up my first greeting with a second one, this time with a sharp, warning tone. "If you don't stand back, I will mace you."

And then he ran away.

When I used to live in an apartment complex, a temporary pause in my life about two years ago, I adopted a dog, Teddy, and I walked him anywhere from three to six times a day. I liked my routine. At that time, it was fall, my favorite season, and I looked forward to our long, quiet walks around the building with the hood of my sweatshirt pulled up and over and hiding my face.

Eventually, though, because I was always outside, I started noticing many of the same neighbors: the lady with the small Yorkie, Max; the girl with the golden retriever; and the one with the pit bull.

One day, the lady with the Yorkie giggled and said hi to me, and her simple effort broke the ice for the next several times we ran into each other. She began watching my dog for me, even taking him over the Christmas holiday when I went out of the country, and constantly bought him tokens of affection, like a new bed, a stuffed monkey, and bags of treats. Whenever I got tripped up on massive deadlines, she kept him for me. And when it really, really snowed earlier this year, I invited her over and we drank red wine. Bottles and bottles of it.

I started confiding in her about my writing and, one day, she stumbled upon my list of self-affirmations and my goals for the forthcoming year on my bathroom counter. I had left last year’s goals out, too, just for comparison, having been really proud of myself for hitting them all.

"You're really inspirational," she said.

"Well I guess I just want to be the best that I can be," I responded, serious, and slightly embarrassed.

This all, of course, got me thinking about what we really mean when we say, "Hi.” If my very good friends catch me in the morning, before I've had at least three cups of coffee, the tone will signal that the conversation should stop. Instantly. But if you’re a stranger to me – at least at first – and you give me time to observe and get to know you, it's the start to a welcome into my world. Maybe it'll be temporary and maybe we will be permanent. Maybe I’ve missed out on chances to get to know someone, because I come off as distant. I don’t intend to. Maybe our exchanges are opportunities.

Maybe I’m still learning.

The funny part about all of this is that, referring back to the girl who texted me that Saturday night, whose lost friendship I regretted… well, we first met over the phone. She succeeded me at the front desk of a law office, and I tried to call whenever I thought about the one attorney, who was my first boss. He was past 76 years in age and hated using computers, and I sat next to him almost every day, all while he dictated correspondence and leases to me. I loved him. I enjoyed our talks and lunches, and I always promised I would help him draft his autobiography. Man, he had some stories.

Then, he started getting sick. The tumor that I always worried about and pressed on with my fingers turned out to be malignant, and so I started calling him on a weekly basis. And then when he stopped coming into the office, I still kept calling, even if no one was there to pick up the phone. Sometimes I would call back, just to let the phone ring and to try to feel connected, but I never left voice messages.

One day, a new voice answered.

"Hi," I said, in my typical dry manner. "I’m calling to check in. You know, to see how things are going. With the firm. With… you know. Who... are you?"

"Jean," she said, in a surprising bubble-gum-glib kind of manner, "My name is Jean!"

I wondered what Jean looked like. She sounded like the kind of girl that wore really high, bouncy ponytails with a ribbon tied in a tight bow around it. Who kept stacks of “Live, Laugh, Love!” pillows on her bed. Who repeatedly quoted that one Marilyn Monroe quote that I loathe. (Ladies, maybe your worst is just insufferable.)

Maybe it’s just me, but I seriously hate girls like that.

"Well I guess," I said, continuing on with Jean, "I guess I just called to check in to see how he was doing. You know, how he was holding up through radiation and everything."

All of a sudden, there was silence.

"Oh. You're Lisa. He talks about you. He talked about you."

Once I knew that he was taking a turn for the worse, I called constantly, almost daily, and my chats with Jean started to turn personal.

And then, one day, she told me that he had died. I still remember where I was when she told me, and I remember publicly crying, which I never do and that I couldn’t stop. I remember wearing yellow. After his funeral, we agreed to go out for drinks sometime down the road; weeks later, we got to randomly talking about where we were living.

"I'm moving to this small neighborhood in Baltimore," I said, telling her my soon-to-be street name and the rickety wooden steps I had forgotten to tell everyone helping me move about. "Next week, in fact."

"That's funny," she said, her ponytail bouncing over our discounted drinks. "I'm literally one block away from you. I just moved, too."

From there, as transitioning colleagues and then as neighbors, our friendship grew into one that I had never experienced. We walked almost every day to see each other – maybe I walked to her house with the black wrought iron staircases, and maybe she walked to mine, with the white mantle and very tall windows that I could never open. Jean always said that we shared a sisterhood, and I always said that we were like magnets, intensely drawn to each other, and always capable of springing far apart whenever we disagreed.

We talked about my writing, and I always stared in awe at her paintings and sketches. She did things like dye card stock in tea and make me homemade gluten-free crackers. We cried when our boyfriends didn't work out when we always thought they were the ones, and she texted me to remind me to fill up my bathtub with water when big hurricanes were expected to hit.

We talked about the kids we wanted and wondered, "Will our husbands be the kind who wear pleated khakis?" And then we would just shake our heads and laugh. Things were so simple then. And when I was with her, I was never lonely. We had developed this banter, like our own secret language. She was complex and I liked it, and maybe it was because there was something always so unpredictable about us. We were fire and fire.

She was my best friend.

And so there I sat, that Saturday night, feeling as if I were coming back around in a full circle, and intensely thinking about Jean. It had been years. I sat in utter disbelief at this blast from the past, staring at the text that I held in my hand:

"Hi."

Hi! I couldn’t believe that’s all she had the gall to say to me. After all of this time. I let a string of expletives slip through my mind and wondered: Should I just send an emoji of a taco?

Hi! But then I started to take her text a little more seriously: What do I say to someone who really hurt me? What if we reconnect, and we explode, again?

Or… did she need me? Too?

I made myself stop. I paused. For once in my life, I desperately needed to let my guard down and to stop over-analyzing everything. As it stands today, I don’t know if we’ll be speaking in five years. But I also don’t know if there will come a time when we’ll see each other have children, or through much tougher times that will make today pale in comparison.

I do know, however, that I had already forgiven her a while ago, and so I wrote back:

"Hi. I hope you're really sorry. I have so much to catch you up on."

Follow Lisa Cleary on Twitter @LisaCleary3

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