Author's Note: I started writing this piece to profile a childhood friend, and in the process realized that she'd been writing my story the entire time I'd known her. And because I've always known that both of us needed saving, I wrote this with my heart. (Also, if so compelled, check out Courtney's band Crimes of Paris - link is in the replies.)
The bottoms of Shell’s feet are dirty, but she doesn’t seem to mind. They are propped up on a stained oak coffee table. The rest of her body is sunk in the depths of a once-white couch. She’s smoking a cigarette and she’s not moving, even relocating the ashtray so that she doesn’t have to reach forward in between drags. She is watching a PBS movie about Henry the 8th . I am running around in the background picking up the pieces.
It’s impossible to tell whether it was her doing, or the work of her year old mutt, but it seems that Shell’s entire wardrobe has been scattered throughout the house. It blows my mind how such a small space can accumulate so much - thongs and dog toys, empty plastic bags and expired lighters. Beside the recliner there is a box, the cardboard packaging for a toaster we don’t have. Inside it are scraps of cotton, craft supplies, glass bowls and pictures. Trash.
“I might need it one day,” she says.
I am holding more items than should reasonably fit in a person’s arms, a collection of things that she might one day need. I stack them individually in front of her door hoping she’ll note the symbolism for their inconvenience in our home. But an hour later, when the program on the King is over, she knocks the wall and crawls into bed in broad daylight, tired of sitting up straight on the couch. Now I can vacuum without disturbing her.
How did we get here. We were inseparable, not one without the other. When we made the move from Lynchburg, Virginia to Wilmington, NC our lives had completely entwined for the past seven years. We’d been neighbors and friends, trapped in the same small town. Misery brought us together, brought stacks of pictures out of what we considered a monumental friendship. Even still, plastered on my wall, are frames of us, side by side, grinning ear to ear. But we were younger.
Shell’s boyfriend is named Michael. He is the third roommate of a house we can’t get out of. He works to pay the better third of the rent we should split evenly. When he gets home tonight, he’ll be bombarded by Shell’s usual questions.
“What are we having for dinner?”
“What’s coming on television?”
“What did you get to drink?”
We take turns doing household chores - washing dishes and cooking when we’re all home at the same time. We alternate who mows the lawn. It was Shell’s turn to mow two weeks ago, she finally broke down and did it yesterday. Plowing through the fenced in jungle of our back yard required refilling the gas in our 1989 mower three times. She splashed gasoline in her eyes and ran in through the back door screaming, convinced that she was blind.
“What if I never see again?” she asked, looking into the mirror.
“You’ll be fine,” I say. I hand her Visine and head back to my room. “Did you finish mowing?”
Her eyes are hurt and maybe, just maybe, it explains why she can’t stray from the couch or the bed today. She’s now watching The Lion King, smoking a joint. She knows I’m cleaning, and as I walk by her room, she calls out to me.
“Hit this,” she says, her arm outstretched through a cloud.
It makes the cleaning go by a little easier.
Michael will be happy to see the house clean, but it will diminish quickly upon seeing his lazy lady reclined in their bed. Tonight, he’ll find the only sports game on TV and watch it till the usual questions still. They’ve dated half a year and he knows nothing more than the color of her hair and her address. Then again, this shade of Shell is one I’m unfamiliar with, encompassed by. I can’t help but rewind.
For as long as I can remember growing up, Shell was in the center. She was the burst of light that stunned the room, her black hair cropped above her shoulders. She smiled just to smile, laughed just to hear it. She could make you feel as though no one else existed, a feat for someone who barely topped five feet. She’d tattooed the word HOPE on her side when we were seventeen. She drove me to school every day.
On my sixteenth birthday she attempted suicide, was hospitalized for overdosing on a combination of sleeping pills and Tylenol. She had friends and family members relay to me that her condition was simply a heart palpitation, something gone awry in the stream of every day life.
Years later, upon addressing my family of how I knew about the truth, they advised that I not spend time around Shell. My loyalty only grew, with the knowledge that I could help boost her into better, hold her hand as she crept through the halls she feared. I believed that we could do anything together.
She had bipolar disorder, and like anyone with the condition, her happy moments were among the best in the world. The same for the sad - tragic and lifeless, extremes someone like myself is not used to. That day I sat in a hospital for hours. I did crossword puzzles and read the heart monitor and three days later she went home.
Tonight, it’s different. This time, the shower is running and the music is blaring and its four o’clock in the morning. This time, I’m holding the limp body of my roommate while she’s coughing and mumbling in my arms. And there is no hospital. I imagine that the aerial view of this would be lovely - two people entwined at the heart of their being, surrounded by empty prescription bottles and caps, sprinkled with the pills themselves. When Shell breathes, her chest rises to the wake of the skylight, and flash floods of light float off her necklace. It’s mesmerizing, and it almost makes me forget that she needs to be saved.
At the beginning of our moving to this state, this town, this household, I was overzealous. I walked around singing tunes to fill the air and she would tell me to shut up. I was an extra in the film of her life, unnecessary to her and her boyfriend. Her love was focused and driven, mine was everywhere. I’d shut my door, close off from the rest of our tiny house.
Tonight she’s slammed the door and Michael has to bust through it to get inside. Rather, he gets to. Once he discovers that we have to go to these measures to get to her, he starts ransacking the house for a mallet, a machete, whatever seems most fitting for breaking down a door. “Don’t we have a sledgehammer around here?” he asks.
I just look at him then try again to dismantle the catch in the door with a credit card.
This, to him, is saving Shell. She is a damsel locked in a tower and he is a guy running around looking for a sledgehammer. This would be poetic, heroic, like a fairy tale, except for, in the stories I used to belong to, the princess wasn’t bipolar. (I don’t think.) I’m torn between letting him actually crack the door in two or climbing through the window from the outside but before I can even move, Michael has kicked the door in, and the handle rolls on its edge once it reaches the floor.
But the story isn’t about him.
She’s lying on the linoleum, the centerpiece of a prescription mosaic, an artifact of my past, a stranger. In all likelihood, this is a cry for attention, but it’s been taken too far. We’ve no idea how much she’s had to drink, how many pills she’s taken. She’s asking for her new friend Molly, a girl I don’t know well. I’ve only seen them in the back yard, blowing bubbles and flying flimsy dollar store kites. Playing like children play. Aside from this, I can only gather that the combination of the two girls is rather opposed to the mother figure I’ve stepped into since things have gone downhill. I see them together, its like watching reruns of life in Virginia. When she’s asking for Molly, it is that specific, but it’s not just Molly that she really wants to get a hold of. She’s asking for a version of me I could only have provided seven years ago. Though I know nothing more about Molly, I know that this is no time for her to see this side of her new friend Shell. This is the side only to be seen by those who stick by her unconditionally.
When she realizes Molly is not in the cards, she asks for me to sing to her. This is all she can say, her only request, and I oblige. A Flaming Lips song comes to mind, "Do You Realize?" I hum the words I don’t know. Right now, in the depths of this bathroom, I am the enemy and the soundtrack. I make her drink water and stay awake. Let her sleep once her breathing regulates. I’m singing all the while.
At eleven in the morning, all is quiet in our house. Shell is standing on the tiptoes of her very dirty feet, looking in the mirror. Her eyes are fine. Her hair is sprayed to bob in the back a little and her bangs are straightened out. She’s applying waterproof mascara and she’s crying. Not weeping, just a gentle stream rolling down her face. Her only knowledge of last night is what Michael and I have opted to tell her swirled with her looming hangover. I am cooking breakfast and I’m picking up the pieces. I do little to show the inconvenience of things scattered in our home. Two eggs scrambled and two over easy, both of us can have one of each as usual. Seven grain wheat toast with strawberry jam. I make Shell a tall glass of chocolate milk and set it on the dining room table. She sits down beside me and smiles.
We don’t talk much anymore.
She resides with a new roommate on the other side of this city. Someone with new dishes and an unmowable backyard. Now the antidepressants are setting in. Now, our differences are miniscule, laughable. By her prescription diet, we are both allowed to roam the earth with quiet jaded eyes.
This is what I miss.
I miss that adventure that overwhelmed our friendship at its peak. I miss how wide our eyes would get, how wide our smiles would spread. How reckless we were allowed to be.
Shell is smiling in the apron of a downtown restaurant, her tables have no idea who she is. I hear her say “My name is Shell” before I turn and see her face. She sets a coaster on their patio table, an extra one flies off into the street. Watching her from this distance, she doesn’t see me, and that song pops into mind. "Do You Realize?" I think of hope for the hopeless and how it is imbedded in ink on the side of her body. I’m convinced that she is blind.