She’s gone, Sam. She’s dead.
Those were the words I heard Chuck say over the phone that chilly Tuesday morning—words that refused to make sense at all, no matter how hard I tried to wrap my head around it. How could Rosie, my best friend, be dead?
She was only 32—in her prime and one of South Bay’s most influential women. She was also known for her outstanding culinary skills. Just the night before, she was reminding me not to flake—again—on the dinner she’d planned the next day where she swore that this time, I’d meet Mr. Right.
I hope you don’t mind, Sam. I told him a few things about you, and he can’t wait to meet you.
It was her usual matchmaking dinner where I’d have the not-so-anticipated pleasure of meeting another one of her prospective candidates for me. It was all in good fun, of course, for she only wanted me to meet the perfect man. It didn’t hurt that Rosie was one hell of a cook, so whether or not the matchmaking part of the dinner was a success, the actual dinner always was.
But those things didn’t matter anymore. Rosie was dead—dead from a wandering blood clot that took her without giving anyone a chance to say good-bye. Not even me. At her memorial, the house was filled with mourners—some I already knew, and some I didn’t. There were so many of them that they spilled out into their garden, telling their stories of Rosie, and just how shocked they were at her sudden passing. I heard stories about Rosie I’d never heard before, about her generosity, her ready smile, and just how well she listened to their problems. Just like she listened to each one of my problems—though there’d been a brief spell when she and I had stopped being friends for awhile.
I ran into Rosie inside the girls’ bathroom at Beverly Hills High School. I was in the middle of tagging the bathroom wall with some crude illustration when she came out of the stalls, tears running down her face. I guess it was the sound of the aerosol can that interrupted her sobbing. She could have reported me, but she poured her heart out instead.
Bob, the high school quarterback, had dumped her for the head cheerleader named Bunny. He had first asked Rosie to go to the prom with him, only to change his mind because he was taking Bunny instead. And prom was two days away.
What kind of a guy would do that? I asked her. Though my then-14-year-old mind told me such things probably happened all the time, emotional-me couldn’t understand why she was so heartbroken over it. I figured out later on that it wasn’t just about Bob. It had to do with her reputation. What would people think? Still, I asked her again. What kind of guy would do such a thing?
A dickhead, she replied. An asshole, she added, and the way she said it made me realize that she wasn’t used to saying such things. It seemed to give her a thrill. But I said those words every day, though not in Beverly Hills. I wasn’t even a student at her high school.
“Why don’t we let him know exactly what he is?” I suggested as an idea came to me.
So two nights later, while everyone was dancing their hearts out at the gym, Rosie and I keyed the hell out of Bob’s brand new Mustang, a gift from his father, some real estate mogul. She even wrote the names dickhead and asshole.
“I never knew you had it in you, girl,” I said to her then.
“I don’t,” she said. “But it sure feels good. Thanks for the idea!”
We would have gotten away with it if someone hadn’t seen us. Chuck Purnell was outside smoking a joint, and he saw the whole thing. He wouldn’t tell anyone what we’d done if Rosie agreed to go out with him on a date. Turns out he’d been crushing on Rosie since junior year, and he wasn’t about to let his chance pass. Rosie agreed, but only if I came along, too.
Rosie never saw anything in Chuck all through high school, but the first date changed all that. He worked two jobs to support his mother and two sisters after his father left the whole family for another woman. That must have been it, I always thought, that made Rosie see something in Chuck that she never saw before.
After graduation, they both went to the same university and got married shortly after. They settled in Minneapolis where Chuck got a job with the airlines, and they had two children, Trevor and Lindsay.
While Rosie and Chuck navigated their way through love and marriage, I was on a different path. The vandalism of Bob’s Mustang, combined with other charges before that incident, netted me almost a year in juvie. By the time I was 17, I already had a healthy arrest record for tagging, petty theft, and underage drinking.
A month before I turned 18 and swearing to straighten myself out, I found myself on a bus headed for Hawthorne, a city south of Los Angeles. It was a hop, skip and a jump to the South Bay from there, and for the next two days, I hung out on the beach, pretending to be a local. A young woman from the local volleyball group who called themselves the 13th Street gang—though there was nothing remotely “gang-related” about them for they just set up their nets by 13th street on the Strand—took me in for two crazy nights of partying. A keg party on Saturday turned into a finish-the-keg barbecue get-together on Sunday. My drugged-out mother never even reported me missing.
I thought I could fit in with all the beautiful people of the South Bay and mend my ways, but old habits die hard. It didn’t take long for me to find a fence to tag before Sunday was over.
Hermosa Beach had had a string of garage burglaries a few months earlier. Thieves would drive through alleys with a collection of garage remote controls, a few of which would open one or two garage doors. The burglaries made it onto the Beach Reader, under the sparse Crime Watch section, and septuagenarian Eunice Logan took notice. The camera she had installed caught me tagging her fence with my initials, SAM.
At first, I denied it. But when she showed me the footage, there was no more denying what I had done. Eunice may have been in her seventies, but she was still as smart as a whip. Instead of reporting me to the police, she said, I could work off the cost of washing the paint off her fence. And maybe some housework.
I was angry and refused whatever it was she offered me. This is blackmail, I told her.
Yes, she agreed, but you’re the one who committed the crime, Sam. So, you have to do the time. Or I can walk to the police station right now and report you for vandalism.
A few things about Eunice. First, she was tough, but she was also lonely. She’d never married and didn’t have any children. And after the first boy she ever loved broke her heart in college, she never bothered to put herself on the market to get one, even though everyone she knew was getting married and having families left and right. But then, the war came and she, along with most women during that time, did what they could to help on the home front. She taught art at a local high school for years, and after renting her spare bedroom to one international exchange student after another long after she retired, she finally grew tired of all their partying and decided to live alone. But that time, no matter how liberating it may have felt for her in the beginning, ended up being the loneliest years of her life.
Until I showed up in all my swagger.
After cleaning up her fence and her house, Eunice offered me a place to stay after seeing the bruises on my face the following week. Maybe she knew that I had nowhere else to go but a house in East L.A., where I lived with my mother, now a full-blown heroin addict, and her boyfriend, Roy, who pimped her out. Eunice didn’t need to know the specifics—that Roy raped me every chance he could get while my mother was too high to notice—but looking back now, I think she knew.
Three days later, I showed up at Eunice’s doorstep with whatever I could carry, which wasn’t much. My left eye was swollen shut, and my lip was split.
Is your offer still on the table? I’ll clean whatever you want me to clean. If you tell me to jump, I’ll ask you how high.
You won’t need to jump, Sam, she said. You’ll only need to keep me company. And maybe learn to smile again.
For the next five years, I lived with Eunice, and she taught me the basics of art, drawing, and painting. In return, I took care of her until she died of a heart attack while picking nectarines from the backyard.
Rosie and I reconnected years later—when Chuck got reassigned to Los Angeles for his job—and it was as if we’d never stopped being friends. She was there whenever I needed help or just someone to talk to though she always had to remind me that nothing she did was out of pity for me. It didn’t matter what she said, though, for sometimes that was the way I saw it.
At her memorial, eleven-year-old Lindsay broke through my reverie by tugging at my sleeve. “Auntie Sammie, there’s the guy that mom was going to introduce you to. He’s nice.”
Though she pointed him out to me, I couldn’t look at him. My eyes clouded with tears, and I turned away. We’re at her memorial, I wanted to tell Lindsay, not one of her damn matchmaking dinners.
But I couldn’t say the words for Lindsay was crying. Those matchmaking dinners were among her favorite memories of her mother, she said, for they included her and Trevor. We were a team, mom and us. We were a team trying to get you to meet the right guy, Aunt Sammie.
I never got to get a glimpse of the man she tried to point out to me, for both of us had to run up to her bedroom where we both cried even more. I could only imagine then how life would be for Lindsay. I knew I couldn’t imagine how mine would be. Rosie was like the sister I never had.
* * *
A few months after Rosie died, Chuck sold the house. He and the kids were moving to Phoenix to be closer to his two brothers who’d settled there. When the big day finally came, he and the kids dropped by the house to say good-bye.
“Rosie wanted you to have this,” he said, handing me a carved wooden box after Trevor and Lindsay returned to the car to wait for him. “I found it under the bed with your name on it.”
“What’s in it?”
“Open it,” Chuck said, shrugging his shoulders. “You girls had so many secrets that I knew better than to pry.”
I opened the lid carefully and saw that it was half filled with pictures and letters, some of them from me through the years that she’d stored. I fought back the tears when I saw the photograph that lay on top of the pile.
“I can’t believe she still has this picture,” I whispered. It had been taken at the bowling alley when Rosie and Chuck went on their first date. Chuck had taken the picture himself, and it was of Rosie and I pretending to fight over a bowling ball.
“You were so young then, Sam,” Chuck said. “Weren’t you 14 or so?”
“I was, and she was 18. You were 19, I think. And already an old fart,” I chuckled.
“There are other pictures in there I thought you’d like to keep. Some letters, too, though I didn’t read any of them. I found the box under the bed in the guest room the day the moving people took the furniture away,” Chuck said. “Thank God I was there when they did, or they’d have packed it away in the truck if they found it.”
I closed the box, gave him a quick hug and stepped back. “Do you have to leave, Chuck?”
“She’s everywhere I look, Sam,” he said. “Every damn street corner, every store, every room in that house. I still smell her perfume; it hurts so bad. Even seeing you brings her back every time, Sam. No offense.”
“None taken,” I said, my throat tightening.
“I just can’t do it anymore—living without her. And the kids, too, she was there for them in everything they did. She worked at their school, too, you know? And I can see the strain in them. Every time someone says how sorry they are for their loss, I see it come back again, that loss. You know how the South Bay is. It’s small. But maybe a new city will do us good. A new state.”
“I’m so sorry, Chuck,” I said. “I know what you mean. I see her everywhere, too.”
“Who the hell dies so young like that?” he asked though it wasn’t a question that demanded an answer from me. “Anyway, I gotta go.”
We hugged for the last time, and as he turned to go, Chuck stopped and faced me again. “What am I supposed to do now, Sam? If it weren’t for the kids, how am I supposed to go on without her? She was my rock.”
I forced a smile. “You just have to, Chuck. For the kids, at least,” I said. “You need to be strong for them. Lindsay especially.”
“You’re right…” Chuck stopped, his gaze going past my head towards my house, and he frowned. “What’s David doing at your house? I thought he’s not supposed to visit during the week. Sam, you guys agreed to this in court. I was there, and so was Rosie.”
I turned my head to see David standing by the window with Michael in his arms. David Dean was my ex-husband, and Michael was our one-year-old son. Though we’d been separated for about six months, we’d only been officially divorced for a month—and so everything, David claimed, was still new to him. Though he moved back in with his mother in Hawthorne, it didn’t stop him from coming by each week to take out the trash on Tuesdays, even though I’d told him each time not to do so.
“He said he was in the area, and he had some toys for Michael,” I said, looking down at my feet.
“That’s bull, and you know it, Sam. When are you going to stand up for yourself and tell him that he can’t just show up anytime he wants?” Chuck asked, the frustration evident in his voice. “God, Sam, with Rosie gone, who’s going to fight for you now?”
“Guess I’ll have to start fighting my own battles, Chuck. After all, I’m 28 years-old. I got to learn how to do it somehow.”
“I know David, Sam, just as I know you. Look, do you still have that bear camera Rosie and I gave you? I hope you figured out how to make it work in case—”
“Chuck, I’ll be okay. I may not quite know how to get David to leave me alone, but I’ll get there. But right now, I can’t deal with losing my best friend—and standing up to David, too.”
I didn’t want to tell Chuck that David had been showing up more often ever since Rosie died. But Chuck must have seen it on my face. He sighed, shaking his head. “Call me if you need anything, Sam. And call the police if he’s going to hurt you. The station’s only around the corner from your house.”
As I watched Chuck drive away, I felt David come up from behind me and place his arm possessively around my shoulders. I shrugged his hand off and took a step away from him. We were divorced for a reason, I wanted to tell him just as Michael ran outside the house towards us.
“Mama, train!” Michael shrieked as I tucked the box under one arm and gathered him in my other arm. Without saying anything to David, I made my way back into the house and found a long line of trains arranged on the floor.
“Thanks for the toys, David,” I said, forcing my tone to be friendly as I brought Michael down. “See you this weekend?”
“I was hoping I could stay over for dinner,” David said loudly, probably making sure that Michael would hear him. “Your signature pot roast dish tonight? It’s one of my favorites.”
Michael clapped his hands. “Daddy, din-din! Din-din!”
I sighed. It would crush Michael to watch me push his daddy away. There was no way David was going to leave without making a scene, making sure Michael would see that it was my fault for driving his father away.
“Sure,” I sighed, putting Michael down and walking towards the kitchen. Why don’t we all just have a party then and live happily ever after?
But even as I said it in my head, I knew life would never be a party again. Not now that Rosie was gone. While I had been her rock when I found her in that high school bathroom, crying over a boy, Rosie had been my rock for much longer than that. I missed Rosie so much, and it hurt to breathe just thinking about her.
I slipped into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. I leaned against it, finally letting the tears roll down my cheeks as I opened the box and pulled out the pictures of Rosie and I. But I could barely see them through the tears, Chuck’s words about me learning to stand up for myself echoing inside my head. I put back the pictures inside the box and closed the lid, burying my face in my hands.
What was I going to do now?