Now I Know

I hate when people take too long to continue a story. I refused to watch miniseries on network TV for that very reason. I could not stand to wait until the next day or week for a story to be completed. But hypocrite much? Nearly three weeks later and I’m finishing the Coretta story. (Not that you even know who Coretta is, or care for that matter, it’s not like Roots or V, but still…)


Nevertheless, I last left off when Coretta and I graduated from high school. Soon after graduation, I moved to San Diego with my family and Coretta stayed, as all my friends did, to attend a Catholic midwestern or East Coast university. During this time, I felt disenfranchised (again). Used to be moving around so much invigorated me, but as a teen-ager, it sucked donkey eggs. To ease my loneliness, Coretta sent me letters, and mix tapes with Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” on them, and came to visit as often as she could and vice versa.


I miserably attended a community college for a year and a half, then transferred to the same Milwaukee university that Coretta attended, an echo of high school. But this time, Coretta seemed troubled and melancholy, keeping pretty much to herself, which stunned me for such a social butterfly. She was often lost in thought and preoccupied and I thought maybe she felt displaced in such a big school, or missed home, or, well, I just didn’t know. She needed me more often, instead of the other way around, and we’d spend quiet evenings together, just hanging out. But, I gradually absorbed myself into the university and made other friends, and Coretta wanted nothing to do with them.


I still ended up going home with her for Thanksgiving my sophomore year, and while at home, she seemed to temporarily spring back to life, but once we returned to school, her darkness returned. Not happy unless I was with her and only her, our relationship grew strained. I dreaded inviting her to what I was doing, because I knew she wouldn’t go and would try to talk me out of going myself. Still, I assimilated into a new group of friends, and Coretta and I talked less and less, but remained close, as hard as it is to believe.


Then, for Spring Break, I returned to San Diego with two of my “new” college friends. We’d planned a week of beaches, under-21 bar hopping and hanging out. Coretta went to visit L.A. with a friend of ours, and everything seemed peachy. Until a late night phone call from Coretta, telling me she was leaving L.A. and coming to San Diego to stay with me. The very next day.


I looked forward to her visit, but at the same time, knowing her disdain for my new relationships, I dreaded it also. Sure enough, when she showed up the next day, she barely said a word to my friends and right before we were to go out to dinner, she asked me to join her in the bathroom for a talk.


I spent about 30 minutes in there with her, as she sat on the counter, rocking back and forth. Clearly something was the matter. But she could not or would not articulate it and I hate that I became frustrated. She begged me to stay home with her, but of course I couldn’t, as I was hosting two other — hungry –people in my city. She became morose, but begrudgingly agreed to join us for dinner.


So off to dinner we went. My friends and I tried to make light of the situation, but goopy tension dripped like candle wax. Then halfway through the meal, Coretta excused herself and we watched her sit on a column near the restaurant entrance and rock back and forth, as she had earlier in the bathroom. I’d never seen her behave this way, and frankly I didn’t know how to handle it. I came to her side outside, but she didn’t say a word, which for a normally talkative girl, was out of the ordinary and befuddling. While out there, she told me she wanted to stay home that night and became angry when I said I’d promised to take my friends out. I honored my promise and a upset Coretta left the next day.


Things really went downhill after that. After Spring Break, she called my dorm to disinvite me to her house for Easter, and basically cut me out of her life. UNTIL, a few weeks later, when she rang me to ask that I meet her in an empty art room on campus.


A few minutes later, I entered the Journalism building and headed for the room number Coretta gave me over the phone. I found her, in the dark, huddled on top of a desk, engaged in the rocking motion I’d come to know so well that semester. I begged her to tell me what was bothering her so. What had her so locked up? But again, she kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want me to leave, but she didn’t want me to stay and that was one of the most frustrating evenings of my life. I did not know how to help her, and she obviously needed someone to understand.


I left later, I don’t even know how long I was there really. But as I walked home that night, I just knew that Coretta and I were lost to each other. She wouldn’t let me in and I felt like one of those blow-up clown toys I had as a kid — the one with the weighted bottom — which she kept pummeling over and over — popping back up each time, until I didn’t. And honestly? I felt angry myself. I’d spent years circling Coretta, always there at her whim and beckoning, never asking for anything in return. And now she seemed to resent me for having my own life Or at least that’s what I thought. Either way, we didn’t talk for the rest of our college days.


I suppose I felt relief at first. But as I saw her around campus, I missed her, and felt bereft. We’d been best friends since the fifth grade, and this cleaving felt unnatural. Whenever I glimpsed her in a bar, or in a class (we were the same major), it was if I saw a ghost. She looked wan and sullen and sad. And if I reached out to her, she bit back, and then I stopped reaching.


One of the most intense moments between us happened during college graduation. I ran into Coretta’s mom — a woman I loved as if she were my own mother — in the halls before the ceremony and I fought the impulse to hug her as I might have done under normal circumstances. We danced around each other, not sure what to say, and I watched as Coretta led her mom away, as if I were a begger on the street.


After graduation, I lived in Milwaukee for a few months, and soon received a package from Coretta with a note. I have no idea why it came or how she had the address. Maybe we’d talked in there somewhere, I just can’t remember. Either way, she’d sent me a book for ad copywriters (my specialization within my major) and inside had tucked a note updating me on her life, without a mention of our estrangement or why it’d happened. Of course, I’d written her back, and she returned the gesture, and it seemed we were on our way to friendship again. About three weeks later, an old high school friend had a party, which we both attended, and I still have the picture of us there — sitting on a couch, talking as old friends. Yet there’s a look on Coretta’s face I still picture — she’s laughing, but it looks so close to a cry that I sometimes swear it is. It’s out of place for a laugh, it’s almost as if she’s in pain.


Years go by, and it’s as if we never had a reconciliation. I see Coretta at weddings, baby showers, parties, and she acts as if I don’t exist, which still confuses me. Hadn’t we made up (from what, I don’t know)? About four years after college, I eyed her at a Halloween party, where she stood off to the side, pale and simmering. She’d dressed as Melissa Etheridge, with a cut-off denim shirt and jeans, and as I hung out in the kitchen, lamely dressed as Phoebe from Friends, I could feel her disdain from across the room.


But I didn’t know what she hated so much. Was it my cluelessness? My vanilla tastes? My ordinariness? Clearly, she’d moved into some alternative lifestyle, maybe she despised my mainstream-ness? And while I say, “alternative,” I still didn’t get it. Not until I caught rumors much later that Coretta was a lesbian. And then, it all clicked.


In college, she must have been coming to terms with the fact that she was gay. Coming from a traditional Italian family, surely she’d felt they wouldn’t understand. Hell, she probably didn’t understand it herself. Raised in the ’80s in a midwestern suburb, attending catholic schools and pretend living the template cut out for her, she probably felt lost. Lost and alone. Maybe she felt guilty. Angry that she was “different.”


And she’d tried to reach out to me. Her best friend, who wasn’t there for her. I want to tell her that if she’d told me, I’d have understood. I wouldn’t have cared. She was my closest and dearest friend and news like that wouldn’t have mattered. I wish I could have been there for her. Looking back now, I feel so selfish and clueless. How by herself she must have felt.


I looked her up before my wedding 8 years ago. I’d heard her mom had suffered a brain aneurysm on Christmas and I wanted to offer my condolences and wishes for a speedy recovery. But I didn’t receive a reply. Later, I tried e-mail. And again, no reply.


I do know she’s successful and fully out now. I see her listed as a singer/songwriter in Chicago, and she also wrote and directed a few indie movies. I’m so happy that she’s found an outlet for her creativity. I always knew she’d do something big. I wish I could reach her somehow, but what do you say? “Hi? How are you?” doesn’t seem to address the gulf that grew between us. Or why it grew in the first place.


Nonetheless, I did try one last time. Last year, I got her e-mail from a mutual friend and sent her a long letter, which went unreturned. I know I must respect her choice. I just want to tell her I would have respected any choice she made. Even then.


So. Even though more years have passed that I haven’t known Coretta, than when I did, I still miss her. I miss the humor, the friendship, the past we shared. And every time I hear Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” I remember how close we were. And how we might have stayed that way, if I’d been a little smarter, a little more compassionate.


10 Responses to “Now I Know”

  1. sigh. this is a beautiful story. thank you for sharing.
    and i totally knew that coretta was a lesbian!
    i had a VERY similar experience (without the college and stuff) with a friend of mine that i had grown very close with in high school. we grew apart, i saw her years later (in-between kids, when my son was ~18mos old) in a restaurant in carlsbad with her parents. her lover – at a very young age – had passed recently. we have since attempted to reconnect several times over the past 3 years, but she is not very receptive. i reach out. she backs down. but i won’t give up. not just yet. ;)

  2. maybe it isn’t/wasn’t you — a weakness in you — so much as that she needed to forget what was a very painful time for her. and unavoidably, you were part of that time.

  3. Steph says:

    You stop kicking your own ass, Deb. No, I mean it. She didn’t tell you, so how would you know? I mean, you didn’t walk in on her eating some hoo-ha – she was rocking back and forth. What does that tell you, other than she’s in pain? You tried to alleviate that.

    I’m very sorry for Coretta. I hope that she’s doing well now. I hope she’s truly happy. But I could smack a bitch up for making YOU feel bad about HER inability to cop to her own shit.

  4. Steph says:

    And if my last comment offended anyone, I apologize, but boy, am I hot. I get fiercely protective of people I consider my friends, and Coretta? Makes me feel fiercely protective of you, Deb.

  5. FerdC says:

    I’m a newbie to your site, but this piece moved me. So I’ll venture a few words.

    Wow, Deb, that’s quite a sadness you have carried all these years. I feel for you, and I feel for Coretta, too. You both lost something that could have been forever.

    It might seem trite, but the serenity prayer works for me. There are things I simply can’t change, and that’s mostly other people, and I have to accept that. Seems to me you tried your best. You WERE there for her, for years. For whatever reason, she couldn’t be there for you. Not much to do now other than to wish her well. And you can be proud of yourself for hanging in there for her all these years. You didn’t need to be any smarter or more compassionate. That already shows in spades.

  6. robyn says:

    Wow, until I got to the end of this story, I was totally stumped. I was thinking maybe she had bipolar disorder or something. You kept reaching out to her, and that’s all you could do. You definitely should not feel like it was your fault that the relationship turned out the way it did. (I have a couple of close cousins who dropped me in a similar way, and eventually I just had to learn to let go, family members or not.) I know you miss Coretta, but keep on enjoying the company of your other wonderful friends who love to spend time with you.

  7. You definitely need to let yourself off the hook. You were young and didn’t know what you know now also. It feels like you’re taking all the responsibility for your estrangement and from the outside it seems you did everything you could to be a good friend.

  8. Jamie says:

    A timely read for me as I have a friend from 5th grade coming into town next week. Much of me dreads it. Although not a lesbian to my knowledge, she shares confusion and anger with Coretta. She wants to see my “babies” because she has yet to see them. My “babies” are nearly four. My head tells me she’s clueless, but you’ve reminded me to think with my heart. Friendships drift and there are times to prune. Coretta may have just needed a new start to celebrate her coming out.

  9. What a touching story and grippingly told. I could not look away from the screen (like not being able to put down a good book). As you know, there was more going on than just coming to grips with coming out. Set her free (and in so doing, yourself), if she comes back, she’s yours. If she doesn’t, it was never meant to be. (I heard that last bit of wisdom in Wayne’s World.)

    I love you more and more with every post you write.

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