I met Coretta T. when we were both in the fifth grade. She told great jokes, had a typical Italian family and an enormous pantry filled with Little Debbie snack cakes. I’d moved to Chicago the year before, as little girl lost, it was nice to find a friend who adopted me instantly.
Together with a few other girls, we formed a group that lasted through the eighth grade. All of us were creative, silly and eccentric in our own ways, and I never felt more in my element. We shared a lot of good times: me practicing “She’s Got a Way,” while badly playing Gen’s piano, the girls singing back-up, planning post Friday night dance sleep-overs, traveling downtown to lunch with Coretta’s attorney father in the John Hancock building.
We became the “smart girls,” all of us making honor roll every quarter, writing for the newspaper and forming the yearbook committee. Those days, I felt a part of something, not just a member of a group, but a cog in the wheel of the daily goings-on of a school, a city. I belonged. For once.
Coretta’s mom also adopted me and sucked me into their family. i watched arguments, sibling rivalries and a frustrated housewife up close and personal, and I grew as close to them, as to my own crazy family. Mrs. T. filled the Sicilian wife role nicely, shoving manicotti down her guests’ throats until they popped buttons, wearing blue eyeshadow for her husband, and populating her cavernous pantry. I loved her dearly. Same with Coretta’s dad, who, while his commanding presence scared the beejeezus out of me, was a teddy bear at heart. Coretta’s two sisters, both younger, drove her crazy, but they did our bidding, and so we let them hang around.
I still see Coretta hiding out in the space she’d carved for herself in her closet, doodling on paper, strumming a guitar, writing poetry. She covered her morose side well, but I saw it often, after all, I spent nearly every minute with her. In those times, I glimpsed pain, if not a darkness, certainly a gray, that I never quite understood.
Soon enough, we went off to high school. Me, to the public school in my neighborhood, she, to a girl’s catholic school. I spent the first semester, miserable, and my loneliness from all those years of moving, of being “the new kid,” struck me anew. I couldn’t hack it, or rather, didn’t want to, and soon transferred to the same school as Coretta, much to my mom’s disproval. My new school cost thousands of dollars a year, money we didn’t have, money Coretta’s family spent easily.
i assimilated in an instant. Coretta wielded her new popularity benevolently and I was accepted into her brood. Those years, she really was the big fish in a small pond, friends with everyone, including the boys behind the glass doors separating our side from theirs. She dated everyone, and we spent those years at parties, in the malls, at football games, dances, and concerts.
Coretta and I were always close, but I had other friends, too. Best friends. Although Coretta took the number one position, and she knew it. Sometimes, when she got dark, she’d target someone — not overtly — but she’d withhold affection, attention, and act indifferent toward them. One of my very close friends still talks about how Coretta ruined half her junior year with this persecution. I never experienced it, instead Coretta treated me as little sister, someone in her thrall, a bird too fragile to break.
I took her moods in stride. She ran artistic, and I expected artists to be melancholy, pouty even. And most of the time, she thrilled — she reminded me of Robin Williams — prone to manic outbursts of hilarity, humorous tangents she rode for long minutes, hours. She wrote me often, poems, skits, letters with bits of conversation she found funny. Today, when I look in my old Chandler’s (Franklin Planners for the Catholic high school girl), I see it peppered with her funny illustrations and quotes.
Those high school years make up some of my best memories, and I still talk with many of my friends from those days. Most of them. But not Coretta. No, something happened there that I still don’t quite understand.
[To be continued]