Last I knew she was heading to Albuquerque to live with her father. The father who moved there months earlier with his new wife, the one who let us stay up late watching movies on the weekends when I often slept over. The same father who stayed up and spoke to me in a warm, calming voice when I couldn’t sleep at night, rubbing my back until I was able to drop off again. During my early years, I could somehow tell he missed his wife. She had died when Clara was a baby—at least that’s what she told me.
He’s divorced now. Last I heard, he was facing trial for inappropriately touching students at the middle school he taught at. I wonder if he ever touched Clara that way. I wonder if that’s why she moved back.
At the time, I just knew I had to get away for a while. Nothing was going according to plan. The imposter syndrome—have you heard of it? I think that’s how to explain it. I think they knew it too. Two days ago, I arrived in the middle of nowhere, Nevada—my hometown. I bought a one-way ticket. There’s something compelling about disappearing for an unspecified length of time, you know? Normal life always seems to fit so neatly into blocks of it, with a beginning and ending, repeating—a Rubik’s cube of a schedule. I never could solve a Rubik’s cube.
Now that I was back, I didn’t know what to do. I had no purpose here other than taking the mother to dialysis three times a week and picking up groceries on Saturday. Everywhere I went I saw people I faintly recognized, the kids who never left. Didn’t they want to get out and see the world outside of this place? I never understood staying put. My egomania just knew I had talents to offer elsewhere, and staying here would hold me back. Well, at least that’s what I convinced myself of at the time.
I first saw Clara at the supermarket—you know, the new shiny one about the size of a Walmart parking lot right in the middle of town? I’d heard a new place was moving in a while back, probably a year ago now. Mother mentioned it every time she had the chance on the phone. She still shops at Jeb’s though, my mother. The local joint where I once shoplifted candy at age 12 and worked as a bag boy for two summers during high school. God, I hated that place. Everyone’s always in everyone else’s business. I suppose that’s why she loves going so much, being the town gossip and all. I wonder why she didn’t mention Clara had returned. Then again, we hadn’t talked much in the last six months.
She was analyzing the fruit display when I first saw her, softly handling and inspecting the week’s selection of peaches, apples, and plums. I recognized her immediately and tried not to stare. It’s transfixing watching someone make a decision. For some people, fingers move or eyebrows furrow; for others, a crease forms in the center of their forehead. I noticed her bottom lip still protruded a little further than the top one, the corners of her mouth turning down slightly—the same way it always did during our calculus tests.
For me, well, I think I just stare off into space. Mother always knew when I was thinking too hard. “Come back to us, Charles,” she’d like to chime, always followed by a self-humoring chuckle. It never got old. My girlfriend in college would always ask, “Whatcha thinkin’ babe?” Now that sure got annoying sometimes. Can’t a guy just zone out for five seconds without having to pay attention all the time? The thing is, I don’t remember actually thinking about much of anything, really.
I hadn’t seen her since she left junior year to move schools. Losing my friend one year before graduation? Who does that? We talked about it for hours—her storming around her room, arms flailing, fingers pointing, breathless after ranting—me just sitting there trying to sympathize but not doing a very good job of it. She yelled at me a couple of times. I couldn’t blame her. “Do you even care? I’m moving across the freaking country, and you’re just sitting there staring at the ceiling. Doesn’t this upset you?” She stormed ahead. “We’ve been friends for six years!” She always tended to be on the melodramatic side (which I appreciated as it made up for my boring everyday existence in “Nowhere,” Nevada). I made the mistake of pointing out that New Mexico wasn’t across the country, rather only one state away.
“It’s only eight hours by car to get there,” I said. “I’ll come to visit during winter break, and you’ll come to stay with me next summer. We can spend the last summer together before college!” I remember her look in response—that peculiar look only she was capable of pulling off. Eyes narrowing crinkles forming at the corners of her nose. She’d scrutinized my face for signs of insincerity or as it usually was—bullshit. I knew I had convinced her, albeit begrudgingly. “Fine,” she said, glaring over at me. “You promise?”
Two weeks later, she was gone. Two months later, we were barely talking. Winter break came and went, haphazard messages sent here and there. She was my best friend for six years, and it only took six months to fall out of touch.
Last I saw she was working at a law firm or was it in real estate? I remember seeing a post shared on Facebook, which at the time, I thought odd because Clara was never one to Facebook. Come to think of it, and neither was I, yet somehow I knew these things because of it—these trivial things that I used to keep tabs on old friends. Friends I haven’t spoken to in years or even thought about. It’s funny how people feel the need to check in on how others are doing. Most of the time, it just makes me feel like it was someone else entirely who knew these people and went to school with them.
A mom loudly telling her kid to put the cookies back on the shelf snapped me back to my immediate reality, and I made a move to walk towards her. By this time, she had selected five perfectly unbruised Fuji apples, three plums (black, not purple) and had moved on to inspect the peaches. I glanced down at my hands and noticed they were frozen stick straight at my side. I told myself to relax. It was just an old friend! You’re just going to say hi—no big deal. It wasn’t like nine years had passed. Where did she go to college? I can’t remember. What happened to her father? I have no idea. What do I even say? We’re complete strangers now.
“Clara?” I asked, probably a little too loudly for casual grocery store encounters. She turned, a confused look resting on her face for too long. Breath catching, I knew it was a bad idea. It lasted the time it took for my heart to plummet to the bottom of my stomach before a small, tentative smile appeared, and she moved towards me. In her motion, a light briefly caught the corner of her forehead, drawing attention to a large, faded scar that cascaded across her right temple. It looked significant. I was suddenly sorry that I hadn’t been there and didn’t know the story when there was a time we knew everything there was to know about each other.
“Hey, Charlie,” she said, so quietly I almost didn’t hear it. “You back home for a visit?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I replied, and smiled. She smiled back. Momentarily my nerves dissolved, a feeling of calm settled in. I didn’t realize how much I had missed that smile.
“Um, well, I live here now. I moved back after college – I went to UNM,” she said matter-of-factly. There were so many things I wanted to ask, but we weren’t like how we used to be. I ruined that when I told my parents about her father.
To this day, I still don’t understand why she denied it. I was only trying to help—I don’t know what else I was supposed to do, what she wanted me to do. I couldn’t sit around knowing that her father, the same father that soothed me gently to sleep when we were younger, could do such things to his daughter. I felt betrayed by him and by her for telling me. Once I knew, it slithered inside me, coloring every conversation until I blew up. It all came full circle, my betrayal on top of this. We never talked about it after that. She’d confided in me a week before she left to live with the same man who had done those things.
“Oh, wow, I had no idea! How long have you been here?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t overstepping. “I’m just in town visiting, myself. I’ve been here about two weeks now but didn’t know you were around or I would’ve messaged you.” I couldn’t look at her without fixating on that scar.
We made plans to meet up for coffee the following week. The day of she called me an hour before to say something came up. I didn’t have time to formulate a normal response before it all spilled out. An apology for telling my parents and another for not communicating all this time; harbored accusatory questions and some new curious ones; the sense of urgency I felt to know everything all at once. I erupted, like a volcano.
“It’s alright, Charlie!” she insisted after I had paused for air. “I know you only did what you thought was right at the time—what any rational person would do. You were the only person I could trust outside of him, a person I depended on. The thing is, he’s my father and all I have. All I’ve ever had. He felt the same about me and I just couldn’t, you know…” she trailed off.
Anguish flooded over me before retreating once more. Nothing could change now—I couldn’t let it. “Well,” I said, still short of breath. “I’m glad to have seen you and to finally say the things that I couldn’t say to you then. You are strong, stronger than me. You always did thrive on your independence.” I tried conveying sincere positivity, but my voice gave me away.
“Thank you for saying that. But um, that’s actually the reason why I called, actually. I’m leaving town soon,” she said. “The Albuquerque Hospital called—my dad, he had a heart attack last night. They say he might not have a chance of making it through. I have to see him. I fly out in a couple of hours.”
My heart dropped into my stomach for the second time that week.
“Oh, I’m uh, so sorry to hear that,” I found myself saying, more out of habit to hearing bad news than anything. I couldn’t formulate a single appropriate thing to say despite having so many thoughts earlier that week. “I guess I’d better let you go,” I sighed, knowing this was it. “You can call me anytime you know if you want. If you need anything, I mean.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate it. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time.”
“Yeah, me too. See you, Clara.” Click. And just like that, she was gone.
A few days later, I crunched a dead leaf on my way to the car that would take me to the airport. A fitting analogy to the desolate place I found myself unable to escape.
I tried calling her a couple of times, but it went straight to voicemail.