Live Through This

Empty With You Gone

I found an unlikely friend, and then I lost her.

Illustration by Allegra

Illustration by Allegra

The thing I remember most about Jamie is her voice, which is weird to admit, because it’s the very thing I hated about her before I got to know her. The first time she spoke to me was during a six-course lunch, when she tried to get me to eat a piece of horse. “Don’t you want to taste it?” she asked, waving a chunk of glistening brown meat in front of my face. It was January and the first week of my semester studying abroad in Bologna, Italy. The 20 students in the program filled a small Mantovian trattoria. I was jet-lagged and cranky and I wasn’t in the mood to make small talk or listen to the tinkling laughter of strangers.

I realized too late that I had seated myself next to Jamie, a girl I recognized from the dorms and dining halls of our Connecticut college. She’d been an RA (resident advisor) and had helped run orientation when I was a trembling, terrified freshman, which meant that I’d watched her perform her friendliness in public way before I’d known her name. I automatically distrusted the boisterous way she bounced around and seemed to sing her half of conversations. She was too easily amused, her mouth too open, and her laughter too promiscuous to be real. In college, I had become the kind of prickly person who dismissed anyone who tried too hard to please. People who cared so much about being liked were often quick to be cruel—at least that’s how I saw my childhood bullies, the ones who teased me for not smiling enough. I suspected easy friendliness and wore my shyness as a shield. I weighed my own words judicially: The less I revealed, the less vulnerable I’d be. I made friends at rock shows, where the volume of the music made social preambles impossible. By the time the bands stopped playing, no one was sober enough to remember the strange or stupid shit you might say.

But now I was marooned in Italy, far from the dingy, spray-painted basements and cozy dorm rooms where I’d spent the previous three semesters. Jamie had hardly seemed to notice me while we devoured our delicious pumpkin ravioli. Then the next course arrived: white platters bearing steaming meats. We peered at our printed menus. Cavallo. HORSE. A ripple went down the table. We had been served horse for lunch. Jamie let out a high-pitched whinny, and then laughed at her own irreverence. She popped the meat into her mouth. Delighted with herself, she neighed a few more times, then turned her attention to me. She noticed my plate was untouched. I wasn’t eating horse.

“So? Why not?” She stabbed a piece with her fork and held it out to me.

“Um…” I stammered, ponies prancing before my eyes. The others at the table goaded me on, glad to shift focus away from their own crowded plates. I had no choice but to banish the ponies. I closed my eyes and took a bite. The table cheered as I chewed. It was gross—lemony and tough—but I was triumphant, and glad for their cheers. Jamie’s were the loudest of all.

***

Now that I know I’ll never hear it again, I think about the sound of Jamie’s laughter. I only began to understand how powerful it was when she turned it on me like a weapon and won me over by force. It was not long after the horse-eating incident, and I was sitting in the middle of an overheated dorm party, staring off into space and doing my best to disguise the tongue-tied nervousness that often hits me in crowds. I hoped I looked cool, not lonely or sad because I hadn’t been sucked into the bright, animated conversations that were swirling above my head.

Without warning, Jamie jumped into my lap, so that we were sitting face-to-face, seesaw-style. She swung her legs giddily like a rambunctious toddler. She was a petite girl, barely five feet tall, but her body was round like a plum, and my knees creaked under her weight.

“When I first met you, I thought you were a bitch,” she slurred, her hands on my shoulders. “But you’re just shy! I think you’re great!” She giggled at her own boldness and rocked back and forth, so that I had to hug her to me to keep her from tumbling off her perch. Her hiccupping laugh shook her from shoulders to diaphragm, dissolving my skepticism with each vibration. Blindsided by her warmth, I was too flattered to resist; I barely muttered “thanks” before she hopped off to rejoin the party. I watched her disappear into the crowd.

Jamie was always disappearing into a crowd, but you could usually find her by following her laughter, which I recall as something like a giggle that transformed into a honk. It was a more complicated thing than I’d first thought. She used it intentionally, strategically. I had experienced how it could disarm, but I later saw how it also helped her deflect her own discomfort and sadness.

When we went dancing in a basement club below the McDonald’s in the center of Bologna, Jamie flung herself into the throbbing masses. While I did my best to blend in with the wall, Jamie made friends with strangers on the dance floor. I watched while she gyrated ecstatically, her hair damp and stringy from the humidity. Hands grabbed at her ass, her breasts, her pale, oval face. She danced with her mouth open and head thrown back. I felt protective of her, and embarrassed by how much she seemed to like being pawed by strangers. Then I felt silly for judging her. She was having fun and I was not.

Despite my wariness, Jamie had decided that we’d be friends, and I had no choice but to comply. Our program was small and classes in Italian language, literature, and culture took up most of the day, so it was inevitable that I’d feel reciprocal affection for her and her enviable ability to find infinite amounts of humor and possibility in the absurd moments that filled our daily life abroad: the incomprehensible lectures in a language we could barely understand; the mystifying trips to the grocery store where we’d try to buy pesto but actually grab something called salsa verde that tasted like anchovies; the condescending tone of the program director.

One stormy March afternoon our professor made us watch a particularly indecipherable late Fellini film. Next to me, Jamie was doodling large blossoms and movie star faces with flowing hair and pouty lips. I lost track of the movie as I watched her scribble faster and faster. She had started a list titled “My Friends,” and while Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni spun across the screen, she scrawled names across blank pages. At our college in Connecticut, Jamie was popular, as people who laugh and joke and drink usually are, and she had a lot of friends, from a core group of fiercely loyal roommates to casual buddies from the improv and theater scenes to classmates from her painting classes. She ranked the names on her list, marking her favorites, distinguishing between the people she loved, liked, just enjoyed, and the ones who reciprocated affection. I tried to sneak a closer look, but I was unable to see where I fit in her pantheon, and I didn’t want to disrupt her intimate, morbid exercise—it seemed to me that her ruthless parsing revealed the distance between her projected confidence and her hidden insecurities.

I had spent months hiding my own longing with a joke, sending everyone at home a postcard featuring a picture of a single tortellono, a spacecraft from Planet Pasta, casting its shadow over the center of town. In urgent red letters the text read, MI SENTO SOLO! (I feel alone!). That afternoon, I decided to try Jamie’s way, for once. It burned a little bit to quantify affection, to reduce complicated associations to an inventory in pen and ink. (This was the time just before social networks made it possible to pull up lists of friends with the touch of a button.) As I wrote, I saw how the names of friends that we repeated to ourselves and to which we addressed funny-sad postcards were incantations against loneliness and the confusion of being 20 or 21 and untethered in the world. It was about wanting to count and be counted. It took me only a minute or two to finish my own list. Meanwhile, Jamie’s pen sprinted on, her page filling with curly script. I marveled at her stamina, her willingness to commit her affections and insecurities to paper, to be reckless, to acknowledge the distance between herself and others, to really feel it.

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28 Comments

  • Sophie ❤ June 6th, 2013 3:18 PM

    All I can say is… oh, my, gosh.

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • chiara_ June 6th, 2013 3:19 PM

    This is so beautifully written, I have no words to express how much I loved this.
    Intense memories seen through a veil of melancholic nostalgia. This was both fierce and delicate. Brava.
    I live near Florence, so Bologna isn’t that far. I am glad you have built such great memories in the State I live in.
    I am so happy your friend had the chance of living so intensely before the illness took over.
    Sono ricordi speciali che porterai sempre nel cuore.

  • Emma S. June 6th, 2013 3:42 PM

    Lovely, Rose. xoxoxo

  • MaddieMae June 6th, 2013 3:51 PM

    This is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read <3 I love that you were able to dwell and write for so long about the good times you had together (and the food, which sounded delicious!); I just lost a friend of mine in March.

  • Flower June 6th, 2013 3:53 PM

    the beginning part is kind of is kind of ironic after the whole horse meat scandal in the uk
    but shfhfuhgdjshdfgfj so beauifully written <3

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Elizabete June 6th, 2013 3:55 PM

    Beautifully written indeed, kind of bittersweet.

    I can not imagine how devastating losing a friend is, I have also noticed there have been quite a few articles about loss of close people here on rookie, uh…

  • vanessaishere June 6th, 2013 4:48 PM

    This article is excellent!! My rite of passage occurred when I was walking home from school in the 8th grade, and a couple of white dudes in a red pick-up truck screamed the n-word out of the window at me. I couldn’t believe it, I froze up and tried to deny what had just happened. Even thinking about it now gives me goosebumps. Racism is ugly, and it’s really nice to have an article like this that I (and other PoC) can relate to. :)

  • Josefina June 6th, 2013 5:22 PM

    You write prolifically. I’m sorry for your loss. I wish I could say more, but I was really moved by your story and the way you took notice of what was going on, how you knew Jamie beyond her appearance. x

  • elliecp June 6th, 2013 5:41 PM

    This is both truly beautiful and completely heartbreaking. such a difficult thing to go through, let alone write so well about x

  • Emmie June 6th, 2013 5:48 PM

    If I’d known, I wouldn’t have read this in public. I wish I could sob a little in my room right now! This is absolutely beautiful. The way you describe Jamie really reminds me of one of my friends, so it feels a little closer than usual.
    I’m so sad you lost your friend.

  • KatGirl June 6th, 2013 6:01 PM

    This is amazing, and just what it feels like to lose someone. Bologna!!!! Che bello! <3

  • KatGirl June 6th, 2013 6:03 PM

    I have actually had a similar experience…. and in Italy, too.

  • abby111039 June 6th, 2013 6:05 PM

    How beautiful. I cannot truthfully say I’ve experienced the pain of losing a friend like this, but reading your memories brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Jasmine June 6th, 2013 6:13 PM

    wow, so beautifully written. thank you for sharing x

  • Kourtney June 6th, 2013 6:44 PM

    This was so beautifully written. I felt I was there with you and Jamie during the good times. I felt the nostalgia from the impending summer and the affection between you two. I’m sorry for your loss. I just appreciate you sharing, because it was lovely.

    Rest in peace, Jamie.

  • Elyse June 6th, 2013 10:13 PM

    this is amazingly written…. Jamie was my best friend in High School and I spent hours with her in the hospital during her final two months – I gave one of the eulogies at her memorial… thank you for writing this, sharing it with Judy, Fred and Kari – thank you for portraying her so perfectly.

    }j{ “what would i want with small dreams”

  • eliza dolittle June 7th, 2013 7:52 AM

    my grandmother died from alzheimer’s last night, and i cried a lot while reading this but it was also really cathartic. maybe, when i’m reading, i’ll write something like it. thank you for your beautiful writing <3

    • Rose June 7th, 2013 1:37 PM

      I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother. Sending you and your family big hugs. xo

  • ladyamirno June 7th, 2013 9:46 AM

    This story is beautiful, and I love the way you wrote it.
    It especially resonated with me because I went on a school trip a few weeks ago to Florence, and had an experience there very similar to yours, and the friend I was with was very similar to Jaime, and also has Chrone’s disease, and I am exactly like your narrator. My friend went to the hospital yestetday to get sugery, I really hope she will be fine.

  • EastOfParis June 7th, 2013 11:03 AM

    I really enjoyed this. I have Crohn’s and sometimes it’s the coolest thing to read about someone else experiencing it, especially in an incredible person like Jamie. Thanks for sharing.

  • witheringslytherin June 7th, 2013 9:45 PM

    this is absolutely beautiful

  • Kal June 7th, 2013 10:28 PM

    This piece is so beautiful and completely tearing. The relationship you have with a person when you meet them in a circumstance like your semester abroad is so different from just a normal relationship and you illustrated that vulnerability so perfectly. I love this so much.

    zymurgyprocess.com

  • spudzine June 8th, 2013 8:06 PM

    This was so sad and beautiful. The writing was also fab. The writing reminded me of the writing of John Green, but this was very and obviously unique in its own right. This was truly beautiful. I can’t believe a short story could be so beautifully written. It was short and sweet and poetic. Thank you for contributing this writing to the public.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Epitaph June 9th, 2013 12:09 PM

    This prose is stunningly lyrical, iridescent, descriptive, and lucid. There are countless flavorful adjectives I could use to describe it. It has the feel of The Great Gatsby told from a woman’s perspective. Writers are repeatedly told by teachers to show and not tell and you did exactly that. You transported me on a personal journey that was enthralling and utterly captivating. The story itself is tragic and deeply melancholy, but the craftswomanship is impeccable and marvelous. Please make a novel about your experiences. I would be totally done for proofreading it! – boblegof21@yahoo.com

  • Taylor WM June 10th, 2013 3:48 PM

    This piece has left me very still… not exactly sombre, but just, more thoughtful. It is beautifully written, and I am sorry for the loss of somebody who seemed like such a wonderful person.

  • Nikilodeon July 1st, 2013 8:31 AM

    thank you for sharing your story, rose. i’m tearing up as i write this because jamie reminds me very much of my best friend. recently, something happened between us and i have lost her, too. but it ended badly and i don’t know what to do. i am happy that she is healthy and okay, but i feel sad because i miss her so much. your article was painful to read but also enlightening, because it made me realize that i should just accept and cherish the friendship that we had rather than mourn over what we have lost.

    thank you.

  • TheBlueGardens August 26th, 2013 11:20 AM

    Oh my…so beautiful.

  • Lydia Jane October 3rd, 2013 10:30 PM

    Wow, this is so freaking beautiful. I feel like I’m going to cry now.