- Tie a yellow ribbon.
- Be on time.
- Set an alarm. Set two.
- Don’t forget your purse.
- Where are those keys?
- It’s heavy whipping cream not half and half.
- She’s had a hard year. Don’t bring up her trip to the U.K.
- Sing from your diaphragm.
- It’s not your fault.
- Don’t forget to breathe. Just breathe.
Josh was a nymph of a human. Sarcastic with a chip on his shoulder the size of Toledo. He sang too loudly, ate too often, spoke his mind. He was my first Valentine. Maybe he gave me my first Valentine. On it, he called me “amiable.” Amiable. I felt affronted, almost offended. I wasn’t interested in him…not that way. Not in college when there were roads less traveled to be uncovered, discovered. He was so tan, almost orange. Clean shaven and that mop of hair? No. No way. But he spoke to me like few could. Broke into my whitewashed walls of secure fake that hid my tattered fears and insecurities. I was consistently annoyed. And then he won me over. His face, ever shifting and showing every thought, “heart on his sleeve,” he’d say. We’d walk to class singing show tunes and back to the cafeteria just to see if anyone was still in there eating. If so, we’d burst through, dueting, much to the chagrin of those left unsettled, unentertained. He liked me despite my flaws, perhaps because of them. He liked that he could see through me. He knew that I was embarrassed to be on “homecoming court” that year. Colleges don’t have those. Or they shouldn’t. I was the last queen our school ever had. Flattered but mortified, churning with a million people-pleasing fears of being disliked despite this odd popularity dance. The truth was, I didn’t much like myself, so how could anybody else? They liked the fake me, the one with a ready smile and fast conversation, the endless dreamy ideas and hopeful space for friendship with all. This was the me I wanted to be. I worked hard at it. Josh saw through it, called it out and laughed. Tormented me with it. He wore me down though, and he taught me to care less about the masses. He’d quote Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella saying “Breathe, just breathe.”
As I walked down the aisle of the school auditorium, in crown and gloves and blue princess gown that my mother made for me, I saw the crowd and froze. Girls and their faces of love and disgust, jealousy and admiration. We are so complex and torn. The canned music from the soundboard stopped too soon and my “prince” whispered “What’s wrong?” Some odd thuds from the left of the stage and suddenly the room was filled with perfect music. The spotlight washed down from the balcony and met Josh who was beaming from the piano, his one place of pure solace. He could play for hours, all from memory. Punk. He knew I’d freeze, and he came prepared. Lilting over the waves of faces in the madding crowds of mean girls, he was playing the tune from the film he quoted. He was playing the Ever After soundtrack just for me. I was suddenly a princess, just then, and somehow ever since. He made me believe in the depths of my core that I was allowed that moment and more. Unashamed, I took my place. Even now, when I am afraid I know to “breathe” like I am waiting for his cue.
We didn’t know then that Josh was going to die. No one could have dreamed that our wild sprite, our Puck, our whining, singing, worst secret-keeping, best friend to all was going to die. It was shocking. A burst appendix and he was gone. It still hurts. Every February for about a week I forget why I am sad, why it throbs like a jab to the ribs. Then I remember. It’s cyclical, this life, isn’t it? We feel and feel again, like aftershocks. A little less every time, still jilting to the system. Josh, my amiable friend, taught me much. His honesty is mine now. He forced me to answer. I’m just okay. Not great, not “fine.” Yesterday I laughed hard over the turkey dinner. My sister and I were making faces. It felt like being back in the cafeteria singing show tunes. It felt like being known, like standing in my blue dress and gloves. Breathe. Just breathe.