Me, Then

Friends break your heart. They move; they grow up; they change, sometimes too much, sometimes not enough; or maybe they're nicer than you, or happier than you, or they're nicer and happier than you; or they're mean to your other friends or they're nicer to your other friends than they are to you; or they lie; they don't write; they write too much; they don't call; they call too much; they grow old; they betray you; they disappear; they die. And you do the same to them.

When something violent happens to a friend, or someone who was once a friend, images from the telling of it stick in your mind. When someone you know is murdered, particularly someone you haven't seen in years, those story-images replace your memories. You picture new scenes: your friend, wearing a gray wig perhaps, like an actor in age make-up, playing in a drama different from any you ever encountered together, completely unlike when you were eighteen and drove to Jersey and met those guys outside the McDonald's on the Boardwalk and talked to them until they said something sexual and the two of you exchanged a look, then bolted. You ran, both of you knowing to do it, without saying a word, and afterwards when you were out of breath and realized those guys had no intention of chasing you or of anything else, you laughed so hard you lay down on the Boardwalk and kept laughing while you watched all those shoes walking by and the clear Jellies of your friend, which must have been hard to run in, standing next to you, while she bent over, laughing too, and trying to catch her own breath. Danger, then, was something you thought you had to invent.

You picture the new scenes, the ones that were in the newspaper or on the news or you heard word-of-mouth from someone else you once knew but hadn't spoken to in what would have been forever if this thing hadn't happened, and you try to make them ridiculous, but still you feel scared. You anticipate. Because though it may seem the worst has happened--someone has been killed--it wasn't the worst. Because it didn't happen to you, or your children, or your husband; it happened to someone you knew once when you were young and she was young, and who you hadn't spoken to in what will now be forever.

With Helen, it was a shot, then a scream. Not the other way around. It's what the neighbor said. What became the mantra to my imagining. A shot then a scream. It required slow motion to see it that way. A bullet swimming through the air like in the movies, everything taking long enough for Helen to know exactly what was coming.

But that story exists in a file in a police station, on a videotape of a news show, in newspapers, and in a magazine. That isn't a story to tell.

Helen was tall. She was thin. She had brown, wavy hair and bangs she, or I, cut every couple of months. She was...

She was what?

Tall, thin, with brown hair, brown bangs, that I cut under the fluorescent lights of the dormitory bathroom, so that wisps of her hair would stick to the sink, which afterwards I would swab down with toilet paper, while she pretended to stab her mirror image, and then mine, with the scissors. She was what?

Tall, thin, with brown wavy hair.

And pale skin.

And long fingers.

Gray eyes.




She had a loud laugh, but a soft voice. She grew larger in smaller spaces. She was chameleon, camouflaged, capable of different colors. In photographs, she was always turning her head so that sometimes she was a profile, sometimes a blur, sometimes more hair than face.

She had gray eyes. And long fingers. And pale skin.

Funny, needy, lonely.

She was a lot like me. Then. Me, then.

We met freshman year during the college's mandatory swim test. We stayed afloat next to each other, dog-paddling and giggling for ten minutes. One guy in our group had jumped in the water and immediately panicked, and Helen and I had been the ones to hoist him out. We had watched as he was escorted back to the locker room by a lifeguard. "Maybe he thought he was like those babies that get tossed in the water and know how to swim," I had said.

"He overlooked the psychological factor of adulthood," Helen said.

"That and the weight."

It became one of our catchphrases. One of those things that sent us into laughter while other people looked on, curious.

We left the swim test together, stopping in the locker room only to pull on shorts over our wet suits. We had walked, without talking, out of the gym, onto the path, taking turn after turn together, until finally she said, "Are you going to Dillon?"

My dorm. "Yes," I said.

"You live in Dillon?" she said, excited.


"Me, too. 414."

"I'm in 514," I said. And then we stopped, looked at each other and laughed. "I must be right above you," I said my voice rising in wonder.

That was why we became friends, I think. Without that coincidence, I doubt we would have seen each other much, sought each other out. I wasn't that kind of person then, one to look for friends in the people I met.

That night, I was on my bed reading, and my roommate was on the phone with her back to me, when there was a loud thump from the other side of the floor. I smiled and thumped back on the floor with my textbook. My roommate turned to me and stared, then turned back and whispered something into the phone. I thumped again, and Helen thumped back.

About the author:

A. Papatya Bucak is an assistant professor for the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. She has published stories and essays in a variety of journals including Brevity, Swivel, and The Fairy Tale Review.