by M. M. Adjarian
I met Jessica the spring of my junior year in high school. It was lunchtime, and we were sitting in the room of a history teacher we had in common at different times of the day. I’d seen Jessica in the halls around Samohi, but I’d never really gotten to know her.
All that changed as soon as she stood up to go.
“Where did you get that?”
My eyes had locked onto her skirt. Made from a lengthwise arrangement of striped, unicolor, paisley and polka-dotted material, it was the most marvelous piece of clothing I had ever seen. She smoothed the skirt against her broad hips.
“I bought it for a couple of dollars at a thrift shop,” Jessica said. “Someone made this entirely out of men’s silk ties.”
Suddenly my own lust for designer labels embarrassed me. The small monthly allowance my father gave me, along with the savings I had from my summer cashiering job at McDonald’s, always seemed to find their way into anything I could get on sale by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Jordache.
The bell rang.
“Llamamos más tarde, OK?” she said. Before I could respond, Jessica blew me a kiss and hurried off to her next class.
Our exchange had lasted less than five minutes, but I was mesmerized. The next day, I went back to Miss Hadlock’s room at lunch to look for her. Sure enough, there was Jessica. This time she was wearing a wide-brimmed black hat trimmed with a blowsy pink rose.
“Very Janis Joplin, no?” She pulled the sides of the hat down around her ears and grinned.
“Oh, yes!” I had no idea what Janis Joplin looked like.
“We were in jazz exercise class together last year,” she said as we unpacked our sandwiches and began to eat. “You were just so brave to do those solo dance routines in front of everyone!”
I smiled and nodded as Jessica talked, trying to cover for the fact I couldn’t place her face. Then the image of a slightly overweight girl in a magenta leotard popped into my head.
“You used to wear tights with a flower patch on one thigh, right?”
Jessica began to reapply the lipstick she’d not bothered to take off before eating, a gesture I found oddly mature. Her lips newly refreshed, she smiled.
My new friend had not seemed nearly as self-assured then as she was now. The only person I ever remembered her talking to was another girl with a body as soft and round as her own. Shorthaired and shy, I had kept to myself.
She scribbled her telephone number on a piece of paper, which she put on my desk. “Call me,” Jessica said as she got up to leave.
Overjoyed, I telephoned her that evening. Afterwards it became routine for us to spend five or six hours several nights a week tying up the lines between my house in Malibu and hers in Santa Monica. We talked about everything: our hopes and crushes, the lives we’d had before we met each other, the endless grievances we had against our parents.
Adults—and in particular, our mothers—were especially incomprehensible. I told her that I couldn’t understand why my mother couldn’t seem to trust me to look after myself. And Jessica told me that she couldn’t understand why her beautiful, half-Mexican mother couldn’t seem to stay with one man.
“She divorced my dad when I was still a kid then married a guy from Israel and converted to Judaism. That didn’t go down too well with her Catholic family.” Giggling, she added, “She’s on her third husband now.”
“My mom’s only ever married once—that was enough for her,” I said. “Any siblings?”
“I’ve got two younger brothers. They’re in Israel with their dad.”
“Are you in touch with them?”
“No.” Jessica paused. “My step-dad went to court to have my mom declared an unfit parent. She’d been diagnosed manic-depressive, so he used that against her.”
“They’re boys who can serve in the Israeli army when they grow up,” Jessica said bitterly. “That’s why.”
Daughters of divorced mothers, we were sister outsiders. But among the things that made us different was our attitude toward having families of our own.
“I dreamed that I was giving live birth,” she told me during another of our marathon telephone conversations. “It was amazing.”
“That’s um . . . that’s great!” I said, grateful that she couldn’t see my face.
Jessica was obsessed with becoming a mother—with or without a husband. But I was wracked with conflicts about the whole thing. What if my children grew up to hate me the way I hated the mother who made going out with a boy even once seem like the inevitable prelude to pregnancy?
“A baby will change your life forever,” she would tell me. “Forever. Remember that.”
As it turned out, my mother would never get a chance to talk to Jessica or even meet her; still, she seemed to like that her loner of a daughter had finally found a friend. But there was one thing she couldn’t understand about our relationship. And that was the almost obsessive need we had to talk to each other as often as we did.
“But you see her every day in school!” she would complain.
Exasperated, my mother finally took away my phone privileges as punishment. This did nothing to stop me. Knowing that the father I rarely saw had a telephone of his own, I slipped into his bookbinding workshop and jabbered with Jessica from there. My friend had thrown me a lifeline, and I wasn’t about to let go of it.
We didn’t see each other outside of school until that summer. I wanted to visit Jessica, but my mother wanted me to stay close to home when I wasn’t in class. So volunteer work at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica became my summer escape route out of Malibu.
“I’ve got to show at least some extra-curriculars for college, Mom!” I said, adamant for this one concession.
Running errands for nurses and delivering flowers to sick people and old ladies in wheelchairs didn’t exactly spell freedom to a teenager dying to escape an overprotective mother. But it was better than nothing.
The first time I visited Jessica was after I’d finished my shift at St. John’s. When Jessica met me at the door of the modest one-story mid-town house where she lived, I was in my candy striper uniform: a light blue calf-length cotton dress, white shirt and shoes.
“Your outfit is just so cute!” Jessica exclaimed.
I laughed. Wearing it made me feel like a nun.
She took me to her room, which looked out onto a small front yard. “This,” she said with an expansive sweep of her arms, “is where I live.”
An enormous bed covered in satin rose-colored pillows dominated the room. Costume jewelry, feather boas and gloves dripped from an old white dresser while vintage shoes, hats and dresses overran a small closet. Advertisements for old Hollywood movies plastered her walls, while a poster of wistful-looking Marilyn Monroe presided over everything like some soft, sweet genius of place.
I thought about my own room at home. Half of my closet belonged to my mother, who had stuffed her side with clothes and shoes she never wore. Years of exposure to the California sun had caused the draperies and the paint to fade, while shelves and furniture accumulated dust faster than I could clean it off. There was no comparison: Jessica’s room was a magic kingdom where anything was possible.
Miraculously, but more likely because she had interrogated Jessica’s mother over the phone and deemed her trustworthy, my mother let me sleep over at Jessica’s once in a while. The first time I did, it was after a night out at the Nuart Cinema in Los Angeles. The pink, white and red art deco marquee, vintage movie posters, low lights and worn crushed velvet seats screamed bohemian, just like Jessica’s room. It felt like I was walking on the wild side—really living for once—and I loved it.
That night we saw a Franco Zefirelli double feature. Jessica gushed over the love scenes in Romeo and Juliet and hummed the theme song from Brother Sun, Sister Moon in her low, sweet voice all evening long. I was just glad for Jessica’s company and for the colorful break the movies had provided from the gray-toned fare I got on our black-and-white TV at home.
“Zefirelli was an Italian hippie,” my friend declared on the bus back to her house. “All that nudity and all that flesh—how could he not have been one?”
I took her word for it. If anyone would know these things, it was Jessica, who listened exclusively to oldies stations and swore eternal allegiance to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Supremes and Janis Joplin. What gave her special authority was the fact that two teenagers looking for liberation from their too-square middle-class upbringing had conceived her in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
“My parents and I used to take showers together,” she told me once. “They didn’t want me to grow up ever feeling ashamed of naked bodies.”
Inspired by my friend’s free-spirited ways, I rummaged through my older brother’s closet and found two pairs of checkered pants and an old Boy Scout shirt. The real prize, though, was a black wool suit jacket he had inherited from my father and worn for his high school graduation picture a decade before. I crowned my finds with a newsboy cap that looked like one I’d seen Jodi Foster wear. It wasn’t Calvin Klein, but labels no longer seemed to matter the way they once did.
Then I asked my mother for her castoffs. Her gifts to me were a thirty year-old orange floral bouffant dress from Lord & Taylor—“for parties,” she said—and a ten-year-old suede mini skirt she’d bought in Beverly Hills.
“Fantastic!” said Jessica when she saw me in my new outfits.
My classmates, on the other hand, rolled their eyes at the anarchy that now dominated my taste in clothes. In less than one semester, I’d gone from a girl who wouldn’t be caught dead in last year’s fashions to a vintage store vagabond in dime store lipstick.
Jessica wasn’t just my style guru. She was also my connection to the social life I was missing thanks to my mother. In late spring, she gave my telephone number to a boy named James who would become the object of a minor infatuation.
“You’ll love him,” she said. “He has the cutest Beatle cut.”
The truth was, he had been calling her and she had not wanted to encourage him further. Passing her admirer on to me gave Jessica an excuse to dispense with his attention without seeming heartless.
I would see James exactly twice. The first time was at a Westwood movie theater where he and I—and at my invitation, Jessica’s friend Shanna—had gone to see E.T. The meeting had been a disaster; I spent the whole time talking to Shanna and completely ignoring James.
Undaunted, he called me afterwards and pressed me to get together again. This time I pulled both Shanna and Jessica into the act. James in turn invited two friends up from San Diego. “We’ll make an evening of it,” he said. Before I knew it, I had talked myself into a triple date.
James didn’t know that seeing boys alone after dark was something my mother had forbidden me to do. Or that I didn’t know what to make of my own confused feelings for him. But hanging around Jessica had emboldened me to try new things, like telling half-truths to my mother to gain a few hours of freedom.
“Jessica’s invited me to spend the night at her house,” I told her. “Some other friends of hers are coming over, too.”
“And Jessica’s mother will be there?”
Of course, the six of us had other plans. We drove around Santa Monica packed into a tiny car where the only place to sit was on someone’s lap. After a pizza dinner in Venice, we headed to the beach, where we chased each other in the surf by the light of a full moon. Then we went back to Jessica’s house where we sent all three boys back home.
“The night’s only started,” they protested in bewilderment.
We laughed, but not for long. As soon as the boys left, Annalisa took her daughter to task.
Looking hard at Jessica, she said, “Maude’s mother called while you were away.”
We held our breath.
“She seemed like such a nice lady. I didn’t like having to say that you were here when you weren’t. What if she’d ask me to get her on the phone?”
Jessica had no answer for the woman she assured me would be our willing accomplice. Huffing in annoyance, Annalisa stalked out the room and went to bed.
Sighing with relief, we changed into our nightgowns, talking in hushed but excited voices about James, his friends and especially the boy who kept pulling random tarot cards from his coat pocket.
“He said he was reading the energy around us,” Shanna said.
Jessica and I giggled.
“What did you think of him—I mean, James?” I asked suddenly. “Do you think he likes me? I mean he just acts so weird whenever we hang out.”
Boys were still unknown quantities to us. Jessica knew slightly more about them than Shanna and I did, but not by much. That spring, she had gone out with a 21-year-old community college dropout named Edward who worked at the local grocery store. Jessica had insisted that they wear wedding bands that had belonged to her mother, and when she broke up with him a month or two later, Edward surrendered his ring in tears.
As if to celebrate our imagined power as girls, the three of us tiptoed into Jessica’s small backyard, stifling the laughter that convulsed our bodies. Save for the gentle chirping of crickets, the nighttime world around us was silent. I took off a necklace I’d made by attaching a small round crystal to a black satin cord and held it high above my head.
“Great moon,” I intoned in mock invocation, “we gather under your light and praise you!”
Jessica began to sing.
“Brother sun and sister moon/I now do see you, I can hear your tune…”
Shanna remained silent. Then, like a pale, emaciated gazelle, she began leaping through the air around us. For a moment, we were safe in the fragile embrace of our own innocence.
Everything was fun around Jessica until it wasn’t. My first inkling of this came after Jessica broke up with her bagger boy.
“He came over and just as I was sitting down to paint my fingernails,” she said one day as we talked on the phone. “I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore.” She paused. “Do you think that was too insensitive?”
Choosing my words carefully, I said, “I doubt there’s ever a good time to tell someone you don’t want to see them.”
“I couldn’t help it. He was really sweet, but kind of boring too.”
I felt the panic begin to rise. If Jessica could do this to someone she was dating, she could do it to me. Overwhelmed, I pushed the thought away. Edward was just a boy. I was like a sister; she would never cast me aside.
Or so I thought.
Not long after we started twelfth grade that fall, Jessica began to change. She became more involved with the theater arts crowd. Unexpected casting as the lead female actress in Antigone got her more attention than she’d ever had before. I watched in desolation as our marathon telephone calls gradually dwindled to nothing.
Upset, I mailed her a letter. You just keep on collecting friends like charms on a bracelet. And then you just keep collecting, even when there’s no more room on the bracelet, I wrote.
Not long afterwards, she passed me a note in English class. You’re right, Jessica confessed. And most of the people I hang around with are also self-deceivers, too. But some of them also have cars.
It would be the most honest thing she would ever say to me.
At the same time, I also saw my mother grow increasingly distraught over the failure of a home yarn-importing business that she had started when I was ten. After years of barely breaking even, her business went under at about the time Jessica and I became friends.
“Now I have nothing,” she lamented.
Convinced she was headed for bankruptcy, she had begun to wear my old clothes to save money. I knew my mother was sad; but so was I. By that point, all I cared about was getting to Berkeley, where Jessica and I had both been accepted.
In the meantime, I sought my own forms of escape. When I wasn’t in school or holed up in my room studying, I was on the bus to Santa Monica to haunt the pier and Venice Boardwalk. When I couldn’t get away from home, I turned to alcohol to do the job for me. It began with the wine I drank with dinner. I stopped diluting it with water and began drinking it straight, and not just with meals. Then one night after mother had gone to sleep, I decided to sample everything in the kitchen that had any alcohol in it.
The wine warmed my chest, but the rum my mother used only for baking burned my throat. I coughed and choked; still, I kept drinking. Soon everything seemed extraordinarily funny. Barefoot and wearing only a light cotton nightshirt, I wandered outside into the night, zigzagging around the yard, feeling lighter than air.
When I came back inside and went into my room, I was overcome with the urge to look at my senior portrait. The day the photograph was taken, a small acne breakout had appeared on my chin. But the studio had retouched the image. The face that looked back at me was all smoothness and smiles.
“The all-American lie,” I muttered to myself. Tears trickled down my face. I tossed the image aside and stumbled into bed.
When I woke up the next morning, my head was pounding and the bedclothes were covered in vomit. My mother found me retching into the main bathroom toilet.
“Do you have a fever?” she asked me, putting a hand on my forehead.
For the rest of that day, she tended to me as though I were a sick child. Was she blind to what I had done? Or was she in denial that the daughter she monitored so closely had gotten drunk right under her nose?
In the meantime, the friendship I had with Jessica continued to deteriorate throughout my senior year. One day in early spring, she came into the English class where we saw each other every day with a long scarf tied around her head. She was in mourning.
“My mother made me cut my hair,” she said. The brown cascade that had been the source of such pride had now been cut into stylish layers that Jessica hated. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“She called me obese and said I embarrassed her. Can you imagine that? And she swore to me that she would come down on me with all her Nazi strength if I didn’t start trying to lose weight.”
She laughed. But I knew better. Like me, Jessica lived in the shadow of a parent who wanted her to be someone she wasn’t. And it hurt. The fragile world of art and make-believe she had built around herself was as much under siege as mine was.
Lost as I was in the ongoing drama with my own mother, it was impossible for me to stay objective. All I could see was someone pulling away from me and going where her ability to charm and amuse made her popular. I confided my fears to Shanna, who had been Jessica’s best friend since childhood.
“She’s like that,” Shanna said. “But she’ll come back. You’ll see.”
I wanted to believe her. When Shanna had gone to the hospital to be treated for anorexia, flighty Jessica had returned long enough to hold her hand and help her learn to eat again. Shanna’s faith seemed unshakeable. But mine had begun to collapse under the weight of a betrayal I couldn’t forgive.
As Shanna predicted, Jessica did come back. But by the time she did, it was too late. It was late August of our first year at Berkeley. I was walking down Dwight Way a few blocks off campus when I saw her. She looked me up and down.
“You haven’t changed! And I just love your clothes,” she said, looking at the gauzy India print skirt and dancer’s leggings I was wearing.
She spoke with a nervous volubility I’d never heard before, and an almost manic restlessness seemed to pulse through her body. The self-forgetting whirl and spin of college was drawing her in, and I wasn’t about to follow. Not again. Not ever. We promised to stay in touch and hurried along our separate ways.
Later that fall, I saw her again. It was the afternoon, and I was making my way to toward Sather Gate from Lower Sproul Plaza. She was standing before the Student Union Art Studio, chatting to someone, when she caught sight of me.
“Maude! Maude!” She waved at me theatrically.
I wanted to step out of the flow of students and throw my arms around her. Instead I moved steadily onward.
In a voice loud enough for me to hear, she said, “That was my friend.”
Her sadness was as exaggerated as the persona she projected to the world. But that didn’t stop my heart from seizing all the way to class.
It would be my senior year before I found out what had happened to Jessica during her time at Berkeley. A mutual friend accidentally mentioned he had lived with her in the same housing co-op before moving to where I lived at Cloyne Court.
“Remember Jessica from Samohi?” said Dan. “She left to have a baby. The father’s crazy, but she decided to keep the kid anyway.”
Oh, Jessica, I thought. You really did it, didn’t you?
She’d gotten exactly what she wanted. But so had I. Not only had Jessica opened me up to possibilities I never knew existed: she had also shown me a path to freedom.
M. M. Adjarian is a writer and professor. She has published creative work in The Provo Canyon Review, The Milo Review, From the Depths and The Baltimore Review. Her articles and reviews have also appeared in Arts+Culture Texas, Bitch Magazine, Kirkus, and the Dallas Voice, as well as in several academic journals and compendiums. Currently, she is working on a family memoir titled The Beautiful Dreamers. She lives in Austin.