What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s anger surfaced on her skin just like her frecklesslapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks around the neighborhood without her usual thick ’80s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. And Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy once teased me in front of her about being her boyfriend. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree and asked “Why? You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

It helped that her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever my mom opened the drapes. But I didn’t need a reminder to visit her because I helped her with chores after school every day. I never knocked; Lisa said anyone willing to help clean her house was welcome. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms while blaring MTV.

Lisa wasn’t always angry and swearing, though. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the closet, will ya?” One time when I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed a finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “Are you kidding? It looks just like him!” Then she dipped him in a bucket and sang over the sound of dripping water: Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry? On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late at the cable company, Lisa liked to take shots of Southern Comfort. She always offered me some and I always politely abstained, then lectured her on the perils of teen drinking. My words never stopped her, though. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.

 

One morning before school around Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs opened the van’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway I watched as the orange leaves settled back down on my quiet street. I didn’t see Lisa that day or the next. The rumor around school was that her mom had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited exactly a week to climb the steps to Lisa’s front porch. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and several cans of Aqua Net hair spray and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa was sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want help with the bathroom?”

“No,” she huffed. The red in her eyes matched the red in her hair, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?”

I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test. Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallways sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A private message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

—Does he treat you well? she typed.

He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

—Good. That’s all that matters. 

The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray and she unfriended me the next day.

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21 thoughts on “What Matters

  1. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. I heard you read this from this evening’s stage at #blogher16 and came here to read through it with my own eyes. Congratulations on the VOTY recognition— really well deserved.

  2. I felt like I was on the edge of my seat while I read this. Friendships do come and go, but memories live on forever. This was a pleasurable reading experience!

  3. i love the details you wove into this… your teen memories and the moments you had seen and spent with her; how you describe the pivotal life events that changed her life and yours; and how that has led you to where you both are now. eloquently written.

  4. Just read this, and now I have questions. Need to work on my timing.

    Meanwhile, your prose is lovely–a fitting tribute to a friendship. We all have a friendship or two in our past that fizzled, though perhaps not under such sad circumstances. I think they lurk in our memories, leaving us always to wonder “what if” and “what’s he up to now?” It’s nice that you connected again.

  5. You make the everyday take on another level of intensity This was a thriller, an adventure, a kind of romance and a tragedy. A slice of your life shining with colour and “I’m right there” – amazing.

  6. I love stories about the strange, but perfect friendships that are here one day, and without warning, gone the next; how the memories linger for the rest of our lives. I enjoyed this a lot!

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