I saw you today at the corner market here in our hometown. I stood in line just behind you, but you did not notice me. It’s been more than twenty years, but I recognized you, old friend. Not in a thousand years could I forget the curve of your face, the shape and color of your eyes, the free spirit you once were when we were sixteen and full of wild notions and big ideas, or the hundred or more nights we spent talking about the beyonds we would create, and how we sang along to the radio and sowed the seeds of our blossoming youth.
But the curve of your face is much sharper now. You’re too thin. Your long hair has lost its luster, as have your eyes. I can’t help but notice the scars on your frail arms and the lines that have marred your lovely face. Time has not been kind to you, and you have not been very kind to yourself. You do not smile—your full cherry lips are now sallow and sunken, and I suspect there is no white or happy smile behind them anymore.
You are not far from your last days. I can smell impending death on you already.
You break my heart.
I should have called you. Checked on you. Kept in touch. But life happens to all of us, I suppose. Time turns old friends into familiar strangers, and that’s what we are to each other now. I can’t blame myself for the demise of your free spirit. The dope has chained you down. Turned you into more than a stranger, even to yourself. I can’t help but wonder how you let this happen. And worse, what horrible things have happened to you that convinced you that this was the only choice you had.
But I do not judge you. I don’t look down on your head from some high horse—we all have our own specters that haunt us when no one else is looking. And God Himself knows that this place we call home is not partial to easy roads or downtrodden souls. You are one of many, girl. There are legions of lost friends like you, and countless others that we can only find mention of in their mama’s prayers and in the obituaries on Sunday mornings.
I hear you ask the cashier for cigarettes and scratch offs. I watch as you scurry to collect change from your worn out purse, and the thought crosses my mind to step up and buy them for you, but I know the gesture would only humiliate you. You are proud and intelligent and independent, I remember. I wonder if you would even recognize me at all, or simply take me for one of those familiar strangers that we pass on the street.
I cannot help you. I cannot save you. Only you can do that. But I fear that you are too far gone, as so many others were and are still.
As you turn to leave, our eyes lock at an instant. You are far away, engulfed in some otherwhere place, and I know, beyond the confines of your prison, you know me. For a moment, we are best friends, as we once were, but only for a moment. You still do not smile.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss of innocence and for the beyond you wanted but may never find. I curse the specters that haunt you. But I cannot save you. I want to talk some sense into you. My very insides tell me I should say something to my friend. Say anything.
But I have no words for you. I cannot say what I should. I wish it came that easy. I’d tell you that it is not too late for you to find the free spirit you once were. It is not too late to create your beyond. It’s never too late to come back home.
You do not speak to me. We are, after all, despite those hundred or more nights in our blossoming youth, mere familiar strangers. I watch you get into your car outside, and you turned to see if I was still watching.
I see you, too, yes. Maybe you are not too far gone after all. Perhaps tonight you’ll remember that girl you used to be, when we were sixteen and knew nothing of pills and needles and hopelessness, when all we wanted was to be more than what we were, and we knew nothing but God could keep us from it.
It’s been more than twenty years, but you recognized me, old friend. Not in a thousand years could you forget the curve of my face, the shape and color of my eyes, the free spirit I once was when we were sixteen and full of wild notions and big ideas.
Come back home, girl. Save yourself. Save my friend. We are never too far gone.