Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Suicides - Part II of II

“Uuum – just read on FB that Elizabeth is dead???”

That was the entirety of the text message sent from my not-so-tactful sister at 6:57 PM on Sunday, October 12.

Elizabeth was my best friend in high school. We graduated from Minden High School in 1988.

I sent messages to a few mutual friends, and learned that she’d just committed suicide that day…30 days after marrying a 28-year-old ex-con. It had been her fourth or fifth marriage. All I could think was, shit
On a hot August morning in 1983, my mother unceremoniously delivered me to Webster Junior High School in Minden, Louisiana for the very first time. Having dropped off my siblings at their respective new schools, she drove our green 1973 Ford Grand Torino station wagon into the parking lot and mumbled “have a good day” as she puffed her cigarette and blew smoke out the window. I fumbled out of the car as she looked away, her parental duties fulfilled until 3PM when we arrived home on the school bus.

I grew up in rural Joyce, Louisiana where my awesome hunting, fishing and arm-wrestling skills made me one of the most popular girls in school. As I stood under the old aluminum canopy in this new parking lot, I realized that the girls in Minden were definitely not like the girls in Winn Parish. They wore hair bows and fingernail polish. I sported a cropped haircut, no makeup, and cheap but well-worn tennis shoes. It was 8th grade, and I was the new kid in a small town junior high school. This was not going to be fun.

I stumbled around campus until I heard voices coming from the track and field bleachers. There, sitting on that tiered metaphor for pre-teen popularity, were a bunch of kids I did not know. I didn’t know the school building. I didn’t know the schedule. I didn’t know any teachers. And I definitely DID NOT look like these girls.

Elizabeth spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you come sit with us?” I joined a group of overly-thin, studious-looking girls who sat, appropriately, halfway up the bleachers. “Who are you?” they asked.
I mumbled, “Debbie. I’m new.”

They sized me up, and continued the conversation they had started earlier. I sat there, quietly listening, trying to look interested, and wishing for this day to end. Fast.

Now Elizabeth is dead. That day on the bleachers in 1983 plays in my mind like a VHS tape of E.T. There is lots of static, and the VCR has a tricky rewind button.

Elizabeth’s dad was an American History teacher at Minden High School – a clear kiss of death for any junior high student. But she got my nerdiness, and I got hers. She made straight A’s, and she didn’t have boobs yet. Her parents were super-religious and didn’t allow her to wear make-up. We were practically twins. But she was confident. She was the epicenter of the school’s pre-pubescent geek gang. Any promise of long-term, school-wide popularity with this clique was non-existent but, at that point, I just didn’t want to stand out as the new, backwoods country kid with the butch haircut, flannel shirt, and cleats. I stuck with Elizabeth and her friends, and they tolerated me as long as I didn’t say too much.

Fast forward to 1988. Elizabeth and I were seniors. We were soul-sisters. We were inseparable. Her parents adored me, and provided a safe refuge from my Dickensian home life. Elizabeth found an out-of-town guy who was nice enough to take me to the prom. Her mom made my dress because my parents were too poor to buy one. We both had to be home at 10:30 PM.

After graduation, she and I went parking with some good ol’ Minden boys. It was horrible. She was in love with her date; I barely knew his friend, who slobbered when he spoke and told me he loved me 15 minutes after we pulled into the woods. It was one of the longest, most miserable nights of my young life.

Around 1990, Elizabeth married her date from that night. I was a bridesmaid, and gladly wore the most ghastly pale blue, puffy-sleeved bridesmaid’s dress for my dear friend. As a good Sibley Missionary Baptist Church girl, she had “saved herself” for marriage. She called me after the honeymoon to say that her new husband had laughed at the way she walked after they had sex. Of course he was a crude backwoods ass, and I’d always hated him for that. I should have punched him in the face when I had the chance at prom. But Elizabeth was determined to marry him. Her taste in unruly, ill-behaved men never left her.

Two husbands and two kids later, Elizabeth was having a hot affair with the accounting guy at the Shreveport law firm where she worked as a bookkeeper. Her husband at the time (#2, if I remember correctly) was a saint. She was also sleeping with some guy we went to school with; he managed the local video rental store there in Minden. She and I would have lunch, and I’d listen to her escapades.

“Your husband is an angel,” I’d tell her.

“He’s boring,” she’d reply.

In her mind, her obligatory Sunday-morning church habit absolved her compulsive sex binges. I gave her an ultimatum tinged with judgment: quit destroying your family, or forfeit our friendship.

Of course, she chose the guy in accounting over her husband, so I walked away. I mean, I’d been no saint. Who was I to judge her? But nevertheless I walked away from her. She needed help, and I didn’t possess the tools to help her. I was trapped in a miserable marriage myself – I was a young woman from a horrible family trying to navigate the complexities of a marriage. Elizabeth would be fine. She didn’t need me. Elizabeth always bounced back.

Except when she didn’t.

Around 2005, Facebook happened and Elizabeth and I became “friends” again. Not REAL friends, but whatever you call reconnecting online with a person you don’t know anymore, but share a common, ancient history. First thing I noticed: her hair was exactly the same as it was in high school. We were 40 years old, and she still had 1980’s Square Pegs bangs. Geez, I thought, how pitiful. And she’d never left Minden. From what I could tell, she was still working as a bookkeeper somewhere, still living in a trailer, and she was a grandmother.

Wow. Glad I got out of that godforsaken town, I thought to myself. That could have been me. Poor Elizabeth.

I sent her a message, suggesting we get together for margaritas or dinner or something. She confessed that she was now “a drunk” and couldn’t possibly accommodate my request. I replied, “Ok,” and referred her to a great therapist I knew. She never responded.

Every six months or so, I’d think about Elizabeth and check her Facebook page to see what was going on in her life. She loved her grandchildren, she loved or hated her job depending on the day, she posted glowing selfies while driving her car, and she REALLY loved Jesus. She had also fallen madly in love with a 28-year-old musician who was about to be released from jail. I had no response to her posts. I couldn’t relate to her life. She never reached out to me, and I quit reaching out to her after the rejected therapist recommendation.

It seemed as though the 17-year-old girl I had known just never grew up. 25 years later, she lived in the same town, went to the same church, had the same kind of job, still obsessed over boys, and still hairsprayed the hell out of her curly bangs. I couldn’t stomach it, but I also couldn’t reach her.

Several years passed, and I got the text: “Uuum – just read on FB that Elizabeth is dead???”

Her funeral was at the same funeral home where we’d held my dad’s visitation 4 ½ months earlier. He committed suicide too. Like Elizabeth, he never left Minden, never left his old church, and never accepted help from people who loved him.

“Brother Jeff” of the Sibley Missionary Baptist Church preached Elizabeth’s funeral. I sat there, elbow propped on the arm of the pew, remembering how this guy had warned me that John Lennon was the devil and that rock music was a tool of Satan. He had called me out to the congregation during a long prayer session, admonishing me to bow my head out of respect and stop looking around the sanctuary like a heathen. And here he was, preaching over the dead body of a woman he’d “saved” 30 years earlier. That piece of shit preacher….I wanted to walk out, but was content to serve as a witness to the small-minded religiosity in the room – the same mentality that had convinced Elizabeth to self-loathe her own sexual being, and spend her short life trying to make-over men who only wanted to fuck her.

I anticipated the snake-handling to commence at any minute.

I felt superior to everyone in that room in that moment. I’d gotten out. I’d educated myself. I was fucking ALIVE! I could have easily been the woman in that coffin, but I wasn’t. Poor Elizabeth – if only she’d moved away and found herself – her true self. Damn her for not trying.

A few girlfriends from our high school visited in the funeral home parking lot after her service. Of course, they all still lived in Minden. That’s when I realized I’d probably never think of Elizabeth again. She represented the person I could have become had I not listened to wise people and learned from life’s hard lessons. I couldn’t bear to imagine the agony she must have suffered, knowing that there is a whole world out there, but she chose to be trapped by her own poorly-informed choices.

Before the funeral, her mother confessed to one of her friends that “all Elizabeth ever wanted was a man to love her, and no one ever did.”

That is Elizabeth’s sad legacy.

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