*Names changed to protect confidentiality
You can tell that it’s winter from a glance at the people on Bay Area Rapid Transport today. In the seat to my right, a woman in a red pea coat holds a black purse like it’s her child.
Across from me, a furry-jacketed teenage girl alternates between her school report and Tinder swiping. Next to her, an antsy hipster leans forward like he’s ready to spring up at any moment, channeling simultaneous apathy and intensity.
My focus is on the other side of the train though, where a woman stands by the door next to her purple bike.
It’s a bike I know. The distinct scratch on its front rims gives it away. As my eyes trace its contours, it’s unmistakable.
I’d ridden next to it countless times. And the woman standing next to it — I know her as well. Or did, years before. She wears a magenta-colored sweater, her green eyes shining beneath brown-red bangs.
Eight years had passed since I’d last seen Sarah. Her final words to me before I’d embarked on a year-long move to South America had been, “If life ever gets too rough down there, know you’ll always have friends waiting for you when you come back.”
A few months later, she disappeared from the lives of everyone who’d once known her.
Memories resurface as a nonlinear tangle of images. Individual moments, all bound together into one.
The year was 2008, and we were freshmen in college.
I noticed her from across the cafeteria one day — the girl seated alone, hacking away at a plate of eggs. She lived in the same hall as me, three doors down. Earlier in the year we’d gone to parties with our floor-mates; had walked down frat row in tank tops and shorts on warm September nights; had played beer pong in the backyards of frat houses, all while basking in the exhilaration of our newfound freedom.
We’d never hung out one-on-one though. At least not until now.
“Okay if I sit here?” I asked, after approaching her table.
Sarah looked up from her plate — recognized me, then smiled.
“Please!” she responded welcomingly.
“I love a mid-day omelet,” I commented as I sat down.
“Oh, I could eat these any time of day,” she replied, forking another bite into her mouth.
We discovered we were in the same sociology class — a lively course taught by a quirky professor who organized creative and engaging activities. Ones like spending twenty minutes with a tree, then journaling about the experience.
I found out that like me, Sarah also had family back in the Bay Area (not uncommon for Davis folks, with only a one-to-two-hour drive separating the two areas).
We spent more time together from then on. Over the summer, we met each other’s parents; brought sushi takeout to the local picnic spots; saw Green Day in concert, after Sharpee-ing their song lyrics onto white tank tops.
By sophomore year, our friend groups had merged. Junior year, we lived in the same house with four other girl friends.
I found myself appreciating how adventurous and open-minded Sarah was. She seemed always down for anything and everything: strenuous hikes to the top of a steep hill overlooking Lake Berryessa; days spent reading on hay bales and petting baby farm animals; a spontaneous mid-day feast at an off-the-highway-Indian buffet in the neighboring farm town of Dixon.
I loved how she overflowed with passion and enthusiasm so much of the time. Our shared zeal extended to food. We partook in feasts often — from sushi buffets to heaping burgers to frozen yogurt overflowing with a menagerie of colorful toppings. Both of us enjoyed studying in cafes, apt environments as they were for ruminators (which Sarah and I both were).
When in her presence, it felt so easy to empty my brain of all the random thoughts that scurried through — both the trivial and more existential. Whether that was sprawled across either of our bedroom floors or bundled in sweaters eating oatmeal in my car some nights (Davis winters are cold, and it was the only place with heating).
Like I did too at times (depending on who was around), Sarah often concealed her pain. It betrayed itself in the distant looks, or the occasional silences at the breakfast table when others were laughing; in the extra shot of vodka she’d pour; or in the prolonged time spent outside the house, in attempt to reclaim some shreds of what the latest guy who’d hurt her had run off with.
“I feel like I wasted a lot of time last year on people who didn’t care about me,” I remember her saying to me one night. “But I’m just really grateful to have you in my life.”
After we graduated, half of our friend group stayed in Davis. The other half moved to the Bay Area — some back in with our parents, others to places of their own. No longer conveniently located in the same house or even town, our friendships underwent an adjustment.
I began noticing one of the downsides to this free-spirited, adventurous quality I’d admired about Sarah. It became harder to make plans with her; she’d cancel at the last minute quite often. When we did hang out, her mind often seemed far off.
This friendship is feeling disconnected, I thought when driving home after hanging out one day. It was the first time my mind had found words for what I’d been feeling. Verbalizing it brought some guilt, but mostly sadness — as I could feel the loss of something beginning to set in. The loss was of our friendship as I’d once known it, accompanied by the recognition that it just didn’t fit seamlessly into either of our post-college lives.
Still, we continued plugging along. She began dating her coworker, and they soon became official (marking her first committed relationship). I made plans to move to South America to teach English for a year.
I remember that crisp winter day — the last time I saw Sarah, a few days before leaving for Uruguay — so clearly. Outside a cafe in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, I waited for her to BART in from San Francisco. The sun hung low in the sky. The trees had shaken off the majority of their leaves, leaving bare branches and sidewalks caked with the colors of fall.
BART rode past in the perimeter of my eyesight, depositing old passengers and scooping up new ones as I sipped from my ceramic coffee mug. “1/3/13” read the date at the top right corner of Page One of what was to be my travel journal.
Looking up from it, I saw Sarah’s train had arrived. That she was running across the street to meet me. Once she made it over, we hugged.
She ordered her drink, then updated me on her job, her family, and Darren, her co-worker turned boyfriend. The ease with which we conversed and laughed bore traces of old times.
When she apologized at one point — for spilling a drop of coffee onto my black flip-flop — it reminded me of the time she’d accidentally dropped a duck during our annual October trip to Davis’ pumpkin patch petting zoo. After landing in a feathered heap on the hay-covered ground, the creature let loose a barrage of startled and accusatory quacks. That she apologized to it didn’t surprise me. Sheepish, endearingly clumsy, and perpetually apologetic, Sarah dropped “I’m sorry” about as often as she did belongings and baby animals.
“I’ll miss you!” she said as we hugged goodbye. Gesturing to my notebook: “Fill that up while you’re gone!”
She then handed me a postcard she’d written me — the one that said, “You’ll always have friends waiting for you when you come back.”
I re-read it on the plane, and the words brought solace.
That year I learned to sand-board. I swam often in the Rio de la Plata. I taught English to students ranging from kid brothers at their home on a dusty cul-de-sac to businesswomen at their offices to an 80-year-old erudite señor who resided within a castle-like abode in one of Montevideo’s richest coastal neighborhoods.
I directed Yoga en Espanol groups at the local river beach, and dated a Uruguayan girl — with whom I spent Christmas at her family’s home in the countryside.
Even amidst all the adventures and novelty, I missed the womb-like comfort that my college town utopia had provided. I missed my and Sarah’s adventures. I longed for the feelings of familiarity and seamless interconnectedness, not just with her but everyone in that community (of which she was an integral part).
She and I would exchange messages from time to time. Other friends also checked in. They said they’d been spending time with Sarah and Darren, and that some of Darren’s behaviors had made them uncomfortable.
They’d notice how Sarah would tense up after receiving a text from him. They’d notice how quickly he seemed to turn jealous any time she so much as mentioned another guy in the most benign of contexts.
At the end of August 2013, Sarah sent me the following message:
I’m sorry I can’t write a longer post…I’m about to head to work. First of all, I want to apologize for being so elusive lately. I’ve felt really guilty for being such a bad friend towards those far away lately.
The last three months have been relatively consistent for me, work, job hunting, still with Darren. I’ll tell you more when I talk to you on Skype.
Love you and miss you.
A few days later, she de-activated her Facebook. I thought little of it, reasoning that she was probably trying to focus on nursing school without the distraction of social media, and that we’d re-connect once I’d returned home.
I didn’t realize this would be the last I’d ever hear from her.
A week or two after returning home from Uruguay in March of 2014, I messaged Sarah.
“Missed you so much! How are you doing?” I wrote.
Crickets greeted me in response.
It took me by surprise. Though I hadn’t necessarily envisioned the two of us becoming besties again, I also never imagined that she’d cut off contact entirely, and without any explanation.
I talked to other friends, many of whom hadn’t had any communication with Sarah either.
“I’ve reached out several times but got nothing,” said her friend from elementary school.
“She replied to one of my texts, but that was over a month ago,” shared another.
Four years after her initial disappearance, nearly every person who’d once been a part of Sarah’s life — friends from middle school, co-workers, even people with whom she’d never had outward conflict — had stopped hearing from her. Her complete and utter withdrawal from everyone she’d once known seemed to have been undiscriminating.
At first I was in denial. The Sarah I knew wouldn’t ghost a friend — especially not one to whom she’d confessed a deep fear of being discarded. From our many conversations, I knew that loss in itself was painful to her, but even more so the sudden, senseless, and inexplicable variety.
She knew I felt the same way about it. That I too felt unsettled and at time even hopeless at the realization that you can let people into your life and share so many moments, and the next day they can just be…gone.
I did think about how Sarah was often spread so thin. Constantly saying yes to things. How whenever she accepted a social invitation, her eyes would grow to the size of tennis balls. They’d glow with light. It was like you’d just invited her on an all-expense paid trip to Europe (“Can we go?” she’d exclaim).
She was a friend of constant emphatic “yes’s, the consistency and enthusiasm of which made the discomfort with saying no that rode just beneath them harder to spot.
The eager-to-please Sarah who lives on in my memory never wanted to let anyone down. She hated to disappoint. And with time it seems understandable, or only natural, that the person who lets in everything will at some point begin to feel depleted. Maybe Sarah felt the overwhelm for a while before deciding she didn’t want to hold it anymore. Part of that decision involved shutting everything and everyone out.
Narrow the focus. Switch off the static. Vacuum out the fluff.
Maybe disappearing from everyone’s lives was her way of re-gaining control over her own — the polar opposite approach to before.
Maybe it was her way of putting herself first. A radical act of self-prioritization. Or the decision she felt she had to make to be happy and start anew.
I can’t fault her for that. Because maybe she feels infinitely freer now.
Or maybe the guy she was dating played some role. I know it isn’t my place to speculate much more beyond that. Not when she’s no longer a part of my life.
Burying her memory in the back of my consciousness, I went on with my life — though she’d still show up in my dreams every now and again. My mind would, occasionally, continue trying to make sense of what had happened. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what did.
Maybe the answer is simple — Sarah outgrew her old life, and everything that had once been a part of it. Or maybe it’s too complex to put into words, and even she herself won’t ever fully know.
What I do know is that letting go is one of life’s uncomfortable but inevitable requirements. I believe in every person doing what ultimately feels right for them; and that each of us should be free to populate our worlds with those who most align with our current embodiments — not with the sterile remains or detritus of whoever we once were.
This doesn’t mean I don’t still miss Sarah sometimes. Very little literature exists on healing from a friend breakup. And yet the abrupt loss of any close relationship cuts deep.
Back to today. This day on BART eight years later. At moments, I’m convinced the woman is Sarah; at others I’m sure I’m imagining it.
I envision how an interaction between the two of us might play out.
The train stops and we exit. Both of us are transferring to a different train. She sits down on a bench twenty feet away.
As I walk in that direction she looks up from her phone, eyes meeting mine. I look back, registering the recognition in her face as my old friend, to my surprise, doesn’t avert eye contact, doesn’t evade, doesn’t hide — but rather, continues to look my way.
When she waves, I wave back with slight apprehension. Apprehension because she is basically a stranger now, regardless of the past.
I say hi; she says hi back, even using my name.
Questions flood my mind, each competing to be chosen.
Questions like do you still eat Quaker Oats late at night in bed while watching Bob’s Burgers?
Those thoughts about how everything in this life is passing so therefore what does anything mean and who can I trust to be there when my mind finally collapses beneath the weight of that pressing reminder — do they still keep you awake at night?
Do you carry them with you into the morning, cart them through the day, and attempt to empty them from your mind when night descends by filling giant cups (or troughs, more aptly) of wine like the ones you used to pour for all of us on Monday nights? Or has Darren’s presence temporarily swept them — and their accompanying negative feelings — away?
Does your new partner, your first boyfriend and long-term relationship, the guy you described as “sort of douchey” in your first conversation about him with me, the one who didn’t like any of your friends — is he why you no longer need any of us?
Or is the explanation far simpler, and free from dark undertones? Your life took a turn and our presence felt clunky and superfluous in its reincarnation…
There’s so much I want to know. Rather than ask these questions though, instead I only comment on her new bangs — to which Sarah smiles in response. I tell her what I’m up to. She says she’s been working at a hospital for several years. That she’s still with Darren. She briefly asks about my family.
Bart whooshes past. Pigeons disperse from their positions on the tracks below, flying their way up to safety on the platform. A stream of riders exits the train, thrumming beneath the lofty ceilings as if they’re on a high-speed conveyor belt.
Sarah concludes our interaction with, “It was good to see you” — tone somewhat distant, but not altogether cold.
And then we part ways. The train car swallows Sarah up into its metallic belly, and the doors close behind her. BART whooshes off to the sound of ghostly clattering, taking with it the ghost of a soul I once knew so well.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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