Whatever We Are to Each Other

by | Aug 15, 2022 | Creative Nonfiction

My high school friend lost her father recently.

Her brother posted about it on Facebook. That’s how I found out. I didn’t send condolences. I didn’t know how. We hadn’t spoken in a while.

She messaged me, just a week or so after, on Facebook, the first text in a few years—she didn’t even have my phone number anymore—about a poem we read in AP Lit together. We were always assigned to the same groups, because her last name comes right after mine in the alphabet. That’s the main reason we were friends, I think, because we always sat next to each other.

She texted me about this poem, the one that goes, “The world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” We’d had to make a PowerPoint about it. I’d gone to her house after school and she’d given me some root beer in one of those plastic cups that changes color when it gets cold. Her mom had heated up some leftover meatballs for us. Her mother is from Italy, speaks with her hands.

She messaged me about this poem, and about this fantasy series we used to be into—neither of us could remember its title, just that there was a wizard who could control bats—and about the car she was fixing. She fixes cars all the time, old junkers she and her brothers pick up. There are slideshows of every car she’s ever fixed, pictures she’s sent me, pictures she’s posted, but she’s never owned one of them outright. Her father wouldn’t allow it, though I never really understood why.

The thing is that I know about her father’s passing, but she doesn’t know that I know. If I had to guess, I would say that that’s why she messaged me. It’s not as if I ask, though. That’s not the kind of friends we ever were. I don’t ask about anything she doesn’t want to talk about. I type a message back, about the poem and the fantasy books and the car, and we pick up the friendship like a dropped beat. That’s the kind of friends we were. Casual.

The last time I saw her father was when he drove us downtown for a big multi-school orchestra and band concert. Normally I ferried us to orchestra events, but we couldn’t fit both of our cellos, my upright bass, and her saxophone in the back of my car. We played cello together. That’s another reason we were friends, I think.

So her father had driven us in their van, the instruments shoved in the back. The concert went fine. He asked her why I was the one who got the cello solo during the Dvořák piece, and I pointed out that she was playing saxophone during that song, and we’d stopped at Burger King. While we ate she made me play Rock Paper Scissors, because she wanted to prove to her dad that I always won. I said that I just always won against her, because she had the worst luck of anyone I ever knew. When the orchestra played at Carnegie Hall our junior year she fell down some subway stairs and broke her wrist on the way to the concert. Once in the middle of a parade a bird dropped a shit all across the E flat palm key of her saxophone.

I had a theory, you know. She has five siblings, all quite a bit older than her. She’d been born after her father had a vasectomy and her mother had her tubes tied. I used to joke that it had taken so much luck just for her to get made that she’d burned through a lifetime’s supply before she was even born.

After she and I played, I played three rounds against her father. You know, best out of three. I won each round, seven of the nine individual games. He rubbed the back of his neck and said, “That is uncanny.”

I think that I know, but I don’t really know. Just things she’s mentioned, about belts and spoons and bruises. Things she has spoken about casually, as if this were normal for every family. Things she says, like a joke, like “You know Dad’s mad if he pulls out the belt.” We saw that kind of joke in memes all the time when we were in school. I never knew enough for sure to call any of it abuse. How real is any of what we tell each other? If she thought it was a big deal she wouldn’t have mentioned it to me. That’s the kind of friends we were—casual.

I played against her then, in those vinyl Burger King seats, and she beat me for the first time, twice in a row. She couldn’t believe it. She was shouting and I was applauding her. Her dad was saying, “I guess you can’t win every time,” and I was saying, “Your luck’s catching up! Buy a lottery ticket before it realizes it’s you.”

Once, my car wouldn’t start after school, and she had me crank the engine so she could see how it was churning, but it wasn’t churning at all. While she clicked around inside it I was looking over a paper for her, for the class we were sharing, the same class where we presented on the poem. She was bad at English like I was bad at cars. That’s another reason we were friends, I think, that we filled spaces for each other and left spaces for each other. I called out to her through the open door, her paper propped against my steering wheel, “Your thesis statement says ‘the loneliness that is inflicted upon Raoul,’ but isn’t it a loneliness he inflicts on himself?”

She looked up from behind the hood then and said, “Oh my god, I love you.”

And when she brought my car back to roaring, resurrected life, I said the same to her. That’s what we were to each other, but just the once.

Years later and we’re the kinds of friends we are now, Facebook friends, friends in typeface and photos, nobody real to each other, and we both know her father is dead but she doesn’t know that I know. She had to drop out of college after a car accident, her father’s car. Her leg is still messed up from it. “It hurts but I can still use it, you know?”

Rock Paper Scissors is a luck game and a mind game. To make sure everyone pulls at the same time, we would give it a rhythm—rock, paper, scissors—and when we said “shoot” we’d show our hands. Until then, we would stare at each other, fists clenched, hiding our intentions. The moment comes when you make your play and see what the other person had intended all along. In that moment, all you are to each other is the winner or the loser, the crushed scissors or the cut paper.

We drew our weapons and stared at each other’s hands—two fingers, a hand, or a fist still clenched. She and I both had calluses from the cello, on the pad of the right middle finger. Just another thing we had in common.

She doesn’t know what I know and neither do I. All I can think of is her father’s fist pumping mine. The rock paper scissors shoot.

About The Author

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Rachel Sudbeck lives with her tiny dog in Iowa City, where she’s a current MFA candidate in the University of Iowa’s Creative Nonfiction MFA Program. Her work has been published or is soon to be published in: The Rumpus “Enough” Series, DIAGRAM, and River Teeth. She’s recently begun work on a book-length project dealing with math, mapmaking, and the history of how we’ve conceived of the brain, among other things. Overall, she’s just happy to be here.