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Like A Secret Being Told

bysubtleperfume©

I climbed the steps to Colleen's apartment with some trepidation. Which was ridiculous, when you think about it. Why should I be nervous? I've been up and down these stairs a thousand times. Colleen and I have been best friends since junior high school. Better than best friends; more like sisters. In fact, some of the girls on our high school basketball team used to call us 'twins from different countries'.

The 'twins' referred to the striking physical similarities we shared (and still share). We're the same height (5'6"), the same weight (135 pounds) and have identical slender, but curvy bodies. We've often swapped clothes back and forth with no difference in fit. Our facial features are also alike: our noses, the shape of our eyes and lips, even the curves of our cheeks and foreheads! Personally, I was flattered by the nickname, as I'd always thought Colleen was gorgeous.

The 'different countries' refers to Colleen having the fair skin, blue eyes and auburn hair common to her Irish ancestry, while I possess the olive skin, brown eyes and tresses so-dark-as-to-seem-black found so often in my Spanish heritage. But, I think, more than anything, the 'twins' moniker referred to the closeness of our friendship. Even now, at age 23, with school and sports no longer binding us together, we spent many of our weekends and after work hours together. We were still pretty much inseparable.

Which is why I was making my way to Colleen's door. I hadn't seen or spoken to her in nearly two weeks, which is unheard of with us two motor-mouths. We'd never been apart even half so long. But, the last few times we'd gotten together, she'd acted... odd... almost aloof.

I'm pretty sure I hadn't done or said anything to cause a rift. Besides, even if I had, Colleen was no pale, delicate flower (well, okay, she actually is pale) too shy to speak her mind. If I had screwed up, she wouldn't have hesitated to put me right.

When I asked her about her reticence, she blew it off, saying there was nothing the matter, she'd just been tired.

But, now it's been nearly a fortnight since we last saw each other. She hasn't returned my phone calls or my e-mail messages and I was getting pretty worried. So, here was the mountain, knocking on Muhammad's door.

In answer to my rapping, I heard a shuffling sound coming from Colleen's apartment. Her muffled voice called out, "Who is it?"

"Allie." I responded. (I prefer my full name of Alejandra - pronounced Ahl-ay-HAHN-drah - but my friends refuse to use it, the lazy bastards).

More shuffling noises came from behind her door, then Colleen's voice again, much nearer this time and sounding a bit... strained, "Allie, honey... this isn't a good time."

"Colleen? What does that mean... 'not a good time'? You haven't been answering your phone or your e-mail. I've been worried about you. And now that I'm here, you've got me standing out in the hall like a stranger. C'mon, sweetie, open up. I wanna talk to you."

No answer.

"Colleen? You there?"

"Allie," she sounded really shaky now. Had she been crying? "I'm sorry I've been out of touch, but this is a really, really bad time. I promise I'll call you when I'm on my feet again."

"Colleen, you're starting to scare me." My voice rose as I ceased being conscious of Colleen's neighbors. "If you don't open this door right now, I'm gonna kick the fucking thing in!"

No answer.

"Colleen?"

Still no answer.

I raised my jeans-clad leg and was honestly ready to do my level best to either break the door down or, more likely, mortify her into opening it. But, just as I was about to let fly, I heard her unfastening the chain and turning the deadbolt. The doorknob turned and the door opened slightly.

No sign of her, though. Weird. "Colleen?" No reply yet again, so I pushed the door open and went inside.

Passing though her foyer, I found Colleen in her living room, sitting in her pajamas, cross-legged on the sofa. Her face was tilted down slightly and her features were hidden in shadow. Her chestnut hair was a rumpled mess. She didn't look up at me when I came in.

Outside was a bright, cloudless May afternoon. In here, though, there was no evidence of that. She had all her curtains drawn and no lamps were lit. The only light in the room came from her television. I glanced at the screen and immediately recognized the frozen image from one of our favorite Garbo movies, 'Queen Christina'. We had watched it a zillion times, always crying at the same scenes, each scolding the other afterward for being a sap.

Apparently, I had interrupted her viewing and she had paused the film at this point. The motionless ghost of Garbo seemed to peer into Colleen's living room.

On the coffee table in front her, a spoon leaned inside an empty pint container of ice cream. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I noticed dirty dishes and silverware littering seemingly every flat surface in her living room. Colleen had never been a neat freak, but this... this wasn't right. Not by a long shot.

I finally broke the silence, "You wanna tell me what the hell's going on? Why have you been avoiding me?"

"Nothing's 'going on', Allie." She seemed to be struggling to control her voice, "I just need some time to myself. Okay?"

Was it my imagination or was she purposely keeping her face in shadow? A sudden presentiment struck me. I strode across the living room to fling open the nearest curtain.

Brilliant rays of afternoon sun pierced the darkened room, pinning Colleen's slumped form to the couch. Quickly moving back to her, I held her face up to the light. She squinted against the brightness and her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy from crying. Otherwise, her face was unmarked.

"Collen, have you been hurt, honey?"

"Define hurt." she said in a flat tone.

"Godammit! This is no time to get cryptic!" I unfastened the top two buttons of her pajama shirt and examined her neck and shoulders. Nothing. I rolled up her sleeves and the hems of her pajama pants. Nothing there either.

Colleen didn't resist my inspection. In fact, she seemed almost oblivious to it. It was like I was handling a rag doll. "Satisfied?" she asked when I was done.

The next moment seemed almost surreal. Slipping from the sofa to kneel on the floor in front of me, Colleen actually clasped her hands together, as if in supplication. With her head lowered, she whispered hoarsely, "If I beg, will you go? Please, Alejandra?"

My mind screamed "What the fuck!?" This was like something out of a cheap melodrama. First of all, only once or twice have I ever heard her use my full name. And even then, it was done mockingly. Secondly, the spitfire I've known most of my life would never EVER get down on her knees for anyone. Not even as a joke.

Cradling her face in my hands again, I turned it to look up at mine, but she refused to meet my gaze. "Colleen, am I your friend?" I never imagined I would have to ask her that question.

"Yes." she said simply, with her eyes closed and a tear spilling from beneath her lashes.

"Do you love me?"

Her eyes suddenly flashed and the lethargy that had gripped her vanished in an instant. Sweeping her arm across the coffee table, she sent the ice cream container and spoon flying. "GET OUT!"

Hastily rising to her feet, Colleen careened around the living room, knocking dirty plates, cups and utensils from their perches. "GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!"

So far, nothing had shattered on the apartment's plush carpet, but she was rapidly approaching the kitchen, where the harder surfaces would be less forgiving.

"Colleen."

Her only response was more airborne receptacles.

"COLLEEN!"

She whirled to face me, standing in place, panting from her exertions.

"You win," I said. "I'm leaving. For now."

She did not move as I retrieved my purse and retreated to her front door.

I had been terrified she was going to hurt herself, but the minute the door closed behind me, I regretted my decision to go. She's my friend. The dearest friend I have. I shouldn't have abandoned her for anything.

In the hallway outside her apartment, I tried to figure out what to do next. Should I try to get back in there? She was unlikely to open the door again and my earlier threat to kick it down had been hollow. My legs were nowhere near that strong nor her door that flimsy.

I decided to seek my mom's advice.

Twenty-five minutes later I was seated at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. I poured out the day's events to my mother's sympathetic ears and spilled more than a few tears in the process.

When I had finished my tale and my onslaught of her kleenex, I finally asked, "What should I do? What can I do?"

Mom leaned on the kitchen counter and peered out the window into the dwindling evening light. "Did I ever tell you," she asked, "about Laura Kelly?"

"The name doesn't ring a bell."

"Laura and I had been best fiends even longer than you and Colleen. And like you two, we were rarely one without the other. We did everything together, starting in kindergarten and lasting all the way through senior high."

"After graduation," Mom continued, "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with myself, so I enrolled at a local community college until I could figure it out. Laura, on the other hand, knew exactly what she wanted to be: an architect. To that end, she decided on an out-of-state school that had a sterling reputation in that field."

"Let me tell you," Mom turned and smiled at me, "that last week before Laura's departure, we threw ourselves one hell of a pity party. We'd been together for as long as we could remember, and it was difficult to imagine life without each other."

"Laura had a tough time adjusting to campus life. The combination of homesickness and the increased workload had her on the ropes in a hurry. The stress was evident in her voice every time we talked on the phone and whenever she came home on break. She often confided in me how miserable she was, but she didn't want to disappoint her parents by dropping out."

"Nearly at the end of her freshman year, I got a call from Laura that was really weird. Weird and disturbing. We talked, as we usually did, for a couple of hours (my mother used to give me hell about the long distance bill). As always, our conversation wandered all over the map. Three or four times during our gabfest, Laura would interject something odd, something that seemed to make no sense in the context of our conversation. I thought I'd misheard her or something, but when I'd ask her to repeat herself, she grew annoyed. After a couple of more bizarre interludes, I finally asked her, 'Laura, have you been smoking or drinking something?'"

"She said something rude and hung up. I was stunned. In all the time I'd known her, she'd never spoken to me like that. So, this was like a bolt out of the blue."

"For the next few weeks, I wasn't able to reach her and she never called me back."

"Next thing I knew," Mom went on, "she was home on summer break and I was rushing to her house to see her. Only, it turned out, I couldn't see her. Laura's mom answered the door and she seemed kind of apprehensive. When I asked to see Laura, Mrs. Kelly said she wanted to talk to me and asked if I minded taking a walk with her."

"During the walk, Mrs. Kelly explained to me that Laura had suffered a breakdown while she was away at school. Her mom told me that Laura was undergoing therapy. Her doctor was trying her out on a medication that he hoped would help stabilize the chemical imbalance that was responsible for her erratic behavior."

"Mrs. Kelly did her best to be encouraging, but I think that might have been for her own benefit as much as mine. She was clearly and understandably rattled and doing her best to hide it. Now that I have children of my own, I think back on what she must've been going through and it just breaks my heart."

Mom was visibly moved as she recalled this terrible time in her life, "The upshot of my story is that I never did get my friend back. A few months after I talked with Mrs. Kelly, Laura called me. She was calm and rational, but politely distant, which hurt more than anything. She explained that she felt it best if she... 'stayed to myself'... is how I think she put it. When I voiced my hurt that she was shutting me out of her life, she was apologetic, but firm. It was 'for the best', she said."

"And that was it." Anyone with ears could've heard the pain in Mom's voice. "Just like that, I lost my best friend in the world. It seemed impossible. Like something out of 'Invasion Of The Body Snatchers' or those old folktales where wicked fairies replace a stolen child with a changeling."

"For years after that, I held out hope that someday, when Laura got back on her feet again, she would contact me. I thought maybe we'd be able to resurrect our friendship. But, it never happened."

"I later learned that Laura had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Apparently, it's common for someone to carry this illness latently, only to have it triggered under duress. In Laura's case, it was the strain of adjusting to college life and being on her own for the first time."

"Jeez," Mom gave me a forced smile, "even all these years later, it's still hurts to recall it."

I hugged Mom tightly. She stroked my hair and said quietly, "I don't know enough to guess what's going on with Colleen. I just pray that she'll be okay." Mom held my face in her hands and looked me in the eye. "I'll say a prayer for you, too." Taking one of my hands in hers, she gave it a gentle squeeze. "But... just in case, sweetie... you'd better brace yourself... for the worst."

I tried to heed Mom's advice, but I didn't do a very good job of it. Over the next couple of weeks, I sent e-mail and left phone messages for Colleen every day. I even knocked on her apartment door a couple of times.

Her only response was a resounding silence.

At least until nearly a month after the confrontation at her place. One evening, I came in from work and found the following message on my answering machine:

"Allie..."

"Please stop calling."

"I know you mean well, but..."

"You're hurting me."

"Please stop."

"Please."

I don't have the words to describe how haunted and haunting her voice was. I barely recognized it.

I played that recording over and over that night, crying so hard and so long that the world became a blur.

But, eventually, the message penetrated even my thick skull.

I resolved to do as she asked.

I would leave her alone.

What choice did I have?

*********************************************************************

I don't want to suggest that I had taken Colleen for granted, but when someone has always been there for you, it's easy to feel, unconsciously at least, that they always will be.

To say the next year and a half was difficult would be an extravagant understatement.

I quickly came to realize that my circle of friends were really acquaintances. I shared none of the intimacy or confidence with them that I did with Colleen. And it didn't take a genius to figure out why. These were all perfectly nice people (God! that sounds so condescending!), but it was apparent that none of these companions possessed anything like the wondrous fusion of character traits that made Colleen such a rare and dear friend.

So, I managed to make it through the next eighteen months by staying busy, having a lot of long conversations with my mom (God bless her!) and doing quite a bit of soul searching.

Now, I don't mean that I was 'all better' after that year and a half had crawled by. Far from it. But, I had at least gotten accustomed to my relative solitude. And maybe, I had begun to put a few of my broken pieces back into something approximating their original place.

Those pieces were given quite the jolt one crisp November afternoon as I walked through the local shopping mall. I was on an errand to find a suitable dress to wear to my cousin's wedding. I wasn't a bridesmaid or anything, I just didn't have anything in my closet right then that was nice enough for the purpose.

As I was browsing through a rack of dresses, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a familiar voice ask, "Allie?" I turned around to see Colleen's mom, Mrs. Hughes, wearing a wide smile and her arms extended.

After a lengthy and welcome hug, she preceded to make a fuss over 'how lovely you've grown' and to say how wonderful it was to see me. She asked after my family, of course, but when I mentioned Colleen, she was suddenly less voluble. She was polite, but she made it clear that Colleen was still pretty much keeping to herself these days.

After several minutes more of chatting, we went our separate ways, with Mrs. Hughes extracting a promise from me to say hello to my mom for her.

I was thunderstruck, all thoughts of shopping driven completely from my head.

Somehow, I managed to reach the haven of my car in the shopping center's parking lot, before I started to cry. And once the floodgates opened, it seemed there was no closing them again. All my pain and frustration and loneliness returned in an instant, as if they'd never been banished.

When I was finally spent, the emptiness I felt began to be filled with anger. I had a rare and precious friend. A friend the like of which I would probably never know again. What had happened to her? What took her away from me? Dammit! I had a right to know.

Right then and there, I turned the key in the ignition and started driving to Colleen's apartment. Admittedly, there was no logic behind the decision, just an urgent need.

Just an hour ago, if asked, I would have said I was getting over the hurt, doing much better now. I would have said it and I would have meant it.

And I would have been wrong.

Though I knew I shouldn't be doing it, I found myself in the hallway outside Colleen's apartment knocking on the door. Did I mention the anxiety that had gripped me? No, fuck 'anxiety', this was out-and-out terror.

And yet, here I was, knocking anyway.

If you can explain the human heart, you should write a book.

After a minute or so in the corridor, I suddenly was aware of how thoughtless and impulsive I'd been. First of all, I hadn't called ahead. She might not even be home. Or, she might've peered out the peephole, seen it was me and retreated right back into her apartment. Probably shaking her head, thinking to herself, 'Damn, what a heard-headed girl!'

While this whirl of thoughts eddied through my head, Colleen opened the door. She had on an unbuttoned plaid flannel top over a white t-shirt with blue jeans and sweat socks, but no shoes.

We stood still for a moment, both of us staring intently at the other. The distant murmur of traffic seemed a tumult in the silence. I realized I could also hear the subtle sound of her breathing. I guess I really hadn't thought about what I would do or say when I saw her. I finally collected myself enough to stammer, "May I... um... that is... I mean, may I come in?"

Without speaking, she opened the door wider, stepped back and made room for me to enter. Passing close by her, I sneaked a peek at her face and her glance met mine.

Even after all the turmoil I'd been through, I was surprised by the intensity of feeling that moved through me. I wondered for an instant if I was ready for whatever came next.

As soon as I walked into her apartment, I was aware of the contrast to my last visit there. All the curtains were open and her apartment was aglow with the late afternoon sunlight. And remember how I said Colleen had never been a neat freak? Well, you'd never guess it to look at her place now. It was immaculate.

As I looked around wonderingly, she must've guessed my thoughts. She'd always been good at that. "It's easy to get things organized when you've got the time. And I've had quite a bit of time on my hands, Allie."

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