I met her in first grade. She didn't look like the other girls. Her skin was always very pale. Like chalk, ice, and cotton-candy clouds on especially warm days. She was skinny. Emaciated. Well-cleaned skeletons had more meat upon their bare bones. There have been few I have encountered I would say are skinnier than me, but she was one of them.
One of the things I remember most about her was how she walked. Stiff and robotic. Every movement was excruciatingly rigid. Shortly after meeting her, I remember telling my mother this girl moved like a character in a film I'd recently seen. That character's name was C3P0.
"That's not very nice, to say" my mother told me. "She has something called muscular dystrophy. Like you with your back, she's put together a little differently."
I am not making any startling observations when I say children can be cruel, only to grow into elevated states of viciousness as they enter adulthood. If one has ever been brutalized growing up, certainly, they can spot on to what I'm on about. For such creatures, I've always loved the Mandarin term, si lai nan jen, which is that language's term for bully, but literally means; stern in appearance, weak on the inside. Having been bullied rather badly growing up, I find that term to be apt.
Yes, Carol had an affliction, which made her unpopular with the local kids, but I was the other circus freakshow. I have almost always been taller than those my age, as well as lankier. My eyes are too big for the rest of my face, and the way I sometimes look at other hominids can make them uncomfortable. When I was a sophomore in high school, one mob took to calling me Woodsy Owl because of my eyes. Until I was sixteen, I had a horrible overbite. There was also the fact of my twisted spine and learning disability, which landed me in physical therapy and special ed classes.
When not in school, the local kids, especially the boys, liked to come and play with me. I was the one with the wild and vivid imagination that could create entire other worlds in the various places we'd go to be children. Some of them wondered when I talked to the various other quadrupeds at my home if those other creatures weren't answering me back in tongues they could not even begin to comprehend.
But at school, I was retarded. I looked funny. I read books and talked to animals, sometimes preferring their company to those half-bald primates that walk upon two legs. I watched nature and science documentaries with as much attention and interest as I did cartoons. One of my friends was the girl with muscular dystrophy who walked funny. As a whelp, this hypocrisy made even less sense than it does now when recollecting it. All I knew was it hurt.
Carol was my friend and that was it. The honest one. There was no in school/out of school distinction. Sometimes, I wonder if she's not part of the reason the majority of my friends over the years and lifetimes have been female. Well, that, and the fact men can be such assholes.
We would play chess and read books together. I would tell her of the worlds I came up for the local kids. Places she could visit through my stories, but never frolic in with the others because of her condition and their brutalities. Once, we saw a cartoon version of The Hobbit and talked about it for days afterward. I, of course, thought it was pretty cool when Gandalf would get his mojo working.
"If I had magic powers, I'd make you feel better," I said at one point.
"I do feel better," Carol said with a wide smile. "You do have magic powers."
It's taken me years to even guess what she might have meant by that...
There was one day in fourth grade, when walking to PE, she began crying. Every movement had become painful to her. Even standing. I gave her a piggy-back ride to the gym. Shortly thereafter, she had twin crutches and her movements came to remind me of an otherworldly creature from another film I'd recently seen; a landstrider.
"Please don't ever say that again," Carol said when I made the observation to her. I'd not meant to hurt her feelings, but I did, and I still feel bad about that to this day.
By fifth grade, Carol was sentenced to a wheelchair. First, a manual one, then a mechanized thing with three wheels. Her breathing became more labored, our interactions less frequent. She was in the sickhouse a lot. I remember she was on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon with Jerry Lewis. Being that close to someone famous meant nothing to her.
The last time I remember seeing her, she was on an oxygen tank. We played chess and I had to move her pieces for her. I was twelve and in sixth grade when she was put on the iron lung. It was close to Easter when the news came. I'd just gotten home from school and my mother was waiting for me in the kitchen.
"Carol's dead," my mother said.
"Oh," I said, the full reality not setting in just yet, perhaps. I'd grown up on a farmstead, I'd been intimate with the miracle of birth and the inevitability of death for many years by then. My grandfather, the first human death I dealt with, happened when I was eight.
"Do you want to talk about it?" My mother asked me.
"No," I said, and I walked to the irrigation ditch at the back of my family's property with Kira, my Labrador Retriever. We sat in silence until my mother summoned me for dinner. The whole time watching the sky and world around me, trying to understand that a friend of mine, someone two months older than me, was dead.
I didn't go to the funeral, but I was at the wake. Carol's parent's put on brave faces and said nice things. I was given a hug and thanked for being her friend and for that time I carried her on my back when she was in too much pain to walk. At one point, I wandered into Carol's room and my eyes fell upon her chess set. My memory strobed back to when I told if I had magic powers I'd have made her feel better.
"I do feel better...You do have magic powers."
If I did have magic powers, then why was she dead? Why couldn't I get my mojo working to bring her back?
It was the first time I ever shed tears for someone who walked upon two legs...
Carol's been gone a little over a quarter century now. I don't think about her that much. In fact, sometimes years have passed without her entering into the mathematics of my thoughts. Perhaps that's awful of me. Maybe it means I have accepted the circumstance and moved on. It could be it doesn't matter, because dead is still dead, and you don't always get to walk away from that.
With the prism of years and the revisions of memory, there are a thousand lessons I can glean from my friendship with Carol. Rationalizations, perhaps. They might even all be true. Even and especially the lies.
Yet, when it comes down to brass tacks and bedposts, at its most clinical and reptilian, Carol was a childhood friend. Knowing her has most likely affected and shaped me in ways I'll never be able to fully comprehend. For someone who likes to know and learn and understand things, who finds joy in solving the little riddles and mysteries, I try to make peace with such an observation.
And on occasion, I remember how she told me I had magic powers, because she did feel better that day. There are times, I think I know what she meant by that. But sometimes, I wish I could get my mojo working to make it where she was better in the context of not being sentenced such a treacherous and imprisoning shell. Perhaps that would be the most amazing magic trick of all.