Last night I had a dream about an old friend.
Leah and I became close friends on my first day transferring in to a new school in the fifth grade. The only person who chose to sit next to me at lunch, I was forever grateful for her. Leah had a hard life for a 10-year-old, with her father recently dying of cancer and her mom remarrying a Sugar Papa. But, you’d never know it.
Leah was raised in a super-strict household with lots of rules and little flexibility. But, she didn’t care. She was full of life and spunk always “effing off” her step-monster when he left the room, flushing her okra down the toilet when her mom went to work ou’ or sitting in the formal living room (a huge no-no) when her parents were out for the evening.
Her house is where I first learned about, tasted and subsequently vomited, macrobiotic diet. Leah’s older sister taught me the phrase “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”. Hers was the first house I realized what eating disorders could really look like. I didn’t realize it at the time, but her Mom was grooming Leah to become a wife. “Whaaat boy will want you if you fatten up on that junk?” she’d often be heard saying in her heavy New York accent.
Leah’s house is where I would go to escape the chaos at my house, as her siblings had all grown up and left the nest. She was a lone survivor. Often spending hours in her room, we’d dream up our fancy filled adult lives, try on her clothes and pretend we lived anywhere but Far Rockaway, NY.
At 19, her strict family insisted Leah go get a husband. In an arranged marriage, after 4 dates, (he’s not that bad, she’d tell me after date 2. I think I can learn to love him, she said on date 3) Leah married a man a few years older than her. I attended their wedding, just like she would mine, a few years later. It was my first friend’s wedding- small, intimate and missing any aspect of the romantic love we had dreamed up all our lives. It was actually one of the saddest things I have ever attended – watching a lamb to the slaughter with a heavy, draped cloth over her face.
Leah and I stayed in touch for a time after her wedding. She was actually happy, she would tell me. Living in a very right-wing Orthodox Jewish community in Boro Park, NY, Leah was surrounded by families of 6, 7 or even 8+ children. Trying to stay thin so her husband would stay interested, she would have me visit only when he wasn’t home. He doesn’t like me to be distracted when he’s home, she would tell me rushing me back on the train.
After 4 years of no children arriving for her and her husband, Leah called me one morning after months of silence, hysterical crying. Her husband had informed her that with no children they would have to get a divorce.
She was devastated. I was relieved to get my Leah back.
I had only recently become a married woman and was completely confused about Leah’s situation. I did not know how or what to do to help her. She went back home to her mother’s home, her step-monster now dead.
I called a few times, but her Mom would tell me she was ‘unavailable’ so I figured she needed her privacy. But, weeks, than months went by with no returned calls. As quickly as she came back, she left my life again.
A number of years later, with the invention of Facebook, I looked her up. Up popped Leah’s profile, with a smiling, beautiful face I recognized. Excited to hear from her, I messaged her and waited. About a week later, Leah responded with one sentence. “Call me.” And, put her phone number.
My heart beating out of my chest, I quickly ran to the phone and dialed. I couldn’t wait to hear her voice and relive our old memories. More importantly, I wanted to see how she was doing. Leah’s so resilient, I am sure she’s amazing!, I would tell myself periodically when I thought of her.
A woman’s voice answered the phone after a number of rings. It wasn’t Leah. I asked for her and she put my on hold. I heard a lot of voices in the background. I assumed after all these years, maybe she had remarried and these were her children or something.
“Hello?” It was her!
I quickly bombarded her with a million questions. She began to laugh and told me her story.
After Leah’s forced divorce she had a mental breakdown. Needing to be medicated and calmed she was required to move into a mental institution in New York. She lived there for one year and then moved into a halfway house for women back in Brooklyn. The phone number she provided me with was her halfway home. She had been living there for over three years now, she explained. She had high hopes of soon getting a roommate and a place of her own. She told me some horrific stories of abuse in the mental institution and a sexual relationship she carried on with a much older man prompting her to get moved to this all women’s home.
As I wiped the tears from my cheeks, I could not believe what I was hearing. My beautiful friend, so full of light and spunk, now living in a halfway house in Brooklyn. I was furious with her family, furious with the world and wanted to scoop up Leah and run away.
We chatted a few more minutes about my life and she said her phone time was up and she had to go. I never heard from her again.
I dialed that number a dozen times and no one ever answered. Her Facebook account still active, but never used. Her old home number disconnected. And, now she’s lost to me.
I still think about her from time to time and I have this recurring dream, like I did last night. We are at a lake house, which looks just like her old childhood bedroom. We are in fancy outfits, pulled from her closet, and we are chatting with glasses of wine about our lives. The couch is soft and comfortable and she looks so happy. But, then it all changes and we’re suddenly in her kitchen and Leah has a glazed, scary look in her eyes. I wake up.
I pray for Leah, that she has found peace and happiness. I think about her often and send her good wishes and good health. Leah made my first day in a new school a happier one. Leah made my empty middle school angst full of fun, adventure and a whole lot of F-Bombs when things got rough. Leah made my breakups in high school and my unrequited crushes seem like glamorous stories from another world she could never be apart of. From midnight sneaks into the junk drawer she had hidden in her dresser, to prank phone calling the neighbors, I will never, ever forget you – wherever you are 🙂