On that blue-sky day, there she was, Nikki Joval. I, nervous and shaking, and I saw her. She wore a lace inset tank top, low rise corded denim jeans, and a crochet wrap as a belt. With her long legs and lifted posture, she didn’t look like she was supposed to look 33. She looked 23.
Men eyed her up and down.
As I approached her, she smiled warmly. She kissed me full on the lips, hugged me, and told me that it was so great to see me.
I was more reserved. I put much less into the hug and didn’t kiss her back.
She guessed over me, saying how long she’d been anticipating my visit. My body’s resources were still reeling from the plane ride, and I couldn’t give her anything.
As we made our way outdoors, I didn’t expect summer air or all the accented people of color. There was a Pakistani looking skycap and a Mexican looking shoe-shine man. Africans worked at the food court. “Where did these people come from?” I asked her.
“What?” Nikki didn’t follow my line of questioning.
I let it drop. Back in April, we had exchanged dates. We spent so much time together growing up. We’d stand on the corner of Horizon Drive and talk for hours not wanting to leave until we’d said everything.
I hadn’t had a friend like that since she’d left Pennsylvania. Since then, everyone seemed so busy with jobs or school or rushing home to catch TV shows.
“You know where we are, Jean? We’re right by the Mall of America.” She then said, “It’s the — ”
“I know it’s the largest mall in the world,” I cut her off.
Nikki said she was going to tell me about the roller coaster and that she’d always taken her daughter Melody there.
My luggage of two Samsonites fit snugly into her Dodge, which was cluttered with stuffed bunnies, jazz shoes, tap shoes, trainers, and rosary beads (her mother was Catholic).
She hadn’t changed. Nikki still auditioned for company after company. Still tried to make up for the time that she had to take off to have Melody, which had set her career back. Ironically, that year, she was offered a spot in a company. She made her living in a piece meal. She taught at five different places: the Hennepin Arts Center, Minneapolis Sports Authority, Russo Dance Center, and the Modern Jazz Conspiracy. Her passion was tap, but most companies didn’t have much enthusiasm for it.
I thought I should ask about how her daughter did when I did. Nikki smiled broadly and began gesturing. “You know what she’s into?” she asked me.
I turned to her. “Drugs?”
“No, soccer. She’d rather hit the ball off the top of her head than dance. Can you believe that?”
“I thought you were going to say drugs.”
“No, I’m not really worried about my Melody getting into that. My daughter and I talk. We always talk.” Nikki laughed and went into the slogan: ”If you don’t talk to your children about drugs someone else will.”
I looked out the window: this was the land of 1000 lakes. It looked pretty much like the part of Pennsylvania we were from. Overhead in the intersection, the traffic light turned from green to yellow to red.
“You’re following too close behind that car,” I told
“Sorry,” she said.
I hadn’t seen her dance since we were in high school. I remember her dance style was like a tropical breeze.
Her place was up the fire escape, three flights and over three doors. Her home had the faint odor of vanilla. She had flowers in various states of health.
Her place was cluttered around the edges, open in the center. Red corduroy curtains should have been unchanged from the winter. I looked at the schedule that she had hanging on the fridge. “You teach dance classes from nine in the morning to nine at night?” I asked her.
“Only on Fridays.”
“No wonder you stay so skinny,” I said.
“Jean, can I put in the tape?”
She said that she danced to the music of Pearl Harbor and recorded it. “I liked what it had to say about friendship.”
“Yeah. Those two characters. I forget their names. But that opening scene when they’re just kids, and they sneak off in the plane together. Then when they join the Air Force together — ”
“Nikki, Pearl Harbor wasn’t about that. Pearl Harbor was about Pearl Harbor. The sneak attack that led us into WWII.”
“And it had a love story.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t true.”
“I’m sure something like that will happen. Hawaii is a big place.”
She put in the video. In her wicker chair wrapped in a cocoon, I watched. “You followed your dream. I gave mine up years ago.”
“What were yours?”
“No, I don’t. I don’t remember you ever — ”
“It’s stupid. I wanted to be a forest ranger. How many black forest rangers do you see?” I asked her.
“Don’t think like that. Where would we be if we thought like that? Jackie Robinson would have stayed with the Monarchs. You can be a forest ranger. You could be out there with Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.”
“I guess if it’s not dance you can’t take it seriously,” I told her.
“Then why don’t you do it?”
“I can’t now. I’m too old.”
“Do those schools have an age limit? Lie about your age then.”
“The program I wanted is all the way in Denver,” I told her.
I frowned; she didn’t understand anything. “I’m too old for that.”
She opened a bottle and poured two glasses. She raised her glass. “To us.”
“I don’t drink wine.”
“Just a sip,” she urged me.
“I tasted it.”
“It’s shiraz,” she said.
I pushed the glass toward her. “I don’t want any.”
“Come on just a taste.”
She put the glass to my lips. “No, Nikki.”
She pushed a cork back into a bottle. “So tell me what else is going on in your life?”
“Not much. I’m thinking of getting that guidance counseling certification. Oh, and I met this guy through Match.”
“You met a guy!”
“Yeah, but –“
“That’s wonderful! What is he like? What’s Match?”
“No, tell me.”
“Never mind, Nikki.” I changed the subject. “What class are you teaching tomorrow?”
“I didn’t know you knew Karate,” I said.
“No, Pilates. It dates back to Joseph Pilates. All the Hollywood stars do it.”
“Do you have a TV Guide? What time does Survivor come on, here?” I asked.
“Two teams of people. In a jungle. They perform tasks.”
Her eyes fluttered then her eyebrows arched. “Like what? Do they ride elephants?”
“No, it’s more like what they have to eat. Maggots and –“
“Maggots! Fried? And this is on TV? My Melody’s a tomboy, but I think even she’d draw the line at maggot eating. This show must be on cable. I can’t believe that show has people eating maggots on TV. What’s that thing Clinton was going to put in the TVs to protect children?”
“I don’t know.” I turned on the TV just in time to see the show’s final credits roll. “I missed the show.”
“Awww,” Nikki said, making a sad face. She went into the next room and came back holding comp tickets.
“I thought we’d hit a club.”
“The club’s don’t get going till eleven.”
“I’m really tired from the flight.” I folded out the plumb chocolate colored sofa. I changed into my night clothes.
Nikki came back into the room. “Oh, I see, you’re ready to go to bed. I was going to let you have my bed.”
“This is fine.”
“This is fine.”
“Are you sure?” She sat on the edge of the fold out.
“You know what I was thinking. I was thinking about England. In England, they show full frontal nudity on TV. But in this country, take a look at the talk shows every time you turn around you see some saying ‘Seek Hail’.”
”You know what I mean. I mean what is more offensive
the Klu Klux Klan or a woman’s nipples.”
All things change, and all things stay the same. The next morning, I went into the bathroom. The shower curtain was open. It was there that I saw Nikki with a man. His shoulders were touching hers. His warm hand full on her taut and bare breasts. His other hand’s fingers firm on her behind.
For a moment, I thought I was dreaming, but my dreams were never like this. My dreams were flat and unmedicated.
“Jean,” Nikki said.
I closed the door.
The next time I saw them, he had on a towel. He was a skinny guy, made of edges, bones jutting out in all angles. He must have some dance in his background, or, at least, running. Nikki was in panties and a tee shirt.
He got fully dressed then left kissing her on the lips before he left.
“Miguel. He’s from my night class. I asked him if he’d come out with us tonight.”
“I don’t want to go out tonight.”
“I thought you didn’t want to go out last night?”
“Nikki, I want to get settled.”
“I got you the Eggos. Remember when I asked what you like to eat for breakfast and you said Eggos.”
“I guess you’re going to make fun of that like my mother always does.”
“Nope.” She smiled and began to fix my meal. For herself, she prepared yogurt and strawberries.
“That must be how you stay so skinny,” I told her and asked her where she’d kept the syrup.
During her class, her body was like a feather floating. All about me, other women were hollow as flutes. Their taut overworked body thrusted in pelvic tilts and shoulder bridges. Diamond dogs. Pilies. I watched Nikki walk on her hands forward keeping her legs and arms straight until she was in a pyramid shape. Her head hung free, ponytail flipped upside down.
I walked out.
“So what did you think of the class?” Nikki asked, when she saw me waiting by the lockers.
“I know you did. What you saw of it, was it good? Did you like it?”
“It was fine, Nikki.”
“I like this gym better than my last one. You couldn’t go a second over-schedule. This fitness center is a little more laid back. I can — ”
“It was fine, Nikki.”
That night, I went to bed early again.
The next morning was Nikki’s bank loan meeting. She apologized about a hundred times that she couldn’t reschedule.
“Nikki, do what you have to do,” I told her.
She wore a cropped top and yoga pants.
“Where do you shop for clothes like that?”
“No place special. Sometimes I go to Nicollette Mall. Sometimes I go to Rosemont Mall or The Mall of America. Melody likes the roller coasters there.” She babbled and was happy bright as the sunlight glinted.
The bank’s waiting area featured plants of all sizes. I pulled a Newsweek from the display rack. My mother subscribes to it. Condoleezza Rice was on the cover. It was familiar and calming.
“Come in with me,” Nikki asked.
“I’ll wait here,” I said.
“It’ll be fun.”
“Nikki, this is a bank.”
“Miss Joval,” the attendant called.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” she asked.
She added a little skip to her step. That gets up. That goes.
She stayed seated, talking to him for a good while. I peeked over to watch and caught her hands wild gestures and the fortyish, salt and pepper buzz cut personal banker’s face amused, intently listening to her.
I missed my TV shows. I missed the regularness of my life. She wasn’t who I remembered and then she was. She was still the one who cheated for me on a 10th grade Spanish test. It was the least questions pre-test, the incentive is that if you get everything right you didn’t have to take the real one.
Grades were very important to me. Not so much to Nikki because she always expected to have this great show business career.
“Guayabera,” she said.
I never thanked her. I just wrote the right answer down.
The banker walked her to the lobby. He held her hand. Then they parted.
“How long are you gonna stay married to this one?” I asked.
“Married? What are you talking about?” she asked and changed the subject. “What do you feel like doing tonight?”
“You have to do something every minute. Can’t you stand still? You’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re forty.”
“I vote for the club.”
It was as if she hadn’t even heard me.
“It’ll be fun. Melody is coming back tomorrow. We can’t very well go with her.”
“Your daughter’s coming back tomorrow? I thought she was gone for the whole week.”
“Nope tomorrow. I can’t wait for you to see her.”
Nikki wore a chocolate crochet mini-dress, and
she was twisting and turning, running her hands through the base of her collarbone length hair.
I wore a knee length skirt and long sleeved shirt and stood over by the wall.
I was sorry she had nagged me into coming. I was so unused to the noise and the crowd and the pretense.
When Nikki came back over to where I was, I was even more depressed. I wished she’d stop standing near me. I felt impossibly flushed next to her one hundred and some change frames. Self conscious about the size of my breasts, I covered them up by crossing my arms. Beside her, I was the consolation prize. Soon, another suitor swept her off for another whirl.
I watched her again. When she danced, she was free. Her bones are loose. Her knees would be cornflakes in ten years – shattered needing pins. Fellow after fellow came to dance with her. And she entertained them all.
Growing weary of the show, I made my way to the ladies room. While I washed my hands, Nikki appeared behind me.
“Hi Jean. Remember that? Hygiene.” She laughed.
“I told you, I told you, I didn’t want to come here.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you’d enjoy it.”
“What is there to enjoy?”
“I thought you’d like to see some of the nightlife here.”
“You know there’s a part of the body besides your pelvis. I hope you’re not going to call any of those men. Think about your child.”
“What does Melody have to do with anything?”
“All you care about is yourself. Every man you see you throw yourself at.”
“You heard me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You have no self respect,” I told her.
“Self respect about what?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
“No, what do you mean?” She was tearing up. A couple of other audacious women walked by us with their ribs high and open.
I made a move to leave and she grabbed my shirt. “You‘re the one thing I knew was on my side. Wherever I went, I would get your letters.”
“You don’t need me, Nikki. You always do fine on your own.”
“We grew up together.”
“That was a long time ago,” I told her. Then I walked away. I went out the door, then outside, and waited by her car.
Nikki’s mother had episodes, gaps of time when she wouldn’t leave her bed. Or comb her hair or eat. Her mother passed away five months after my father died. My father died of undiagnosed diabetes. Her mother swallowed a handful of pills. It was a hard junior year.
I don’t know why I’d been so brittle to Nikki since I’d arrived. It was an equal mystery why I had exploded at her that night. I’d been looking forward to seeing her for so long.
I laid awake in the foldout pretending that none of it happened. Pretending that I’m back at home with my mom, and I hadn’t even visited.
Deeper into the night, I overhead the following:
“You don’t seem to have much in common,” he said. It was the man from her shower.
“We grew up in the same town,” Nikki said. “Who keeps up with those people?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have gone out. Maybe you should forget about her.”
“We were best friends.”
“That was how many years ago, Nikki?”
Nikki every few months sent me updated pictures of her daughter. Melody looked like a little boy though she had inherited her mother’s heart-shaped face, pouty lower lip, and a nose that flipped up. Melody didn’t have Nikki’s swan neck. At least, not yet she didn’t. Nikki’s ex-mother-in-law lived in a big fancy brick house with a long lane leading up to it. The woman opened the door wearing matching slacks and a shirt, sort of soft blue green. She smiled warmly at Nikki and told her that Melody would be right out. Soon a little tomboy girl in sweats and a tee shirt emerged and gave Nikki the biggest hug I’d ever seen.
On the way back to Nikki’s place, mother and daughter talked seemingly without taking a breath. Whenever they tried to include me, the conversation deflated.
Later in Nikki’s apartment, Melody gave another meaningful hug to her mother, saying how happy she was to be home. Nikki went into the kitchen, and Melody eyed me, waiting for me to make the first move. I didn’t.
Nikki had been treating me all along, but this was such an expensive restaurant. I don’t know why she picked it with her dancer’s salary and her daughter in tow.
I scanned the menu for something cheap. Soup was cheap, but hardly filling. I thought of ordering extra bread.
“Order whatever you like,” Nikki said, reading my mind.
I now looked at the entrees. I settled on shrimp.
The tall, thin, waiter poured water with a dazzling smile, and his blue eyes settled on Nikki.
“Thank you, Claude,” she said.
“It’s Dwayne,” the waiter said, gesturing to his nameplate.
Nikki just smiled.
How did she do it? Make all these stupid gaffs and have people think she’s so cute. Was it that face? That pleasant face. I wish I was like her. So pleasant. I realized I was hunched up, crabby.
He took my order functionally. He lingered on Nikki’s. Milking each morsel for more conversations about the vegetarian dish she ordered.
“How long have you been a vegetarian?” he asked her.
“Since 1997. I had my last cheeseburger from a little square plastic box.”
“I knew you were a vegetarian. Some people you can just tell.”
I rolled my eyes. Didn’t he see her child? Wouldn’t that dissuade his overtures? This man looked all of twenty-two years old. What was wrong with him?
Throughout the meal, I had to endure her daughter giving me the stink eye and the waiter’s outrageous flirtations.
“Why don’t you tell me more about that guy?” Nikki asked.
“What guy?” I asked.
“The guy you were talking about from the internet.”
“How do you meet guys off the internet?” Melody asked.
“I see him once a week. He’s only available on Saturday,” I said.
“One day a week?” Melody asked.
“He’s an engineer. He travels a lot.”
“I thought that was a nine-to-five type thing. You sit in an office and engineer,” Nikki said.
“He travels a lot,” I said.
“Probably to see his other girlfriend,” Melody said. Again, I noted the petulance in her voice, but there was nothing I did about it.
In my last morning at Nikki’s, I eavesdropped on the following:
Melody scowled. “She’s not like your other friends. She didn’t bring me a present.”
“That’s not why you like someone, Sweetheart,” Nikki said.
“It helps,” Melody said.
Nikki put the Eggos in the toaster and gave Melody’s pigtails a quick brushing while she waited for the pop.
“Why is she going to sleep so early?”
“Some people go to sleep early,” Nikki said.
“Not grown people. Plus, she wears granny clothes to bed.”
“This is a free country, Melody.”
“Ma, and how come she has Eggos every day. You won’t let me eat the same thing every morning.”
“She’s an adult, Melody.”
“She’s not an adult. You told me she still lives with her ma.”
“She loves her ma. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I love you, Ma, but when I turn eighteen, I’m out of here.”
During my last moments in Minnesota, Nikki exited Route 35 and followed the twenty signs that lead to the airport.
She entered the short-term parking lot and paranoia struck me. What if I missed the plane? I didn’t want to pay for a ticket exchange. I had less than an hour before boarding.
Nikki’s eye’s took in the panorama. “Now, where is the parking space?”
I frowned. “You can drop me off.”
“Okay,” Melody said.
“Melody.” Nikki called her name as close to stern as I’d ever heard her.
Melody stamped her feet on the car’s floor and turned away.
When Nikki found a spot, we all got out. I handed the ticket to Nikki, and Nikki looked it over noting the gate and letter number. She took my bag in one hand and Melody’s hand in the other.
Nikki led the way with her sculpted shoulders back. We reached the plane as it was boarding.
The attendant pointed at me. “I need to see her ID.”
“She needs your driver’s license,” Melody said to me.
Nikki went into my wallet and dug it out.
“Will you be helping her on board?” The stewardess asked.
“No, we’re staying here,” Melody said.
Both of them went to write out little ID cards. I was frozen, unable to help.
Nikki tied each bag with a bright green ribbon. She handed them to the attendant. Then there was a moment. A real moment, it seemed like just Nikki and I were the only two people on the tarmac. Or the world.
I looked into her warm, brown eyes. The corners of Nikki’s lips twisting into little curlicues as she said, “Goodbye, Jean.”
Before when I thought of our childhood, I thought of greenness and gladness – roller skating in the cemetery and paying single admission but seeing triple features at the Sameric. Because of this trip, it was harder to recall these things.
The next morning, there was no communication. No card, no call. I offered her nothing the following days, and weeks. Nikki was only to assume that I had made it home alright with my mother waiting at the airport gate.
I never contacted her again. I never checked to see if she was happy or not, or if she was still seeing that shirtless Latin, or if things got going with Dwayne or Claude (now I confused the name), or if she ever got that loan, or opened that studio, or if Melody was still into soccer, or street drugs. I never called, just to say hi.
Just the other day, I pictured Nikki standing there just out from the shower naked, only reaching for a towel when she saw me. I didn’t know why that image occurred to me. Maybe, it was best that she stayed in her portion of the country. And I stayed in mine. I did wonder if she ever stared out the window thinking what happened to her best friend. Or was she over me — Did she go through the stages of loss? The anger, the denial. Anger, bargaining, anger, dancing. Acceptance.
Now all I had left of our friendship is the Kodak paper that pulsed bright greens, vivid reds, sunshiny yellows, and our skin warm brown like bread just from the oven.
From each faded picture, I couldn’t help but think of that piece-of-clay word, friend. Last night, I even stayed up late. I thought of it, her, as I watched the stars hanging, clustering, and burning.
A WHITTENBERG is a Philadelphia native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her other novels include; Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored and The Sane Asylum.