Good Cindy Hunting

A “back-to-school” shopping commercial the other day brought back memories of the dreaded first day. The desire to fit in, be popular, wear the coolest clothes, carry the best backpacks, try the latest hairstyles … it’s all so nerve-wracking.

Compared to life today, filled with serious “adult” responsibilities, I suppose it’s easier to say life was better back then.

But dear old Mrs. Fuller made sure I experienced a memorable elementary school career.

My second-grade teacher resembled a Muppet. She had reddish-orange, tightly permed short hair, a haggard face with a long, crooked nose and beedy eyes. Her attire reminded one of a gypsy: jangly long earrings, gold bangle bracelets and flowing drapery she passed off as dresses.

In the second grade, we were learning addition and subtraction. Very basic mathmetics. Plus, we began taking spelling tests. Nothing too major at that point.

And while I enjoyed reading and books, math made for a strange and difficult concept for me to grasp. The numbers and symbols on the chalkboard baffled me, terrified me actually and I resisted learning it.

From Brad, the boy who sat behind me, I learned that Mrs. Fuller might be a tad crazy and also, consistently lazy in her grading.

I began testing the boundaries by turning in homework I knew full-well to be incorrect. Sometimes, I would even ride beside a classmate on the bus to school and copy their homework without asking if it was correct. But typically, my method employed the old “pick a number, any number.”

Yet each time, my ditto lesson smelling of toxic blue smudged ink returned with a gold star. Sometimes, a gold star with a plus sign beside it. I’d beam with false pride, just as everyone else in my class who hadn’t applied any sweat into the assignments.

My little games continued.

Not long after, I started brushing off my vocabulary lessons and soon, I was a regular scammer. I lied at every chance I had; it became something of a game.

I even lied at Sunday school and told a sustitute Sunday school teacher my name was Cindy. You can only imagine the suspicious looks she gave my father when came to pick up “Erica.”

But soon, the games came to a screeching halt.

“Boys and girls, next week your parents have been invited to come in and see your work, talk with me about your progress and learn about our lesson plans so far,” Mrs. Fuller announced to the class in her screechy voice.

A trickle of sweat ran down my spine. My parents were nobody’s fool and despite the wool being pulled over Mrs. Fuller’s eyes, my folks would “cut the shit real quick.”

The night of the open house, I yanked my parents around speedily to view my little desk, pictures I had drawn, and all my “star/ star-plus” lessons.

Mrs. Fuller gave a vague, glowing report to them of my incredible work and how well I was doing in school.

“She’s a bright child, but she talks too much,” she said. The phrase “excessive talking” appeared on every report card until the day I graduated high school.

At first, my mom began asking prodding questions of my work and then my father took over. Before you knew it, Mrs. Fuller’s own lies were unfolding as I tried to distract them. My father’s deep Southern voice began to boom in aggitation and like a true Mississippian, he began to repeat phrases.

“Now you say, you say that she’s doing well?” he asked. Mrs. Fuller exposed the whites of her eyes.

“Why, yes, Mr. Warren,” she said, appearing timid.

He walked his tall, lankey frame over to my desk, snatched up my math homework sheets in his fist and walked back shaking them in her face.

“Gold star, gold star plus, gold star … ” he said, displaying each page.

“Yes,” she said. “Why, she’s doing very well.”

“Really?” he said. “So, 5 plus 5 is 15?”

By this point, my classmates and their parents could no longer politely ignore the argument. Other scamming students were discovered and many classmates blamed me for being a sloppy liar.

My father, a math wizard, became my full-time tutor. Each night, we sat at the kitchen table and tried to make quick progress with less than a couple months left in the second grade.

The frustration hit dramatic highs; I would cry and protest that I couldn’t learn it hoping he would just let me fail.

“I’m too dumb,” I would say. Will Hunting would have stormed off shouting: “Do you have any idea how easy this is for me?” 

But my dad remained steadfast in his determination to catch me up.

While I was allowed to pass to the third grade, my math and my reading skills remained firmly at the beginning of second grade.

I was in real deep biscuits and gravy.

After Mrs. Abraham recapped our addition and subtraction tables, she moved on to multiplication. Each day, I dreaded a math quiz almost as much as a vocabulary quiz.

When she would instruct us to rip a sheet in half, I would begin to cry. It was a truly frustrating time for everyone.

“One day, the light will go off and it’s gonna make all the sense in the world,” my dad said over and over.

The phrase haunted me.

I began praying for that light to go off every day. I wasn’t sure if I would see it, if it would feel like when I got hit in the head with a baseball or if I would have the kind of holy miracle like in the Bible.

However it would be, I wanted it. I wanted the struggle to end so I could get back to the most important thing in a child’s life: fitting in.

Half-way through the year, my father grew less patient and started to think I was resisting his tuteledge.

While waiting for my dad to come home from his saleman job one day, I sat staring at that blasted multiplication table sheet and the worn-out stack of flash cards. The idea of facing another frustrating night sitting at the kitchen table lay ahead.

All of a sudden, something clicked. I turned over one flash card, then another, and another testing myself.

“MOM!” I shouted. She came running downstairs, expecting to find me bleeding from the head.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked.

“I understand it,” I said. “I don’t know why I was making it so hard.”

She grabbed my study materials away and began to quiz me. I was right every time. We danced. My dad came home, I showed him, and we danced some more.

By the fourth grade, I was not just passing, but excelling in all subject areas. In high school, I took advanced English and math classes all thanks to my parents who wouldn’t take a gold star to mean anything more than a sticky piece of foil.

Good thing they were there to be my greatest teachers because I never really fit it. One out of two ain’t too bad.

Shades of Gay

Maria Ydil (left) and her fiancee Vanessa Judicpa embrace... Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.” ~ U.S. District Judge Vaugh Walker

Read more:

I knew about Mick before we met in person. My best guy friend, Randy, described the member of his social circle as a narcissist, womanizer and an overall manipulator.

So naturally, Randy’s voice on the phone after hearing I was going on a date with him sounded less than pleased.

“He’s not for you, but I’m not gonna tell you what to do.”

“Nice thing to say about a friend.”

“Right, a friend and a guy, so I can overlook it. But you’re like my little sister.”

Of course, like many things in life, Randy’s assessment of Mick was dead on. What Randy failed to tell me: Mick was incredibly good-looking, smart, funny and terribly magnetic. People orbited around him and his beautiful light.

So he was tough for women to resist in spite of his flaws. Conversely, it made men feel threatened.

One day at my locker, a guy with a touch of crush on me named Mark stopped by for a brief chat.

“So, I heard you’re dating Mick,” he said. “We were in the same grade and then his mom transferred him to Powers Catholic High.”

“Yes,” I said, beaming with pride.

“Ya, he’s OK,” he said. “Too bad his mom’s a dyke.”

It felt like a slap across my face. My eyes blinked from the surprising statement and hurtful delivery.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Ask him,” he said. “Who do you think Susan is?”

I felt embarrassed by my ignorance. Turning on my heels, I marched off to my next class, art, and walked right up to Sherri who knew Mick.

“Is Mick’s mom a lesbian?” I asked quietly.

Sherri’s strangely dark facial features froze.

“I think you should talk to Mick about this,” she said, turning toward her sculpture. I pushed the sculpture aside, “No, tell me now.”

She softened somewhat and seemed to show a sensitive side toward Mick she never had before.

“It’s better if I don’t,” she said. “That’s his life.”

I realized I was being a jerk out of pride. That night, he came over to watch TV and I inquired about the remark as soon as my mom left the room. His eyes widened, but showed no signs of embarrassment or surprise.

“I didn’t know how to tell you,” he said. “You’re parents are so …”

The word he couldn’t find was likely conservative.

I sat and listened to his story with an open heart and mind. At the tender age of 18, his mother Joan set out to disprove to herself of her preference for women. At that point, she had been with neither, but she knew she felt no attraction toward men.

She met a beautiful man at a bar, took him home for a night-long romp and they dated a few months before she became pregnant. He stayed until Mick was born and then, they parted. While Mick was a toddler, Joan met Susan and together, they raised Mick.

“I was angry at school when I didn’t know,” I said, feeling emotionally drained by the story.

“And now?” he asked.

“I wish you had told me sooner. I could have punched Mark in the face.”

We dated off and on until I left for college. One day, Randy called to catch up and I could tell he was dancing around something.

“Susan died,” he said.

We all knew Susan had several health problems and always appeared frightfully thin, which was why it was funny that she was the disciplinarian.

I called Mick to express my sympathy. That weekend, I came home and drove over to see him and Joan with my friend Shannon. I had never seen Mick truly sad before.

“I loved her so much,” he said sincerely. His mother, Joan, never had another partner.

While Randy to this day would probably say my dating Mick was an error, it was landmark in my development as a human being.

I still attend church, believe in God, vote Republican and love my gays. Some would disagree all that can exist in one person – both gays and straights, liberals and conservatives alike.

I suppose using broad brush strokes allows a mind the easy out by seeing life in black and white. Blind prejudice usually comes from a desire to stifle convergent thought just as coloring inside the lines provides the oxygen to allow those thoughts to live.

My life’s painted with various brushes in shades of gray without excuse or apology. It might not be a perfect paint-by-number, but those never hang in a museum anyway.

A Great Lakes State of Mind

“I’m actually forced to write about Michigan because as a native of that state it’s the place I know best. ” – Jim Harrison, author

A Mormon once told me they often sensed each other’s fellowship before its confirmed; like twins separated at birth. Sharing a birthplace tends to work in the same fashion, especially when more than 2,000 miles separates you from that Earth you long called home.

In San Diego, my circle of friends includes two people: people I met in San Diego and Michiganders. Somehow, our orbits intertwine and we instinctively ask with knowing smiles: “Where are you from?”

The answer rarely surprises me, but never fails to delight. Why should you care that I’m from Lake Fenton Township anymore than I care you’re from Grayling (as Mr. Harrison)? Because its another tie that binds us together and gives us a sense of belonging, of feeling understood and a bit less lonely in a world that doesn’t know the joy of a hockey game, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a rouwdy game of Euchre or standing on your porch watching a twister headed your way (I promise, very entertaining).

And yet, some things about home never appealed: deer hunting, unemployment, trailer parks, high crime rates, union battles, poverty, snow.

The first Californian to ride in my car amusedly reached in my backseat and picked up a monsterous life-saving combination ice and snow scraper.

“What’s this thing?” she asked, waving it around like a toy.

“Ghost from my past,” I said. At that point, I still had a car lock de-icer on my keychain. If you don’t know what that is – good for you.

Few friends and even fewer family moved away from Michigan after I started life over in California nearly a decade ago.  When I married in San Diego, there were grumblings among extended family. I was not a “bride’s bride,” but I also could not picture hosting my reception beneath the grim glow of community center florescent lighting.

Many phases passed in an out of my California life, one of which included a misguided attempt at being a blonde. Some may wish they were California girls, but I’m happy as a small-town girl living the Pacific Coast lifestyle. I’m an unfinished, unrefined brunette who make a concerted effort at sophistication.

This weekend, I will travel home to help my parents break-up housekeeping so they can sell the house and live pemanently near my brother in Houston. Many emotions swirl around in my head as I try to focus on the enormous task at hand of dissolving a home more than 35 years in the making.

Every nook and cranny, every beam and wall, every sidewalk crack and lake ripple, every apple tree and blade of grass, every firefly and frog, the remnates of childhood forts illustrates the blueprint to my birth, my history, my soul.

The neighborhood virtually remains unchanged – same families, same jobs, same houses, same cars, same twisting dirt road. All elements of that world remains frozen in time as if only for my memory to retain that sense of childhood and of never growing old.

As we discussed the week’s plans a few nights ago, my mom asked if I could handle the food for an impromptu family reunion on Sunday. She listed off what I should buy at VG’s grocery store.

“Potato or egg salad, chips, sandwiches – subs at the party store are good and we can just cut them up … ”

Flashbacks to childhood potlucks struck me. By comparison, my diet today seemed a bit “fru-fru” and produce heavy. 

“Mom, I think I can handle it,” I said. “Just let me worry about the food.”

She hesistated for a moment and then said: “These are Michigan people. Remember? Please don’t get anything weird.”

“Like what? I asked, laughing. “Pretty sure they don’t even sell avocados in Michigan.”

“Yes, like that stuff,” she said. “Never cared for it.”

Its the little things that change us over time ever so slightly. The more time draws out between me and home, the less I look like it as if my fingerprint lines shift from pressure like water against a rock.

A worn page I dogeared in Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” reads like this: “All things belonging to the earth will never change … all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth – these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”

The Class Clown

I struggled to fit in from day one of Kindergarten. My natural desire to be everyone’s friend rubbed certain wasp-ish types the wrong way. One could not be friends to people of all backgrounds; showed bad breeding.

My parents did not pursue higher education. They were working class people largely from agricultural roots. My mother was a hairstylist and my father was a salesman. If they lost a job here, they got a job there – food was food, a paycheck from here or there still bought it.

When they settled down in Lake Fenton, a township of the City of Fenton, they desired to have my older siblings attend smaller, better schools than those in Detroit. I came along three years later not knowing the difference. People were people.

In grocery stores, if I turned up missing (which happened often) I could most likely be found talking to someone sitting on a bench outside.

“I’ll never have to worry about someone kidnapping her,” my mom would say. “She’ll just leave willingly.”

But school taught me quickly that not all people want to be friends. Some don’t even want to like you and in fact, some people make it their job to bully and hurt you.

I understood quickly that surviving around the sort of kids I went to school with for 12 years required me to care about what they thought.

Most of my classmates’ parents were doctors, lawyers and dentists whose kids were destined to go to Harvard or Stanford to marry scientists and cure cancer.

I was destined to be Erica.

But I discovered my one talent that could distract them from my garage sale clothes (some of which came from my own classmates’ closets) and the strange lunch food that I could never seem to trade away.

I was funny.

Boy, oh boy. I could make people laugh. Laugh until milk shot out their noses. And I had a really bizarre laugh to boot, which I also didn’t know until I went to school.

“You laugh like a hyena,” Kari told me in kindergarten. The first of many times throughout my life that I would hear such a remark.

When Halloween came around in the 1st grade, I felt overwhelming dread.

All the kids in my class talked about the best costume stores, but I knew that my mom intended to “make” my costume.

Of course, our class of roughly 80 were to participate in a “parade” through West View Elementary School’s three hallways. I started having nightmares of coming to school looking ridiculous and everyone would point doubled-over in hysterical laughter.

The week before Halloween, the teachers sent home a note telling parents that we would not be celebrating Halloween on the actual day as it was a mid-week day, but rather on Friday. I brought home the note and showed my mom.

The day of Halloween, she woke me up and told me to come downstairs so she could dress me.

“Mom, it’s not today,” I pleaded. Tears streamed down my face. “It’s on Friday. It’s on the note.”

“Where’s the note?” It was misplaced or thrown away. At any rate, my evidence to support my case was gone.

She dressed me in a black and orange clown one-piece jumper, ridiculous, large black shoes, and she pulled my hair into pigtails.

The make-up application took some time since I could not stop crying. She painted my face white, painted red circles on my nose and cheeks, and drew a black line around my mouth creating a “clown” smile.

My mom dragged me – bookbag in hand – to the front door, pushed me out and shut the door.

I didn’t know what to do.

For a moment, I thought about running to my hideout until school was over and deal with the principal calling my parents. Then he could explain that it wasn’t the day they were celebrating Halloween.

From inside, she said: “Get to school.”

I sighed and walked to the bus stop, which was about a quarter-mile trek. I slogged along in the oversized, clumpy shoes as neighbor pals walked by wearing looks of sincere sympathy.

When the bus arrived, I could hardly stand the burning of my face. It felt as though I were inside Hansel and Grettel’s oven.

I sat down as close to the front as possible, but it didn’t matter. The mean kids in the back taunted and made fun of the “clown.”

“Hey, stupid!” one shouted.

“Nice clown outfit!” another laughed.

My stop was near the beginning of the bus route. I endured an hour of ridicule until I got to school.

As soon as the bus door opened, I ran inside to the girl’s bathroom near the 3rd grade, locked myself in a stall and cried. Soon, one of the older girls came in. It was Sherri from down the street. She had an early morning activity at the school and her mom had dropped her off; she didn’t see me at the bus stop.

I peaked through the crack in the stall.

“Sherri?” I asked.

“Erica?” she responded.

“Yes,” I said. I opened the stall.

I must have been quite a site standing there in the bathroom stall looking like some train-hopping hobo with pigtails.

Sherri could be incredibly mean. I was afraid she would laugh, but surprisingly – she looked sad.

“Erica, what’s happened?”

I explained the misunderstanding with my mom. Tears coated the thick face paint in clear streams.

“Have you been to home room?” she asked. I shook my head. “The bell’s going to ring soon. I’m going to walk you to your class.”

“No,” I pleaded and backed into the stall. But she insisted that we would face the music together. Sherri walked me through the crowded hall of stares and laughter to the other hall down to my 1st grade class.

When I entered the room, it fell silent for a second. Then everyone started to laugh and point. My teacher was facing away from the door. She turned around when the room erupted, saw me and looked confused.

“Stop it, everyone,” she said. “Erica, we aren’t celebrating Halloween until Friday. Why didn’t you tell you mom?”

“I did and I gave her the note,” I said.

The teacher looked at me with disbelief, as if I intended to be disruption.

“Sherri, take her to the girl’s room and clean off her face,” she said, letting out a tone of annoyance. “I’ll let your teacher know where you are while I call Erica’s mom to bring her other clothes.”

In the bathroom, Sherri scraped wet rough, brown fiberous paper towels over my face to remove the costume paint. When enough had been removed, I washed my face with my hands and she handed me dry towels.

She took my hair out of the pig tails and pulled all my long hair back into a ponytail using her fingers as a comb.

When my mom rushed into the office with the bag of clothes, she looked ashamed of herself. She apologized to me and the staff for the mistake.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you, honey,” she said.

I returned to class with white face paint still in my hairline and tried to focus as everyone teased me throughout the day.

When Friday rolled around, I wished so much that my mom would surprise me with something less embarrasing, like a store-bought princess costume. Of course, she had nothing else to dress me in and watching her paint me up again seemed worse the second time around.

The day went by in a fog. I just kept thinking about the day ending so I could go home and hopefully, people would forget. They eventually did, but I didn’t.

Every time I see a clown, I see that black and orange costume and my 6-year-old self being cleaned up by Sherri in the 3rd grade class bathroom.

Guess I had the stomach to be funny, but not as the class clown.

The One That Got Away …

Growing up on a lake in Michigan means you get the best of every season.

In the winters, you ice skate, play hockey and aim to sled fast enough to hit the ice for a great slide. The more adventurous even take snowmobiles for a spin on the ice. (Mom despised snowmobiles and motorcycles and forbid us to ride either.)

In the summers, you take the boat out for a twirl on the lake, get friends to rock a raft side to side in order to launch you into the water and of course, you hunt the creatures in the water – snakes, turtles and fish.

I loved the act of fishing and helped my father clean his bigger catches for pan-fried dinners. I never caught anything big enough to keep: a few sunfish here and there was about it.

One bright, cloudless day, my mother decided we would all go the Genesee County Fair after we finished our morning fishing from the Kendall’s dock next door. We had never gone to the fair before and at 8-years-old, it was a most exciting opportunity.

My dad’s friend, Jack, stopped into the house to join us for our fishing. Though Jack was married, he virtually lived out of his car and kept a well-supplied clothesline across his backseat. He would visit the house, play guitar with my dad, drink whiskey and sing Johnny Cash songs. Jack was gaunt, gravely voiced and has a face like sunworn leather. I painted him pictures, which he still had at his home when he died years later.  I loved Jack.

Jack brought his bait and tackle box down to Little Long Lake, which sparkled like diamonds in the summer sunshine. A slight breeze cooled the sweat on our foreheads.  Daddy made sure all the fishing poles were in good working order before he handed Whitney one and me another.

Whitney could not handle baiting her own hook.

“Worms are so gross,” she would squeal. Anytime she faced an obstacle that made her uncomfortable, you had a limited amount of time before she might burst into tears. My father would give in and bait her hook.

I, on the other hand, was something of a “tom boy.”

I snapped off half of a nightcrawler, snaked it onto the double-barbed hook, dangled it over the side of the dock into the water for a second watching the red-striped bobber ride the ripples and then looked out at the lake. When I found the spot I wanted, I drew back my right arm, followed my hook with my eyes and in one sharp move, launch the hook. The hook and sinker plopped into the water.

Fishing on a lake takes on a great feeling of earthen majesty. Your connection to nature feels immediate as if it courses through your veins. The provincial notions of life spring forth to surround and envelop you.

As we all settled in with our ritual, Brent, the Kendall boy, came down to investigate our use of his family dock.

“Can I fish?” Brent asked my dad.

Brent had a quiet, strange way about him. One day, my mom woke from a nap on the couch to find him sitting in the living room watching cartoons. Another time, he knocked on the front door with a grip of daffodils to sell. She was about to oblige when she scanned the yard and realized the flowers were in fact just picked from our fenceline. Many years later, his mother, Dawn, would recall that as her most embarrasing moment as a mom.

Brent also had zero fishing ability. His Snoopy pole bit the dust the prior summer; the line got caught in a tree over the lake when he didn’t look at his hand before releasing his line. He only noticed when he tugged mightily at the line without looking and it didn’t release from the tangled mess he created above. It hung there for weeks until his dad, Gary, cut it down.

“Brent, no more fishing for you,” his dad said.

My dad firmly said,”No Brent. You cannot fish. These are our poles, but you can watch and stay out of the way.”

Some time passed. I retrieved and cast my line several times. The “click-click-click” of the reel gives one such a calm as to be in a dream.

Suddenly, my line jerked. My arm gave in, I pulled back and realized I had a fish. I reeled in the line some, pulled, reeled in, pulled and then, a largemouth bass jumped up into the air on the end of my line. He was beautiful. He fell back into the water and I screamed: “I got one!”

Daddy and Jack came running over to the dock from the shoreline. I reeled the fish up and the bass struggled on the hook, his gills beating open and shut. I realized the poor fish swallowed the hook.

“Daddy, what do we do?”

“Hold on, baby, Jack has better tools than I do,” he said. “We’ll get him free. Good job, baby.”

He patted my shoulder and I beamed with pride, as I looked down at my bass waiting in the water.

While we both looked at one another from opposite ends of the pole, a flash of silver passed in front of my eyes. In an instant, I felt a piercing pain below my lip that began to tug. I screamed and turned to see Brent, with his back to me, yanking on the line.


He turned around. He froze instantly with his mouth wide open and eyes like dinner plates. He dropped my dad’s unattended pole and ran up to his house.

Jack ran back to help with my fish to discover he had two lines to cut.

“Erica! What happened? Hugh!” Jack yelled.

My daddy came running. When he saw me, he became enraged.

“That damn kid!” he said. “I’m gonna sue his damn parents. &*%?@!”

He swore a blue streak all the while Jack worked on cutting me free.

I suppose I cried, but I can only remember feeling scared. The throb of adeniline pulsated at my temples. After Jack cut me loose, he released my bass who swam off like so many fish tales.

We sped to Dr. Martin’s office, where he met us after hours. He was not wearing a tie or his sheet white doctor coat; he looked like an ordinary man.

“Alright, let’s give this a look,” he said, while we stood in the hall. The office seemed foreign in the quiet absence of babies crying and phones ringing. “Hmm. Alright, dad take little brother into the waiting room. We’ll be out in no time.”

I looked at the short-haired Whitney, who was delivered by a different doctor, and tried not to smile. Her little angel face squinched up and she gave what I recall as her first glaring stare. She never cut her hair short again until she joined the Navy.

Dr. Martin numbed my lower lip, which already looked much bigger than other girls’ and was now swollen from the hook. When the tissue was numb, he threaded the barb the rest of the way through, snipped off the end and pulled the hook out through the inside of my mouth.

The small hole in the bottom right side of my lip healed over time and so did the anger between our house and the Kendalls.

All Dawn could manage to say with a nervous laugh was: “At least there wasn’t a worm on the hook.”

I always felt to blame for ruining the plans for the county fair. We never went to to it in the many years we lived in Fenton. I also long regretted not getting to bring my own fish to the dinner table.

I guess it wasn’t meant to be. But it sure would have made one Hell of a fish tale.

The Blonde Princess

When my baby sister, Whitney, turned 5-years-old – my mom threw her a birthday party. Being about three years older, I knew my sister and her friends would stalk me around the house and want to be in all my “big girl” stuff.

I lamented this to my mom who said flatly: “Erica, if you’re the big girl – act like it.” Within a few hours, I had filled the house with big pink balloons and girls in cute little party dresses showed up to celebrate my little sister.

But one little girl stood out like a princess among paupers. Becky walked into the house wearing a pink dress with flaxen blonde, curly hair and the brightest, biggest blue eyes cut like glass orbs from the ocean’s surface. And when she giggled, she lit up the room with her fearless embrace of happiness. She loved life with her whole body.

Whitney and Becky became friends in pre-school and stayed best friends throughout school. They talked about boys, borrowed my dresses, shared their deepest secrets, rescued a stray cat and pulled a series of toilet-paper pranks on each other’s houses that live in infamy.

After high school, Whitney joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. Becky stayed behind in Fenton, moved in with a high school sweetheart and putzed around our hometown working and sometimes attending college.

One day, she was in her bathroom when one of her bright blue eyes closed shut on its own. When it flickered back open, she ignored it. But as the weeks wore on, the strange occurrence happened again and again.

The following month, Whitney went home for a reunion at our lakefront home. All their friends came to enjoy a beautiful Michigan summer day drinking, eating, telling stories and reminiscing about days gone by.

“So, I think something’s wrong with my eye,” Becky told Whitney. “I have an appointment with the eye doctor tomorrow.”

The next day, the optometrist examined Becky’s beautiful lense. He sighed: “Becky, nothing is wrong with your eye. I believe its neurological.”

She began doing research into what might cause something like uncontrolled muscle movements in her eye.

“I think I may have muscular dystrophy,” she told Whitney. “At least, that’s why I’m hoping.”

Weeks later, a neurologist examined scans of Becky’s 22-year-old brain and found a small tumor. The type of brain cancer was typical in juveniles and rarely seen in adults. It was possible she had the mass for many years and it just laid low. She began radiation right away.

The following month, I came home to visit my parents for a family reunion at the house. Becky stopped in for a visit while the house was momentarily quiet. The size-zero petite beauty showed some signs of the radiation: puffy face and dark under eye circles. But she spoke very matter-of-fact about the situation.

“I hate the puffiness,” she said. “I’m really tired too. I can’t imagine how exhausting chemo will be.”

That night, I went to a dive bar in Fenton (though I think they all qualify as such) and ran into so many fellow high school graduates. One girl graduated in the same year as Whitney and Becky; she asked if I knew about her diagnosis.

“Yes, she stopped by today and we talked,” I said. “Her spirits seem really high.”

She looked at me with a steady gaze: “It’s really bad, Erica.”

Six months later, I planned to come home for Christmas. While on the phone chatting with my mom about the details, she interrupted and said she visited Becky.

“I wouldn’t recognize her in a store,” she said. I felt dread wash over me and it returned as Whitney and I pulled up to her mother’s mobile home in Holly. The sharp winter air hit my face and froze my lungs with each breath. We stood outside listening to the sounds of Christmas music from within.

Becky’s mom, Gina, answered the door and immediately laid into Whitney for taking her “sweet, damn time getting over here. It’s not easy keeping Becky up.”

We walked into the living room and saw Becky laying helplessly in a hospital bed. Most of her blond curls were gone, her eye that kept closing had gone blind and her other eye could hardly focus on objects. She appeared to be about a size 16 and memories of her cute fashion sense became replaced by a sweat suit. Her breathing labored as she struggled to speak and fight against the urge to give in to her exhaustion.

Though we kept conversation light, the sadness hung in the room. A boy Whitney and Becky went to school with popped in for a visit and lifted the mood considerable. After an hour, we took a group picture – propping her up with our hands – and drove home to pick up the family for church.

The following winter, I planned to come home for the holidays and squeeze in my bridal shower with family. Updates of Becky’s progress changed every time I talked with my mom. The tumor shrunk, the tumor grew, the tumor’s almost gone – the tumor’s bigger than ever.

And while Whitney was deployed to Iraq, Becky asked us to keep information to her about her progress vague so she wouldn’t worry. We respected her wishes, but we knew Whitney may hate us later for not being more forthcoming.

The day of the shower proved to be the coldest day that winter in Michigan and being in California for six years – my blood thinned out to ocean mist. But family and friends showed up in fine fashion – even Becky. Gina wheeled her into the party, parked her at a table and I sat down for a good chat. Her giggle lit me up.

“I was thinking about making blankets for needy kids,” she said. “I sit all day anyway.”

Her mobility had returned some and she was going through physical therapy to regain her motor skills. She sat up, could stand at times, had lost some weight and spoke far better than the year before.

The next day, Gina and Becky came over for a visit at the house and exchange Christmas presents. She gave me a pink hat box filled with potpourri and a lottery ticket. I kept them both. We talked about the wedding in August and how they planned on attending. It filled me with such hope.

“I’m going to dance at your wedding,” she said. “That’s what I think about at physical therapy.”

Months later, Whitney called from Iraq in the middle of the night. I answered in a groggy state.

“Why won’t Becky talk with me long on the phone when I call?” she asked. “Gina jumps on and I never get to talk to her.”

The tumor grew to the point of pinching off her verbal abilities. Sometimes, her voice cut out on her.

Whitney hoped to be home by the beginning of August and had already bought a plane ticket to Michigan departing immediately after the wedding. The day of the wedding, I thought about my little blonde princess and how she wanted to be there.

The day we returned from our honeymoon, I called Whitney to pick us up as planned.

“I’m in Michigan,” she said. “Becky’s dying.”

A couple of days later, I popped into the office to pick something up and my cell phone rang. Brian handed it to me. It was Whitney; I didn’t want to answer.

“Becky’s gone,” she said. “It’s OK, Erica. She was in terrible pain at the end. She couldn’t speak, lost all her functions … she just shut down. I stayed with her until she was gone and waited for the authorities.”

Becky approved all her funeral arrangements and made one request that spoke to her quirky sense of humor.

“She made us play ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen,” Whitney said. “She made me so mad. I’ll never be able to listen to that song again.”

She never has.

Losing her best friend at 24 changed Whitney immeasurably. She remains fairly broken-hearted and misses her everyday. A framed picture of them before Becky was sick still sits on Whitney’s desk – it’s the only framed picture of any friend she has.

Years after Becky died, Whitney faced some tough times and had a hard go of things when she left the Navy.

“You know, when I’m afraid – I think about all the things Becky never got to do and then I do them for her,” I told her. “She’d probably give anything to have your problems.”

Whitney thought for a moment and said: “You’re right. I never thought about it like that.”

Next month, I will visit my childhood home for the last time as my parents pack up what they want and discard the rest to live in Texas near my brother. It will be my first visit since I married, first visit since Becky died.

It’s hard to imagine home without her and that silly, chittering laugh. Of all the memories of her, I cherish my first of her most. I think of her as an eternal little girl – happy, healthy and living an inspiring life that would leave the world a better place.

Hell in Grand Junction

The last day I wrote for the Allegan County News in late July, my publisher Cheryl told me I was making a huge mistake moving to California – especially since I was driving alone. I had intended to drive with my friend, Jenny, but she backed out at the last-minute and once my mind was set on a thing – I would see it through.

The Kalamazoo apartment I shared with my roommate, Sara, sat mostly vacant. She had moved out a couple weeks earlier and I was packing up my life alone. Though I was only taking a computer, my bed, TV, clothes and some personal items – it was a large job and I could have used some help. But all were busy.

The eery quiet of the two bedroom, one bath second story dwelling sent a shiver down my spine. I drove to a fast-food place nearby and returned to have some lunch on the floor, while my feet rested outside the sliding glass door on the balcony.

I leaned against the door frame and looked across the wooded area between our complex and the one on the next street over. A family helped a man move into his apartment. They were laughing and messing around outside between trips to and from the moving van.

Once the place was cleaned, painted and ready to be turned over to the landlord, I drove to my friend Nicole’s for a meal before leaving town for San Diego. In the morning, her mom, Joan, packed me a lunch. Nicole and I met while we worked together at Applebee’s along with Jenny and my former roommate, Nicki. Together, with Sara, we had lived in the Kalamazoo “student ghetto” – an area of town with affordable, historic homes. Ours was beautiful and always exciting. But those days seemed a distant memory after I moved into a more respectable place for my junior and senior years.

A couple hours later, I crossed the state line into Illinois and hit driving rain in Chicago. The rain stayed with me for a couple states. My first night, I stopped in a tiny town, watched the “funky spunk” episode of “Sex and the City” and had a restful sleep.

The next day, I stopped for gas in Omaha, Nebraska. The gas station attendant asked me where I was going. She had 1980s sky-high bangs and bright blue eye shadow. She snapped her gum in an assaulting way.

“I’m moving to San Diego,” I said. I smiled and paid for my gas. She took the money slowly across the counter.

“Why would you want to move there?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why would you want to live here?”

My little geckos, which I adopted from my favorite gay, Jason, traveled in their glass home in the back seat. I sang, listened to music, stopped when I was hungry, took pictures of amazing scenery and generally, enjoyed the time alone to clear my head.

My life as a Michigander ended and I looked forward to something new and exciting. I risked everything – I left without a job in San Diego, a friend in the world and just enough money in my bank account to make it for a couple months on the $525 a month I would have to pay in rent. But I wouldn’t fail; I couldn’t.

After passing through the surprisingly cold summer weather of Denver, I descended into the low land deserts of Colorado. It was amazing. I had never seen the west before; the flat sands and plateaus seemed to stretch out for years. It was then that I realized my car was running hot. I pulled over, propped open the hood and poured in a little anti-freeze with some water. I stood beside the car, the hot desert sun pressed down on my shoulders and dust filled my lungs.

I repeated the cooling process several more times. Each time I turned on the car – it was slightly cooler, but not enough to drive. I looked in the back seat at my little friends. They were getting warm. I cracked the other windows, and tucked a shirt in the door beside them for shade. The dry heat made my lips feel thin and papery.

Despite the heat, the stress made me crave a cigarette. In my head, I heard every person who told me I was crazy setting out for a new life alone.

Back in June, I visited my sister in San Diego, who was there for the Navy. No snow, sandy beaches and the ocean – it was everything my life had never been. I went home, ended my relationship with my boyfriend, quit my job and rented a U-Haul trailer.

After a few more attempts to cool the engine, I decided to hitch a ride into town. I stood on the side of the road, waved my hands as cars zoomed by at top speed. I figured the first few cars didn’t have time to slow down, but when the number climbed to nearly a dozen – I wondered if I looked dangerous.

Finally, a man stopped. My heart started to pound. I prayed he wasn’t a serial killer and took the risk. He drove me straight into Grand Junction, dropped me at a tow company and a mechanic drove me back out to the wreckage. The mechanic lifted the hood, turned on the car and a rattling sound popped off. He got out of the car and looked at me with concern.

“I think you split your engine block,” he said.

“No, no way,” I said, panicked. “I cooled it off. Maybe it’s the thermostat; the air isn’t running through the engine right.”

“Well, let’s hope,” he said. “How old is the radiator?”

“It’s pretty new,” I said. I looked at my stupid Pontiac Grand Prix and wished it were my old car, a 1987 Buick Le Sabre. Not as much giddy-up, but it ran fine.

“Ugh, I’m an idiot,” I thought.

By the time we dragged the car into Grand Junction, I was exhausted, stressed out, pissed off and on he verge of tears. The mechanics tested the machine and determined the engine was dead. I would have to move all my stuff out of the trailer into a moving van, and tow my car to San Diego.

As I was making the switch over, I realized my pets were dead.

I knelt down beside them, looked in their cage and tears streamed down my filthy face. I felt defeated. I took the glass container out of the car and saw a large trash container nearby. I didn’t know what else to do. The moving company was closing soon and I needed to turn in the trailer to exchange for the truck. I set the container beside the trash collector, said my prayers and went back to work.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone come out from the company next door to the trash and notice my deceased friends. I tried not to look. The person ran inside the business, three more people joined and one woman said: “Who would do such a thing?”

Later, as I left the moving company parking lot, towing my car – I saw the next-door company’s sign. It was a pet shop.

I found a hotel, took a shower, called my worried parents and brother, then decided I needed some food. Since my spirits were low, I decided to just walk downstairs to the vending machine. I wearily stuffed a dollar bill into the machine that was repeatedly spit out. I hit the machine, sweared at it and still, it spit the damn bill out again.

I walked up to the counter in the lobby for a newer bill, hoping the machine just didn’t like my sweaty, wrinkled dollar. A woman was ahead of me, yelling at the clerk about her room. He did his best to make her happy and she finally skulked off.

I walked up to the counter and he looked at me. Our facial expressions mirrored one another.

“Ever have one of those days?” he asked.