My earliest memory of you was in our third grade classroom, sitting cross-legged beside one another while we waited our turn to say three things about ourselves that we liked. I remember how most people in our class repeated each other’s words–“I like that I’m smart,” “I like that I’m nice.” I was no exception. And I’m not ashamed to say (although I was slightly at the time) that I peeked at your list of self-love.
I remember seeing “intelligent” (not “smart,” as the rest of us elected) and “athletic” on your sticky note. You even wrote sentences for each describing exactly why, but my memory fogs here. What stood out to me was your third word. You wrote “good-looking” at the bottom. Wow, I thought. How confident. Or was it cocky? I looked away, uncomfortable at having read something so intimate. I didn’t know what to think of your word choice. I felt even more uncomfortable when it was your turn and, instead of saying “good-looking,” you said something else. Perhaps it was as generic as the rest of the class’s declarations, perhaps not. But it wasn’t what I’d expected.
I knew you better in middle school and high school. In Mrs. Domin’s sixth grade English class, you told me Hinduism was where everyone prayed to Allah, and I sternly said, “No, that’s Islam. I’m a Hindu.” I’m no longer Hindu, which I think you’d find amusing, but you said “Oh,” and your face turned red and I turned back around sheepishly. I like to think this was the spark of our friendship. You learned that I didn’t take shit, and I learned that you handled truth with grace.
“Kelleh” and “Chuckreh” were what we’d call each other in high school. Remember when we goofed around in Ms. Kaczor’s algebra class our freshman year, and she’d stare at us with her huge, ping-pong eyeballs? It became a joke to us, the fact that we were the class misfits. We made jokes about the weird kid in our class that persistently invited you to his basement and about the dreadfully ridiculous Ghost of John (wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?) and about the weirdos on the Cross Country team. You welcomed me into the world of the absurd. It feels lonely here without you.
And English class. All of them. Your language fed my imagination. I remember your contributions to the Troy High School newspaper and your scathing judgments of sports culture, a bandwagon I gladly jumped on given my apathy towards the subject. And god, we were silly. We had Mrs. Parks together our sophomore year, and we teased Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird. God, I miss our facetious jokes. My friends nowadays call me out for it, but I remember that it was you that encouraged it in me all those years ago, you rascal. You’d also hate me for calling you a rascal. Remember our “in-fidelity” box our sophomore year when we play-acted “Sexy” by Jhumpa Lahiri? You’d better not have forgotten.
Even as we each developed our own crews and time pulled us apart, I considered you one of my closest friends. It was high school, and drama ensued, not between us, but between other friends, and things become sort of weird in the way that sometimes things just look different when you blink. It was no one’s fault; we just learned more about who we were. Or at least you did, I think. I floundered as I matured, not quite understanding the changes I underwent. To assume the opposite for you would be inconsiderate, but somehow, it always seemed like you knew who you were, as though you were given a compass with instructions on how to care for it.
College was strange for us. We lived far from each other, you studied English, and I studied Engineering. Overlaps were few and far between but always memorable. I remember one time our freshman year when you were with a mutual friend, and she asked me whether I wanted to trip acid later that night. It was a Tuesday. I graciously declined.
You began dressing differently, wearing your hair differently. You pierced your septum, and I snickered behind your back. “Why would she get that piercing?” I’d ask my friends, and they laughed with me. And then karma caught up to me. “What about my piercing?” came your voice. The ground was wet from rain; I remember because I often looked down as I walked. I didn’t have your confidence. Even when I turned back to confront your voice, shocked as I was that you were heading to the same party as me, listening to my judgment of your individuality, my eyes glanced down. I couldn’t help it. “It’s a bit weird,” I murmured. “I don’t really give a shit,” you said. I stepped in a puddle. Our roles had reversed in a lopsided way. You didn’t take my shit, but I struggled to maintain poise.
You weren’t someone who loved everyone unconditionally. Thank you for that. You taught people to love themselves.
I remember seeing you again sophomore year at the UGLi, where we smiled in recognition, and you turned red and laughed and said you had to run to class. I wish we’d set up a meeting and caught up. I could tell you that you influenced my decision to minor in Creative Writing. This blog itself comes partly from you. But instead, we parted aways in the library lobby, and I wondered why you didn’t want to talk to me.
I was in Seattle when I heard of your passing, interning at Amazon for the summer. I was hiking with two of our other mutual friends from high school. I wish so dearly that I could see you right now so you could rip me apart for falling towards a corporate future.
My friend received a call as we took a break in the shade. “Slow down,” she said to her phone. She blanched, eyes wide open, then lowered her phone for a brief second and said, “Kellie Halushka died.” And I felt something inside of me fade away, like a small spark being extinguished by wind, not because you meant little to me but because you showed me a part of myself that I’d never have found, and even if that part was rooted far in the past, it burned with the density of a neutron star.
My first thought was that you’d overdosed on drugs. The old judgment that I had of you for the nose piercing came back strong. It seemed like the only way to explain what had happened before I knew the facts. I’m sorry. I know now that your passing was unfair, a freak accident for which nobody could have prepared. Why did I think so little of you when you’ve done so much for me? I’m so sorry, Kellie.
I thought it had sunk in over the following days, but clearly, I was wrong. I was walking home from North Quad today when, inexplicably, I thought of you. I have no idea what it was, but I’m glad it happened. I want so badly for us to be able to talk to each other again. I think we’d be better friends now than we were in high school. That’s the worst part, I think. I’d tell you that I love Sufjan Stevens now, and that I love writing, and that I’m starting to learn how not to take shit from people. You would be proud of me.
I know that in another universe among the infinity of time and space, we are alive, and we are friends. I can’t not believe that. Reality is far too small to be real. You’d tell the class that you are good-looking, and they’d snicker and laugh, some behind your back and others right then and there, sitting there cross-legged, and I would tell them all to fuck off, and I’d tell you you’re goddamn right, and you should never, ever let anyone convince you otherwise, because I know you’d do that for me.
I miss you, Kelleh. Hopefully, we can grab a coffee someday, somehow.