Put Out the Fire Inside Me

One experience I’ve been unable to process is the unexpected death of my best friend. We were 11 years old when we became friends and almost 25 when she went.

When I revisit our past (there is a stupid huge paper trail), I can only feel happiness. We stole whipped cream and popsicles from staff rooms and rolled down hills in homemade fat suits. We were determined to walk seven miles to the other end of town for no reason other than we liked walking. We sang, filmed videos, and watched horror movies in her grandma’s bedroom. She introduced me to AFI, HIM, and Nightwish; I introduced her to Jack’s Mannequin, Evans Blue, and The National. Her dad drove us around the countryside in his Chevelle (“cruises”) so we could sing. When I thought about where I first saw Peter Dinklage, I remembered he was a counselor on a TV show she and I loved in high school (which I just bought). We danced at punk shows and sang violent metal at a conservative Christian party. I convinced her against going to Ville Valo’s tour bus after a concert. She slept through my dad flying into a rage and asked me to secretly house her for a night. She dyed my hair and pierced my ears. We loved the same boy.

I cannot possibly list or remember everything we did.

Our friendship also shared a great deal of darkness. She periodically struggled with drug addiction, and I always became desperate to make it all stop. Once, in high school, I told my cousin that all of my efforts failed to make a dent, so I had to end the friendship. My cousin was disgusted with that choice, but I couldn’t understand why. If my friend chose to hurt herself without concern, how could I be close to her without getting hurt too? I had to protect myself, after all.

I was raised to judge comradery on exchange; if I invested in a relationship without reimbursement (“I gave a fuck and they didn’t”), then the relationship wasn’t worth my time and energy anymore. Every few years, I sacked our friendship because her choices hurt me and my advice was ignored.

I believed this to be fair on either side of an exchange: as a destroyed person this past year, I felt emotionally unable to give her the friendship she deserved. It was extremely poor timing because she was abusing her medications. I explained that I was too far gone to worry about her feelings, that I needed to solely focus on myself for a while. She told me: “No matter how shitty you think you are, if you just take time and listen to your friends, you can make their world a better place.”

I didn’t recognize what time and listening meant to her. She didn’t ask me to stop focusing on my own healing. She didn’t ask for my emotional investment or opinions and advice. She only asked me to spend some time listening to her, just as I was, without trying to change anything. It’s painfully ironic, because I couldn’t hear the request to listen.

For her, the real power lied in the reality between two people; for me, the idea of the relationship.

Just a few weeks before she died, she forgave me for abandoning her. I’m not sure how she occasionally felt alone and scared without starving for validation, reassurance, direction — you know, all the “good stuff” that makes us happier. I’m not sure how she always forgave me for believing she should receive more and abandoning her for not. I can only imagine based on what I feel while with my kids: by existing in the present moment, we practice mindfulness and have a willingness to be flexible, for our contributions to wax and wane, to be ever-changing and volatile, just as we, as individuals, are. It just is, and you’re in love, just as.

The truth is, being loved in return is its own beautiful experience. It’s also beautiful to occasionally revisit past memories and imagine future glories. There is no denying that. But if we’re tempted to leave when the bond changes, it’s better to be present for our soul mate(s). I’ve invested too much in memories and fantasies, and I’m ready to stop. Being present, I now believe, doesn’t conform to a preconceived definition or prospective idea. Instead, it’s seeing and hearing a person in the flesh and creating an active alliance. This is how my best friend chose to express her love to me, and it’s how I want to express my love to others. I don’t think loving unconditionally comes easily; I do, however, believe it’s worth exploring.

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I got three lotus tattoos representing three distinct periods of enlightenment by knowing and loving three people. I knew a lotus wasn’t the right symbol for my late best friend and I, so I waited on our tattoo until I could reflect on our friendship. Accordingly, the tattoo quartet is complete.

This is the cover art for Sing the Sorrow by the band AFI, the first and most powerful symbol of our friendship. We were 13 when we began singing to this album on a regular basis and would for the next 11 years.

A sense of dread grew as I approached my tattoo appointment. I’ve only felt this way twice before while on the brink of losing two other soul mates. This rare pain feels spiritual; even if I don’t believe in fate, the universe says we cannot be apart. But I cannot do anything but be apart from her.

I will do what I can to revisit past memories without living in those times. I will do my best to create an active alliance with her absence. I will do my best to be here, with myself as I am, right now.

I will just do what I can.

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