Catie Ehrlichman. She was beautiful and my best friend in high school. She died tragically in college. Looking back now, perhaps that sticky summer night in Morristown, New Jersey, was my best memory of her.
It was August, and the muggy summer weather was just hanging on. The thought of returning to school loomed in the dimmest parts of our brains. Catie and I lay on our backs on the perfectly flat green grass in her backyard, looking at the stars. We were unknowingly living in the comfort of the American suburban dream.
The grass was lush and soft underneath us, just like all the yards on the treelined streets in an unassuming town in an upper-class neighborhood. It was summer break at our boarding school, and I was visiting from my home in an affluent part of Westchester County.
A twinkling glass jar of fireflies sat wedged in a tuft of grass between us. Even though we were both sixteen, we had run around catching the luminous insects earlier that night. We knew although it was immature, it was fun. Now we were bored. This was life before cell phones.
Catie’s long strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect features starkly contrasted my frizzy black hair, crooked teeth, and glasses. My afro hair was bigger than usual, absorbing the humidity from the thick august night air. Katie was twirling a strand of her hair around her index finger absently.
“What do you want to do now?” Catie asked.
“I dunno. What is there to do?”
We were silent for a beat. The moon cast light through the darkness, and Catie popped up, maneuvering into a seated position crossing her bare ankles Indian style. She leaned toward me. Her flowered tank top stuck to her sweaty skin, her cheeks flushed from the heat, and her eyes were mischievous.
“Follow me,” she whispered. She got up and strolled away towards the brown wooden fence at the back of the yard.
Of course, I followed her. I followed her everywhere. I was a follower, not a mean girl, but her groupie. Catie was approachable, always smiling, and carefree in her boho style. We didn’t fit as friends, but somehow, we were, and could read each other’s thoughts like twin sisters.
Except for now. Catie kept this plan a mystery. We crept across the vast yard. When she turned every so often to look at me behind her, I knew she was thinking up something wild. What was it? She just smiled her magnetic smile, which opened hearts whenever anyone looked in her direction.
We slipped out the back gate. I remember I took a last look at the white colonial house with black shutters, feeling like I had just stolen something. Catie’s mother was watching tv inside, and the light from the television shone from the window. The rest of the house was dark. We had escaped unnoticed.
Catie and I walked a few blocks in silence. It was after 10 pm. Then she b-lined toward the Carmichaels’ house. I stopped and stared as she moved away in the darkness. Then I ran a few steps to catch up as she disappeared behind the bushes on the side of the Carmichaels’ house.
When I came through the bushes I saw Catie leaping into the Carmichaels’ swimming pool. The crash of the water startled me as her body cannonballed into the deep end of the pool. She swam under the water for a few strokes; then I heard the water splashing as she burst through the surface, her smile beaming as she held onto the pool’s edge.
I smiled and followed her in, and we pool-hopped the rest of the night. We sped through backyards, through the shadows. Dropping ourselves into the cool water, while dogs barked, and fathers yelled at us from upstairs windows.
Years later, I remember listening to Catie’s mother’s message on my answering machine. I was in college, having just come in for the night with a boyfriend. Her mother’s voice sounded tired. She said simply Catie had died. That she had killed herself. That was the whole message.
I howled in shock and crumbled to the floor. That couldn’t be true. Catie and I had finally spoken on the phone a week ago. I was going to come to visit her. Like I had done for so many summers when we were kids. Sure, we had missed a few years. I had been busy. She had her things to deal with, hip surgery, a pregnancy, giving her baby away for adoption. But things would be the same as they were. That was all behind her now. She’d go back to being Catie, the girl I remembered with the remarkable smile.
I never saw her smile again. I am left with memories, wishing I had been a better friend.