The last time I saw Isabel was just over five years ago, at a music festival in San Francisco. We both shared a love of music, so even though she didn’t live in the Bay Area, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw her walking at the base of a grassy hill toward the main stage. But the sight of her—tight navy pants, an army-green bomber jacket, dark hair half-pinned back and sunglasses in her hand—forced me into a kind of paralysis. I was already walking halfway down the hill when I saw her, leaving my group of friends to grab another drink, and I calculated that if I continued on, we’d bump into each other. Unsure of myself, unsure of who she was now, unsure of what a reunion could mean, I stopped, watching her walk into the crowd and away from me.
Isabel and I became friends ten years earlier, our sophomore year of our private Jewish high school. I’d known her for longer; we grew up on opposite sides of LA but went to the same summer camp, and later we’d joke about the pictures we’d taken together on disposable cameras as if we were close. Yet we couldn’t know what close meant back then, before puberty, before we were teenagers, before we were old enough for intimacy to be a choice more than a product of circumstance. That year, when I was newly sixteen and Isabel still had months to go, we were assigned as roommates for our class trip to Israel. “Trip” is the wrong word, maybe, because it lasted four months, and maybe “assigned” is too, because we had some say in the matter, each requesting people we’d want to live with there. I didn’t list her name, but she must have put mine, a fact neither of us admitted. I was always too embarrassed to ask what it was she saw in me.
I had been to Israel twice before, once with my family to have a second Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall, in the southern portion that allows a mix of genders to pray, and the second a year later, in eighth grade, during a two-week exchange program. Each time, I rode camels, took pictures of the sunrise from atop Masada, floated with mud on my chest in the Dead Sea whose waters I was told were shrinking although I couldn’t see any difference. On the second trip, I had my first kiss with a boy in a kibbutz at night, the same night I had my first drink. His lips were chapped and quick, and I remember the dizzying thrill of being touched, at feeling so suddenly that my body wasn’t made to exist alone.
Overall, though, those earlier trips have dimmed the same way childhood dims, a necessary forgetting that gives way to memories more formative. If I learned about the history of the place, its longevity, its complexity, none of it was strong enough to stay with me, for me to even be the least bit informed. Education consisted merely of a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum looking out over the Judean Hills, as well as to Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard, but I couldn’t say which trip we did what, if maybe it was even both. Or maybe it’s just that my time there with Isabel later took precedence, not only for the depth in which we learned but how we learned it, together.
* * *
Forty of us lived in a limestone-covered dorm on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, in Hod Hasharon. The town was really only a town, two main streets populated by a handful of shops and restaurants, but it was there I experienced real freedom. The first night, jetlagged but wired, a bunch of us went to buy linens from a nearby store. On the way back to campus, Isabel touched my arm, said follow me.
We put our bags of bedsheets and blankets and pillows down and sat at a table on the patio under a heat lamp. The chairs were a bright white, a contrast to the darkened sky that I couldn’t help but see as intentional. Occasionally a passing car would sound but it was mostly quiet here, a silence I hadn’t realized I longed for. I told her so.
“Don’t you think it’s sad we had to fly across the world for some quiet?” she asked.
The waiter came for our order then, and I watched as Isabel spoke to him in Hebrew with a familiarity and mastery, especially for someone not Israeli, I can only describe as shocking. Who was this girl, I thought. Had she always been so in command, or was this a part of her that couldn’t flourish back home? I knew enough to understand what she was saying, asking him what he recommended, and soon he took our menus and said, in English, he’d bring us our drinks soon.
“Hot chocolate,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
“Hey, even I recognize shoko-ham,” I said. “Did you not think we could pass for eighteen?”
“If we showed off our cleavages, anything’s possible. But I’m not trying to get sent home the first night.”
She raised one of her eyebrows in succession and it made me laugh, that must’ve been the point, and there was an electricity about her as she talked. That January night was cool and breezy, and as we sipped hot chocolate, she told me how halfway to LAX she realized she forgot her passport and had to go back. Her mom was also so overwhelmed with emotion she didn’t speak the whole way, in the end crying when she said goodbye at the airport, a story she could’ve been telling anyone, but it was the way she spoke that made this night, us, singular—how she leaned forward, her eye contact direct and tethered, the smile that precipitated her words. Everything about her was new or revealed, I couldn’t decide which, and in her presence I felt myself emerging too, like she gave me permission to become a truer self.
The cornerstone of our program was a history class that bridged the gap between the classroom and our travels throughout the country. Our teacher was also a tour guide, and we’d get on a bus and go to the places we were learning about. She’d seat us and teach us a lesson about what happened there, and we’d write in our notebooks under the sun—about a war, an uprising, some triumph or injustice. Sitting on a hill overlooking the colored farmland of the Jezreel Valley, my teacher telling us the biblical recounting of how the Philistines defeated King Saul and the Israelites, that’s the moment I saw a glimmer in Isabel’s eyes. A glimmer I’ve not forgotten. I thought then that this is where she’s meant to be. Not Israel, exactly, but in a space where living was synonymous with learning.
Israel is small, easily travelable by car, but no matter how near or far away our trips were, whether the one hour to Jerusalem or the four hours to Eilat, our bus rides were occasions in a youthful debauchery. Our teacher didn’t seem to mind. The norms were changed here: we called her by her first name, she spoke to us without fear of parental intrusion, and absent these formalities, there was the brunt expectation we’d hold ourselves to account. And we did. But on bus rides, she let us be who we were becoming, rowdy and excited and forward as we moved seats, some pop song playing on the speakers. But Isabel was different. The way, between class breaks, she’d come back to our room and sit on the couch for a few minutes and close her eyes. Once I opened the door to see her there, alone with herself in silence, and it was like walking into the bathroom stall to see someone on the toilet, a complete intrusion into something so private. But she opened her eyes, patted the cushion, said come join, it’s calming. And then, back on the bus, I’d catch her staring out the window. There was one time, as we drove up the hill to Jerusalem, our bus slowed before going down the hill, and the city was there, right there, in front of us. But most people hadn’t noticed. I only did because I was looking at her, following her gaze. She sat up straight, leaned in, her forehead touching the glass. The Chords Bridge for Jerusalem’s light rail system, designed in the shape of David’s Harp, wasn’t yet constructed, but it was like she could see it still, like she could see everything, the skyline of history stretching from the past into the future.
* * *
In April, most of our classmates flew home for spring break. We stayed. We spent those two weeks together bouncing between the spare rooms of distant relatives and acquaintances. Free of the constraints of our program, Isabel and I went to a concert in Kikar Rabin and got drunk for the first time. I made sure to wear a low-cut shirt, and so did she, and we went into separate kiosks and bought packages of Smirnoff Ice. We drank them in a parking lot of an apartment building around the corner from the square, not far from where Rabin was assassinated. Between parked cars and under the shadow of the building’s concrete stilts, we tapped the necks of our bottles like they were wine glasses, drinking with equal looks of revulsion and glee.
She burped when she finished. I liked that she didn’t say excuse me.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
I finished my bottle as I waited for her to speak. I was already feeling tipsy, maybe it was more the charge of the night. I waited before grabbing another. She had an expression of solemnity that gave me the chills, and I thought then there was something subterranean in her, something inaccessible and kept private.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
She brought her hands together, stroked her palms. But her eye contact didn’t veer.
“I think there’s something wrong with me. Something about me turns people away. Like I’m one of the last people in our grade who hasn’t had their first kiss. Guys gravitate toward you in a way they don’t with me. I know that sounds stupid. Maybe it’s the way I look. Or my personality. Like there’s something unattractive with who I am as a human being. The more I think about it, the more down I become. I’m not free-wheeling. I don’t have that sunny disposition. I wish I did.”
Her voice peaked at the end, and it was then she looked down at her feet. And I thought I would give anything to be more like her—I was ordinary, light hair and brown eyes, too appeasing to create waves—but Isabel stood apart in her difference, her gray-blue eyes swam with both intention and thoughtfulness, her dark hair framing her with an intensity to match.
“You’re unique in the best way,” I said, helpless in my inability to say more. “I mean it.”
Silence reigned, the kind of silence we heard on our first night here, it was like the sounds of Tel Aviv were muted in this pause, because how can you hear anything when you’re concentrated on something else? And that’s when she unclasped her hands.
“Forget it,” she said. “Let’s go back.”
Isabel bent down to pick up the rest of our alcohol but before she could touch it, I grabbed her shoulder. She raised her head and that’s when I kissed her. Her lips were soft. I had never kissed anyone with such soft lips, and by soft I mean tender, full of welcome. And then they expanded into what I could feel was a smile. I wrapped my arms around her neck and she held my face and we stayed like that for several minutes, kissing in a corner of the world far away from home that had become our home, and it was more exciting than I can express, the knowledge that no one knew where exactly we were but us, that this is what growing up could be, exploration and an opening to a place of uninhibited joy. But as our tongues met in the space of our conjoined mouths, as she held my cheeks with grace, I sensed again the depth of her that presented itself fully now as a kind of darkness. Beneath all the intrigue lay a rush of black, shadowed and layered, and here she was, allowing me a glimpse. And it was this paradox, of euphoria and sorrow, that brought out a total aliveness in me so profound I had to pull away, catch my breath.
My expression made her laugh, a shattering of whatever had bound us.
“You’re a really good kisser,” I said. “You sure you haven’t kissed anyone before?”
“No,” she said. “I just gave that whole speech as a ploy for us to make out.”
She put her arm around my neck. “Don’t worry Kira, you’ll always be my first kiss.”
I stuck my tongue out. “You’re welcome.”
“Also, for what it’s worth, you can bet you’ve inflated my ego.”
After the concert ended, we smoked nargila at a bar on the beach with illuminated red cones and plastic chairs. How long were we there? Maybe no more than an hour, but in that time two French boys came and sat with us, saying we should go with them to a park nearby to drink more. They looked at me as they spoke, as if I was alone, as if Isabel wasn’t even there. And as this scene progressed, I watched as the muscles of her face drooped, as she seemed increasingly far away. After they left, Isabel had a look of deep sadness in her eyes. When we walked to find a cab, it was me who put my arm around her neck, and in the backseat, her expression softened.
The weekend before our program resumed, we went to an overnight festival in the south not far from Ashkelon. I can’t remember where we heard about it, only that Isabel went out one afternoon to buy tickets from a friend of a friend and soon the two of us were on a beach closer to Gaza than Tel Aviv. We walked into the water and had a stranger take pictures of us from the shoreline, arms hanging over each other’s shoulders, and at one point, her arm in the air in the shape of a fist. Neither of us knew the artists playing onstage—they were all niche Israeli DJs and electronic wasn’t our style—but in that massive swarm of people, we danced. And my god, the way she danced, she was freedom personified, each movement an act of liberation that was infectious. At some point, we realized we were screwed on where to sleep. We heard talk about needing a tent. We’d only brought sleeping bags.
“Fuck,” she said. “What do we do?”
I pointed at a guy who was talking to us earlier whose name was also Guy, a fact we both found preposterous, on leave from the army. “See if Guy can help us.”
She knew what I meant, and I knew she knew what I meant. She walked up to Guy, took off his hat and put it on hers. Like she had done this before, like this was nothing. And Guy, tanned brown with biceps strong enough to lift us both, smiled. Leaned in. He whispered at her ear and she blushed. The music was loud and unrelenting, no natural rhythm, but to this noise I watched her step forward and kiss him with force. I watched him put his hand on her ass and keep it there, and I watched her press himself against his chest. Here was Isabel, unfurling, and I’d be lying if I said some part of me wasn’t proud.
Guy didn’t help, in the end. He went to the restroom, supposedly, but never returned. She didn’t seem to miss him. We slept under the stars on the sand in our sleeping bags, and in the morning, we found everything of ours was missing. Backpacks, wallets, keys—all stolen. “At least we have each other,” she said. And I agreed. I couldn’t feel anything other than grateful.
For the last month and a half of our program, people noticed Isabel. It’s like she was newly hot, but nothing was new about her, maybe just this confidence that made her glow. She hooked up with a couple of our classmates, guys who treated her like some discovery, but then again so did I, so did all of us. We weren’t horny so much as curious about the limits of our affections. Yet what drew people to her wasn’t what had drawn me to her; she had this organic quality, rarely shown, one that was easy and earnest and, looking back, so very fragile. On the fifteen-hour flight home in June, she fell asleep on my shoulder and woke up shortly before landing, telling me she had a dream we’d never left.
* * *
High school progressed. I got my first boyfriend that next year, Jake, a senior who played basketball and had dreams of going to Duke. We met in AP Calculus AB, and I first realized I liked him when several of us hung back after class and he made some inappropriate joke, so lewd and out of context that we all burst out in the kind of laughter that pains the gut. He had a bowl cut he soon shaved into a buzz cut, and I liked to run my fingers across his head, remind myself he was mine.
Isabel and I weren’t in any classes together. We had opposite strengths. Where I excelled in math and science, she soared in history and English. Have you ever been so close with someone that their separation leads to a kind of ache? I ignored the shock of our distance, how we turned from a presence of consistency to something lesser. But no one knew me like she did, it’s true, and we still talked. We talked a lot. I couldn’t get enough of the banter or deep conversations she’d initiate, video chatting and grabbing lunch in a group in the school’s quad, and sometimes on weekends, driving on PCH and putting the windows down, staring at the ocean’s horizon line, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, imagining we were as free as we’d once been.
Jake didn’t get into Duke. He ended up going to UT-Austin, and before he left, he said he hoped I’d follow, but I didn’t see myself there, and I realized then I never wanted to chase after anybody. I never wanted to be with someone whose dreams couldn’t make room for mine.
But what were my dreams? Isabel asked me this at the start of our final year. “You’re brilliant,” she said. “You’re hardworking. You’ll go far. But where do you want to go?” We were sitting on my bed, in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by four walls that bled lime green and held pictures of lives we would soon leave behind. I told her I didn’t know. Maybe I didn’t really know myself.
“I think you’d love Berkeley,” she said. “When I visited last spring I thought of you, did I tell you that? I thought to myself, this is Kira’s school. It’s perfect for her.”
I asked her why and she said something about the campus, about this building or that, the vibe that extended into the city, but what I remember most is her promise that I’d understand when I got there. So I drove up with my mom and she was right; it was open and beautiful and full of potential and all of a sudden the life I had been too scared to imagine seemed possible. That she saw me there presented itself as a sign.
I got in; I committed. Isabel got in too, along with a bunch of other schools, but in the end sent her deposit to Brown. I didn’t have to visit to know it was perfect for her, someone with an unending intellectual curiosity who was not only smart and curious but fierce and compassionate. Just its name brought to mind the color of leather-bound books I could see Isabel reading as she sat against the trunk of a tree, autumn leaves on the grass and people walking by. Maybe that’s all friendship is, the innate sense of knowing what the other person needs to thrive. For a while she did.
* * *
Isabel came by the night before she left for Providence. It was supposed to be a quick goodbye—her flight was early in the morning and it was already late—but had spent the whole day rushed and overwhelmed packing. I wasn’t moving to Berkeley for another week, and it was this gulf between our experiences, her leaving while I stayed temporarily in place, that put her in a state I couldn’t yet access. There was nothing quick about her visit, as we should’ve expected, and she ended up staying for three hours, most of the time spent crying in my arms. We were back on my bed, and all the times we had been there before—stalking someone on Facebook, doing homework, creating bucket lists for our senior year—seemed to add up to this invisible mass that weighed heavy now. All the memories that would only be that, memories.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said.
It was the sight of her, red-eyed, shaking, free of self-regard, that left me unable to shed a tear, like I was holding onto some misplaced strength.
On the bookshelf nearby stood our yearbook, where inside Isabel’s inscription took a full page. She always had a way with words, but it was in reading those that I felt an immense gratitude for her putting words not just to me but to us. I felt an immense gratitude for having her in my life. Knowing you has been the most meaningful part of these last couple years, she wrote. What began in Israel changed and matured into something so unique I can only think of our friendship as a blessing. You have so many bright days ahead and know that while I may not be there for them, I will always be there in a more permanent way, so even if we haven’t talked in a while you can be sure I am present, that you can always call me a friend. I don’t remember what I wrote in her yearbook. It’s a block of text I’ll never be able to recall because how could I now, beneath all pain is love, and I loved her most of all.
I said I would visit, and she said she would visit, and we hugged on my front steps in complete darkness. LA was quiet then, when I think back to us I think of these moments of abrupt silence, the noise of the rushing cars on the boulevard nearby dissipated, and in its absence remained that last hug, that final goodbye, the lie we repeated to each other and wanted so desperately to believe, that nothing would change. And then, as if it were any other night, she got in her car and drove away.
* * *
The summer after freshman year, we went out to dinner. Isabel picked me up in her car, and I sat in the passenger seat as she fumbled with the radio, settling on an alternative rock station. The restaurant was less than ten minutes away, and as I talked about something my parents said, I realized how strange it was to be with her again now, here, as if we weren’t both rooted elsewhere. She had visited me at Berkeley in October. I took her to a football game and we were drunk before it started, each of us decked out in Cal apparel. Only now I realized she didn’t talk much about Brown that weekend; I was so busy showing her my new life I barely asked.
“Kira,” she said.
We were a few minutes away. I waited for her response, and when we stopped at a red light shortly after, she turned to me.
“I think I’m depressed.”
It was the look on her face that left me flailing, like she was telling me something as mundane as a baking recipe, and when the light turned green whatever I said or didn’t say had her turn the radio off completely. I assumed Isabel was going to turn the volume up, drown out whatever she had put between us, but instead she forced its recognition through silence. She was always unpredictable.
What memories stay with you? What memories have you forced yourself to forget? There are her hands, shaking as she reaches for her glass of water, her face flushed. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Are you okay?” And she didn’t answer but flagged the waiter, saying can we get more water, more water would be great. She put her hand on her chest and I leaned forward as if I held a stethoscope, as if I could possibly recognize her pain. The person in front of me, I thought, was this a version of her that has always been there, dormant and hidden? Was this a version I missed develop from across the country? She took her hand off her chest and stared like I wasn’t there, her eyes were focused on something only she could see.
“I’ve had a hard time,” she said, just as the waiter brought a pitcher of water, placing it on the table. She poured herself another glass but didn’t drink it. Her tone turned cavalier. “Awful, actually.”
Isabel looked me in the eyes like she had come back to herself, come back to me. And it was then she said she tried taking her life a few weeks back. She said, “It wasn’t one thing that triggered it. It was everything and nothing, a feeling I’ve felt before but finally gripped me and this time released like an answer. I was so fucking tired. So resigned. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. So I took a handful of painkillers, though obviously it didn’t work. And I’m glad, honestly. I realized after I didn’t want it to work.” But she said she had written a goodbye letter on her phone, she hasn’t deleted it yet but she could show it to me, did I want to see? It would mean a lot to her for me to read. I’d never felt so trapped—I didn’t have time to process her words, that was the thing about Isabel, she was always two steps ahead of everyone else and never gave them time to catch up.
I shook my head. No, I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to know. When her face fell some part of me did too, a part that’s never uplifted again, and I looked at Isabel and thought how full of life she was, even now, she embodied this energy I’d never known. And I thought suddenly of what she was saying—really saying. I thought about suicide, and by suicide I mean death, and by death I mean non-existence, and by non-existence I mean the premise of It’s a Wonderful Life, where Clarence, the guardian angel, shows George Bailey how life would have been poorer without him it. But here Isabel sought no affirmation from me, let alone the divine. She had made her decision like I was a footnote, but how could she not understand what her leaving would do to me, to all of us?
“You’re the first person I’ve told,” she said, voice quiet. “No one else knows.”
I thought then what a terrible burden this was, how I couldn’t carry her words, carry her, because to do so would be to accept the unacceptable: that this happened, that I wasn’t there, that I didn’t know. An anger settled in my chest. Her eyes flickered with hope and I had to look away.
The food came and I don’t remember eating it. I only remember staring at Isabel like I was seeing her for the first time. The darkness in her wasn’t private anymore, it was total and raw and presented to me like an offering. The longer I stayed mute the more she talked, and in hindsight I wonder if that was a kind of denial, this need to fill a silence that no longer suited us. “These feelings stretch back, I guess. You know I visited New York for a weekend in March, but what I never told you was that I went to the top of the Empire State Building and the view was something else, better than anything in LA, but I couldn’t even appreciate it, Kira. And in a flash I thought, What if I fell from this height? That weightless end, it called to me. Just knowing it was an option brought me peace.” At some point she said if something happened, something external, say her mom getting cancer, someone she loved dying, she wouldn’t be able to handle it, she’s absolutely sure she wouldn’t be able to handle it, that it would be worse. Her words reached me like echoes of a faraway alarm. I was already gone, some place neither of us could reach. I know I spoke more than two words that dinner, but there are only two I remember. There are only two I’m sure she remembers.
I replay this scene, my declaration, and here, the pause before her response. But she doesn’t respond—not verbally. Instead she nods, a gesture of assent, whether to me or herself I didn’t know. Times were different back then, this was still Obama’s first term, the days before mental health was a phrase people rallied around, when therapy was shameful and medication a dirty word. And I can list all the reasons here, stretching back days and months and years for how I came to sit across from someone I loved at her lowest and shunned her for it, but please understand losing Isabel would mean losing myself, an idea I had to push away immediately, no thought to its manifestation or consequences. The night ended with us talking about something else, who knows what now, and when she dropped me back off at my house, she hugged me from across the front seat and kissed my cheek.
* * *
Isabel and I never again spent time alone after that night. I saw her throughout the summer, but only ever in groups, and even then we didn’t talk like confidants as we once had, like friends. She flew back to the East Coast and I drove back up north, and that fall semester passed with a quickness I took as a gift. It was easy not to think of her there, surrounded by classes and parties and a new boyfriend who was sensitive and kind and experienced in bed and any reason you could think of, it stuck. I made myself busy. I made myself forget.
Over winter break, I threw a party at my parents’ house. The invites went out through word of mouth. The last time we texted was that night we went to dinner, when she pulled up and said I’m here, and soon I was walking down the brick steps to her car. It’s not that I didn’t want Isabel to come so much as I couldn’t bring myself to speak to her, and in so doing, acknowledge all the months we hadn’t spoken. So I didn’t invite her. I didn’t reach out.
She came anyway, wearing black jeans and a flowing turquoise shirt. I saw her turn left after coming through the door, dark hair pinned up in a bun, cheeks razor sharp, as she gave a girl a hug so tight someone might’ve thought they were close. Closer than us. Heart racing, I went to the kitchen and said who wants to do shots, let’s do shots. I poured vodka and me and three others knocked them back like drinking was still a novelty and not something we were doing to ease an unspoken feeling. In my periphery she appeared again, as if this was nothing, talking to a group of the guys. I would recognize her smile anywhere, but there was something artificial about the way her teeth shined now, like she was trying too hard, or maybe I’d forgotten the immediacy of seeing her happy.
We only spoke toward the end of the night, when people were on their way out. She came up to me and it sent my heart rate lurching again, the proximity of her, and she said, “Kira, can we talk?” I stood there as our high school classmates dissipated, standing in the living room of not just my home but the place we’d spent so many days, days that added up to something that can’t be thrown away but now have nowhere to go.
“Why didn’t you invite me tonight?” she asked.
Her eyebrows furrowed and I realized I read her wrong earlier, this wasn’t the face of happiness but something darker, yes, it was that darkness I recognized now. I didn’t know what to say, how could I say the sight of her forced me to a place a couldn’t meet? Looking at her was like looking into a mirror of a reflection I didn’t want to believe as mine.
“Why Kira?” she repeated. “Was it what I told you over the summer?”
I didn’t say anything, like all the moments we shared reduced themselves to sores in my mouth. I thought my silence might send her away but she remained, and in her stance, firm and strong, recognition gnawed through me.
“What you said made me really uncomfortable,” I said.
She paused. Shook her head. “I’m good now,” she said. “I was going through some shit but it’s all good now. I swear everything is good now.”
I nodded, I said sure, but I could tell, with the speed her words reached me, the panic in her eyes, she wasn’t good. And either way, that wasn’t what mattered, I couldn’t say, it wasn’t about the state of her mind so much as the state of mine. So I said that’s good, that’s good to hear, but I don’t know, it’s not the same, things don’t feel the same.
More people filed out of my house and I knew I’d never be so foolish as to throw a party again. I didn’t look away as they left, didn’t call back to them as they all moved blind to us, it was like we existed in a vacuum that was sucking everything from me—the life I had worked so hard to create for myself with her gone.
Something changed in her disposition, I could see it in her eyes, an awareness that shifted. She stepped back. Isabel looked at me in a way she never had before and said she was sorry. She was sorry for whatever she did. Isabel walked toward the door and I said, “You have nothing to apologize for,” but she didn’t turn her head, there was no pause in her step, and so all this time later I wonder if she heard me at all.
The next time I saw Isabel was the last time I saw her, years later, at Golden Gate Park, walking in that crowd toward the main stage. By now, San Francisco was home. I was working as a software engineer, making more money than necessary, on the precipice of moving in with my college boyfriend, the one I met around the time I lost her. He was there too, sitting on the hill with a group of friends that had begun to feel like family. But she was once family. Isabel, the most independent and introspective person I’d ever met, we shared not just memories but a kinship. She’d held my cheeks, she leaned her head on my shoulder, she cried in my arms. Yet I emancipated myself. My life gleamed, and she wasn’t there.
But she was there. She was there when I returned to Israel with college friends after graduation. At twenty-two using my ID to drink had gotten old, but in Tel Aviv I took any excuse I could to flash it to a bouncer or bartender. I remembered what it was like to be sixteen wishing I was eighteen, and as I drank in underground covens and Bauhaus lofts that I couldn’t know existed then, Isabel appeared. And for a moment, before she vanished like a mirage, everything was wonderful, only she could appreciate what it meant to be here now. She was there again when I drove down to LA for Thanksgiving at twenty-six and decided to go along the coast instead of through the Central Valley. I put on Californication as I drove through Big Sur. I was alone, my boyfriend was flying back to see his family in Chicago, and a feeling came over me I first recognized with her—that of real possibility. The sun was upright and shining and the day ahead was expansive. I nodded my head along to the music and, though it was risky, I lowered the window and looked outside. It was Isabel who taught me how to look this way—at the world not just in front of us but all around us. To my right was a cliff dropped over an ocean, and out beyond its horizon stood promises that had never gone away. I imagined her in the passenger seat, head turned away from me as she gazed at the view, and what I’d give to keep driving, we could go anywhere, we’d never have to leave.
These moments where I’d feel her presence most acutely were only ever moments. More years passed. She’d told me if something worse happened she wouldn’t be able to bear it, but as life happens, so does loss—her grandparents all passed away, her parents divorced, she got in a car accident that required intense rehabilitation—but she did more than just bear it. Isabel is currently engaged and en route to earn her doctorate in comparative literature, and each picture of her I see is iridescent, her eyes assured and luminous. I learned all this from Facebook or sporadic google searches, passing words from the community we once shared. I am married now, a newlywed of two months, and the other night I dreamt of my wedding. It was a drone’s perspective of the vineyard where I said my vows under the chuppah—but now something was off. In this version she walked down the aisle before me, arms linked with my brother-in-law, toward my now-husband. She hugged him and then stood to the side, waiting, flowers in hand. I woke up in well of despair. My husband knows of her without knowing her, without understanding, on a fundamental level, who she was to me, as if she were just another friend you fall out with on your road to adulthood. I never told him because that would mean unveiling a truth I am unable to endure. And so here I confess that wishing I could change my response, that night, is too great a burden. Instead I imagine having the courage to act where my words failed; I imagine taking her phone and reading her goodbye letter to the world, her goodbye letter to me. And then sometimes, now, I hold compassion for my younger self, and instead think back to that music festival in San Francisco. Isabel is walking not far from me, sunglasses in hand, on her way to hear a set of music we both still revere. I imagine walking toward her, calling her name. I outstretch my arm, saying everything she needs to know, and when we touch she understands.
Rachel Duboff is a writer from Los Angeles. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Epiphany, Porter House Review, Hobart, and The Rumpus, among others. She was an Inquiry Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Creativity and an Asylum Arts Reciprocity Fellow, as well as a James Kirkwood Literary Prize semi-finalist and Allegra Johnson Writing Prize nominee.