It was 30 years ago, but I remember the day Natasha* moved to Phoenix with perfect clarity. We were eight, sitting alone on the pink carpet in her bedroom while the movers plowed through her house. I can picture her pre-orthodontia grin, teeth merrily askew, and her huge brown eyes surrounded by minky lashes. I imagined that when she left our small Northern California town, it would be like yanking the pull cord on the bathroom light. Everything would go dim.
Natasha and I were neighbors, introduced as toddlers by our parents. In early photos, she's already Herself — embodied, aware of her beauty, eyes sparkling with brilliance or cruelty. It's too simple to say she was spoiled; her quick wit and clarity of purpose intimidated everyone, including adults. Whether she was after a Peaches 'n Cream Barbie, an Esprit tote bag, or your help making another kid cry by hiding the stuffed animal she carried everywhere, it was always easier to just say yes. By the third grade, she was a mini cult leader and the undisputed life of the party.
She ruled our universe from a tiny Victorian house around the corner, enviably empowered to demand, proclaim, and bully by a fizzy, high-femme single mom. In sharp contrast, I was a vulnerable dweeb with the fortitude of wet Kleenex and the charisma of a desk lamp. My reaction to even the slightest perceived insult was to burst into tears and hide behind my waist-length curtain of hair until I could find my way home to fling my shrimpy body on the bunk bed I shared with my sister. My cherished dream (which, OK, endures even today) was to hide in an attic like the kid from The Neverending Story, swaddled in a quilt, reading fantasy novels, blissfully detached and unmonitored. I was the perfect target.
In sharp contrast, I was a vulnerable dweeb with the fortitude of wet Kleenex and the charisma of a desk lamp.
From the start, my relationship with Natasha doled out pleasure and pain at regular intervals. Our first shared passion was her Barbie Dream House — an overcrowded fuchsia paradise that violated fire codes. As the child of a feminist who had banned big-titted dolls (but not the educational, "anatomically correct" one with a penis that my brother toted around), I was in heaven. Some days, Natasha and I spent hours orchestrating classic Barbie scenarios: kidnappings, hot-tub parties, orgies. But her agenda varied wildly: other days, she'd rally a local team of kids to drag my sweater through a mud puddle and chuck it over a fence into a neighbor's yard while I looked on helplessly. I still don't fully understand what flipped her switch from cozy girl-comrade to adorable sadist, other than sheer boredom. Thinking about it now, that's kind of horrifying. But I kept going back for more.
Over the years, I endured creative insults, boldly executed thefts from my sticker collection, public humiliations, and a memorable push off my BMX into a patch of juniper. I'd scamper home afterward, wet with tears and gut-punched with shame. Even if it was the second time that week, Natasha's bullying always surprised me. Every incident registered as a confusing, unavoidable tragedy. Like the weather, or tonsillitis, it seemed inevitable.
Always the pacifist, my mom recommended the Nancy Reagan approach, but it turns out "Just say no" doesn't work for crack or bullies. At eight, my universe was two blocks wide, and there was nowhere to hide from Natasha. Anyway, she needed me, too — a bully without a nerd is a sad, impotent thing. I nourished her, somehow.
I thought Natasha's move to Phoenix would be the end, but her letters kept appearing in our mailbox with their big, manic script. Mostly, we'd complain about our parents and school, but we'd also throw each other into fits of hysterical laughter with our own special brand of nonsense. Our coded jokes made us feel alive and reckless while simultaneously irritating and alienating anyone else nearby. It was the first time that I'd done that, deliberately, and it felt incredible. Our reunions were bliss. I'd fly to her new home where we'd spend hours defacing Victoria's Secret catalogs, rearranging the letters on neighborhood church signs, making crank calls, shoplifting, and howling with laughter when her Jack Russell barfed and her mom bent to clean it up: good, wholesome teen fun.
In hindsight, I know these were tough years for Natasha. There were multiple moves, sometimes just a couple of years apart. Her mom was often sick and struggled to create any kind of structure or routine. But that lack of parental guidance, along with Natasha's wardrobe of shoplifted silk pants and bustiers, seemed glamorous at the time.
As we crashed through our teenage years, the stickers disappeared from our envelopes, but the cringe-inducing power dynamic remained. I convinced my mom that the bullying was behind us, and it was, in the strictest sense of the word. I'd been transformed from emotional punching bag to co-conspirator by Natasha's unspoken blessing: I was a powerful bitch who could do bad things. More important, we were bad together. For a flat-chested high-school freshman with an overbite, it was intoxicating.
I'd been transformed from emotional punching bag to co-conspirator by Natasha's unspoken blessing: I was a powerful bitch who could do bad things.
Still, every year or so, Natasha would swivel her rage away from her absent dad, her passive mom, or another convenient authority figure and point it at me. I'd committed the same offenses as always: passive aggression, timidity, superiority. Veiled threats and condescending "advice" had replaced violent shoves into shrubbery, but it was the same old song and dance. Once the shit-storm had quieted, I would dig us back out quietly with a joke, a letter, or a call. At 14, my body was still hard and runty, but I had a ripe middle-aged ability to cling to the erratic love of a narcissist.
In early adulthood, our lives spun further apart. We'd see each other a couple of times a year, but when Natasha looked for the tiny, freaked-out nub of a human I'd been, she'd come up empty. She'd make big, blustering statements, rant against authority figures she felt had wronged her, try like hell to get me on her side in a perceived battle against a lover or a boss. But I couldn't quite rally to the cause. By our late 20s, I was totally drained of the adolescent rage and desperation that had been our glue. I couldn't match her fire, but I couldn't console her, either. It didn't leave much for us to talk about.
In recent years our friendship has quietly slipped into the past tense, leaving behind a narrative that's long and dense and totally unbelievable in places. My version of it is constantly changing, and I imagine hers is too. It's hard to get perspective on something so complicated and so deeply ingrained, but when I think of our relationship now I feel a tender spot where my resentment used to be. Lately, I want to thank Natasha for the knowledge she left me with: that I can be scary when I need to be; that self-righteousness isn't pretty; that cats can swim if they really have to. But the most important lesson she taught me was totally unintentional: you shouldn't have to earn love the hard way.
*Not her real name.
Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn.