I recently went to Canada and Niagara Falls with a group of women I’ve been friends with since grade school. We’ve known each other for forty-five years and managed to keep in touch, which is pretty remarkable when you consider how disparate and scattered our lives have become. We grew up in the same small college town, went to grade school, junior high, high school, and the first few years of college together. Three of us left home and went out into the wide world, while two stayed behind and raised families in the same small community where we’d grown up.
A few years ago, after twenty-five years spent raising families and struggling with careers, we reconnected on Facebook. Since then, we try to get together every year for a girls’ trip. The amazing thing to me is how, despite our many differences, we’ve managed to remain friends. As an adult, I have a tendency to gravitate toward women who dress like me, read the same books, watch the same TV shows, have the same social and political beliefs. The old “birds of a feather, flock together” syndrome.
But other than our shared childhoods and experiences raising families, there’s not a lot my four hometown friends and I have in common. A former athlete, a cheerleader, a writer, a sorority girl, and a flighty giggler, I’m not certain if we met today we would even be friends. So what is it about childhood that makes us so much more willing to embrace others different from ourselves? Do we simply become lazy, or less willing to compromise as we grow older?
It was in sixth grade that I first met Zona. She and I were both “new girls,” having moved into town from somewhere else. I was a tomboy and played mostly with the boys on the playground. She was prissy and was the first girl in sixth grade to shave her legs. I didn’t dislike Zona; if anything, I felt sorry for her because she was bad at sports. All the same, I realized that we probably wouldn’t be spending a lot of time together.
One morning I walked into the girls’ bathroom to find Zona standing at the mirror teasing her hair. I watched, fascinated, as she deftly moved a long-handled comb through her curls. We were still standing there when Ruby Mays walked in. Ruby was six feet tall and had a deep voice and shoulders like a linebacker. When Ruby asked you for your lunch money, you gave it up. I was terrified of her and did my best to avoid eye contact, slinking into one of the opened stalls. Ruby stood in the doorway, watching Zona with an unreadable expression. Without warning, she stuck out a large, hairy-knuckled hand.
“Hey,” she said. “Let me borrow your comb.”
Zona stopped teasing her hair. She tilted her head and stared at Ruby in the mirror as if giving her request careful consideration. Time seemed to stop. My bladder sagged. Give her the comb, I telepathed frantically. Just give her the goddamned comb.
Zona turned around, her expression thoughtful and pleasant. “Ruby, I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “But I don’t let anyone use my comb.”
Ruby’s big fist shot out and caught Zona on the chin, and she went down. She lay on her back, staring up at the fluorescent lights, blinking. Ruby helped herself to the comb and then tossed it back to Zona as she went out.
I went over and helped her up. She seemed genuinely surprised at Ruby’s reaction. “Why did she do that?” she kept asking. I stared at her, grinning in appreciation. I had never seen anyone stand up to Ruby Mays and it occurred to me that despite her shaved legs and prissy ways, Zona had more courage than anyone I knew. Certainly more courage than me.
Years later in Canada, while arguing with Zona about politics, that scene with Ruby resurfaced. And it occurred to me that the spark of courage, the knot of stubbornness that I had admired all those years ago in Zona was still there. Despite our profound, and sometimes violent, differences I could still appreciate that aspect of her personality.
Forty-five years later, we still have a connection. And I’m a better person for it.