My neighbor Karlia and I started drifting apart after we ran away together. When we were still occasionally hanging out, I busted her for stealing some sample vials of sweet scents that my grandma had given me – plus part of my lip gloss collection, Dr. Pepper and Sprite. I knew she was a thief. I’d thieved with her from K-Mart and Gibson’s (which would later become Walmart). We’d walk two miles in blistering heat just to be in the refrigerated air of a department store – running on the exposed stretches of sidewalk to piteous spots of shade. We didn’t have any money to spend in the store. All we had was what we’d dug up from the couch cushions, usually enough to buy one small coke at Diary Queen.
Karlia would steal earrings, candy, batteries – whatever. But I didn’t think she’d steal from me. When she’d first moved in to the rental across the street, I was smitten. She was so pretty with her long wavy light brown hair. And she could dance. She would tear up the shag to her Disco Duck record. In her room we’d admire the door length Shawn Cassidy poster and talk about the revolving sequence of her mom’s boyfriends. She’d brag to me about how much they liked her and we made like it was cool and dangerous that she attracted the attentions of these older men. But I sensed that it was sad and scary. We both knew it but we didn’t know how to say it or feel there was anything to be done about it. I always looked across the street at night to see if her bedroom light was on, thinking that some how meant she was alone and safe.
From the raised brick bench in front of her fireplace, we spent hours taking turns being Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb. We performed The Jazz Singer countless times, often when we should have been at school. Next to the Circle K near our house, we’d visit the barber and the old twin brothers who owned the dry cleaners. They’d give us nickels and dimes for performing back bends and front walk-overs because they were was bored as we were.
After we “escaped” our homes for an over-night in a strangers van and her little brother, who’d come with us, was sent away for good, we saw less and less of each other. I watched her transformation into a cholita, which was about the most contrived persona she could have adopted. She was as white as me but confidently donned the dark lipstick, baggy khakis and oversized plaid shirts (either buttoned up to the neck or left open to expose a tight wife beater) of her new sisters. She didn’t speak a lick of Spanish and her white skin with the new black hair and make up made her look like a spooky ghost chola.
During our middle school years we were bussed to institutions outside of our neighborhood. Karlia mostly went to the school for delinquent kids, which was a requirement for her club, but in ninth grade we both ended up at Magoffin. The school was seven miles from my house and one of the ineffective safety measures the administration took was to pat us down and confiscate any sharp or blunt objects, including pad locks, before we walked through the front gates. This didn’t keep my sweet friend Regina from getting the shit beat out of her by a gang of cholas after a basketball game one night. She was unpopular with that social sect due to her big boobs and flirtatious ways. (Reggie also enjoyed some shoplifting. She liked a store called Pic-n-Save. She’d pull a new pair of underwear out of her bag and say, “I picked and saved.”)
Reggie was expelled after she got beat up, for… getting beat up, I guess.
One evening when my dad and I had both come home we discovered that a box of Hershey’s chocolate bars that he kept in a kitchen cabinet was gone. And then we noticed that a tiny window within a larger set of windows in our living room was slightly open. I knew right away that it was Karlia. I also knew it wasn’t the first time she’d let herself into my house. I felt sick and furious. My dad went across the street to her house where her drunk mom came to the door and gazed through him.
I resolved to hurt Karlia. Physically. It wasn’t so much a decision as a need. The next morning at the bus stop, which was Mr. Hargrave’s driveway, I would beat on her. When I got to the bus stop she was already there. I absently said hi, as if nothing were wrong. I felt her guard go down; She was relieved that I didn’t know anything. I sat my bag down and said, “Hey, I want to show you something.” I reached into my leather jacket, heavy with Stray Cats buttons, pretending to retrieve a small object and when she got close enough, I swung to sock her in the face. A punch has never been so unsatisfying. Her guard hadn’t been all the way down and she leaned back from my fist, which only barely made contact with her cheek, and then she ran. I chased her, reaching for hair or anything I could grab to slow her down. I desperately needed to beat on her, but she was fast. And then the bus came. I went back to the stop, yelling at her not to move, and I got on. I was still catching my breath as the bus passed by her. All I had done was make her late for school.
So this is how it goes? One day you’re fourth graders working as a unit to carry your prickly-pear-wounded compadre through the desert without being spotted and a few years later you’re feeling violated and itching to crack a face bone.
As I recall, it wasn’t unusual for those early friendships to be that precarious. I wonder what changes. Maybe we learn that the only thing more difficult than being in relationship is not. We learn to be nicer to each other and yield. It’s too bad there were no big people around to guide Karlia and I through our conflicts. God knows we both could have a used a friend close by. We never spoke after I failed to beat her up and I never stopped looking to see if her light was still on before I went to bed.