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  • Vanessa Rae


The last time I saw my friend Eleanor, we were stuffing bagels with cream cheese in our faces at gate B1 at the Tucson International Airport.

We had just dropped off a shiny red Dodge Charger that had been our rental car for the weekend. I've never been happier to bid farewell to a car before; the beast was so ostentatious and rumbled so loudly that people would stop and stare every time we drove down the street.

Apparently there had been some sort of error at Hertz when we first arrived for our Tucson reunion weekend, so the Charger was their idea of an upgrade.

I met Eleanor when I was 20 years old, on September 9,1999. We were both about to become AmeriCorps Team Leaders, organizing community service projects with teenagers who were just barely younger than us.

I remember the date clearly because we signed endless new employee paperwork that day, including an AmeriCorps pledge stating "when faced with adversity, I will persevere" and dated everything "9/9/99."

That very day, I knew I'd met a gem. A friend for life.

She was a wise ass, cracking sarcastic jokes and smirking with those mischievous eyes I've come to know so well.

She was sort of a hippy who sewed her own clothes, but also had very refined taste, but also drove a Ford Escort.

She brought a cardigan to work, just as I did, to put on at the end of the day when it got cool, both of us not realizing it never gets cool in Tucson, at least not in September.

She had recently returned from Ecuador, and had outrageous travel stories. I'd only just returned to the states myself after traveling overseas for four months.

She was a vegetarian and I was a recovering vegan.

She loved Lauryn Hill as much as I did and was crazy about poetry, books and hiking.

I was smitten.

At the time, I was living at a friend of a friend's house on a noisy street corner, sleeping in my sleeping bag in a walk-in closet and bicycling 10 miles or so to the office each day in the sweltering heat (I didn't own a car).

Luckily for me, Eleanor had moved to Tucson with one of her best friends, Jenna, and they had a three-bedroom house with one empty room. Jenna and Eleanor had driven across the country from Virginia together and were waiting for their friend to follow suit, but she decided to stay behind for a boyfriend.

It wasn't long before I was invited to join them at what would lovingly (or infamously) be known as "The Pink House."

Tucson was full of pink stucco houses with giant saguaro cacti towering over the front yards, but none were located directly behind the dumpsters of both a Blackjack Pizza AND a Lucky Wishbone fried chicken restaurant.

This single geographical detail would provide endless hours of stories and intrigue for us girls at The Pink House, from dumpster diving pizzas late at night to witnessing unsavory characters roaming the back alleyway to women wandering into our house escaping domestic violence.

Eleanor, Jenna and I would frequently climb atop the rooftop and drink whiskey at dusk, watching the most spectacular sunsets over the desert. We inspired each other with poetry, writing and tales of lost loves. We commiserated with each other about our volunteer-induced poverty.

The three of us were bosom buddies that year, always up to something, often no good.

But it was with Eleanor that I spent most of 1999/2000. Since we worked and lived and commuted and hung out together, we were rarely apart, except for sleeping (and not even that when camping, which we frequently enjoyed under vast starry skies).

She was a true friend and partner-in-crime.

Eleanor taught me how to drive a stick-shift, enduring the hurky-jerky debacle that comes with that task.

She laughed relentlessly with me when we got hit on by toothless men at some of the greatest dive bars I've ever known.

We "borrowed" a van from work and drove to the Grand Canyon to ride out Y2K with Jenna and their two dogs, April and Carter.

We got lost in Mexico together.

Eleanor's parents came to visit and took us all to my very first opera.

I bought my first beer at the grocery store with Eleanor when I turned 21.

She rolled my first joint (which I didn't like very much).

We rollerskated around the volunteer center after hours (entirely my idea).

We listened to Bob Dylan and The Fugees and Langston Hughes recite poetry. We sang along to to Belle & Sebastian and Randy Travis and The Indigo Girls. We had records and CD's and tapes piled high on dusty milk crates. We'd dance and twirl in the living room for hours, working the dogs into a frenzy, trying on each other's clothes, wearing silly outfits and snapping goofy pictures on film to develop weeks later and laugh at all over again.

But my relationship with Eleanor wasn't all frivolities and mischief. There was a complexity to it, tinged with my own insecurities and self-loathing.

Namely, Jenna and Eleanor were thin, and I was not. I hated this about me.

After late-night pizza or nachos, I would slip into the bathroom after they'd gone to bed and stick my finger down my throat to purge the shame I felt for not having a body more like theirs.

At the time, Jenna was doing a lot of work with young girls' empowerment groups, and there were several books on bulimia in the house, which I used as a guide of sorts (ah, the irony). While the stories themselves were terrible, they were also a resource for how to gain the illusion of control over something I hated: my body.

While I never became fully bulimic, I continued to make myself vomit after eating well into my mid-twenties. The behavior finally loosened its grip on me, but the feelings of inadequacy never have.

I grew up as an only child, so didn't have any siblings around. Jenna and Eleanor were like sisters to me; we shared so much in a way I hadn't experienced before.

In mid-2000, when Eleanor started dating someone and spending more time with him, I found myself jealous she wasn't around as much anymore. I'd write her mean letters complaining about things she'd done or hadn't done. I have no memory of what I said, but I remember feeling so hurt and angry.

I wanted her all to myself, which is such a suffocating way to love someone.

Luckily, Eleanor is a forgiving person and quite remarkably, we are still friends.

1999/2000 was the last time Eleanor and I lived together. Just a few years later, she met and fell in love with a man from Australia, and moved to Sydney to be with him.

We've kept our friendship alive and well over the years through letters, emails and annual reunions with our circle of girlfriends. Sometimes it's just been Skype calls, with Eleanor the only one not physically present.

Our lives and relationships have evolved, shifted, grown. She's married and has two children; I've had at least half a dozen boyfriends and have lived in just as many states.

I don't think I held out much hope of seeing her more often, but in January 2019, she moved back to the United States for one year.

Two things happened: she was incredibly near, closer than she'd been in 15 years, but also still so far away, as she moved to Virginia and I live in Oregon. I felt a sadness I hadn't in decades, a closeness I longed for but was just out of reach.

2019 went fast. I flew to the east coast twice to visit, and she and her family drove across the country, stopping in Bend for a week-long stay full of swimming, hiking, climbing and catching up.

We decided we just had to get back to Tucson before she returned to Australia, so in October, Jenna, Eleanor and I reconvened to take a trip down memory lane, albeit in a Dodge Charger that very much did not suit our sensibilities.

We were delighted to discover The Pink House was still there. As was Blackjack Pizza and The Lucky Wishbone. We rumbled through the city, reminiscing about the Volunteer Center and some of our favorite dive bars and Mexican restaurants. And of course, we stood forever in awe of the cacti: the mighty Saguaros, the gorgeous Ocotillos, the earthy scent of Creosote.

But most importantly, the love was still there, the sweetness and best of all, the sarcasm.

I thought I'd see Eleanor one last time before she went back to Australia. There was a reunion planned with all our girlfriends in Virginia in December, just a week before her overseas flight. When it came time for me to buy my plane ticket, I just couldn't swing the time off plus the expense, when I was working hard to save money to buy a house.

I felt so much shame and sadness at that decision.

We promised to see each other in 2020. She was supposed to fly back for her niece's bat mitvah in September.

But who knew how 2020 would unfold? Who knew it would keep us all apart from each other?

With Australia's borders closed and the United States gearing up for a long COVID-winter ahead, who knows when I'll be able to see Eleanor again.

At least we'll always have Tucson.

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