By Lisabet Sarai
She was a preacher’s daughter. Maybe that explains her wildness, that bright, crazy spark in her that drew me like a moth to a flame. On the other hand, it’s not as though her dad was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. He led a progressive Congregational church in a liberal New England suburban community. Her parents trusted her, too—they gave her a good deal more freedom than mine gave me. Perhaps that was the core problem—too much energy, with too few rules.
History abounds with theories.
I loved Rebecca from the moment I met her, which I believe was in tenth grade when her family moved to town. She stood out in a crowd, taller than many of the boys in our class, big-boned but curvy, with a shimmering mane of platinum hair that reached to her waist. Although she wasn’t conventionally pretty—her face was too long, her mouth too big—you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Or, at least I couldn’t.
Like me, Rebecca belonged to the “intellectual” clique, the ones who were smart but not necessarily popular or stylish. With her scarves and her hats, she created a style of her own. She was an artist, a poet, a gourmet cook. I admired her accomplishments as much as I appreciated her physical attributes. Somehow everything seemed to come easily for her. Her breezy smile suggested that she never worried about grades the way I did, that she never agonized about whether the boys liked her (they did) or about where she’d go to college.
We worked together on the high school yearbook and the school literary review. We played together, to the extent my over-protective mother allowed. After the junior prom, a dozen of us converged on her house. Still in our gowns and tuxes, we sprawled on the carpet in front of her fireplace while she fed us miniature cherry tarts and sparkling cider. I remember feeling drunk, though I’m quite sure no alcohol was involved. I think it was lust, lust for my date, and thought I wouldn’t have recognized it then, lust for her.
The yearbook includes a candid photo of us taken in the shower: Rebecca, me, my brother Larry (younger than me by two years) and a male friend. We’re not naked, though you wouldn’t know that from the picture. She’s shampooing Larry’s hair, obviously laughing out loud. I’m behind her, wearing a manic grin. The story behind that photo isn’t nearly as outrageous as you might imagine. It was a hot summer night. To cool off, we’d been running through the lawn sprinkler in my backyard, in our bathing suits. The grass had been mowed that day, and bits of it were plastered all over our skin. A shower was the only option.
Where was my mother that night? I can’t imagine she would have sanctioned our crazy shenanigans. My first lover took the photo. Given that he was six years older than me, perhaps Mom thought he was adequate supervision.
Hah. Paul wasn’t any more mature than us high school kids.
I don’t think I was a virgin then, though it’s a bit difficult now to sort out the time line. I wonder about Rebecca. She sometimes roamed around with a rougher crowd than our group of passionate nerds. For some reason, despite our closeness, I never asked.
In those days, teenagers didn’t talk about sex. Not in my crowd.
After graduation, we all scattered to our various academic destinations. As I recall, Rebecca went to Colby. Meanwhile, struggling with anorexia, I dropped out of college after six weeks.
I was in the hospital, living a kind of dazed half-life, when I heard the news about Rebecca. Home for Thanksgiving break, she’d met a bloody end in a car accident, on one of the back roads at the edge of town. I remembered driving those roads, the summer before, with her perched in the open window, hanging out into thin air, yelling into the wind.
At least that’s the picture I have now. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Anorexia really messed up my memory.
They let me out of the hospital to attend the memorial service, which was held in the stately gray stone edifice where her father presided. All my high school friends were there, a tragic holiday reunion. Anorexia numbs your emotions, except as far as food is concerned. I recall a dull ache of sadness, not the sharp pangs of grief I should have felt at the loss of a close friend. Perhaps in some way my pathological calm was a blessing.
What I didn’t feel was shock. Intellectually I knew Rebecca was much too young to die, but she’d been streaking through life so fast that I wasn’t surprised she’d burned herself out.
I’d always thought of her as a person who really understood how to enjoy life. When I went back to read the last poem of hers that I’ve kept, I saw that I might have been wrong. The title is “Desperation”. It’s full of dark imagery, much of it linked to the church.
She never showed me that darkness. I’m not sure I could have helped her, anyway. I was just blind, innocent, and in love.
Rebecca has been gone almost forty five years now. Still, she shows up every now and again in my stories. I’ve written a couple of heroines with her hair and others with her Amazonian build. More fundamentally, although she and I never had any sort of physical relationship, I recognize now that my enchantment with her contained a powerful sexual element. In a sense, every time I write a Sapphic tale, I’m drawing on my feelings for Rebecca.
What sort of person would she have been, if she’d lived? Would she and I still be friends? (I’m still connected with a handful of my high school mates, across the years and the miles.) Most tantalizing of all, would we have ever consummated the sort of relationship I craved but didn’t understand?
Probably not. She was, after all, a minister’s daughter.
But you never know.