Elise was new in the seventh grade. She was beyond nerdy. She wore little wire-framed glasses and braided barrettes (so elementary school). She favored white turtlenecks dotted with tiny strawberries; she always got straight A’s.
I used to get straight A’s. In elementary school, good grades were effortless, but in junior high, my A’s turned into B’s, then C’s, especially in math. I only did well in Composition, where we wrote stories and poems. My mother took away my radio and Olivia Newton-John tapes till my report card improved.
When you got straight A’s, you got a certificate that said Outstanding Achievement, signed by the principal. I had yet to get one, but Elise got one every time.
“That’s disgusting,” I said to her once, spotting the certificate on her desk.
She scrunched up her librarian face. “What?” she said.
I had been trying to make a joke. “Getting all A’s. It’s really disgusting you know.”
I sighed. “Forget it.” What a nerd.
Since the first grade I had been friends with Susan, who wasn’t a nerd but was very smart. My father said she’d probably be a lawyer. Since the fifth grade, I had known Marie and Lauren. Marie had long curling brown hair and huge eyes; Lauren was blond, tall, and rather chubby. She played Dorothy in our fourth grade production of The Wizard of Oz. People still talked about how well she sang “Over the Rainbow.”
It was Lauren who made friends with Elise first. I don’t even know how. Lauren was always making friends with new, seemingly quiet girls, and bringing them over to our group, like stray kittens. Aside from Elise, she had also brought over Marie V. (now the original Marie would forever be known as Marie R.), darkly beautiful, and Andi, who at 5’10” would later become a model.
By eighth grade, Elise had changed completely. She wore contacts now and had cut her hair into a cute bob. She had gotten ridden of the turtlenecks and upgraded her wardrobe to 1985. Big shirts, long sweaters, and oversized pearls. Gone was the mousy grind who didn’t get my sarcastic humor. In her place was a tall and willowy ballet dancer, a navy brat who had lived in Italy and Hong Kong, a wannabe writer like me.
I turned fourteen that April. For my birthday, we went swimming at the Y, then to my house, where we gorged ourselves on cake and my mother’s fried noodles, egg rolls, and wontons. After my parents left for an all-night mah-jongg party, we went wild – dancing, screaming for no reason, doing obnoxious imitations of our teachers and classmates.
Elise had come straight from ballet, and still had on her leotard and tights under her clothes. Overheated, she stripped off her jeans and ran pantless through the house. (Why she didn’t just take off her tights, I don’t know.) I have a photo of her in mid-run, giant sweater half-off one shoulder, a goofy smile on her face.
That was the last time I was happy. While my friends blossomed, I stayed the same. One minute Laura was in sweatshirts and jeans, her dark blond hair limp against her head, the next she was in tight sweaters and skirts, a chic short cut freeing her face. She wasn’t chubby anymore but voluptuous. Random guys stopped her in hallway. “Your legs go on for miles!” one said. “You’re so cute!” another remarked, pinching her cheek.
No one pinched my cheek except my first grade teacher when I ran into her at TJ Maxx. You could barely see my face for the glasses and braces. My legs didn’t go on for miles, which Elise was kind enough to point out at a pool party.
“I didn’t know your legs were so short!” she cried, stretching her lanky ballerina gams out to the sun.
I grew to hate my stubby limbs, round face, and small eyes. One of just a handful of Asian kids in town, I wished I were Italian, French, or Irish. I longed for big green eyes and a pert narrow nose, a quiet mother who didn’t yell out the door in Chinese, a name that didn’t sound like a body part.
The more insecure I grew, the less I spoke. The less I spoke, the cooler I thought I might be. At lunch I did math homework instead of joining the conversation. On car rides to and from the mall – where boys always eyed Lauren and Elise, never me – I stared silently out the window while everyone else chattered and sang along with Crowded House, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.
But instead of being cool, I became forgotten, like the night of the eighth grade dance when Lauren and the others neglected to pick me up. It was a misunderstanding, Lauren said, hugging me when I finally showed up. They had thought I was meeting them there. But I didn’t know that while I waited, sobbing, in my room.
Ninth grade was worse. There were even more boys to ignore me and hit on Elise, Lauren, and Marie V. One was a junior who sat behind me in algebra II.
“Hey,” he kept whispering to me one day. “Hey.”
I knew he wanted to ask me about Marie V., who had a crush on him. Bu I pretended not to hear him, too shy to talk to most boys.
When I continued not to answer, he switched his tactic. “Hey, ching chong,” he said instead. “Ching chong ching chong.” Face burning, I kept ignoring him, as I did the kids at the bus stop when I was younger.
Suddenly the teacher stopped mid-lecture. “Scott,” she said, eyes burning, finger pointing. “Get out of my classroom. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Chagrined, Scott picked up his books and left.
I didn’t feel grateful to the teacher, only embarrassed that she had heard.
* * *
That winter my father got a new job in a nearby town. He could commute, but my mother wanted a new house. We sold our old one – to the high school principal, of all people – and moved that summer.
I was excited. I’d be at a new school. I could be whomever I wanted – popular, athletic, student body president.
None of these things happened. At first I made friends with a couple of popular girls who were also new, but once they understood their standing, dropped me like last year’s jeans. But that mattered less at this school. What mattered was that I wasn’t the only Chinese girl. Far from it. Almost a quarter of the students were Asian, the children of immigrants. Having parents who spoke with an accent wasn’t weird; in fact some of the kids had accents themselves.
Boys looked at me. My braces and glasses were gone, and I felt more comfortable in my new preppy outfits. Was I – pretty? Dan Wagner thought so, and Ron Jones, but still skittish, I never said two words to them.
Later that same year, Lauren moved too. Texas. Unlike me, she was sad. She cried at school; she begged her parents not to move, but it had been decided.
After Lauren left, the group began to fall apart. We still saw each other sometimes, but mostly when Lauren visited. She had an older boyfriend who she lost her virginity to and who’d later kill himself. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. I hadn’t even been kissed yet.
Junior year, Elise suddenly decided she was a painter. I was surprised. In art classes, she had always struggled, or pretended to. Now she was producing picture after picture. I remember one: a woman with long tangled hair, painted in shades of blue. The word “blue” appeared throughout, in her locks, her lips, her arms folded over her bare breasts. Elise became so engrossed in painting, she switched to an arts high school in another town. She took photographs and started making films, often casting Andi in the lead.
Towards the end of high school, Susan and Elise stopped talking. I was never sure why. Perhaps Susan hadn’t liked the way Elise was behaving with her new artist friends; maybe Elise was tired of Susan’s judgments. Senior year, all three of us ran into each other at a piano recital. Susan and I had been taking lessons from the same teacher all those years, along with Elise’s sister. I talked to Elise and Susan separately while they gave each other cold looks above my head.
Once we all went away to college, I lost touch with everyone except Marie R., with whom I exchanged letters occasionally. From her I knew that Lauren was going to school in Dallas, Marie V. at Bucknell, and Andi at Baylor (later her whole family would move to Texas and become born-again Christians). Susan was at Harvard – studying archaeology, not law – and Elise was at NYU. Over the summers, she modeled.
I was in New York too, a hundred blocks north of Elise, but I never thought of contacting her. It had been too long. I called Marie R. once while she was still at NJIT earning her architecture degree, but the conversation was stilted. She didn’t seem interested in talking to me, and asked someone in the room for an exacto knife. That was the last time I talked to her, that I talked to any of them.
* * *
In the last decade, I’ve done my fair share of Googling my old friends. I know that Susan is a renowned archaeologist, and Marie R. a successful architect. Marie V. may live in London. Andi is married with kids, as is Lauren.
For a long time I couldn’t find anything on Elise. Surely she’d be famous soon – a filmmaker, a painter, a dancer, a writer. Whatever she wanted to be, surely she’d be.
Finally on a hot summer night in 2006, I found something.
By then I was divorced and living on my own in Manhattan. When I wasn’t dating disappointing men, I hid in my apartment, trying to write and surfing the internet.
I found it in a local paper in Virginia. Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence.
Was is the same Elise? The age was right – she was a year younger than the rest of us – but her name wasn’t uncommon. Then I recognized her parents’ names and her sister’s.
Elise, dead. She is survived by her husband, Jeffrey Warren; children Isabel, George and Molly. Shocked I called home.
My father answered.
“Remember Elise?” I said. “My friend from my old school?”
“Elise,” he murmured. “I remember Susan.”
Of course he did. I’d known Susan since I was six. “Elise,” I pressed. I needed him to remember. “She was a ballerina. She came to our house.” She ran through it with no pants on.
“Maybe. Mom would remember. But she’s not here.”
“Oh no,” my father said, trying to sound aggrieved. But he couldn’t remember her.
The item didn’t say how she died, nor did a church newsletter I found. I called the church. A secretary told me it was cancer. I didn’t ask what kind.
“So many of her old friends have been calling,” the secretary said.
Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence. There was so much to reconcile. Elise dead, Elise a homemaker. It was shallow – after all, her husband was without a wife, their small children without a mother – but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Elise O’Connor Warren, homemaker, not world-famous director, best-selling novelist, or genius painter.
Somewhere along the way, she had decided to shed her skin again. Enough with being an artist, she had thought. Enough with modeling and hobnobbing with celebrities in Manhattan. I want to marry this man and live in Virginia and have three kids before I’m 30.
I was 34 then and nowhere near having even one kid. I didn’t know if I’d ever have any. Was I that different from who I was back then? I was still shy and still wanted to be a writer. I was less awkward and more confident. I was proud of my Chinese self. The shedding and growing of my new skin took much longer than it did for Elise.
Almost twenty-five years have passed since we were friends. I don’t know if I’d recognize any of them, or if they even remember me. I don’t know if I have a right to grieve for Elise. But when I saw Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, died, it was as though I did know her, had never stopped knowing her, and we were who were back then again, laughing and running wild.