My First Friend
When I entered public school, I became a public loner—that kid at the edge of the playground studying her shoes or walking back and forth on the periphery as if in some invisible cage. The first friend I ever made on my own was Ouida St. John. We were in the same mathematics class and shared the distinction of being the only students in the class who had barely a rudimentary clue about the subject matter no matter how hard we worked on our homework. Somehow we migrated—perhaps the teacher migrated us—to the back of the room, and as long as we were quiet there, the teacher, who had openly given up on us, let us do as we pleased. So we passed notes—Ouida’s were almost impossible to decipher—or, when other students were engaged in noisy math games, we chatted without fear of getting black marks for conduct.
Ouida was the most fascinating person I had ever seen. She had red hair that was so thick that it was often matted—now that I think about it, she looked like an uncoifed and otherwise unkempt Little Orphan Annie. She had large eyes that were the color green that you sometimes see in opals. She lived on the Gold Coast, an isolated and impoverished area of town near the river—when we had to drive through the Gold Coast, Matu always made us check to see if our doors were locked. And if that wasn’t enough to make her an impressive character, for I thought of her as living a kind of frontier life, I learned also that her mother did not make her bathe every day and brushed her hair for exactly two minutes and then stopped whether it was tangled or lopsided or not. But what made her most impressive was that her father had once seen the devil in the family bathroom.
Ouida was rather blasé about the devil, but she was afraid of all domestic animals, especially dogs, and thus extremely impressed that I had a dog named Wolf. I could have told her that Wolf was so extremely gentle and good-natured and smart that he had practically been my nanny, and since he was very old in dog years by then, he didn’t even get around very well anymore. However, I was desirous of impressing Ouida, and in my first foray into outright lying, I told her that Wolf had killed my parents when I was a baby and had raised me in the woods until I was five years old and a band of gypsies found me and took me to Matu to raise.
I didn’t want to let on that her father’s sighting of the devil was extremely thrillingly scary to me, so I stretched out my questions about the event, nonchalantly asking how tall the devil was (about three feet), what color he was (the color of cooked crab), and how he behaved (he just stood there and shimmied). I suppose that she was doing the same thing, for her questions about my life with Wolf always cropped up a bit too casually. At any rate, I wanted to keep close to Ouida in case the devil showed up again and had something to say this time. After pestering Matu about it for weeks, I was allowed—probably because Matu was distracted–to invite Ouida home with me after school.
As we gangled up the walkway to the house, Matu stepped out to greet us and looked as if she had been slapped. But Matu could regain her composure more quickly than most and smiled at Ouida and welcomed her. Quida was careless and managed to knock several things over within a few minutes of entering the house. She took one look at Wolf and screamed bloody murder, which sent Wolf up to my room where I later found him under the bed. When Matu gave us a snack at the kitchen table, Ouida chewed with her mouth open, smacked her food, and wiped her mouth with her forearm. Later she reared back and let out a long, multifaceted belch followed by a sigh of satisfaction.
These things—which only added to her mystique and my admiration—must have driven Matu wild. I noticed that when Matu was leaving us to our “tea” she raised her hands head high, palms inward and slightly shook them. I had no idea what that might signify, though I was to learn what it signified thoroughly and at length later that evening.
When we drove Ouida home, I could probably have heard Matu grinding her teeth if I had not been sitting in the backseat so thoroughly engaged in a discussion with Ouida about the offspring of humans who had mated with bears and foxes and the recent abduction by aliens of one of her neighbors. (Ouida was a regular font of things such as these). As we drove up a narrow muddy potholed road to her house, her mother stepped out onto the sagging porch, and while I saw a glamorous exotic woman, Matu, I’m sure, saw a disheveled painted whore.
Ouida got out of the car with her heavy book bag and her mother shouted, “Where the fuck have you been you little bitch?!” I was so unaccustomed to hearing such language that I leaned up toward Matu and asked, “Is she talking in French?” But even as the question left my lips, I didn’t need to know the words to understand their attitude and intent, and I was gripped with fear that Ouida’s mother might hit her or knock her down. She didn’t (although, Ouida reported to me, she did both several times later). Instead she walked up to the car, grinning with a big fuchsia-pink mouth and gray teeth and said to Matu, “Why, Miz Ridley, I didn’t know my girl’s with you. I worry so when she’s not home to do her chores.” Matu muttered something—I thought perhaps she was speaking in French—and the woman nodded and headed back to where Ouida was waving from the porch, and we slowly pulled away.
When we got onto the main road, Matu began to drive much faster than I had ever seen her drive before. She was also in a rare state for her: speechlessness. I wondered how, if Ouida in fact had not told her mother where she would be, her mother knew Matu’s name.
Matu and I had several rounds about whether I could go to Ouida’s house or Ouida could return to mine. Nothing she could say about Ouida’s parents or where Ouida lived could impeach the character of my friend in my eyes. And Matu didn’t have the high moral ground on this one either. She was caught between her notions of social hierarchy and propriety and “breeding”– after all, the laudatory phrase “well bred” carries with it the notion that the only excuse for bad manners and bad thoughts is congenital defect–and her ostensible belief in the things we were taught about social equality in church, where we were told that Jesus loves the little children of the world red and yellow black and white, and in school, where we learned that all men are created equal. Matu couldn’t quite find a way to reconcile these things to my satisfaction, and I was as stubborn as she was, though not yet as practiced at it.
What could Matu do? If she thwarted our friendship, she would have to defend her actions in ways that directly conflicted with the moral standards she proclaimed to adhere to. If she allowed our friendship to develop in its own way, Ouida and I might tire of each other as we grew and changed, but Matu would have thought that improbable. She knew that my affections were true and strong and all the stronger for being seldom bestowed. No, she would have thought it most probable that Ouida would be more and more in our lives—birthdays, holidays, perhaps even vacations—and that it would then become her duty to teach Ouida proper manners and so forth and thus, in effect, by letting me be friends with Ouida, she would have yet another child to raise.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter, although conflicts of this nature would repeatedly rise up as the years passed. Matu was freed from whatever quandary she was caught in when Ouida’s mother was found stabbed in a motel and Ouida was whisked off by a distant relative to live in another state. Naturally, Ouida’s state of orphanhood made her dearer to me. I attempted–through a kind of conversational sidling—to plant the idea of adopting Ouida in Matu’s mind. I think it was the first time Matu ever held up her index finger and said “Don’t” in a voice so arresting and fascinating that I tried to elicit it at carefully timed intervals thereafter. Ouida and I actually exchanged letters a few times. I treasured every belabored and smudged letter, and have them still. Ultimately, my fascination with Ouida could not withstand distance—particularly distance from the possibility of visiting her home and seeing first-hand the site of the sighting of Satan. Nonetheless, from time to time I think of Ouida with fondness, and, I suppose, a kind of love. Wherever she is now, I hope she knows I was and am her true and loyal friend.