The following is a story of risk and fate.
Many years ago, three thirteen-year-old girls became friends. They were like a million other girls in the world, eager to put their stamp on it. They were in junior high, and, interestingly, looked somewhat alike, in that they were all blond, slender, and tall. Of course their temperaments were different.
Susie was soft-spoken, slow-moving, almost languorous, and she was self-effacing, very sweet, never said a bad word about anyone—maybe it took too much energy? She was probably the prettiest; definitely the one who spent the most time on her almost platinum hair, plus she somehow got away with wearing blue eye shadow to school. Her grades were across-the-board C’s.
Kathleen was giggly and energetic. She was Everywhere-girl, like a hummingbird flitting in and out and around the cliques in the lunch quad, raining energy—that rapid speech, constant giggle, and brilliant smile—down on all. Kathleen had long shiny hair parted in the middle, and was always tossing her head this way and that, making her light hair ripple. Kathleen didn’t care about her report card; she cared about movement.
Eileen was a moody bookworm who envied Susie’s blue eye shadow and Kathleen’s beautiful hair. She was prone to sullenness.
The girls often spent weekends together at Susie or Kathleen’s house, but never at Eileen’s, whose parents had lots of rules and a curfew, and didn’t like the music the girls played or the makeup they experimented with—and let both be known.
Eileen, who pretty much lived in her head and was on the honor roll, broke away from herself when allowed to spend the night at Susie or Kathleen’s, reveling in the music she wasn’t allowed to play at home, and the dancing and makeup, and talk of boys. No surprise, but Eileen didn’t care much for rules for rules’ sake.
Besides a shared love of blue eye shadow, the girls shared stories about where they’d be in twenty years—fantasies. All, of course, would find love, and their respective “Mr. Rights” would, naturally, be “cute” and accompany them to Rome.
Kathleen talked of the four children she would someday have and the big parties she would throw, and Eileen wondered if she could one day write like Tennessee Williams, or sing like Joan Baez, or become a potter; perhaps all three. But Susie was curiously silent on life after returning from Rome. Susie merely listened to her friends dream aloud, smiling in her sweet way.
After junior high, Eileen went to one high school, and Susie and Kathleen to another. Although they vowed not to let their different schools and classrooms split them up, the girls made new friends, became involved in different activities, and inevitably drifted apart.
Years passed. So did graduations, many parties and attendant good and bad choices, trips to Rome, long hair, and blue eye shadow.
And then one day many, many years later, Eileen had lunch with another friend who dated back to junior high. His name was Jim, her oldest friend. By this time, Eileen had of course broken her share of rules, because she’d finally could; and become way less sullen and more complacent, even content; written a novel, and grown her hair long again because she still considered some rules, and any rule about hair length after a certain age, supremely asinine—and she was currently struggling with writing a piece that had been prompted by this question:
“What risk do you regret not taking?”
The piece wasn’t going well, yet Eileen still loved the question and asked it of everyone. But there were no “good” answers; in fact, there was much misunderstanding about the question itself, and Eileen began realizing (duh-oh) that “risk” is subjective.
Eileen’s BIG risk, the one she’d avoided for an embarrassingly long time because it required all her bravery—finishing a novel—had finally been committed to—and so had her primary relationship. Ditto for financial decisions/risks, and for driving herself four hundred miles to Land’s End on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road. But physical challenges, which is how many people understood the question, like skydiving or sailing solo around the world, had never been attractions for Eileen, and so couldn’t be categorized as regrets.
Considering the possibility that she had no regrets, Eileen was amazed . . . had her life really been so adequately . . . complete? So splendid? But—wait. What about all the stupid things she had done, the rules she had broken (and shouldn’t have); people she had hurt, and the recklessness and bad decisions—there had been plenty of those to go around! Fodder enough for ten novels! How was it her life hadn’t been utterly ruined by her bad decisions, or maybe even cut short?
Lunch conversation with Jim got around to junior high school days—and then, next, to Kathleen—what had become of her, did Jim know? Jim wasn’t positive—maybe he’d heard she’d married? Had a big family? And was happy? So much time had elapsed, he couldn’t be sure—but, yes, that had to be it. Eileen agreed: Kathleen had been such a magnet for activity, surely that big, happy family had been her destiny.
And what about Susie?
Jim stared at Eileen.
“She died,” Jim said. “She was murdered. I thought you knew.”
Nooooooooooooo! How, when, what, where??????????
The murder had occurred years before. Susie had been hitchhiking alone in Sacramento, California, 600 miles away. She was 22.
Her body had been found by youngsters playing in a sandy ravine—they’d seen the near-platinum hair, just a lock of it. The rest of Susie had been covered with sand. She’d been buried alive, suffocated, her only visible injury a dislocated jaw.
A day or so after their lunch together, Jim sent an old newspaper article about Susie’s murder to Eileen, and Eileen carried it around for days, reading it time and again, wondering if Susie’s murderer had ever been caught, and what Susie had been thinking, hitchhiking alone in the dead of night. I mean, how stupid was that? And then—Eileen couldn’t help the thought—she kept imagining Susie’s terror when all that sand came down on her and filled her throat, her mouth, nostrils, everything . . . it couldn’t be borne—yet, Eileen, who could still so easily get stuck in her head, couldn’t shake the picture loose.
Eileen saw other pictures as well. She saw the three young girls they’d been, their camaraderie and blue eye shadow. She saw them styling one another’s hair, laughing and dancing, sharing dreams, knowing they would one day own the world—but then Eileen suddenly remembered: Susie had never talked about life for herself after her dreamed-for Rome trip.
Had Susie had a premonition?
Eileen thought again of her own younger-years’ stupid actions and decisions—and wondered, how is fate determined? Because it was surely not by doing everything by the book, as she could attest; making all the right decisions and never slipping up, or, completely fearless, taking every risk there is.
Or, in Susie’s case, regretting the risk taken.
What was it all about then? Was it possible a young girl’s life had been in vain? Eileen couldn’t get that thought out of her head fast enough either–but what point had Susie’s story served?
I believe there remains this huge attachment to history, to lessons learned. There’s everything right about that, learning about life through stories, because everything goes back to stories handed down through generations, or other firsthand accounts; or film, novels, periodicals, and journals—every single way we get stories counts. Because every story goes back to the people in them.
We were just three young girls full of life and dreams and hopes, who knew nothing about the vagaries of fate—or that vagaries even existed.
We were like a million other girls.
Such a tragic story, but so wonderfully written. You truly captured the essence of the 3 girls and the era. Every time I think about Susie, I am saddened that she is gone, disgusted by the circumstances and angry that she never had a chance to discover who she would have become. Thanks for writing the story. It made me feel incredibly sad and at the same time I found it oddly comforting. I would still like to go to Rome.
Thanks for this. This story has really affected me.
I’m so glad you feel it did Susie some justice.