We had big dreams, Julie and I.
She was going to be an Oscar-winning actress and I was going to be famous the world over for writing that would make people laugh with joy and weep with empathy.
Instead I today mark the 13th anniversary of her death by trying, in this humble space, to use my words to pay some kind of tribute to her and to our friendship.
Julie and I met nearly 20 years ago in my first year of university. I was in full party mode, enjoying a concert by a band I can’t remember, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and there stood a tiny, doll-like girl with a big, tipsy smile.
“I’m ever so short,” she said. (Really). “I can’t see the band. Help me out?”
She gestured to my shoulder and I burst out laughing at her audacity. When I regained my composure I stooped down and up she hopped. We were pretty much inseparable from that moment on.
I don’t know exactly how tall Julie was. Four feet, ten inches maybe? Four feet eleven? Surely not five feet. She never discussed it so I’m not sure how I came to understand that her growth had been stunted by treatments she endured to successfully fight leukemia as a toddler.
No matter. What Julie lacked in stature she made up for in attitude. She was startling beautiful and she knew it. She turned heads wherever she went. She would insult you in the most outrageous fashion and then charm you a second later with a conspiratorial wink and a flip of her hair.
We had a shtick, Julie and I. She was drool and I was goofy. I told corny jokes and she made cutting observations. We were partners in crime, kindred spirits, two peas in a pod. We got each other.
A few years after graduation Julie moved Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. I took a road trip to visit and fell in love with Arizona on my way through. I moved there not long after and we visited between Scottsdale and Los Angeles regularly.
What a heady time! She acted bit parts and I worked as a freelance writer. Drunk with youth and possibility, we attacked the world the only way we knew how – full tilt. We narrowly avoided a dust-up with a member of Faster Pussycat at Whiskey a Go-Go. We danced on the tables at a sushi restaurant in Venice. We traded jokes and insults behind the microphone at a house party we crashed in West Hollywood.
Superbowl weekend rolled around. Julie had vague plans to visit me in Arizona. I didn’t hear from her, but wasn’t overly concerned. Then her mother called in the early evening.
“I’m in Los Angeles dear,” she said. “With Julie. She’s dying. She’s asking to see you. You better come right away”
I have often tried, during the last 12 years, to recreate how I felt to hear those words. When the picture I carry of her in my head gets blurry or I can’t quite hear her voice, I force myself back into that dark moment, hoping, I guess, that fresh pain will somehow make her seem less distant.
And so I drove, tears streaming down my face, across the desert in the middle of the night. I remember the moonlight on the palm trees and the warm wind and the feeling that surely I must just be playing a part in some cheesy movie of the week – the kind Julie would eviscerate with one pithy blow.
But it wasn’t a movie of course. Julie had visited the doctor just a few weeks earlier about a nagging cough, which was, it turned out, symptomatic of imminent heart and lung failure. Her respiratory system had been compromised by the very treatments that had saved her life all those years ago.
I got to the hospital and went in to see her right away. I remember thinking how glamorous and beautiful she looked laying there, her hair artfully fanned out around her pillow: a tiny, perfect doll.
“Tell me a joke,” she said. And, because she asked me to, I blinked back my tears and did just that. Then I told her I loved her. She smiled like Cleopatra on the Nile. Of course I did.
One after another, the people who loved her filed in to say goodbye. Her parents went last and came out an hour or so later. She was gone, they said.
Julie was gone.
Afterwards I went to a Denny’s on Sunset Blvd and ate pancakes and drank Irish coffee and cried. It seemed fitting somehow and I lingered, knowing Julie would revel in the curious glances I drew with my smeared eyeliner, disheveled hair and tragic demeanor.
Some days I can’t believe that how much the world has changed since Julie was in it. How can it be that Pulp Fiction was the last movie that she saw? That she never got to make fun of Paris Hilton or weigh in on reality television. That September 11th was remarkable to her only because it’s my birthday?
I carried Julie’s lace handkerchief down the aisle with me on my wedding day. And on her birthday every year her parents treat me to dinner at her favorite restaurant. But I feel her loss most keenly at times when her memory sneaks up on me. Like on my 30th birthday when I couldn’t stop crying because it didn’t seem fair that I got to turn 30 and she didn’t.
There are so many, many things that Julie didn’t get to do and even as my life moves happily forward, I am haunted by each and every one of them.
Because we had big dreams, Julie and I.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
We had big dreams, Julie and I.