Sometimes, a comma means everything

Childhood friends (Photo credit: Martin VorelCC0 1.0)

My best friend, Rebecca, never met a comma she didn’t like.

You see that first comma back there, after “friend”? She insisted on it. As a matter of fact, she always makes me use more commas, even more than I sometimes think is necessary. And, as you will find, I am a lot more fond of commas than the next writer, and that’s saying something. I wasn’t going to give in, at first; but Rebecca is almost never wrong about anything.

Or, maybe I should say, Rebecca was almost never wrong about anything, and I know full well she wants—I mean, she would have wanted—me to use that first comma, as well as any more commas I could, somehow, find room to throw in.

I’m not sure I want to tell you that story, not just yet—the story of why she ought, now, to be referred to only in the past tense. I’m not sure I’m ready to tell you that story, because it’s too painful. To be honest, I may not ever want to tell you, but we can see how things go.

I met Rebecca when we were both in third grade. We rode a yellow bus together, to school. I had walked to one school for the first and second grades, and she had walked to another. But this was something new, and they called it a “magnet school,” whatever that means. Some of us may have been attracted to it; others, repelled.

I was a small child; well, smaller than most of the other boys, for my age. Some of them called me a shrimp, even though I am certainly not a crustacean, of any kind, as I tried to explain to them, at the time, and they wanted to beat me up. It was scary to ride the bus for the first time, but there was Rebecca, sitting alone in the third seat from the back, always portside, never starboard.

“(You can sit with me),” she said, very softly, that first day. So softly, I almost couldn’t hear it. When I look back on it now, sometimes I think that, maybe, she is why I like women who are quiet. I don’t mean women who never talk, or who never speak up for themselves. No, I mean women who enjoy being quiet, because they enjoy being in their own company, being alone with their thoughts, happy just being! But, that is also another story, for another day, maybe when you are older, when you will better be able to understand it.

Rebecca had no mother, and I had no father. Allow me, if I may, to clarify that statement, just a little. In those days, there was no such thing, yet, as in vitro fertilisation. So, in the strictest, biological sense of the terms, each of us had a mother, and a father. It’s just that, of our four parents, two of them seemed to have a bad habit of failing to come around on an ongoing basis. That, in itself, was not such an unusual fact. I guess that her mother, and my father, had, simply, found better things to occupy themselves with than us, and I don’t think either of us ever really blamed them for it.

Come to think of it, you never really know what makes a person do one thing, and not another, and you don’t miss what you don’t know you’re missing, because how can you? In the event, some people used to say her lack of a mother, and my lack of a father, was the reason we had gotten on so famously from the very beginning, and I’m inclined to want to think so, too. Secretly, I am not so sure I believe them, but everyone is allowed to indulge a theory, if it helps them to think about things.

Rebecca was pale, and freckled, with long, straight, brown hair, and she had a very slight discolouration, a weird sort of light, rosy pink patch, just underneath her left eye.

Now, I’m not one for fancy descriptions, but I know she approves—would have approved, I mean—of all the adjectives, and commas, in that last sentence, and in all of my sentences, especially those written in her honour, written almost on her behalf, in her voice. She doesn’t, I mean, didn’t, care if a sentence was compound or not, and she was someone who knew what a compound sentence is; but she still liked, better than anything else, to see those commas piling up, falling over each other, spilling off the page. She probably used to imagine the extra ones falling back into the type case.

All our conversations, for all those years, were like that last paragraph; and so, too, are the conversations I have with her, even now, now that she is gone, now that she was, now that she had been.

It isn’t very often, in this life, that you find a friend like that, someone with whom, it seems, you almost share the same thoughts. Usually, you have to move on to the next world, to find that sort of kinship. We used to finish each other’s sentences, the way some people say that only identical twins can do. Well, the people who say that are, mostly, wrong: Rebecca and I did just that, and it’s really not so difficult to do, if you take the trouble to find the right person to do it with. Maybe you just haven’t tried it, yet.

Rebecca and I rode the yellow bus together for four years, always sitting in the same seat, the third seat from the back, always portside, never starboard. Often, we would talk, but just as often, we would sit in silence, staring out the window, just being. Third grade, fourth grade, fifth, sixth, and then she, and her father, were gone. After that, we talked by telephone, for a while, but don’t all things come to their end, usually before we are ready?

A year or two after she had moved away, we never spoke again, but we never stopped speaking, either, the same way you never stop speaking to your sister, who died when you were twelve, or to your husband, who died when he was forty-seven, after you had just had your second child. Why stop talking to the people you love, just because they can’t hear you anymore?

Rebecca is here with me, in the moments of pure being, in the moments of silence, in the little pauses, which she loved—loves, I mean—more than anything else; she loved all those little pauses, between all those little commas.

I only realised, just today, that Rebecca has always been here with me, even before I met her on the yellow bus that day.

Sometimes, it is enough.

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