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Together We Stand by Danila Botha

I don’t remember how we met. Everyone says it was in preschool, but I couldn’t tell you what we said to each other, or what games we played, aside from the class’s pile of ratty haired Barbies. There’s a photo of us on Purim: you’re resplendent in a peach satin dress, the perfect Queen Esther and I’m wearing my grandmothers’ shiny gold trench coat with a tiara. There are seven other Queen Esthers in our class which infuriates. I’m standing with my arms crossed. “I’m going to be a fairy princess,” you said, always the practical. “You can be Queen Vashti.”

I have another of us in my backyard, I’m wearing a big pink sweater; you’re wearing a jean jacket that covers most of you and our expressions are very serious. Once we were friends we were friends with a capital F. We held hands. We were the silent person standing beside the other at all times.

You never forget your very first friend.

We’d go over to your house after school and watch Disney movies. We saw Alice in Wonderland at least five times. We ate thin strips of steak that had been smothered in barbeque sauce. At my house we ate homemade fries or barbequed corn.

You said, “It was so much easier last year, when we were in kindergarten, we could come home earlier and sleep whenever we wanted.”

I laughed because I thought you were being ridiculous. In my house, you sucked it up until you weren’t even sure what you were feeling. When I cried my parents reminded me that no one had died. I wasn’t familiar without thinking about how things made me feel.

I was happy mostly, but there were huge stretches of time when I would zone out. I remember staring at the days of the week on the wall in the grade one classroom, reflecting on it being Wednesday and the next moment, I was sitting at my desk and it was Friday.

It drove my mother crazy, that I had a place to escape to that she couldn’t touch. Her yells would turn into background noise, and my head would turn off, first my thoughts and then my ears and then the rest of me.

Your favourite character was Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Mine was Ariel from the Little Mermaid. I drove you crazy constantly singing Part of Your World.

“Don’t you think Ursula is more interesting?” you asked.

That’s the thing--you were always interesting.

You remember my birthday parties as being extravagant and over the top. You remember the guy with the cotton candy machine, the magician and his real white rabbits, the time my parents rented four ponies for two hours for all the kids in our class to ride on.

I remember your parties at your townhouse. I remember the way we sang Happy Birthday, the loot bags your mom made us, the way everything felt warm and like home.

It was just you and your mom, but you never complained about it or acted like you were missing something. Your mom had a close friend who acted like an uncle, and he was kind to me too.

We both had moms who thought we were fat. My mom was always changing what I was eating, telling people I was a difficult eater. Our moms signed us up for ballet. Mine was mortified when I couldn’t follow along, when I kept going to the bathroom instead of focusing and trying.

Your mom dragged us to aerobics classes. I remember bopping up and down beside her and you, we were maybe ten, and the song that played was Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

We went for dinner with your mom after and filled up on breadsticks and Diet Coke.

There was the time I took an ice cream bar out of the freezer, chocolate-covered, full of caramel and nuts and I smeared it on my homework. My parents were furious when they had to initial it before I could hand it in.

There was the time we went on vacation and my parents took me to my first diner. I ate my first ice cream sundae, complete with whipped cream and nuts, chocolate sauce and a cherry and I rhapsodized about it to my dad.

He grimaced. “It’s not nice to talk about food that way,” he said, so I stopped.

There was the time my dad dropped me at your house and chastised me for forgetting to brush my teeth before I left. “Get something to eat when you get there, anything to hide the smell.”

I asked for chocolate that day, Aeros and Smarties, and when I swallowed them I didn’t feel guilty.

There was the time when I got weighed after school. For a week, and then a month I had to cut out all sweets. I ate three Smarties that a friend gave me at school, green, pink and brown, and worried it would affect my weight. I remember the relief hitting the back of my knees so hard I almost had to sit.

There was the time that I searched the kitchen for sweets once I had reached her goal, first the pantry, then the fridge, and when I found nothing I searched the freezer. Half of my My Little Pony ice cream cake was still left from my birthday. I cut a piece. The neon pink part tasted gooey, but I swallowed, along with chunks of ice. An hour later I was vomiting out of control, on the kitchen tiles, in the hallway. My house had always been pristine, and my mother was so angry with me, for eating it, for being so out of control, and every time I vomited I got a slap to the face, or the arm or the head.

I tried to tell her that I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t help it, but more vomit came out. There were other times, but it’s the time I remember the most, the complete and total fear. I never told you.

I never even knew your dad’s name, until you got really sick. You were sweating at night, you said. It was so ironic, you always wanted to lose weight, and now thirty pounds came off without even trying, but you knew it wasn’t good.

Your dad was living across the world, and he wanted to come and see you, and I was incensed on your behalf, but I said nothing. You didn’t let him, of course, you owed him nothing, this is the guy who abandoned you, I eventually told you, when you were small and adorable and perfect, when you first became my best friend. When your cousin confronted me at a party, I snapped at her that it was your choice, and she didn’t know anything so she should stay out of it, and I don’t know who was more surprised, me or her.

I surprised you when I told you I remembered your Hebrew name, when a rabbi came to our door asking for charity and I asked him to pray for you. It felt like you were standing right behind me, eight-year-old you, whispering it in my ear. Batya. Daughter of God. You were touched, you said you didn’t remember mine, and I thought, I hope you never have to.

You were the kind of person who could complain about anything, how hard school was, how hard getting into college was, how hard work was, “it’s the way it is.” but when it came to fighting for your life no one fought like you. No one knew how to grit their teeth, how to tuck wavy tendrils behind their ears how to flash a smile that delights while it also says don’t fuck with me. Anyone who says they can’t believe you survived stage four cancer is an idiot. It was never about the odds, it was about you.

You’re still the person I tell first when something bad happens, when someone rejects me, when something doesn’t work out, when I had a miscarriage at almost twelve weeks pregnant, when I took the pills that made my body convulse and bleed, when I saw the grey sac that looked like a tiny baby with visible features plop into the toilet, I wanted to call you. I didn’t want anyone else. I didn’t want false reassurances, or toxic positivity I wanted someone to tell me the truth, that life was terrible sometimes but we hold hands and we stand up slowly and hopefully we survive.

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