I liked hanging out at Dawn’s house. She liked hanging out at mine. We started spending a lot of time together.
Of all of my friends, she was the one who seemed to understand the strange fear I had about my life. My mother was unemployed. Her mother didn’t work at all; she had a hip condition that wouldn’t allow her to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. Her father worked construction, which meant during the dark days of 1982, there were many days when he was sitting at home when we walked to her house to do homework together after school.
Most of the rest of our friends were worried about which pair of Jordache jeans to put on in the morning or whether or not there was a stain on their new mini skirt. Dawn and I were worried about whether or not the phone would still be operational when we needed to call each other over the weekends.
Dawn’s mother would shop for the new school year in the spring by putting her clothes in layaway at KMart and paying for them in installments. Their family didn’t have credit cards. My mother, alternatively, put everything on her credit cards and worried about paying whatever she could pay at the end of the month. My sister got an after school job at Wendy’s to help pay for the things she needed, like gas and car insurance.
What I liked about Dawn was that she didn’t care; she didn’t care what other kids at school were saying about her. You either liked her or you didn’t, and she didn’t have time for you if you didn’t. I was far more of a people pleaser, wanting desperately for approval in the form of peer acceptance. I put Sun In in my hair to make it blonder, I found the cheapest pair of legwarmers I could find just so I could join the crowd. Dawn didn’t. And the more she didn’t, the more I felt comfortable being myself around her.
Dawn was at my house when my brother started beating on my door to get something he wanted; she was nonplussed when I asked her to help me keep it closed. When his fist punched through the door, she was calm. I was at her house when her mother tried to calm down her father’s anger over what had been eaten out of the fridge, or when he got mad about money. He’d never hit her, but sometimes, a few times, he’d hit her mother.
Our eyes locked over the shared fear we had for those who were supposed to love us. We both knew that family wasn’t quite supposed to be like this, and we were glad that someone else out there understood exactly what that felt like.
That there was a lot more to the world than what you were wearing. That there could be worse things than not having the latest designer pair of jeans or shoes. That there were worse things that what the kids at school could say about you. There was someone out there that knew what darkness was, and how close it could come. There was someone out there who could help keep the darkness at bay, or at least at arm’s length.
That sometimes friends really are the family you get to choose for yourself.