Lilian Martin

Once, when we were tweens, I asked E how we had met because I could not remember. I was feeling reflective, a new feeling for 11-year-old me. While E and I had only known each other for six years, for kids our age that was more than half a lifetime of friendship to reflect on.

E considered it for a moment. She replied that she had thought we looked alike and figured we must have a lot in common just from that. Then, E told me she got her mum to bring her over to me–it was the catalyst of our friendship. We thought it was going to last a lifetime.

I think E was talking out of her butt–I honestly do not remember looking that similar. My hair has always been brown and when I was a kid, it had these two specific curls that stuck out like little horns, before finally erupting into wavy, bulbous curls in my mid-teens. E’s natural hair was different–a much lighter brown, with bleach-blonde split ends that shone in the sunlight. As she grew up, her hair thickened and straightened and was subjected to rigorous hair dye experiments.

I never had a proper best friend before E (at least not one I actually liked). Every moment of Prep and Year 1 was spent with her. We would sit cross-legged on the carpet, whispering and poking each other, holding back silent giggles and hoping not to get caught. Our faces would blush when teachers finally did catch onto our conversation. The bell rang, and the teachers herded us like cattle to the dusty playground. E and I always avoided the swings because she thought there were too many boys on them. Being much taller than me, she always reached for the monkey bars. I was a speedy runner, so I always preferred to run around, leading E and some other kids in an entourage of sprinting.

Sometimes E and I found ourselves in the sandpit, setting ourselves the task of ‘digging to China’, only to be disappointed when we hit the tarpaulin at the pits’ bottom. There was a simplicity to our friendship back then because we were young enough, naive enough, that we didn’t overthink it. We had none of the anxieties we’d cultivate when we got older. Will they like me? What do we have in common? Will they text or call me? All we cared about was if the teachers would let us sit together and put our books next to each other in the marking pile.

E and I drifted apart in Year 2 when we were no longer in the same classes–a common occurrence for primary school students. There was no animosity between us. When we shared classes again in Year 5, our friendship burned brighter than before. We were older (double-digit age!) and suddenly there was more than just playing. There was talking–and lotsof it. Despite us both being very shy people, we never shut up when we were around each other. We had long, engrossing conversations that no one else could keep up with. Or at least they were engrossing to two 11-year-olds with a penchant for Harry Potter, Star Wars, and writing. We both scrawled stories onto lined schoolbooks. I wrote fan fiction and supposedly funny scenes; E mainly wrote gory horror stories, with descriptions of bloodied knives and gloomy mental asylums. Some of the images she conjured stick with me even today. We would read our stories aloud during lunch breaks, sitting and listening in rapt attention of the other.

Yet for all this talking and listening there was so much unsaid. Sure, we were older, but we still were young enough to lack language to talk about things that mattered.  There was this one time, as we walked from a class, that I was crying quietly (I can’t remember why) and E asked me, ‘Are you okay?’

I avoided the question. ‘It’s nothing,’ I responded.

In the air between us hung a worried silence.

‘Please don’t cry,’ she said quietly and sincerely. ‘It… makes me want to cry too.’

This was the nearest we ever got to talking about things that mattered.

Later that year was a school camp. One of the activities was canoeing–E and I dreaded it. Instructors gave us directions quickly and glossed over all the details. My ears buzzed with confusion as their words whizzed in through one ear and right out the other. The next thing I knew E and I were being ushered into a canoe. I told her to take the front, and I took the back.

Our canoe drifted onto a lake of deep green water. Our knuckles were white against our paddles–we whacked them against the water’s surface but got nowhere. Silence enveloped us. We just kept drifting. Flies skipped and jumped on the edge of the water and the sounds of other children in canoes splashing and squawking with glee filled the silent air around us. We were hunched in our life jackets like big clueless orange tortoises. Our jittery canoe drifted towards an islet in the middle of the lake–a mound covered in thick palms and eucalyptus trees.

Was E meant to steer? What had the instructors said about steering? It was the person at the front, right? Why wasn’t E steering? Or maybe I was meant to steer? I had no idea. I was panicking. I didn’t even want to go on this camp, let alone on this stupid canoe!

I finally broke the silence: ‘How do we move?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t know…’ E muttered faintly. I could sense the barely concealed panic in her voice too.

How we got back to the small wooden jetty is a mystery to me. Did I offer my friend some heartfelt words of encouragement to paddle ourselves free? Almost certainly not. I never said anything useful back then.

For all our talking and time spent together, E and I never got through to each other when we needed to most–instead we just drifted like we did when we were on that lake at Year 5 camp.

Our silences became worse when we started high school. At different schools.

We were determined to stay in touch. Drop me a line, E. We never texted each other–we spoke too much to be confined to 160 characters. Instead, we sent each other lengthy emails. We met up when we could, visits lasting hours and hours. In each reunion we still had this chemistry, this ability to yarn ceaselessly with one another. But these visits became rarer, and the silences became noticeable the further we drifted apart.

There is no dramatic moment, no build-up of tension, no elegant scene I can describe here of my friendship with E straining, breaking, and becoming irreparable. E and I simply drifted apart. No more emails, no more visits.

A couple of years passed, and it felt like a lifetime. I had made it through the gruelling last years of high school and enrolled at university. I felt so much older, and I was now smart enough to realise I hadn’t really been as mature as I thought when I was eleven.

I was seventeen–almost eighteen–and I strode purposefully into my local post office with keys in my pocket. It made me almost feel like a real grown-up.

I saw her waiting in the line ahead of me. E. My old best friend, the one who I used to talk to more than anyone else, without really saying anything.

Well, I saw her mum first really–she’s the spitting image of her child with the exact same light hair. But next to her was undoubtedly E, even if it was difficult to tell–she was slightly hunched and wore a heavy black hoodie. As I watched her cautiously from behind, I noticed her hair was no longer light brown but dyed black. Her mum noticed me and made that pleasant chitchat people tend to do with old acquaintances: ‘How’s school? Are you going to uni? Have you got a job?’

I talked to E’s mum politely, and E stole a single glance at me from under her hoodie, her expression unreadable. It was surreal; a face I knew so well barely noticing my presence.

E and her mum finished at the post office. I felt bizarre. I had just seen my childhood best friend, the one who I would yap and yap and yap with for days at a time, and she had said… nothing to me. She’d barely even noticed me. I began to grieve for the friendship we had as children and mourned how people could drift so far apart.

The next day, I sent E an email. A short one. Just to say hi, I suppose. I was glad I still had it (I lost her number years ago, but we never got the hang of texting each other anyway). She responded a few days later and apologised for blanking me in the post office. It was nice, but our conversation lacked the old vigour we used to have. I got the feeling we both left a lot unspoken. I know I certainly did. We still didn’t speak about the things that mattered. Are you okay, E?

We stopped responding soon after that. And drifted away again.

I wonder if E and I will one day reconnect. I think I wouldn’t mind that. Will it be a chance encounter at the post office again? Or will she stumble across this memoir? Or maybe we will meet by chance at a lakeside, watch the sun sink into deep green water, and talk for hours and hours like we did in the old times, before we drifted apart.

Author: When Lilian isn’t studying, they are busy listening to old music, talking about old music or singing along (badly) to old music. In the brief time they have left over, they somehow manage to be on QUT’s Lit Salon team and get several pieces published in Glass mag. You can find them avoiding responsibility on insta @lilian.is.feelin.groovy or on their website https://lilianjmartin.wordpress.com/

Artist: Irene Liao is a visual art student from Taiwan who aims to present figurative human art through her watercolour pieces.

Editors: Brock Scholte and Fernanda Bustos Venegas