One True Friend (for Lee), excerpt

Kaylie Jones • Memoir

My 10-year-old daughter stepped off the school bus with tears streaming down her face, her entire body shaking. I dropped to my knees on the pavement and threw my arms around her as she stood there sobbing. I had never seen her quite so upset so I just held her, no idea what to do, asking her over and over what was wrong. Finally she stepped back and started dragging herself up the avenue. At the corner I reached for her hand and she did not pull away.

I got the story in fits and starts as we walked the several city blocks toward home.

At lunchtime in the cafeteria, she had gotten her tray and headed for her gang of friends sitting at their usual table. As she set down her lunch, her best friend Karen said, “You can’t sit here anymore.” Karen stared with disgust at my daughter’s tray—she told me now, shamefacedly, that she had taken two sandwiches and two desserts. Karen said, “You’re a pig. You eat too much and you can’t sit here anymore.”

My girl stood frozen, her eyes going from face to face around the table of six girls, all of them friends of hers who had come to birthday parties and sleepovers at our home. Not one of them spoke up. Karen was known to have a cruel temper and they were probably afraid of her. I had the good sense not to say what I always said to my daughter when issues about her eating came up, which was that she was not fat and it was okay to eat whatever she wanted to eat, which is what the therapist had told me to say. In truth I worried constantly about her eating, not because she was slightly overweight for her age but because I knew her overeating was an indication that something was making her unhappy, and my fear was that she felt the same vast empty black hole in the center of her being that had plagued me all my life.

Instead, I said in as calm and equable a tone as I could muster, “Well, what did you do then, my darling? What did you say?”

Finally, after my girl had stood there in the dead silence of the table surrounded by the echoing, crashing noise of the cafeteria, she picked up her tray, walked back toward the empty tray racks, dumped her lunch into the big black trashcan, slid the tray into a slot, and locked herself in a bathroom stall. She stood with her face pressed against the door waiting for the end-of-lunch bell to ring. In fifth grade, they weren’t allowed to leave school during lunch period. There was nowhere else for her to go.

Emily Gilbert