I knew Stella for two years before we became friends. When I started in the Early Entrance Program, she shared a room with Devon, a girl in my cohort. They lived in the basement of the program director's, Marilyn's, house, because their families were not from Seattle. Devon told us "Stella stories." In one, Stella's boyfriend, Harold, is almost caught hiding in the closet at Marilyn's house. In another, she is half-orphaned when her father dies under mysterious circumstances, possibly related to secret government business. In others, Stella openly defies Marilyn, something we all longed to do, but didn't dare. We all thought Stella was crazy and it was partially attributed to her father's death, and Stella's strict and critical mother.
Stella seemed very cool from a distance, despite the crazy. Her hair was a bright, unnatural, deep red and always cut at an asymmetrical angle. Her bangs flopped in her eyes and she slouched around like a model. Because her mother was Asian, she had unusual looks. Stella wore dramatic eye make up and patterned headscarves. Stella listened to the cool bands, had cool friends and knew where the cool places were. Most of us were content to admire her from afar, but were flattered if she deigned to speak to us. She seemed much older, but was actually a few months younger than me.
I became friends with Stella because we moved into the same dorm when we were 16. She lived two floors above me. She was still dating sweet, quirky Harold--they'd been on and off for a couple of years. Harold was 20. I'm sure she lied to him about her age when they first met, but Harold forgave her. He took care of her and became a good friend to our group.
When we hung out, Stella would say, "Tell me a story," and I'd tell her a long, rambling yarn about my grade school years or the boy I had a crush on. She complimented my writing--even though she never read my short stories. She was the cheering squad for team Jamy, which was irresistible to someone who had never been very popular. Stella did this with everyone she liked--boosting them up with flattery and encouragement. If I had qualms about how a particular pair of pants fit, she would assure me that I looked good. If I thought I should try wearing make-up, she'd tell me I didn't need it. And, because she knew I had an urge to mother, she'd ask for my guidance and advice.
Stella pushed me to do things I never would have done otherwise. Like, pay a 3am call on a long time crush or pick up a strange guy on the street and bring him to a party. Stella was wild, charismatic and always saying, "let's do something fun. Let's go somewhere. Let's do something new."
Stella and I met in our cafeteria for breakfast one Saturday morning and she started dropping hints all over the place about where she'd been (with Harold) and what she'd been doing (having sex). She made not very veiled references to wearing Harold's underwear. But the words, "Why were you wearing Harold's underwear?" would not come out of my mouth, though I knew that's what she wanted me to say. She wanted me to draw her out, but I couldn't do it. Conversations about sex made virginal me very uncomfortable. I thought, "If she really wants to tell me, she'll tell me." But she never did.
One weekend, she disappeared. We didn't have a set plan, but I expected to see her like I always did. Stella wasn't in her room. She didn't answer the phone and no one I asked knew where she was. Stella's vanishing bothered me more than most people's would have. I remained worried about her until I found her on Sunday. I gave her a little lecture, "If you need to disappear like that, just let me know. I was worried about you."
"Why? We didn't have plans."
"I know, but we usually do, so when I couldn't find you, I thought there might be something wrong."
"Really? You know I was with Harold, of course."
"No, I didn't know. So, just, if you can, please let me know if you're not going to be around so I won't worry about you."
She gave me no reassurances. After that, I started to let go of the friendship. I didn't want to count on her to make my social life "go" when she might disappear at any moment. I also became more deeply obsessed with the object of my affection, David, and spent more time with his circle of friends.
The amount of time I spent with David caused a shift in Stella's attitude towards me. She decided that it was her turn to mother me. My reaction was, "Oh no." It was fine if she didn't want me to play the mother anymore, but I HAD a mother and one was more than enough. I would be damned if I took mothering from Stella.
Still, I felt an obligation towards her because when David was getting ready to leave for L.A., I told Stella, "I want spend time with David before he goes, so I may not be around that much. I may disappear for a while." Stella answered that by telling me, "Did you know that Danielle told David that she loves him?" Danielle and David had an on and off again romance.
"What? They're good friends. And I don't know if that's true."
I did not believe her, but it was true.
Stella did not approve of the time I spent with David (she was quite right about this, as it turned out) and she got mad at me for not being around. I felt guilty, but I didn't change my plans.
When things went terribly wrong the night before David left and I was reduced to hysterical weeping, I didn't call Stella. I called my mother. She heard me crying and said, "I'm coming to get you. I'll meet you out front." She took me home, gave me cold compresses and didn't ask any questions.
The next school term, Stella moved to a dorm across campus and I saw her much less, though we were still connected by our friends. I heard stories about her, her variety of illnesses, fights with Harold, problems with her mom, difficulties with her new roommate, and the possibility of her leaving school.
Then the poison barbs started dropping. One fell when I was squeezed in the back seat of Harold's tiny Honda Civic station wagon. Stella was talking about her writing class (we were both English/Creative Writing majors) and how one of her classmates was a particularly good writer. She said, "You are a good writer, Jamy, but this girl is a real writer. She is on a whole other level." No one else seemed to notice what she'd said.
"What? How do you know? Have you ever read my stories?"
"No, but I don't have to. I know she's a better writer."
"How can you say that?" I was furious but the looks on the faces around me seemed to say, 'ignore her, that's just how Stella is.'
She didn't answer and I fumed.
Another barb came at a party in her new dorm room. I was invited to this party, but I was uncomfortable being there. I most certainly made some cracks that betrayed my unease.
We were talking about what we would do after graduation (the distant future) and I said I'd like to teach high school for a year, as a public service, before going to grad school.
Stella said, "Oh, you'll never be a good teacher."
Ouch. It was like I'd been punched. "What? Why do you say that?"
"You're too impatient. You're too strict."
Why did this hurt? A few of us used to toss around ideas about how we would teach if we ever had the chance. Once, I spent a long night with a few of my cohorts trying to come up with the perfect high school that wouldn't pressure kids, but would encourage them and allow them to move through the curriculum at their own pace. Stella wasn't there, but this topic was occasionally batted around by our group (of high-school-skipping teens).
Stella's opinion shouldn't have mattered to me, but I feared that I wouldn't be a good teacher and she managed to exploit that feeling expertly.
After this party, I did not see Stella again for a long time because she did, indeed, drop out of school and go back to the little town in Western Washington where her mother lived.
Stella told us that she was going to die because she had a brain aneurysm. She'd been having terrible headaches and backaches, which are symptoms, apparently. I didn't talk to her much about it because it made me uncomfortable. I discussed it with some of our mutual friends, trying to get more details. They said, "Stella's not dying. It's just another one of her stories."
"You think so? I don't see how she could lie about something like that."
"Oh, don't worry, she'll be fine. She always does this."
But I had to worry. It seemed different than her other stories, which were usually a blend of fact and fiction. If Stella told me she was dying, as her friend, I had to believe her. If I didn't believe her, I wasn't really her friend. So I believed her. That was my official position.
One sunny day, Stella and I walked across Red Square, one of the main plazas on campus. She talked to me about her imminent death and a friend who had been helpful and reassuring. She talked about how she was discovering herself and putting things into perspective. Dying will do that. I was completely removed from this scene. It wasn't an out-of-body experience; it was more like an implosion. I retreated far inside myself and observed Stella through the murk. I couldn't listen to her talk about death for one second longer.
"Stella, this must be really hard for you and I don't know what to say, but I don't think I can talk to you about it anymore."
"I know you have problems with your mom, but I think this is what family is for. They are there in a crisis. I'm sure she will support you in whatever way you need. She will listen to you."
"I just…I just can't handle this. I can't listen to this. If I were in your situation, I don't think I could talk to anyone about it. I wouldn't tell anyone. I just think our approaches are completely different. I'm sorry." I thought my head would explode with all the death talk.
It would make a hell of a lot of sense if the poison conversational barbs occurred AFTER I said this to her. But that is not the way it happened.
How did she react? Did she yell at me? Storm off? Cry? I haven't the faintest recollection. Subsequent events indicate that she was angry, though I think she laughed it off at the time. I remember being surprised when she got angry at me several months later—not shocked, because I thought I'd done wrong—but surprised because she took an awfully long time to tell me how she felt.
The punch line: it was all a lie. Stella wasn't dying. She wasn't even sick. She didn't have a brain aneurysm or anything else. I don't know how she made the story up or if she even saw a doctor, but she sold me and at least a few other people on it.
I consulted my mom during all of this and she said, "You rejected her because you knew something was wrong. Even though you decided to believe her, you had to protect yourself."
Perhaps Mom was right; I certainly like to think so. The whole thing seems so ridiculous in retrospect. And so unlike me—me, abandon a dying friend? It's just not conceivable. For example, a friend of mine recently had a breast cancer scare. She's young, so it seemed unlikely, but there is a history of cancer in her family. She had to get a mammogram and the whole business. She was fine. But when she talked, I listened. I wasn't uncomfortable; I was simply worried about her.
Nevertheless, I felt guilty about abandoning Stella. Even my friends at the time who didn't believe her thought I'd been harsh. But they could listen because they didn't believe. I was caught in some kind of cognitive dissonance. Thinking that our friendship hinged on her truthfulness. I knew I couldn't be friends with someone who lied to me about something as important as dying. So I had to believe her. But my gut knew the truth. And I imploded.
Spokes on a Wheel
During the period of the death scare, I went to a party with a lot of Stella's mutual friends, but without Stella. It was a tiny dorm-room party and there weren't more than twelve people there. Since Stella wasn't there, we started talking about her. We were all her "good friends" but some of us didn't know each other very well. In fact, this was no accident. She'd engineered it so that we stayed apart as much as possible. The metaphor I use to describe the feeling was "spokes on a wheel." Stella was the hub and each of us was at the end of a spoke. But there was no actual wheel to connect us. That night, we started building the connections. None of us had the same story about what was going on with Stella. As we put the pieces together, we started to figure out what the real story was. It was disconcerting to say the least.
It was towards the end of my year in the dorms. Stella had moved home, back with her mother, but she'd come for a visit and was staying with Devon. They wanted to hang out with me (why?) and we spent part of an afternoon and an evening together. We ended up at my room (was there something I had to give to Stella?) and before they walked back to Devon's room, Stella started screaming at me. Devon was standing just outside my open door, thinking that they were on their way out. Instead, Stella stood just inside the door, facing me. I was standing in the middle of the room between the two twin my beds—my roommate was out. And she let me have it. She started telling me I was a bad friend, that I'd abandoned her. "I know. I'm sorry."
But that wasn't enough. She kept going, detailing how bad I was.
Again, I agreed. "You're right. I didn't handle things well. I wasn't a good friend."
And then she moved on, "Those pants didn't look good on you."
She listed a number of things about which she'd reassured me in the past. She told me she'd lied.
I said, "I can understand why you're angry, and if you want to talk about it we can. But I'm not going to talk to about that other stuff."
She went on, delving back to the beginning of our friendship, pushing every button she could.
I said, "If you want to talk about what happened, we can."
Then Stella stomped out, down the hall. Devon stood in the hall, stunned, not moving. I came to the doorway. There has never been much love lost between Devon and me. We're not exactly friends and not exactly enemies, we've just know each other forever. She said, "How did you do that?"
"What? Do what?"
"How did you not fight back—not fight dirty?"
"I have no idea. I was very angry. I was fighting. I'm not even sure what I said."
"I could never do that with Stella and we fight all the time."
Stella was at the end of the hall, waiting. I said, "I guess you better go."
"Ok. Sorry about this. I didn't know she was so angry with
"It's ok. Not your fault."
That was the official end of my friendship with Stella. I had a chance to own up to what I'd done wrong, but she wouldn't take me up on it. All she wanted to do was hurl insults at me that had nothing to do with the root problem. Then again, the real problem was that Stella lied to me and I tried to believe her—and I made myself miserable in the process. I needed to apologize, though, and her outburst gave me that opportunity. Perhaps that's something to be grateful for.
Before winter break, Stella asked me what I wanted for a Christmas
present. Shyly, I told her that what I really wanted was the new record by The The. It was more expensive than a regular LP, which is why I hesitated to buy it for myself (what did it cost? 15? 16?). "You don't have to get me anything, though."
"But I want to. I want you to have it."
"That's nice, but there's no need for us to exchange presents."
I'm not sure how, but she let it be known that she'd bought the record. But for some reason it was hard for her to get it to me. Knowing that I had this present coming kept me from buying a copy of the record for myself. This state of affairs went on for months. To the point where I actually asked her (more than once?) to give me my present (and I knew how wrong that was) or to tell me that she wasn't going to give it to me so I could go get my own.
Audrey acted as an intermediary for some of this, telling me at least once that Stella had the record and wanted to give it to me.
It was not until the fall of the next year, when Stella invited me over to her new room in a boarding house. "Come over, I want to give you something." The thing was, I'd finally decided to stop whining and buy myself the record. I'd done it just a couple of weeks before. I knew what she was going to do and I relished being able to say "thanks, but no thanks." The place she was living was miserable. Fresh, stick-built, cheap, for students only. Lots of rooms and a little common space. Her room was a mess and she had a big wad of cash on her dresser. I told her to put it away, "It's not that anyone will take it, but it's best not to put temptation in people's way." I couldn't stop mothering.
Stella said she wasn't worried. Then she presented me with the record. "I meant to give this to you a long time ago, but I really liked it too. But I want you to have it now."
"Thanks," I said, "but it's ok for you to keep it. I just bought a copy."
That might not have been the last time I spoke to Stella, but it's the last conversation I remember.
The Last Word
I was long done with Stella. I was at least a year away from the dorms and she wasn't part of my life anymore. However, she was still in my larger circle of friends and I'd hear about her from time to time.
She and Harold broke up sometime during year we lived in the dorms. Harold had tried to break up with her several times—but she would always do something to draw him back. There was the attempted suicide—she called Harold to rescue her. There was the ovarian cyst that required a late night trip to the emergency room. These things were real (sort of) and Harold was nothing if not responsible and he couldn't abandon her. And she wouldn't let him.
Yet, somehow, he'd made a final break with her. And he started dating Beth. Beth is a kind, level-headed woman. (Beth and Harold are still married and have a couple of kids). After the breakup, Stella tried to get Harold back. She called Beth's house in search of him. She called in the middle of the night. She wept, she remonstrated. She needed him. But he wouldn't go. Stella finally gave up.
I saw Harold at this party and we started talking about Stella. I heard
from Beth for the first time about the late-night calls and the true
craziness. Even knowing Stella to be an exceptional liar, I was
surprised. I said to Harold, "How did you do it? How did you end it?"
He said, "You just have to stop caring. I couldn't help her and I just
had to stop."
"But what if she were really sick? What would you do?"
"Nothing. She can find someone else to help her. You have to let it go. There's nothing you can do."
"I know. I know you're right."
The thing was, I'd already done this, but I felt guilty about it. Guilty about being a bad friend, about abandoning her, about not caring
enough. But that night, I stopped. It was the real end of my
involvement with Stella.
Sometimes when I go back to Seattle, I remember to ask about Stella. It's been years since there was any news about her, but one of the last things I remember is Audrey's husband, Matt, telling me that Stella had published a book. "Really? Do you have a copy?"
"No. It's a genre book--a romance I think. She published under a pen name."
"Oh." I laughed. "I see." I held my right hand open and tapped the palm with my left index finger. "Right here. I'll believe it when I have a copy of the book right here."
Maybe I'll remember to ask about her next time I'm home.
Grateful for: learning to recognize the crazy--I could never have done it without Stella.