How Could I Have Not Known?
I was waiting tables at the Gyro Wrap in Athens UGA. It was summer, and I was working the station I liked best, the patio—which was really just tables lining the sidewalk. She rode up on her bike and leaned it against the little railing that separated the outdoor seating from the pedestrian traffic. She took one of the deuces and lit a cigarette, maybe her only true vice. When I came to take her order, she introduced herself and asked if I liked my job.
I detailed the pros and cons by way of describing my various co-workers and customers: Slicing the lamb spam was Richard, I told her, who used to be a stockbroker on Wall Street but one bad Monday chucked his career and family to saw gyro meat in a small college town. He would bust you every time you crossed your legs, claiming it ruined them with spider veins. It was like a mission with him. And there was Ross the mopey musician, Kate the anorexic, and Rick the Romeo.
Down the list I went, until I got to the customers: those stinky table campers, REM, and their thrift-store-clad coffee klatch; old lady Connie with the sponge rollers and endless tales of woe; Dennis with the steel plate in his head, who was always slapping it and yelling, “Don-git-mee-stotted!”; that forty-something fatso Ort, who lived with his mother and who drank all the milk out of the coffee creamers; oh, and Ed Tant, better called Ed Rant, who was always protesting something.
Trying to both warn and entice her, I hoped she’d apply. From the moment we met, it felt as if we’d always known each other. You’ve had friends like that, right?
She did apply and started soon after, and those people I told her about became her stories, and our story continued. Scarlette Chartain Gordon was from Rome, Georgia. She called herself Carle, pronounced Carly, but her mother—to this day—calls her Scarlette.
She knew what she wanted and had no trouble asking for it. At Sons of Italy, she'd order pizza with anchovies—rinsed. She could tell if they weren’t rinsed, too, and she’d send it back. They hated to see her coming--and me, by proxy.
Men loved her. She didn't need them, so they loved her even more. They were always buying her things, bringing her things, fixing her things.
She was adventurous. Once she went to New York for a weekend and ended up staying for two years. I watched her cats that weekend.
She was supportive. She rode her bike beside me during my second marathon. I was listening to the Flashdance soundtrack and went off into my own world, which caused me to literally run into her back tire, spilling both of us onto the street, batteries flying out of our cassette players, knees and palms bleeding. She was the more injured but yelled at me to pick myself up and keep going. “Don’t you dare stop,” she scolded.
She was studious—but not too. I have vivid memories of studying at the Waffle House until 5 a.m., her blowing smoke rings over my head.
She was naughty. Though she hadn’t completed the requirements for graduation, she let her parents believe she was graduating. She donned a cap and gown, smiled as her parents took pictures of her with her classmate friends (She was two years older than I), marched in and sat with the graduates. I swore she’d never pull it off. Her family didn’t find out until she’d actually earned her degree and confessed.
She was fierce and persuasive. At one time we ended up in Atlanta together. She lived on 4th Street, more dangerous then than now. A man broke in through a window in the middle of the night and held a knife to her throat. She talked him out of raping her by taunting him to go ahead—saying that he’d get his punishment. She convinced him that she had an STD she didn’t have.
She always knew what to say. After Kelly died, she called me from L.A. “You still have a sister,” she said. “I’ll be your sister.”
She taught me ‘To assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.’
She taught me that grapefruit juice in advance of a 26.2-mile run would prevent “accidents” on the course.
She tried hard to teach me to simply be who I am. When I was 23, a newlywed, and expecting my in-laws for the weekend in our tiny studio apartment, I was frantic about cleaning and getting everything in order. My in-laws had never liked me because I’d shacked up with their son, and even though we'd gotten married, I suspected I would never please them. She told me something that has always proven true: “Be yourself, Tania. If they don’t like you, it won’t matter if your house is clean or not. It won’t matter what you wear or how you cook.”
I was hurt when she moved so far away, to LA. I’m a baby like that when people desert me. Ask my grandmother, or Josie, or Kathy. I cry in the car every day and pout for months afterward. I dream up some misery that might bring them back. I don’t call or write. I’ve gotten better about this over the years, but the residue is there. I’ll dial the numbers, but always is that tiny hmph! in the back of my mind when I'm on the phone.
I flew out to be in her beautiful wedding at the Japanese Gardens. She wore red and white. The bridesmaids wore red, also, dresses of our own choosing. A year or two later, I went to her baby shower at her mom's house in Rome. Getting pregnant had been difficult for her and she was full of joy.
Except for that graduation thing, she was honest to a fault. When I pulled up for that shower in my divorce convertible, a white POS Chrysler LeBaron, she was incredulous, laughing: "Is THAT your car?!!"
Carle and I didn’t talk often, but when we did, it was as if we’d never been apart, never skipped a beat. Sisters. It made me happy to know she was out there in the world, raising her son, teaching, imagining the historic novel she wanted to write someday.
As I was driving home from work on Monday, I checked my voice mail. I’d had sporadic cell service in the mountains, and somehow the messages had piled up and appeared all at once. Most were from MF, of course. One was not.
It was Carle’s mother, saying, “Tania, Scarlette has died. The service is on Saturday. Call me. Scarlette has died.”
It was Monday. I'd missed the service.
Later that evening, I mustered what it took to call her mother and ask the question. Carle had been diagnosed in July.