When I lost her for real, for good, it came to me through technology. I was at the cardiologist asking neurotic questions about a heart condition I’d recently been diagnosed with—I would give my college commencement speech in a few months, and I wanted to make sure my heart wouldn’t betray me while I was onstage. My phone vibrated as the doctor talked about magnesium. I glanced at my lap, lifting the flap of my purse, and checked my text messages with superhuman subtlety—a skill I’d learned in school.
I opened a message from an unknown number.
“Lea died,” it said.
I stayed until the appointment was over, nodding when it seemed appropriate to nod and methodically moving down my list of questions. I didn’t burst into tears. I didn’t run sobbing from the room. But with that text, my world split in two. In the first world, the real world, a doctor was talking, I was a busy New Yorker paying a crapload for an appointment I’d missed work to attend, and there was no place for what had just been communicated to me, quite literally by a tangle of wires and signals whose mechanisms I couldn’t fathom but that somehow extended all the way into my deepest past, all the way to the second world, where the things I loved most were stored. When my appointment was over, I think I said, “thank you.” I don’t remember leaving. The next thing I remember is wandering through midtown, crying so hard I couldn’t see, as Mari, the friend behind the text, explained that Lea was dead, that the funeral was days away, that I needed to come home.
I know my obsession with Lea is partly selfish. Her story is like a hologram. Tilt it, let the light hit it from a different angle, and the dead girl we’re talking about is me. We’d both gotten cited by police at 14 for drinking beer on the beach. At the height of our friendship I matched her drink for drink, inhale for inhale. If I'd had a little less luck, or she'd had a little more—how would this story go? In my memory, yes, I’m the sidekick, yes, she was the one always egging us to take one more step into the shadows, where we could really get hurt. But wasn’t I holding her hand, encouraging her with my willingness to follow? One night, while we laid outside in the field, a little tipsy, she grabbed my arm and made me promise her I’d never let her turn out like a druggie girl who lived in the rundown apartment complex behind my house. I promise, I told her. I promise.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally searched for that druggie girl on Facebook. Today she appears to have two daughters and a job and a partner and lots of friends; she just attended her 10-year high school reunion.
The Internet has complicated the question of where to store my loss. How can I move on, if Lea’s face is always lurking in my phone, asking me, begging me to get to the bottom of how my gorgeous, ballsy friend died of liver failure at 22 years old? With every Facebook upgrade it seems like the platform makes it easier for me to become an archeologist of Lea’s past. I’m dogged by our messages, sure, but now I can also investigate her profile using the timeline function in the upper righthand corner of the screen, so that if I want to visit healthy—or healthier—Lea, circa-2006, I can leap to that portion of her wall in an instant. And every time I do, I’m reminded of promises I didn’t keep.