The Friendship According to Ruth
We lived in the desert, Naomi and me. My abuelita cleaned her grandmother’s house. My parents died crossing the border when I was two and Naomi’s grandmother said Naomi’s parents were children themselves, which I used to think meant they were just our size and living in a colony, somewhere, with other small adults, but actually they had left baby Naomi with her grandmother for a weekend ten years ago and never came back.
Although Mrs. Foxworthy never encouraged our friendship, Naomi was entertained when I was around. For that bit of peace her grandmother let me come over anytime and took a distant, polite interest in my welfare.
“How is school?” she’d ask, lifting my chin, so my eyes met hers.
I was in fifth grade at Indio Elementary, where even in 1985, our year ended early because the school lacked air conditioning and the windows were rusted shut.
“Oh, Mrs. Foxworthy, Rutie get all the A’s,” my abulita called from the kitchen.
“Is that so?”
“Ruth,” Naomi motioned to me from the door of her room, a board game tucked under her arm.
I pulled my chin from Mrs. Foxworthy’s grasp and turned toward my best friend. We looked nothing alike: she was tall, I was short, she was blonde, I was dark, but the more we talked and let our insides jumble out we were the same. If I liked a book, Naomi had to read it. If she played a game I wanted to learn. Before school had started, we’d nicked our palms with a knife from the kitchen and pressed our blood together. We were sisters, we swore, now and forever. When she outgrew her clothes, they became mine.
“Wanna play Life?” Naomi asked. In the beginning, she won every time. But Naomi competition didn’t matter to her and now I’d figured out the tricks and I was starting to beat her.
“Sure,” I said.
My abuelita and I lived in a sandlot trailer out by the I-10. Sometimes Mrs. Foxworthy let Naomi sleep over.
Naomi loved the desert. Her imagination roared alive in the dunes around my house.
“Look,” she cried pointing toward the horizon—we’d spent the afternoon outside unearthing sun bleached pop-tops and sandblasted bits of plastic, jewelry of our ancestors Naomi insisted— “Do you see the guide who’ll show us the way?”
“Our way to where?”
“Where they wait.”
Did she mean our parents? I squinted, but I couldn’t see what she pointed at. Blowing sand bit at my arms and tumbleweeds bounced across the I-10. It was getting hotter and darker. I took Naomi’s hand and pulled her toward the trailer. The Santana was coming.
A dozen times between October and March, scorched air from the Great Basin howled through the Coachella Valley, shearing palm trees and upending anything not fastened down on its way to the Pacific. Like a sand blizzard, the Santana could disorient, suffocate and bury you. Naomi loved the storms, but I feared them.
That night, the trailer’s awning groaned like the hold of a rusty ark. Loose palm fronds hit as hard as torpedoes. Naomi and I zipped our sleeping bags together on the floor.
“What would happen if I went outside right now?” Naomi whispered, her eyes reflecting light from the veladora my grandma burned during storms.
“Once the Mexicans ruled California, but they went out in a Santana and it blew them away,” I said, repeating the story my grandma told me.
“What if I held one end of a rope and you held the other?” Naomi asked, her voice breathy, halfway to a dream.
In the clear still of morning, it took all our strength to push away a sand drift blocking the door. All of the freeway litter had vanished, and outside was a pristine field of white. Naomi and I lay down, watching the pacific sky, and moved our arms to make angels.
During the next Santana, Naomi called me wanting to know how long it took for the winds that shook me to shake her. Like counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, I’d tell her when a gust hit the trailer and we’d wait to see if the wind cut a straight path from my house to hers.
“I can’t tell,” she said, disappointed in the solidness of her house. “I’d have to be outside to really feel it.”
“Don’t,” I begged, but she went. I held the line, nibbling on the edges of my fingers, wanting to hang up, call for help. Then I heard a door shut, quiet, a thrill in her nighttime whisper “In the Santana, I’m alive.”
At the end of eighth grade, I was offered a scholarship to Valley Day. I started high school with the children of the podiatrists and country club developers and Naomi. At Day, Naomi and I were an odd couple—brown kids and white kids segregated themselves despite the best effort of the staff—but she never gave me up: her elbow linked through mine in the halls so the other girls didn’t push me into the garbage cans, sharing my locker so no one dared scrawl beaner or wetback on it. My friend grew taller and thinner, her skin tan, her hair like August wheat. When you looked at Naomi, you thought: California. I grew to the height of my stooped abuelita and had a pretty smile, but rarely showed it. I was invisible to the boys at school. The other Mexican girls, those who should have had my back, instead called me Tonto. To say tonta, stupid, would have been an outright insult, but by labeling me a sidekick, a sellout, they were going at me just as hard. In the World Book, it said Tonto had saved The Lone Ranger’s life when they were kids, and the Lone Ranger had sworn enduring loyalty. Tonto was intelligent, brave and didn’t waste a lot of time talking. Most important, Tonto was a friend to someone who was otherwise alone.
“Tonto, Tonto,” they whispered at me in the halls.
I shrugged them off. As far as I was concerned their nickname was a compliment and they were too ignorant to know it.
As I climbed up the class ranking, Naomi slid. I was smug in my ability to knock snobby white girls off their perch, but I saw my friend doing more than failing tests. She’d always been a daydreamer, often had the blank look of someone who was elsewhere. Naomi gave up on life not in the sullen way that a teenager might, but in an ethereal way that made me wonder, as she stared out the window sitting next to me in homeroom, if I put my hand out would it pass right through her? As girls in our class got more concerned about their hair, their clothes, beautiful Naomi cared less. If I didn’t urge her to eat, she could sit the whole lunch period, her plaid skirt overlapping mine on the cafeteria bench, not touching her food.
At sixteen, she got recruited at the mall to do makeovers at the Robinson’s Clinique counter. Without working too hard, she sold thousands of dollars of pale powder and pink smear to women who looked like me but wanted to look like her.
“Maybe you could be a Hollywood make-up artist?” I said as she painted my lips with something that made my skin glow, my eyes shine.
Naomi shrugged, putting her chin on my shoulder and smiling into the mirror. “Maybe,” she said.
Our senior year, the college counselor pushed me to go east.
“Your parents were migrant workers?” she’d said barely restraining her glee. “Write your own ticket.”
But, I wasn’t ready to leave. My abuelita’s kidneys were failing. Redlands had an honors program and was close.
“You can do better,” the counselor said, pushing a brochure from Dartmouth, all green grass and leafy trees, across her desk.
I got into UCLA and Berkeley, but chose LA because I could get home faster.
While I helped Naomi get ready for the senior prom I wouldn’t be attending, her grandmother told me what I already knew: Naomi would be lucky to make it to College of the Desert in the fall.
“I suppose you got in on that affirmative action thing,” Mrs. Foxworthy said, leaning against the doorjamb, third drink of the night in her hand, watching me curl Naomi’s hair in the mirror.
“It’s a Regents’ scholarship,” I said. “It’s awarded on merit.”
Mrs. Foxworthy was quiet, then, “Why can’t Naomi be more like you?”
Any answer would be disloyal. I said nothing.
I tried to meet my friend’s eyes in the mirror, but Naomi only looked down. For just a second I saw the Naomi Mrs. Foxworthy saw: vacant, lazy good-for-nothing. I shook my head, less in disagreement than in an effort to wipe clean what I didn’t want to see.
Mrs. Foxworthy left to pour herself another drink. I tried to be angry with her, but I couldn’t. I was worried about Naomi’s future, too.
Releasing the last curl, I let my friend’s golden hair float around her shoulders.
“In every way that matters,” I whispered in her ear, “we’re alike.”
Naomi got caught smoking pot in the janitor’s closet two weeks before graduation and never walked the stage. The heat of her grandmother’s disapproval was scorching and Naomi wisped away further. She quit her mall job and hitched out of town with a guy she met the week after I left for college.
Next I heard from her, she was in Bombay Beach, a huddle of cinderblock shacks and rusted trailers on the edge of the Salton Sea. Naomi’s guy’s name was Tumble, a twenty-something Gulf War vet living on disability. Tumble had a permanent sunburn and a hillbilly accent, but was gentle to Naomi, polite to me and slept out in the hammock when I came to visit, leaving us to whisper ourselves to sleep.
When Naomi saw my Impala coming on Friday afternoons, she’d give Tumble a kiss, then run for a hairbrush, not getting out her snarls but fanning a gossamer layer over the rat’s nest beneath. When she was done, she sat next to me on the square of industrial carpet that served as their front porch, and held my hand while I told her about school. Time in the sun and the desert dust colored her white skin cocoa and made it indistinguishable from mine.
My dulce abuelita died that fall. Under the bell jar of grief—and as invisible at college as I had been at Valley Day—I found it difficult to make friends. But right after Christmas, I met Jorge. He was a junior and the president of MeChA. He gave speeches. He was the defacto leader of us, those he called the people of color, at the university.
“We were once driven out, but our time to reclaim Aztlan comes,” he said during a speech in front of Ackerman Union. His voice broke with emotion that stoked a cheer from the crowd. I went to the library and looked up Aztlan, because I had no idea what he was talking about.
Saturday, he found me after Spanish mass on my knees saying the rosary.
“Who for?” he mouthed.
“Mi abeulita,” I whispered and before I could tell him I was saying a second for my friend Naomi, he knelt down beside me and bowed his head.
A few weeks after we started seeing each other, Jorge knocked on my door and handed me a package wrapped in campus newspaper. “I hate the preppy clothes you wear,” he said. Inside was a Guatemalan-print top. After I insisted, he turned his back as I took off Naomi’s soft oxford and pulled his gift over my skin.
“Now you look more authentic,” he said, pulling me close.
Once I was with Jorge, I didn’t have time to drive out to Bombay Beach. And, the longer I was with him, the more of Naomi’s hand-me-downs went to the back of my closet. The more he lectured me about my natural beauty, the less Clinque I wore. I was afraid he’d disapprove of how close I’d been with a rich white girl, so I played down Naomi’s friendship. I felt guilty—Naomi had told me that Tumble was getting sicker, his muscles and nerves withering from an illness the VA said was in his head—but I was irritated by my guilt. I was finally finding out who I was, and wanted to be with my own kind. Finally a boy liked me. How important was some loser friend anyway?
Even during Spring break, when Jorge went on a march in Sacramento and didn’t ask me to come, I didn’t go see her. Instead, I wandered around the empty campus, lay on my bed looking at my roommate’s New Order poster. After four days alone, I thought about driving out, stopping in Indio to put fresh flowers on my grandma’s grave. But I made excuses: the Impala was sputtering on the freeway; Jorge might call, Tumble didn’t have a phone. But the car had made the same noises for years, Jorge hadn’t called all week and Naomi was always at home, sitting out in front of Tumble’s Airstream, just like I had left her.
When Jorge got back from Sacramento, he had a new girlfriend. Some grandniece of Cesar Chavez. Más auténtica than me, I suppose. And the group that had encircled me like family now cast me out and called me psycho when I left tearful messages on Jorge’s machine. That I had deserted Naomi for this added to my heartache. In the weeks that followed, it was hard to even get out of bed. As the dining hall was too far a distance to go, the Salton Sea seemed impossible.
The Santana blew without mercy that spring, starting fires in Riverside and the LA canyons. Smoke hung over Westwood, making my eyes water. After my last final, I packed up and drove into the Mojave, wanting to apologize to Naomi, wanting to let her know that I would never again let go of my end of the rope.
The winds from the storms had blown lake water up to Tumble’s Airstream, sealing the door with a layer of mud as hard as cement. I balanced on a sun-bleached milk crate and peered in the window. Clean dishes were in the drainer. A board game was laid out on the dinette. I turned around and a bare-chested old man stood on the gravel behind me. I startled, nearly falling. He had a long white beard stained sulfur under his mouth and a Great Dane on a short leash.
“Nobody’s seen ‘em,” he said before I asked. “She and Tumble went off in that last Santa Ana. The VA said there was nothing more they could do. But the girl had it in her head that the storm would cure him.”
The dog considered me, lowered his head and began to nibble his paw.
“That girl had some nice ideas,” the man said, “but they ain’t gonna work in real life.”