Ya Gotta have Friends

When I  was a young girl I had two best friends. Coincidentally they were both named Andrea, although they pronounced their names differently. Andrea Romanuk said her name in the traditional, North American way – AN-drea. Andrea Johnson’s pronunciation was more European sounding – an-DRAY-a. Her family all called her Bumper because of some hilarious thing she’d done as a toddler, but as I am not a fan of cute nicknames I never really listened when they told the story. I always called her Draya, and for the sake of clarity I will refer to her as such throughout this piece. Andrea and Draya didn’t particularly like each other and were completely different. In fact, the only thing they had in common was that they were both friends with me. There was often a feeling of unease when the three of us were together, and they openly fought for my approval and time – a situation which suited my ego to a tee.

Andrea Romanuk came from a very troubled family. Her father, a tall and beefy first generation Canadian with Slavic looks which attested to his Ukranian heritage, was loud and scary. Her mother, on the other hand, was willowy and slender with red hair, extremely fair skin, a care-worn face, and a demure manner. Andrea had an older brother named Tim and a much younger brother named Desi. I think Desi was an accident, but he was dearly loved and doted on by his mother and siblings none the less. 

I don’t know exactly what Mr. Romanuk did for a living, but it was definitely a blue collar job. Andrea only invited me over when she knew he wouldn’t be home, and over time I came to understand why. This was in the days when kids would call on each other, meaning you would simply go to a friend’s house and knock on the door (as in, “Mrs. Cleaver, can Beaver come out to play?”). It was when I dropped in to Andrea’s place uninvited that I came to see Mr. Romanuk’s true colours. My siblings were all glad to see our father on the rare occasions when he was home from work. When Mr. Romanuk came home the house got eerily quiet, and everyone tried to make themselves as small and inconspicuous as possible. Mr. Romanuk would put Johnny Cash on really loud to break the silence, and move in on whichever hapless family member was closest at hand. One time I saw him lift Desi clear off the ground by his hair and then backhand his wife in the face when she rushed in to protect her child. He soon grew tired of Desi’s pitiful screeches and dropped him in disgust, calling him a faggot and then launching into Folsom Prison Blues. I can’t stand listening to Johnny Cash to this day.

One time I met Andrea at her house early in the morning. She must have thought we would be gone before her father got up, but just as we were about to leave he staggered into the kitchen, no doubt still drunk from the night before. He ordered us to sit down because he felt like company, and of course we both immediately complied as neither of us fancied being picked up by the hair. He told us he was going hunting that day as he poured a beer into a glass, cracked three raw eggs into it, and then downed the whole thing, leaving stringy bits of egg white dangling from his chin. I would have gagged if I wasn’t so afraid it might make him mad. He finished off his noxious concoction with a deafening burp, wiped his chin with his sleeve, and then announced that he’d decided we should come hunting with him. Andrea and I left to get my mum’s permission, and as soon as we were out the door I told her I didn’t want to go. She then broke down in tears and begged me to come with her as she absolutely did not want to go with him alone. Her fear was palpable, so I lied and told my mum that we were just going for a drive in the country, and she let me go.

We watched in trepidation as Mr. Romanuk loaded up the car. I had never seen a rifle before and it looked terrifyingly large. We drove for some time to get far enough into the woods, with Mr. Romanuk singing badly to a Johnny Cash 8-track between swigs of beer. Andrea and I sat in rigid silence in the back seat. Finally we arrived and the three of us humped into the forest. After we’d walked for some time, Mr. Romanuk announced that he would give each of us a shooting lesson, saying I should go first as I was the guest. Andrea had no problem with that. He loaded up the gun and handed it to me, positioning me in front of a large tree so I wouldn’t be knocked over by the recoil. He gave me a bunch of instructions which I didn’t take in at all because I was distracted by my own fear and by his hot, reeking beer breath. I just nodded and said I understood as he positioned the rifle against my shoulder and warned me it was going to be loud. I squeezed the trigger and the whole world exploded in a blast of noise and pain. Next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back with my head ringing and my arm throbbing. The recoil had dislocated my shoulder and thrown me to the ground despite the tree. Mr. Romanuk came over and looked at me. He said he’d seen this sort of thing before and, without any explanation or preamble, grabbed and wrenched my arm, putting my shoulder back in its socket. Andrea was a bit taller than me but very skinny. I guess he decided if I got blown back like that then she would probably fare even worse, so he packed up his gear and we made our way back to the car. I shook and silently wept the whole way home with Andrea’s arm protectively around my shoulder. I simply couldn’t get my head around what had just happened. Looking back on it today, I recognize that I was clearly in shock.

Andrea usually came to my place to play, for obvious reasons. One time we were playing house in the bedroom I shared with my sister Susan. Susan is a very crafty person who has always been interested in creating art and sewing. She kept her needles in a miniature coke bottle on her headboard. At some point in our game Andrea, who I think was playing my defiant teenage daughter, grabbed the bottle and pretended to drink from it. The needles immediately slid into her mouth. She screamed as she threw the bottle away, and my mother, an emergency room nurse, came running into the room. I quickly described what had happened and she firmly sat Andrea down on the bed, saying comforting words as she tilted back her head and opened her mouth. She casually pulled out the needles that were stuck in Andrea’s tongue and cheeks, and told me to grab a flashlight and the needle nose pliers. When I came back, she instructed me to shine the light down Andrea’s throat, and expertly fished out a needle lodged behind her uvula. As soon as Andrea had calmed down the three of us walked over to her house and Mum explained to Mrs. Romanuk what had happened, suggesting that they should get an x-ray in case any needles were lodged in her esophagus or had made their way into her stomach. It turned out that there were no more needles, but the x-ray revealed that Andrea’s appendix was enlarged, so they kept her in for an appendectomy. I felt very guilty about the whole affair as I thought a stray needle had made its way into her appendix. I didn’t have a very firm grasp on anatomy when I was 8.

Childhood diabetes was quite rare in my day, but Andrea (as if her life weren’t benighted enough by her brute of a father) was diagnosed with it the same year as the needle incident. I remember Mrs. Romanuk trying to describe the disease to me, emphasizing that if Andrea ever started to seem woozy or faint that I should remind her to eat the apple she always carried with her for just such occasions. She also showed me how she gave Andrea her daily insulin shot in the leg. I was  horrified by how black and blue Andrea’s thigh was, but she seemed to take the needle in stride. 

One day the two of us went to our school’s playground together. We were both on the swings, just starting to pump up to some height, when Andrea suddenly fell off backwards onto the sand below. I immediately jumped off my swing and went to see if she was okay. She was lying perfectly still with the whites of her eyes showing through partially open lids. I shook her several times, calling her name and willing her to wake up, but she didn’t. The playground was in the middle of a large open area, and I figured Andrea’s house was probably no further than those I could see on the periphery of the park. Somehow I hoisted her up onto my back and began the slow slog to her place. When I got there I slid her down onto the front lawn and ran into the house to find a grownup. Unfortunately only Mr. Romanuk was home, but I bravely went right up to him and pulled him out the front door. He bundled Andrea into his car then got in himself. I asked through the driver’s window if I couldn’t please go with him because I was so concerned and wanted to stay with her, but he just yelled “No!” in my face and pushed me in the chest with such force that I landed flat on my behind. It wasn’t until that evening that Mrs. Romanuk finally called and told my mum that Andrea was okay. 

Andrea and I remained friends until I accelerated in the middle of Grade 4, when she mercilessly turned against me. I was unbelievably hurt and upset by her behaviour, but looking back I think she was unconsciously acting in response to her own miserable home life. She pushed me on the ice, breaking my finger and later my heart by turning all of our classmates against me. She had absolutely no control over the violence and fear she experienced at home, but at school she had found a place where she could exert power and be in charge. She may also have been jealous of me because my family life was so much more normal than hers. Maybe it was just too much for her that I was happy at home and had been singled out as exceptional at school, and she just broke. Regardless of her reasons, I forgave Andrea for her betrayal many years ago. 

Draya’s home was tense as well, but for a different reason. Her mother, Mrs. Johnson, was unbelievably neurotic. I think now that she probably had OCD and maybe some other mental health issues as well. Everything had to be perfect in their home or Mrs. Johnson would just break down. For example, we were not allowed to sit on Draya’s bed when we played in her room because her mother couldn’t stand the thought of her bedspread being creased. She didn’t even have to see it to find it unbearable. She was always hovering around, making sure we didn’t make a mess or leave anything out of place. It was very stressful.

Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, was extremely laid back and affable. Perhaps you would have to be like that in order to live with someone as high-strung and demanding as his wife. The Johnsons had an enormous chestnut tree in their front yard, and every fall Mr. Johnson would host “Chestnut Day.” He would make up invitations which Draya and her older sister Lee would hand out to neighbourhood kids. We’d all gather on the designated day, separate into groups of three or four, and then each team would be given a large apple basket with two handles. Mr. Johnson would blow a whistle and we’d all be off, gathering up chestnuts as quickly as we could. This would continue until every nut was off the ground, and then Mr. Johnson would serve us all hot chocolate while we waited for the grownups to count the contents of each basket. Whichever group had gathered the most would get a small prize, but really it was just fun to take part. I realize now that this was Mr. Johnson’s clever way of getting his yard cleared, but it was a very nice occasion nonetheless.

Mr. Johnson was an avid antique collector, and on many weekends I would accompany the family into the countryside to search out yard sales and flea markets. Mrs. Johnson was always very prim and controlling on these outings – barking directions at Mr. Johnson as he drove, and making all the decisions about where we would stop for our picnic lunch and which shops and markets to patronize. Mr. Johnson always mutely obliged his bossy wife, but in one small way he proved a rebel. Some of the country roads were very hilly, and whenever we got onto that terrain he would speed up. Pretty soon we’d be bouncing along, sometimes going so fast that all four wheels left the ground. Mrs. Johnson would white knuckle the dashboard while admonishing him to slow down. Mr. Johnson would blithely ignore her, sending sly smiles in the rearview mirror to we three girls, all of us giggling helplessly as we were bounced around on the back seat. This being the 1960s, none of us were belted in.

Mrs. Johnson’s fascination with old things also extended to houses. She was never content in her family’s 1950s bungalow, and eventually she talked Mr. Johnson into relocating to a large brick Victorian home in Agincourt. She was the only member of the family who wanted to move, but they all just dutifully followed after her. Then, only a few months after they moved into the new place, Mrs. Johnson abruptly left the family. She became a follower of Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation, and went to live in an ashram. Poor Mr. Johnson now found himself alone with two young daughters in a house he never wanted in the first place. Draya’s new house was filled with all the antiques Mrs. Johnson had acquired on our many weekend outings, and the age of the house along with its contents made me sure that it was haunted. There was an old high-backed wheelchair at the bottom of the basement stairs that I found particularly terrifying. Just sitting there, empty. Yikes!

The last time I visited Draya was in the summer after grade 6. I hadn’t seen her for some time, and while I was still flat chested and very much a girl, she had blossomed into a genuine teeny bopper. She wore hot pants and a halter top which clearly outlined her burgeoning breasts. She also had long, straight auburn hair which flowed beautifully to halfway down her back. I, on the other hand, had mousey brown, close cropped curly hair which wasn’t the least bit stylish or grown up. We hung out with her friends for an afternoon, all of whom called her Bumper, and it soon became clear to us that we no longer had anything in common. I was still just a nerdy kid, while she had become a cool and popular tween. Draya declined her father’s invitation to accompany us when he drove me home later that day, and just before we pulled away she stuck her head in my window and said, “I’ve never like the name Draya.” I couldn’t have been more saddened and surprised if she had reached in the window and slapped me in the face. So that was the end of that.

One of my favourite memories with Andrea and Draya was one time when we had the bright idea of picking all the blossoms from the Japanese snowball bushes in our backyard and having a snowball fight with them. We had denuded the first bush and were beginning work on the second when we heard my mother yelling at us from her bedroom window, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?!” We could tell from her tone and the way she quickly turned after speaking that she was coming down to deal with the situation in person. My mother was quite a yeller and had a famously bad temper, so both my friends immediately dropped the evidence and took off. I found myself alone before Mum even appeared at the back door, and steeled myself to face her considerable ire on my own. I had to clean up the mess all by myself and was grounded for weeks as a result. I don’t blame them for running away as I would have done exactly the same thing were the situation reversed, but I’m still astonished at how quickly they disappeared. It’s amazing how fast one can move when well motivated. 

It is normal to have people cycle in and out of one’s life. Even good friends sometimes lose touch. People get married, or move, or have kids, or find new jobs. Andrea and Draya were not the only friends I’ve lost, but they were the first. For that reason alone they will always hold a special place in my heart.

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