She was a girl in a car.
A grey Camry. Maybe silver. Maybe it wasn’t a Camry at all. Those details aren’t really important. She had a grey car. And she picked me up just as my work shift ended, a few minutes passed six. She’s parked around the corner, a grey something car along the sidewalk.
I opened the door and slid into the passenger seat.
She was on the phone.
A girl in a car on a phone.
I kept quiet to let her finish speaking to whomever she was speaking to. A conversation that rose and fell like the chest of a sleeping child. Quietly, faintly at times, followed by restless gasps for air. Up and down. Up. Then back down.
She looked at me for the first time since I slipped in the car. An apologetic grin across her face. If ever there was a living caricature of a person, she sat before me. An ideal candidate to pose for an artist who could easily draw an exaggerated version of her.
Those thick, black-framed glasses.
Her round face and dark, wavy hair that fell over her shoulders like a waterfall.
The Monroe piercing atop skin that looked as though someone could ski down her cheeks. Porcelain, smooth and plump. I think she’s around twenty-five. She told me once but I can’t remember now. I didn’t realize it until just then, but she really was a beautiful girl.
I don’t know why I felt so much older next to her, like a grown-up. Which in itself is peculiar. Me, a grown up. Maybe it’s because I just walked out of my office, still dressed in a blue button down shirt, brown leather shoes, wedding band. She was in a black t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops.
Maybe it’s because the first time we met, she was leading an AA meeting I went to sometimes. She spoke about getting her life together, her two years of sobriety. About how she got a ticket for not having her car registration updated and might lose driving privileges. About how she started to pay her bills and doesn’t want to ask her parents for help.
After the meeting I went up to her, we had never spoken before, and said I knew exactly what she was going through. I used to have piles of mail, bills I never wanted to open, stacked in my drawer. I once had the same problem with my car registration and let it slide until I realized I was going to lose my license. So I told her what I did, how I fixed it and started to take care of those things. The ‘adult’ matters. And she gave me a hug. We exchanged phone numbers.
We messaged each other a bit. She once asked me to lead her Thursday night meeting. But that was it. The extent of our interaction.
What I was sure about when I first met her, when I first saw her in the Thursday night meeting, was that she was a gentle spirit. She spoke and everyone in the room listened because there was sincerity. Because she was authentic in her uncertainty and doubts, while also authentic in her determination to stay sober and meet life head on. Authentic about her gratitude to have this life. To have stepped away from the drugs, away from the solitude, out from the dark.
I learned she moved from New Jersey to Florida for rehab and stayed to recover. To rebuild her life. And she was determined. Her commitment to recovery made me question if I was doing enough for my own. She led meetings, volunteered, went to a rehab center once a week with different speakers to help kids struggling with addiction.
And that’s how I came to be in her car.
She asked if I would come to the rehab center and share my experience with kids trying to get sober.
Maybe I felt a bit older, but maybe she was a bit wiser.
She started driving toward the highway, still talking on the phone to who I’m now certain was her boyfriend. You can tell these things after so long of listening to someone’s conversation. The rise and fall, the up and down of their dialogue started to sink to a general down.
“I’ll be home after the meeting,” she told him. “Then tonight I have the show for open mic.”
I can hear the muffled voice of her boyfriend through the phone.
“No, it’s fine. Seriously. You have nothing to be worried about.” She looked over at me and rolled her eyes. She mouthed, He get’s jealous.
Of me? I mouthed back.
Eyes rolled again.
“He’s gay. It’s fine. You have nothing to worry about.” She laughed.
I gave her a wide grin, while my head thought how happy I am to not be in that kind of relationship.
Finally she hung up the phone.
She says sorry.
I say it’s not a big deal.
“Thanks so much for doing this meeting. These kids really need to hear from people who have been through it. I’ve spoken there a few times but it’s important to have new voices. I actually went there when I was first getting clean. How long have you been sober, I forget?”
“Just over three years.”
“Cool, that’s awesome. Yeah I’m coming up on two years soon. I’m so happy you’re speaking tonight. I really love when you share at our meeting on Thursday. You always have something good to share.”
It’s always strange when someone compliments you on sharing in a meeting. I never know what to say. But the truth is, I feel the same about her.
That usually does the trick.
So she drives. A girl in her car driving me, a boy in her car. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. Surrounded by a million other cars on the highway, another billion people in those cars heading home from work or to wherever. A homeless guy on the side of the road held a cup for money.
She gripped the wheel, elbows bowed outward. Palm tree after palm tree slicing my peripheral.
I asked her about open mic night. Her face brightened and she adjusted in the seat, still focused on the highway ahead.
“Yeah, sometimes I go up and sing. I’ve been teaching myself the ukulele and covering songs. So there’s a coffee shop that has open mic I go to sometimes. I mean I get so nervous in front of people.”
“I’ve seen some of your videos on Facebook. You’re really good.”
And she was. Sometimes you tell someone they’re good at something just to be nice, when really what you want to tell them is to find a new hobby. But she was really good. A few videos on YouTube show her singing in front of the camera with a ukulele, the tiny instrument framed by her round body. The black glasses and Monroe piercing, her caricature. She sang sweetly, eyes closed for periods of time then opened to stare directly at you. One night I watched all her videos back to back, fixated on the sincerity in her voice. Her ability to make any song seem innocent, like it came from a place of purity. Fingers strumming the chords of her ukulele. A rendition of “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley, “Silent Night”, “You Were Meant for Me” by Jewel, and some of her own music. The first handful of videos are a black screen with just her voice because she was too shy to film herself. The more recent ones show a girl blossoming through song.
She is one of those people I can’t imagine with a needle in her arm, white powder on her nose, empty bottles across her floor, eyes glazed and distant. Whatever her drug was. I couldn’t see her stuck in that space. She was bright, her energy high and infectious.
We pulled into a small parking lot of five spaces. A one-story building surrounded by trees somewhere in North Miami. A ramp led to the front door. We got out of the car and walked into the treatment center.
A room cluttered with recovery posters and affirmations. Old carpet, once blue, now the color of a fading midnight. A wooden laminate desk where we sign our names on a clipboard.
“We’re here to bring in the AA meeting,” she said to a girl at the front desk. “I brought a speaker today.”
I said hi.
“Do you have any of the AA books? I realized I left mine at home.” The front desk girl went to tell the counselors we were ready for the meeting. We stand in the waiting area, my eyes glanced around the room nervously. I always got nervous to speak.
I asked her if there was anything I should know before going in.
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Well it’s rehab, you know. So some just got here and are still detoxing, others are ordered to be here, some actually want to be here. So don’t be surprised if some kids are falling asleep or seem uninterested. There may only be a couple that show up for the meeting anyway. But just be you. I’ve heard you speak and you have such a good message. That’s all these kids need, they need some hope and someone to relate to. And if you finish early, I can help out and talk for a bit. No worries. I’m just really happy you’re here.”
Certain people have a way of comforting you without even trying. She’s one of them.
So we went outside to a long patio table.
A few kids smoking cigarettes, another passed out in a chair. I hadn’t realized that the treatment center was on a huge lake. We sat down and set up the meeting. A few kids began to take a seat at the table, two others sat on a bench next to us. A cloud of smoke hovered above.
I watched her casually talk to the patients while I pretended to look at my phone nervously, not knowing what to say. She asked how they were, how they’re feeling. Told them they’re in the right place and doing the best thing by getting clean.
I now checked fake emails until we were ready to start.
Why do I get so nervous?
She laughed, which brought a silent smile to my face. I looked up as she lit a cigarette of her own.
The meeting started.
She introduced herself, introduced me. Told them how grateful she was to be there, how she knows what it’s like because she was a patient at this treatment center. She told them it gets better if they stay sober and work AA. How her life had become something more special than she ever imagined. And they listened to her. Because she had that way.
“I’m really excited about our speaker. I’ve heard him share at my home group many times and always get so much out of what he says. He works a program and is a great example of how AA can help.”
I looked down, embarrassed.
“…so let’s listen to what he has to say.”
With a smile and a few extra words of encouragement, she turned the meeting over to me.
What I said is about as important to this story as the kind of car she drove. So I’ll skip that part. What’s important here is that to her, I was the one giving back. While for me, she was the giving one. Not just to those kids at rehab where she volunteered each week, but also to me. Bringing me back to where it began, helping me feel comfortable. I took more from her that day than she ever could imagine.
On our way back to my office, she told me about her job at an online pet supply company in Fort Lauderdale. She loved animals, especially cats, which quickly sparked up a conversation about my two dogs and two cats. Like a proud parent I showed her photos of my pets. She showed me her cat.
The sun set behind the highway overpass. A brilliant display of purple and orange ripped across dimming blue hues. A backdrop that reflected in her eyeglass lenses.
“When is your performance tonight? I’d love to see you some time.”
“Probably around nine. I’m going to head over after I drop you off though.”
“Is your boyfriend going?”
“I dunno. We’ve been in a weird place. It’s probably me. I mean I’ve been in a weird place lately.”
I laughed because it seemed like everyone was in a weird place. It seemed like everyone was always in a weird place. But I asked her what she meant.
She said she struggled with depression for a long time but since sobriety things were better. She still dealt with self-esteem issues, was self-conscious with her weight and felt uncomfortable about her body.
“I keep trying to lose weight, but it is so hard. And me and my boyfriend keep having problems. I mean I love him and I know he loves me, but we always seem to fight. He gets jealous. I try to make it better, but nothing ever changes.”
Her eye focused on the sunset.
Focused on something.
In the distance.
“The hardest thing is to take care of ourselves,” I said. “Doing things for us. Making ourselves happy. I realized it’s impossible to change someone else, and even more impossible to be in a healthy relationship if I’m not taking care of me first. I have to love me. Which I know is really hard, I also went through a rough past with depression and all that. I mean I’m still going through self-acceptance stuff, I’m not sure if we ever fully deal with it. Who knows? But I do know that the best way to start is by doing things for myself, things that make me happy.”
“That’s what singing does for me. I stopped for a long time, but it feels so good when I do it. I dunno, maybe I can go to more AA meetings.”
“It’s so normal to feel what you’re feeling. But you just have to keep moving forward and push through it. Because it always gets better if you try. And you’re such a great person, I truly mean it. You have a way with people. I see it at your home group, and I saw it tonight. Don’t doubt yourself.”
The remainder of the ride goes on like that.
A girl in her car talking to a boy in her car.
Opening up to each other.
Talking through their shared experiences.
She dropped me off in front of my office. That same bright smile across her face, those black-framed glasses watch as I exited the car.
“We should grab coffee or something some time,” I say.
“Yeah that would be awesome. Thanks again for speaking tonight. Hopefully I’ll see you at the Thursday night meeting!”
She waved as her grey whatever car drove off.
I went home and looked up her Facebook page. I watched her sing a cover of “Say Something” by A Great Big World. Her friend in the background, those black-framed glasses front and center. They started off laughing together then grew still as the song began. Her face tightened with emotion as she sang, as lyrics poured from her spirit through the screen on to me.
And I am feeling so small
It was over my head
I know nothing at all
And I will stumble and fall
I’m still learning to love
Just starting to crawl
I laid in bed smiling.
My husband slept beside me, faintly snoring. I thought to remember asking her to grab coffee sometime. People say those things and never follow through. I closed my laptop, the blue monitor glow silenced to darkness. It was a great day, one I was grateful she asked me to share in.
I really didn’t want to forget that cup of coffee with her.
And that was it.
This story ends because I forgot to ask her to grab that cup of coffee. People say those things and never follow through. Busy lives, busy people. Things happen. I think I saw her one or two times at the Thursday night meeting but we spoke briefly, both pulled in separate directions. That’s how recovery can be. It’s how life can be, I guess. Sometimes your life collides with another for some unknown, unexplainable reason. Even for a brief moment, just to be able to share the story. Just to be able to say, Hey I knew them.
I’m happy to say I knew her.
The girl in the car.
The girl at the Thursday night meeting.
The girl who sang and played the ukulele.
The girl with the black-framed glasses.
I’m happy to say I knew her.
I’m happy to say she had an impact on my life, so much so that I wanted to talk about her even if it was only our short time together. Because that’s what is important here. That’s why you’re reading these words.
Because a few weeks ago, which is over a year since she took me to that meeting, I laid in bed with my husband snoring beside me. She came into my mind once again. Her smile, her voice, those glasses. That little Monroe piercing above her lip. We never got that coffee.
So I looked her up on Facebook and my heart dropped.
Because life is funny that way.
And people teach us even after they’ve left us.
They reach out for unexplainable reasons sometimes.
So you remember, so you never forget, so you can share their story.
The girl in the car.
She died a few months ago.
Something inside me wilted, curled like a flower succumbing to the forces of nature. I was in disbelief, heartbroken. A flood of comments on her Facebook page from countless people whose lives she touched. Friends, family, acquaintances like me. People who say she reaches out to them, people who say they still talk to her, who see signs of her.
After asking around, I was told she went through a bad breakup with her boyfriend and relapsed for two days. Two days. After those two days she was found in her apartment. Gone.
I’m not sure what this is for. If it’s for her, maybe for me, maybe for you. Maybe it’s to say we are never guaranteed anything. Recovery is a day-to-day thing, relapse is never out of reach, and death is a reality. Maybe it’s to say she was a good person. Maybe it’s so you can pass this along. Maybe it’s just to say she was a talented musician. Maybe it doesn’t matter what it’s for. Maybe all that matters is you read it. She was no different than anyone but so different than everyone.
All the time.
The girl in the car.
You knew her.
You know someone just like her.
You may be her.
I may be her.
And these people matter because their impact never dies, their message never leaves. It is a ripple that echoes far after their stone has sunk into the deep.