I was 10, 11, 12 years old, approaching the tail end of elementary school. My friend I’ll call K, for her first initial, lived nearby; one of my parents always had to drive me to see her, San Diego being labyrinthine and sprawling, disconnected canyon valleys and their answering hilltops spilling over with housing developments, even then. Her family was perhaps the only one I knew, growing up, that had even less money than mine. Their house was situated at the bottom of a firetrap hill, graded so steeply fire trucks couldn’t physically reach the bottom; she and I would whisper about this excitedly at times, wondering what might happen if the valley bottom burned. The house was surrounded by acres of dry brush kindling, that fit in with no other development anywhere near it, as though it was one remaining piece of an old, forgotten thing to be cleared away. The nightmares of Southern California children are built upon foundations shaken apart by earthquakes, swept away by flames.
It was a round house, or appeared that way from the outside, though it was either hexagonal or decagonal in its true shape. You picked your way through low-hanging tree branches and bush to find the front door, which was around the far end from the driveway where the massive hill bottomed out. When we wanted to walk the few miles to the nearest — and only — group of shops, the only thing within miles that wasn’t another house or apartment, the climb up that hill had already stolen most of our energy by the time we reached the top, the grade was so steep, baking in the sun. We would play basketball in the dirt under the shade of the one tree large enough to provide any. I had never painted my nails before visiting her, but she loved to paint mine, my tangled mess of hair, waist-length and still never cut by this age, spilling over her lap, getting in the way. I was a gawky, coltish tomboy with strangely girlish hands, according to her. We would sit together in her stuffy, perpetually dark room, which smelled like a girl’s space in a way that was new to me. A giant, glittery plastic Kaboodle kit full of pre-teen makeup and nail polish was forever laid open on her dressing table. I’d never even had a mirror in my own room, spending all my time running around in the dirt with boys, getting everything I wore covered in grass stains; all of this felt exotic and impenetrable to me. She had a routinely angry older sister who flitted in and out of the house, making a lot of noise, whose name I don’t remember.
We made up a secret language comprised entirely of stamps only made by a single set of Crayola stamp markers. There were a very limited number of shapes they could produce, which meant the code worked much like Morse: multiple instances of the same shape appearing in differing configurations meant different things. I don’t recall what any of them said; the construction of them was so painstaking, it likely didn’t matter all that much in the end. We were two poor, awkward, young girls who went to schools sorely lacking in other children like us. She saw the faded, fraying plaid shirt I kept tied around my waist, and recognized what it meant; she crossed the upper grades’ outside playground area, her large feet crunching on woodchips, and sought me out like a beacon. She was so much bigger than I was then, in all ways, and though I usually flinched away from being touched, I would let her wrap me up in gargantuan, enveloping hugs, sometimes.
A single star, stamped in yellow, stood for “A.” The pale blue asterisk was an “E.” She signed every note with the single goldenrod smiling face. I turned 13, just after her, and entered junior high; my new school sat on a grassy hill above the sea, I filled sidewalk blocks with chalk mazes, and she dissolved away.