A scattering of stars stained the Saint Louis skyline as Nicole raced me to the airport. If the minutes remaining until takeoff hadn’t been ticking down, then maybe I would remember the details of our hurried speech. But had I known this would be the last time seeing my best friend, I would have happily missed my flight rather than forget a single word.
This year on October 28th, Nicole would have turned 28. When we are finally able to travel home, our daughters would have become best friends. When my post-pandemic wedding takes place, Nicole would have been my maid of honor, and I would have been hers. We promised to have wine nights together into motherhood and cookie dough dinners until we're old, grey, and missing teeth.
But rather than celebrate another trip around the sun, my heart is heavy this year because Nicole didn’t make it to her golden birthday. Instead, Nicole joined the 27 Club of rockstars, actors, and artists who often recklessly left our world too young.
Since the news broke of her springtime passing, I have been struggling to process the loss of my best friend. Less than a month away from giving birth, I felt that my mind was blocking me from feeling any emotion. What’s more, my tears had just dried from my grandmother’s death to coronavirus. I was at the end of my tether with grief.
But now that Eira has reached four months, I have a mental grip on motherhood. When Nicole enters my thoughts, I find myself wavering between hurt, longing, and nostalgia. I am still in disbelief that she is gone, especially now that it feels she’s taken on a new life in my nightmares and daydreams. I feel as though I am a detective in my dreams, sleuthing out the details that may have foreshadowed her tragic ending. How and why are the recurring questions on my mind.
Born only 10 days apart in the same Southern Illinoisan city, I knew Nicole since the beginning of elementary school, but our friendship did not truly begin until adolescence. Since the start, Nicole had a way of finding herself in the middle of a series of strange and unfortunate mishaps: breaking bones from cartwheeling, falling from treadmills, losing her car… In fact, her hot pink cast was our conversation starter in eighth grade. She told me she “accidentally fell” from her roof chasing her cat. Only months later did I learn she had actually jumped.
Before Nicole, my story was simple: I was a sheltered, small-town girl with my head in the clouds and nose deep in a book. The moment Nicole entered the picture, my innocence was suddenly nothing more than an outgrown image tied to my identity. Never before had I connected so quickly with someone who, on the outside, appeared polar opposite to me. Raised in a home broken by alcoholism and poverty, Nicole seemed caged by her predisposition to addiction. Although we sought validation in different ways – she chased figures to care for her, while I aspired to excel in school – we bonded through our fundamental desire to be seen, heard, and loved.
Our friendship was a coming of age story. Suddenly realizing our girlhood had passed, together we experienced a newfound freedom that felt foreign. Each day, we tried on new identities, becoming regulars at the Macy’s makeup counter. Painting our faces in samples, spritzing ourselves with tester bottles of $135 Chanel N°5 perfume, and stuffing our bras with fake snow from the Christmas displays, we were primed to meet the next Prince Charming who walked into the mall. Most days, though, we just lay back on the display beds fantasizing about falling in love.
As we outgrew childhood, we came to understand the rules of the adult world simply weren’t fair. Why were so few of us destined to make it out of the Midwest? Why must we be tethered to money? Why must we choose between lonely, high paying jobs and being tied to our husbands’ money? Why did love have to equate to sex for men? Why did Nicole’s mother have to leave? What is the American dream anyway? When will would ever truly be free? These were the thoughts that plagued our minds.
Nicole taught me some people were dealt the losing hand of cards in life. She refused to speak negatively of others, especially those who were not in positions of power, and would slap my wrist as a reminder to watch my thoughts if I ever judged another human being. “It’s bad karma!” she would exclaim. To counter my cosmic deficit, she would bring me into conversation with peers who were outcast, loners, or bullied for whatever trivial reason. Nicole had a way of making even the lowest on our high school’s social ladder feel welcome and valued.
Since the rules were inherently unjust, Nicole taught me I could reshape them. If I craved cake, I could simply tell the waitress it was my birthday; if I wanted sunglasses, I could simply let them “accidentally fall” into my purse. When we feared being caught, we invented stories about the mall cops and hid from the ones who we deemed to have forgotten the thrill of teenage spirit.
Nicole also taught me the power of intention. “I swear to God, if you wish for something hard enough, you can get it,” she used to say. Gradually, we realized we would have to wish diligently while creating opportunities for ourselves. This drove me to push myself beyond my edge of perception in school and sports; it led Nicole toward drugs that could numb the pain of living in an unjust nearly-adult world.
Nicole had her first drink around the time our friendship began. I feared the way her eyes would widen when she tasted vodka, as if she were sipping an elixir of fairy dust and freedom. I kept one foot on the ground, often pretending to imbibe while keeping a watchful eye out for signs of danger: parents’ footsteps, police sirens, or self-destructive drunkenness. During emotional lows, Nicole would pop her dad’s Vicodin, but I didn’t think much of it because, as a prescription drug, it had to be safe, right?
Although our friendship never faded, in high school, the string that tied us together at the waist gradually loosened. While my time became consumed with academia, athletics, and an eating disorder, Nicole would go spells without communication when a new boyfriend would enter her life. We always promised we would do better at keeping in touch, but gone were the never-ending summer nights of sneaking out, wishing on stars, kissing strangers, skinny dipping, streaking down the street, dancing on sofas, holding seances, shredding our clothes with scissors for DIY designer photoshoots, and crafting candles from Crayola crayons.
It once seemed that high school graduation would never come, but when it inevitably did, we diverged toward wildly different life trajectories: While I was off getting degrees and traveling the world, Nicole remained trapped in the Midwest. She would message me sporadically and enthusiastically, lauding the days of our youth, as in this text from 2018 sent a month before my last trip to visit her in Saint Louis:
Really random but I sooooooo wish you were with me right now!! Today I’m near that old mall we went to in 8th grade when you me and tori were wearing our graduation dresses and the little girl thought we were princesses, it was the place with the fudge shop, anyway, I guess it’s just a hotel now but they still have their giant ball rooms.
There was a lot of commotion going on in their main area, so I just snuck passed these scary looking guys in suits to see what was going on. I got in while they got busy checking in this giant group… and there are people all dressed up all fancy and these brand new cars spread out everywhere and a band in the middle of the room and little bar stations set up all fancy schmancy, off to the corner there was this little black table with free Starbucks dispensers so I thought why the hell not, I’m already dressed sort of fancy I’ll just blend in… and as soon as I grab a cup this tall man wearing a black tux with silver hair and an earpiece with a clear spiral cord coming out of his head confronts me and asks “ma’am are you with code 3”… so I’m like duh of course I’m with code 3, I’ve been with code 3 for 6 years now who are you with?! Lol… he buys it now I’m hear trying to figure out what the hell I just walked into. There are these loud police sirens that just went off and everyone has these back stage pass looking things around their neck.
Its not as fun by myself. We need to go on an adventure before we get too old and have kids and more responsibilities and stuff!! I miss you! I miss our adventures!!!
Nicole seemed to despise the responsibilities of adulthood that would tie us down and cause us to forget our youth. But as much as she tried to push adulthood away, there seemed to be no escape. In 2019, our lives intersected again with our simultaneous start to pregnancy. On November 25th, she joyously messaged me, “I just got back from the dr and… IM PREGNANT TOO!!! Omg lacey our babies have to be best friends!! And we can go through all this crazy pregnancy stuff together!!”
I was over the moon that we could become bonded again through our shared journey into motherhood. But I was also scared. I suspected addiction had been a part of Nicole’s life, and I worried her body wouldn’t welcome a growing baby. It was heartbreaking but not surprising when I heard from her on December 18th:
Sorry it took me so long to reply, I went to the ER a week and a half ago and found out we lost the baby :’( so I went off the grid for a while. But were trying again I still want us to be pregnant together soooooo bad. Oh also I should explain my situation to you lol you must be so confused…
The rest of her story, though, was utter shock to me:
Well me and [my boyfriend] moved to a bad area in st louis and got really bad addicted to fentanyl, lacey omg it was so crazy… Fentanyl is this crazy drug that’s going around right now killing a bunch of people, but I was never in any life threatening danger, but it’s like heroin but much much stronger.
Although she reassured me her relationship with the potent pain medication that had been the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths since 2013 had never crossed the threshold of “life-threatening,” she said she had checked herself into rehab in August. While there, at a vulnerable time in her life, she fell in love:
I met this 24 year old really sweet cute and smart with one of those “from the wrong side of the tracks” dispositions about him and I accidentally fell for him like really fast… He asked me to marry him after I found out I was pregnant lol I like love him so much like he is such a good person it’s weird but I literally fell for him so fast.
The details about what follows are blurred between speculation, panicked messages from strangers in Saint Louis, and rarely, a message or two from Nicole. Mainly, my calls and texts were met with silence. Rumor had it she was still using fentanyl and had become homeless. I wondered how to act – I couldn’t reach her and knew hardly anyone in Saint Louis with whom she was connected.
Apparently, she went off fentanyl cold turkey for a month, during which we exchanged our final conversation. On April 2nd, she congratulated on my baby’s sex reveal (from February 14th), exclaiming, “Oh my FUCKING goodness!! I knew it was a girl I’m so happy right now lol Omgomgomg I just said a prayer for her <3 like I’m literally tearing up”. Her out-of-the-blue exclamation made me hope that she was in a better place.
A month later, I received the news that Nicole passed away on May 6th. Coincidentally – or not – her passing occurred on the anniversary of her deceased mother’s birthday. No one will ever know what went through Nicole’s head in the hours leading up to her passing. Was it another strange mishaps, or was it premeditated – or a reckless combination of the two?
I cringe to imagine it as pain miles deeper than her physical being, unbearable craving, anticipation of sweet relief, and an unsilenceable longing to be close to her mother that relentlessly coursed through her, taunting her to draw the needle closer to the blue bulge of her veins upon her pastry dough skin. As she pierced the cool liquid into the deep riverbed of her injection site, the fetters of her reality must have lifted as if by angels’ wings, and for an ephemeral instant, she was free! Brining her head into the soft pillow of her “edgy boy’s” lap, the lids of her eyes lay down into a deep eternal sleep. With heavy limbs and soft skin, Nicole must have died with her beauty fully intact.
Overdosing on a lethal cocktail of opioids and anti-depressants, my hope is Nicole’s death was instant and painless. And yet, the loss of her young life could never be reversed. Our coming-of-age friendship is now locked in the past without the possibility of an eventual reunion.
I can speculate how it happened, but why did her life have to be taken? It feels true, after all, that the rules of the adult world simply aren’t fair. I have no proven answers to the many mysteries surrounding Nicole’s death, but it is certain that I’ll never have my best friend back. In her absence, my only solution is to celebrate her life.
So here’s to you, Nicole, my best friend forever, my partner in crime, my maid of honor, and both the angel and the devil on my shoulder; to our cookie, nights, cake fights, 2 am dance parties, and countless wild adventures; to the many lives you have brightened through your joyful spirit and big heart; and to being young forever. In my memory, we’ll live on forever dressed like princesses-in-waiting, eating our purses full of free chocolates, lounging luxuriously on shopping mall display beds, and undeniably leaving a lasting impression on the middle-American capitalist world.