mad to live

I don’t know how to write this story. I’ve tried several times, and the words are all wrong.  This doesn’t translate.

I’m just going to tell you the story, ok? It ends very sadly.  She dies at the end.

When I was in eighth grade I made a friend, or rather, a friendship made me.  My friend was Leah Tschida, Cheetah to all of us.  She was wild.  Have you ever read On the Road? Cheetah was the Dean Moriarty in my life, a youth tremendously excited by life.  In seventh grade we’d been wary of each other, she with her cropped hair cut, guitar and her soccer team.  I don’t even know how it started but eventually the two of us realized the other was the greatest ever, and we were inseparable.  We fueled each other, egging each other on to be absolutely absurd.  I think we fascinated the other.  We were tremendously interested in the other’s quirks, and we completed each other like a soppy love story.  (It is a love story.)  I was the head and she was the feet, both propelling the other to new ideas and distances.  You know how it is in eighth grade; its that teen hood hyper-awareness, the boiling potential energy, your skin crawling with all this frenzied yearning.

The two of us found in the other a soul mate, and the rest of the world slid into the foreground, scratching its head and occasionally trying to keep up.  We had other friends, some who sat at our lunch table and had pledged to abide by our Ten Commandments, and they orbited our world.  My world was Cheetah and her world was me.

Our teachers adored us, even while they couldn’t keep us in line.  After math class we had lunch, and Cheetah and I would buy our slice of pizza and run (we were always running) back to Mr. Sager’s class to pester him and torture his following class of seventh graders.  More than a few times we’d dash across the hall into Mrs. Daugherty’s class, snatch her soda off her desk and book it outside again, dying of laughter.   She eventually caught on and used to screech “block that door!!” to the hapless student nearest it.  But she loved it.  She loved us.

We were in love with Steven Tyler, the idea of road trips (“one day when we can drive!!”) and we couldn’t have cared less what other students thought of us.

When she slept over, she would elbow me in the ribs to keep me from falling asleep, because she had so damn much to say.  I stopped going to high school (was too busy doing things like riding horses every day) and she used to take the bus to my house to go swimming and play music.  She was so fun.

We took a hit when I was deemed a “bad influence” and our friendship was banned.  But that’s what it was, a hit.  We took that punch and came back swinging, enraged by the injustice of it all.  We rallied the orbiting friends and taught them to lie.  “Eh, Cheetah’s at my house all weekend.  Yes, me, Tayleranne.  Not Jess…”

I drafted letter after letter to her mother, some begging, some furious, because I was not a bad influence.  In fact, when Dad and I would sit around with coffee or wine and talk about it all, when we analyzed Cheetah’s act-now, think later (if ever) ways, we knew she was going to self-destruct.  We knew she had to be around us. I was the thinker, she was the actor, and we balanced each other out.

All my best stories involve Cheetah.  Remember spilling the milk shake all over the floor in Rubios and running like crazy out of there?  Remember sneaking into Mr. Sager’s classroom pantry when he was on lunch and jumping out mid-class and scaring the shit out of him?  Remember when we went skinny-dipping at night and that drowning lizard scared us so bad we ran, naked and shrieking, all the way upstairs to my room?  Remember when we were hiking that night and a monsoon storm hit, and we ran (good god, we were seriously always running!) down the mountain, legs flailing, hearts pounding, laughter echoing because we were invincible?  Remember the Mexico mission trip, running from the rooftops of the connected orphanage buildings, playing “spider man”?  Remember how people sometimes mocked us, sometimes wanted to be included in us, but how no one could deny us?

Still somehow, because somehow it always does, things started to unravel.  My family spiraled out of control, but I could control what I ate, and I lost twenty pounds.  Cheetah had all this energy and no place to go, and she almost died of alcohol poisoning.  Our balance was off; I disappeared into my head, and she acted out.  We would regroup after some months, skinnier and hung-over, and we would pick up right where we left off, desperate for each other and helpless without our drivers’ licenses.  We became jaded, self-destructing without each other in our own special ways.  She drove me crazy with her bad choices.  My troubled friend grasping for affection and acceptance everywhere she turned.  I drove her crazy with my depression and hopelessness.  But man, when the two of us were together, it was like none of that outside stuff, that orbiting stuff, was real.  We were troubled, sure, but together we did just fine.  We used to sit on my roof and plan our future family’s, our road trips, our dream jobs.  Or we’d talk about the people in our lives and rage against our mothers.  We were going to save each other.

I don’t know how to write this story.

When she first told me about him, I was compassionate and tried to be understanding.  Daddy issues or something, and yeah, he was the same age as our middle-school heartthrob Steven Tyler…but it was different when it was real life, wasn’t it?  But I was just sixteen; I didn’t know how to stop her.  No one did.  She was crazy about this man, and I was consumed with my broken family and my helplessness.  I was an anorexic high school dropout; I was too depressed to save her.

When her family found out about him, he was arrested and she was shipped off to her father in Minnesota for six months.  I’d heard it through the grapevine.  I grieved.

When she came home, we were each of us harder, but we fell seamlessly back in love with each other.

And then out.

Its that simple, really; friends fall apart sometimes.  People grow up.  She kept breaking my heart, and I grieved for our lost innocence.  Soon I was eighteen and had new friends, and my family fell apart and retreated with its broken tail between its legs back to California.  I flipped them and my sadness the bird and stayed in Arizona, with my new life.  Every few months Cheetah and I would regroup and it was wonderful, childlike love.  Who needs the world when you’ve got your best friend?  We’d spend weeks inseparable again, as if we hadn’t changed.  She kept bringing calamity down upon herself though, and I was so frustrated.  Why couldn’t she get it together?  She kept breaking my heart.  Every time we fell into our closer than skin friendship, my vulnerable heart was broken.  Dare to love this crazy kid and it would be the best of your life, but it was also the riskiest thing you could do, because she lived too fast and was going to hurt herself, and you, in the process.

So we’d lose touch.

And so on, and so forth.  I went to lunch with her before leaving for Australia.  She had a tattoo and was in a wheel chair.  She’d gotten back together with him, and since losing his wife and family (women don’t like it when their husbands of thirty years start screwing around with teenagers) he’d become a violent alcoholic.  He’d crashed her car, shattering her legs, ribs and collar bone.  It was miraculous she lived.

It was too much to handle.  I couldn’t bear her burdens along with mine anymore.  I went to Australia.  She messaged me while I was over there and I was too busy to respond.

We went out for her 21st in June.  This past June.  She was in a cast, so needed frequent breaks in between dancing with me.  She overwhelmed me; this was my past mixing with my present, my post-Australia present, at that, and I couldn’t handle the helplessness. I was tired, I guess, of her neediness.  I was tired of watching her self-destruct and being afraid for her safety.  I was an adult now.  I’d put childish things behind me.

And I couldn’t fight her demons anymore.  I was tired.

I was at work last Wednesday night when her mother texted me that she had terrible news, and I knew.  Except I didn’t know how.  I begged her to tell me Cheetah was alright, and was apologized to; she’d gotten back together with him, and he had taken her life.

Apparently he realized at least a fraction of what he’d done, because he then slit his wrists, wrote a partially illegible suicide note, and cut open his throat.

I’m not sorry to be graphic; my friend’s death was graphic.

I remember asking for a fifteen minute break and winding up helpless, defeated, wailing and clutching my bones on the concrete outside.

That’s the best word for it, really, is defeat.  My adolescent hopes and naivety have been defeated.  My illusion that the two of us were going to wind up ok, with or without the other, is defeated.

The other words that come to mind are survivor’s guilt.  Don’t you dare parrot that cliché about it not being my fault, that I couldn’t have saved her, etc.  I am not an idiot.  I know that.  I also know that I could have called her, I could have taken another hit for her.   I became so hard toward her.  My heart had been either elated because of her or broken for years, and I just became hard.

Last night was the worst it’s been, because I finally sat down to write about her.  I was meaning to tell you how ever since Friday, when I emailed our old friends and told them the news, I’d been fine.  I was in control and I was at peace and I wasn’t about to start questioning why I wasn’t a wreck.  I met with her  mother and step-father, I told her father I was sorry for his loss, I went about my normal life.  I’d already grieved for her years ago, right?  I was numb, maybe, or in shock, or preoccupied…because last night, trying to tell you about her, I became undone.  I slowly unraveled and friends, I am broken.

I can see her, I can feel her, and I remember everything.   I am defeated.

People I don’t know have been messaging me on facebook, because they’ve heard about me and because they want to reassure me that she loved me, spoke highly of me, and that it’s not my fault.  It’s like everyone knows.  Her father told me he was sorry for my loss.

My loss is youth.  My loss is innocence.  My loss is a friendship unequaled by any previous and any since.  My loss is confidence, and my confidant.  Last night I read my old journals for just a hint of Cheetah’s life spark.  She was too much to be gone.  I went on MySpace (remember MySpace??) and found pictures of the two of us, plus some blog posts I’d written about her.  Friends, I was crazy about her.  And I am so, so sorry.

My dad says it is apt that I bear this sorrow, because it means that our love was a real love and because the two of us were special and everyone knew it.  Everyone knew they were players in our game back then.  Everyone knew that we were the world and they were our moons.  My week of shock, numbness, and survival mode has dissipated.  The calm is over.  If my heart was broken for her before, now it is burning.


If life is a book of anecdotes, I don’t know how to write this story.

12 Comments on mad to live

  1. Jess…oh Jess! No words can express!! Your words are eloquent and so clear that as the reader I can almost feel a fraction of your pain. Oh Jess :*-{ So sorry.

  2. Jess you are a crazy good writer. The way you wrote this story makes me better know how to hurt with you. And i do. <3 Love you girl.

    • Thank you Chris,
      I’m moved that you’re moved. I appreciate you reading! I’m finding out that grief does, in fact, need to be shared. With strangers, friends, family, coworkers, everyone. It would be a dishonor to her not to tell them her story.

      • Hi Jess,
        I knew Leah, I just found out about her death some 18 months later,,,Wed 4-23-14 to be exact. I knew of her situation with and older guy; I knew it only too well. I may have even crossed your path in conversation back in 2008. If you could possibly contact me it would be very very appreciated, I have no real closure from my friends death; I am totally devastated ever since hearing about this. When I heard that this idiot took her life; It caused me to think back about what she said about him and on how she defended him to my complete shock & utter amazement. If you want to connect… I may tell you things that even you did not know….in any event this will be my only contact to you unless I hear back from you. I will tell you the complete truth on my end for the same on yours.


  3. Simply… beautiful!
    Felt good to read your blog!
    She had a true friend in you and, as I said, I’m sorry for your loss.

  4. Jess,

    Teri Mello – just read your blog. You two experienced a gift. Life is difficult. Your words are beyond a gfit. So glad your dad shared this one with me.

    Would love to know how you are, where you are, and what you are doing. You’ve always grabbed my heart!

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