This summer I am writing a series of essays to celebrate the women in my life who continue to inspire great things in me and for all the people they know.
Arielle is a beam of cherished but unexpected light, maybe a purple hue or a disco ball’s emission. We met over ten years ago. We were assigned roommates at Syracuse University in a residence hall no one had ever heard of with a third roommate whose name we never really learned how to pronounce. We bonded over basically everything. I felt lucky in her presence.
Arielle treats the world with a sophisticated kindness. I am constantly proud of her. It took me a very long time to sit and write this essay because I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think of how distant her and I have become. For now, the distance makes sense. I have hope for a nearby oncoming closeness.
The Butterfield House, 709 Comstock Ave, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
“Maybe you’re a writer,” says Arielle.
A quick shrug of her shoulder as she handles her always-on-its-way-to empty plastic humongous water bottle she somehow manages to carry everywhere with her, despite her slight stature suggesting that perhaps she doesn’t possess the amount of force needed to carry heavy things. She can carry heavy thing.
Maybe I am a writer but I am an acting student in a foreign country and I feel sad all the time lately and I am eighteen years old and I do not know what I may or may not Be.
Arielle, my roommate, my best friend, my first friend, and my sage, apparently.
She says I might be a writer.
The very modern and conveniently guided meditations I subscribe to daily via my phone are always themed. Yesterday the theme was “kindness” and it is ok if you roll your eyes.
Towards the end of the recorded meditation, the “guide”, the slow and wonderful voice of a woman who must be some fortuitous combination of a brilliant capitalist and a well-humoured Monk, reviews the principles of kindness that motivate her compassion. She has a name for her favourite principle of kindness. She calls it “The Ripple Effect”: If I perform a small act of kindness for someone, they might feel inspired to be kind to someone else that day and that person may be kind to another, or even a group of people, instigating a chain reaction of kindness, or “A Ripple”.
This philosophical tenant of One Woman’s Life is quite an optimistic approach to wondering about human behaviour but it might be true and so it might be nice.
“I can’t help but smile at the idea of one act of kindness generating an entire web of compassionate actions around the world,” speaks the guide and she mentions “the world” as if it were the size of her palm.
The word “Kindness” never fails to remind me of Arielle. Arielle is a propagator of kindness. I am usually kind to people with her in mind.
The problem with the ripple effect is, in order for it to work, if it can work, there must be one really kind person triggering the sensation, obviating the need for kindness, shining from the effects of her own kindness.
Arielle and I meet for coffee in New York City.
I am there visiting with a friend of mine for the weekend and Arielle is rehearsing something in The Village so she suggests a coffee shop and we meet there.
The first time I meet Arielle, I have no friends.
Growing up, having been bullied or just generally ignored in my initial high school, I had no collection of People in my life. I was crucially depressed. I switched schools, desperately.
My second high school was fine but far from a heaven. I survive. I even focus. I am at least determined enough, in twelfth grade, to gain admission into an American acting school so that I can eventually move to New York City as an actress. I am not quite the cliché you might imagine but I am working hard to fit in with the other cliché hopefuls. My incapacity for social engagement really makes me a mere fantasy of who I aspire to be but I feel very strongly that I can become a Liza Minelli or a version of her worth appreciating. The aspiration is far better than the hopelessness I have been dealing with and so: I aspire.
I am admitted to Syracuse University.
I suddenly gain an awareness of Fate or, more specifically, My Fate.
I am holding a large envelope, opening a large envelope and exclaiming, greatly that Mom I Got In and I Got In.
Syracuse University sends me an email.
The email lists the names of my future roommates.
My future roommates have been assigned email addresses and here, in my first email from My Future, are those correspondences.
I can email my roommates.
They can email me.
Minutes later, I receive an email from Arielle.
It says something about being very excited. She mentions her summer activities. She writes about five lines of personal anecdote and signs off with a chipper version of Goodbye.
We have been assigned to a mysterious residence hall called “The Butterfield House”. It is not listed anywhere on the school’s website nor had it been mentioned when I toured campus.
“Have you ever heard of a Butterfield House? I haven’t,” writes Arielle. “I’m going to email Cassie too. We’re all in the drama department!”
Cassie is our third roommate. She is a stage manager. Arielle and I are acting students. It seems fated, if not incredibly strange.
I watch Arielle climb the stairs to the coffee shop and enter the door. She is gorgeous and adult, more so then when I last saw her but somehow, just as she has always done, she is lugging a large fabric purse brimming with Things. Without saying hi to a single person, she appears to know everyone in the cafe. She sits and says “So how are you,” I clear the table of my writing “What is all of this,” she asks, and I tell her what I am working on while watching her face, trying to give into the joy of seeing her again. It has been ten years since we met and who knows how long since we last saw each other.
Arielle moves into our room first.
I enter and she is standing on her bed, the bed closest to the door, taping, what seems to be, every document she’s ever printed in her life onto the wall behind where she will be sleeping. It looks very nice, the collage she has made for herself, symbolically celebrating her entire youth and everyone she has ever met.
She explains to me through exclamatory welcome that she has taken the closet next to her bed and I can have the remaining closet, across from hers.
Cassie is no longer our third roommate. Our new roommate has a name we can’t pronounce and she mysteriously replaced Cassie but we have no idea why. We leave Yeung-Wha Ree the loft bed and the little bureau next to it for her things but we begin to wonder if she has decided not to come and, therefore, we begin to wonder about the possibilities open to us given all this extra space.
Maybe we can throw tea parties in that corner. I have a kettle. We have already used it for tea. Maybe the tea can become Tea Parties. We dream. We put things on her bed. We preemptively store things where she has not yet arrived. We have no hope for Yeung-Wha.
“Maybe we should wait to see if she comes back,” Arielle, compassionately asserts.
I should mention that, at this time in my life, I am addicted to diet pills and I am behaving like a speed addict on a mission.
“NO IT’S FINE IT’S FINE SHE ISN’T COMING IT’S GREAT IT’S FINE”
Arielle laughs and goes with it, figuring we can remove our things in the morning.
We proceed to unpack the rest of our lives into the sister closets by the door that we have claimed for our own. Both of our wardrobes are overflowing with substance. I have an intense collection of handbags, Arielle has an equally intense collection of scarves , and as a unit we appear to be an intense collection of Art, just the two of us, just in this room.
That night, Arielle and I attend “Opening Marathon” which is a (probably significant) title for the drama department’s unofficial annual initiation party. We do not come back to The Butterfield House until very late.
When we come back, the residence advisor sits Arielle and I down at a table that I am sure I will never use for anything other than this very strange, very late, very drunk, very intense and drug influenced (at least on my part) meeting.
“So, Yeung-Wha has arrived. We have moved her in.”
“Oh my god, all of our things. Oh god,” Arielle worries for our new roommate’s feelings.
I sit. High. Drunk. Arrogant. Amused.
New York city suits Arielle. She beams with ease. I ask her if she’ll sit for a second while I go to the washroom so that I can change my shirt. She does not question my need. When I return I put Iodine in my coffee and I explain to her that it’s for my thyroid.
“So you just put it in your coffee.”
“Sometimes beer,” I tell her.
Arielle has nodules on her throat. She had discovered that summer at camp that, should she continue to speak in exclamatory sentences in the way that she has been doing, her vocal chords will no longer evoke sound. It is quite difficult for Arielle, an actress, to come to terms with her current vocal restrictions. It is difficult, most of all, for her not to speak. She loves chatting and she cannot do it as frequently as she would like during her first few weeks at school.
On our way to our first class she performs her exercises like a true champion of passionate performance and we walk down the hill to Syracuse Stage.
I crash after one class.
Arielle is not there because she is assigned to a different acting group but I am sitting with whoever I have so far made friends with and the teacher, a former graduate of the program, is giving us a lecture on how we have to be “hot dogs”. I. Do not know. What that means. Obsessive, I think, is the correct word. But, for some reason he likens us to meat.
After his lecture he announces, “And now we are going to go around the room and we’re each going to say your name, where you are from, and Why You Are Here.”
I am nearly last.
I try to answer but instead I burst into a dramatic, speed-induced emotional outpour, announcing “I. JUST. WANT. EVERYONE. TO. BE. MY. FRIEND” and, though a truer statement has never left my lips, I feel like a complete fraud.
I throw out my gigantic bag of pills.
I endure three weeks of withdrawal.
At this point, who knows what Arielle is thinking.
She continues to invite me to dinner even though I cannot eat. She continues to invite me out with friends even though I can hardly stay awake. I do not even notice that time is happening. Still, she continues acknowledging my participating in the time being.
People have asked about me, I think and she is a graceful, supportive stranger-turned-friend.
Arielle helps me feel comfortable in front of other people. For one thing, she invites me everywhere but then, when I cannot socialize or I shake and I have to leave a room or I ache and it reads all over my face, she just continues, chatting, smiling, being a totally normal person despite my strong inclination towards alienating behaviour.
Arielle does not know it, she may think about it but, without effort, she is saving my life.
“Can we maybe not catch up, can we just pretend like,” I start.
“Just start talking?”
We only have an hour.
I have never visited Arielle without crying as I walk away.
In one hour, I will miss her again.
Arielle and I take a trip to the UK.
She is cast in a show in the Edinburgh Fringe. I tell her I am coming to see it. We end up touring multiple countries.
Arielle writes down absolutely everything that happens to us. On the ferry to Wales an old man asks her “how do your hands keep up with you?”
Arielle laughs. “I just need to write everything down in case one day I wish I wrote everything down.”
The old man is impressed beyond reason.
Or, maybe it is reasonable.
Arielle keeps writing.
Arielle watches me drink coffee and I feel like the first woman in the world to ever drink coffee. She knows the names of my current shows. The titles are in her head, I am in her head. She asks me a bit about them. I tell her what I can.
Currently, Arielle is a leader in an organization called Co-Lab Theatre, a group of theatre workers who provide performance and storytelling opportunities for adults with disabilities in New York City.
The program began as something smaller at Syracuse Drama and Arielle, along with a number of other commendable artists, brought the program to New York City.
I take a trip to New York and I attend one of the classes.
I have the best time.
Before the class begins, Arielle and the other facilitators are reviewing the class roster for the day, who they are, what is known about them, what kind of work they were likely to do that day. One participant has a name that no one is sure how to pronounce. Everyone takes guesses. Uncertainty prevails.
When the class arrives, Arielle, careful to use everyone’s name while working with them, finally has to try to address the woman whose name is difficult.
Arielle used the best pronounciation she can muster and, in an act of compassion I can hardly believe for its level of decency which collides nicely with the ease in which Arielle always carries herself, she puts one hand lightly on the participants shoulder and clearly but gently asks her “Am I saying that right?”
I note the gesture and I keep it in my tool belt of Gestures For Awkward Moments Soon To Come.
Arielle and I share descriptions of what we are working on and, this little coffee shop experience feels smaller and smaller, tightened by the feeling that somehow, ten years ago, it was fated that we would be having coffee at a little table in Manhattan on this day and somehow we fulfilled that fate and now we can just sit. Maybe time will extend, maybe space will evaporate or maybe in forty minutes, I will be running back to my hotel so I can catch my flight home, crying.
In our Freshman year at Syracuse, Arielle begins training for a bike tour called AIDS Lifecycle. It will take her across California.
Arielle first hears of AIDS Lifecycle at one of SU Drama’s Wednesday “labs”. She hears stories of comradery, emotional bonding and, most importantly, charitable achievement. She decides to participate.
When she takes on the challenge, she is not what even she would call “Athletic”. Slight in stature and creatively occupied most of the time, Arielle perhaps never thought of biking across a state. It just was not a focus of hers when she was younger but the opportunity inspires in her an unstoppable need to Bike.
She signs up to race.
She has to raise a lot of money in order to participate.
She has to train her body to do things she has never done before.
From a passion that came seemingly out of nowhere, she builds her body into a tool for achievement and the achievement is a selfless fundraising event on the other side of the country.
When we are in the UK, Arielle has just finished her third AIDS Lifecycle.
She met a man while she was riding.
They have just begun to date.
I wonder instantly if this is it, this is Arielle becoming “Arielle and some guy” and now I am truly the last single woman on the planet.
Up until now, Arielle and I have shared in our lack of romantic history but when she tells me that she has found a man she really likes a lot I do not articulate my reaction to Arielle but I feel a selfish distance from her.
I don’t really know why.
Arielle and I are not as close as we were in our Freshman year.
I am no longer in school with her. I have transferred out of Syracuse.
I did not finish my acting education because of a very bad depression which pulled my focus far away from theatre and acting, convincing me to leave. I have visited Syracuse since leaving the program but friendships require presence and presence is almost impossibly physical. I have become less of a friend.
Her romance feels scary.
What if she also becomes less of a friend—
Arielle is staying in London after our trip.
Syracuse has a semester of study there for theatre students and a good portion of Juniors end up participating. I fly home alone. I cry on the plane.
While in London, Arielle sends in an audition tape to Syracuse Stage, the affiliate regional theatre at Syracuse Drama. She auditions for the part of Anne Frank. She is given the role. I go to see her perform in the show. It is of course great.
It is the last time I visit Syracuse.
I really like talking to Arielle.
I like hearing about her million things she does in a day, her husband, her dog. I like asking about her siblings and her wonderful parents.
I like watching her speak because as she’s speaking she is listening, paying attention to me even more than she is paying attention to her own story or excitement.
Even drinking coffee with Arielle, I miss her very much.
I no longer hope to live in New York City the same way I did when I was much younger but sometimes I wonder if I will ever live near Arielle again or if we will just keep having conversational coffee every few years in Lower Manhattan.
I write my first play in our dorm.
While writing I sit in my dorm a lot.
I pull focus from my play to write short stories.
I read Arielle a little bit of a story.
“Maybe you’re a writer,” says Arielle.
I have given up on being anything.
But maybe I’m a writer, says Arielle.
Arielle and I pack our bags of things we need and we leave our little table in the New York café.
Arielle continues on to her task of making everything better because she just can.
I hurry back to the hotel.
New York City is a blur thanks to my hurry. Thanks, to my tears.