The summer before I entered second grade and my brother Liam started kindergarten, Dad got the promotion he'd been after for two years and my parents had enough money to move us from the South Side of Chicago to its suburb, Oak Park.
When I say "suburb," you might envision subdivisions that center on a strip mall or a man-made lake and "ticky-tacky box houses," as Maya's grandmother would call them. You know, where the only thing that varies from one house to the next is the color of the paint job. But Oak Park is not one of those suburbs.
Separated from the West Side of Chicago by an imaginary line down the middle of Austin Boulevard, Oak Park still looks like part of the city. The houses were built in the same era and are of the same style. The east-west streets have the same names. You can catch the "L" in Oak Park and be downtown in fifteen minutes.
The big difference is the feel: more of a small-town vibe, less of the hustle and bustle. My parents talked up Oak Park like it was a fairy-tale kingdom. Middle-class but diverse. An excellent number of parks, trees, "good" schools, and libraries per capita. Chic, independently run shops populating the main streets and the pedestrian mall in the center of town. Houses of the Frank Lloyd Wright ilk sprawling like midwestern miniplantations across two or three normal-size lots on the north side. Classic Victorian "painted ladies" speckling the entire town. My parents couldn't dream of owning those houses, but our four-bedroom had an enclosed sun porch at the front, a deck out back, and a living room with a real working fireplace. It was a huge step up from the bottom half of the two-flat we occupied in the city.
My parents claimed suburbia was safer than Chicago, but I certainly didn't find it kinder and gentler. On my first day of school, I was approached by Maggie Young during recess. Maggie had a face like JonBenét Ramsey's, but with big brown eyes and perfect ringlets of chestnut hair framing her features. She was always trailed by an entourage of five or six girls. Two of them were her best friends; the rest acted as servants in hopes of winning her favor.
When they came up to me, I smiled, mistakenly thinking I would be welcomed to join them on the playground. Instead, I was given a bizarre test of my coolness. Maggie asked if my jacket had a YKK zipper. When I checked and responded that it didn't, she scoffed, "Does your family shop at Kmart or something? I bet those aren't even real Keds."
Her minions giggled like chirping birds. I stared down at my dirty white sneakers, both ashamed and confused. I hardly had a clue what she was talking about. We were seven, for Christ's sake, and fashion hadn't been a big deal at my old school. But my faux pas meant my automatic exclusion from the upper echelons of second grade.
Later that afternoon, when it came time to pick partners for a science project, every girl I sought out with my gaze refused to meet it except for Stacey O'Connor. She came running over, gushing, "Wanna be my partner?" Her bright blue eyes danced. "I already have an idea for the project."
Later we would use two empty two-liter bottles, some green food coloring, and a little plastic device Stacey'd seen on some PBS show to demonstrate the workings of a tornado.
Since Stacey already had the project figured out and discussing her plan took five minutes of the thirty the teacher allotted, Stacey launched into getting-to-know-you talk. "Where did you move from?" she asked, smiling so wide her freckled cheeks dimpled.
"The city," I boasted, having already decided Chicago was superior to Oak Park. It had taller buildings, the lakefront, and far friendlier kids.
"I lived on the South Side until I was four," Stacey told me. "My dad still lives there." She seemed equally as proud of her Chicago roots, but then she frowned, becoming defensive. "My mom and dad aren't married and never were. If you're gonna be mean about it..." She glared in the direction of Maggie Young.
I shook my head so vigorously that auburn strands of hair slapped me across the face. "I'm not gonna be mean to you! You're the first kid who's been nice to me."
With that out of the way, we moved on to our favorite cartoon (ThunderCats), color (blue), and food (peanut butter), marveling that we shared all of these common interests along with our non-Oak Park origin and ethnicity (Irish).
Stacey also said, "Wow, you have cool eyes. Are they orange in the middle?"
"They're hazel. Mostly green and brown, but they change colors sometimes."
"Oooh, like a mood ring!"
I nodded, beaming. Her words melted the feeling of insecurity that had been lodged in my gut since Maggie mocked my clothes.
Maybe if I'd begged my mom for a new wardrobe and a perm, I could've joined Maggie Young's elite crowd of Keds-sneakered, Gap-cardigan-wearing, boy-crazy girls with perfectly coiffed bangs. But once I aligned myself with Stacey, I was branded uncool for life and I didn't care. Stacey was a genuinely nice person; I was relieved to have a real friend, and so was she.
Stacey's low position on the social totem pole at school -- just above the girl who smelled like pee and tried to blame it on her cats -- stemmed from her undesirable family situation. She lived in a tiny apartment, not the prime locale for elaborate sleepovers, and all the other parents looked down on her mom. Beth had Stacey at sixteen and Stacey's dad had been thirty. Beth had scrimped and saved to move Stacey to the 'burbs for that mythic "better life." After that, Stacey rarely saw her dad.
Two years into our friendship, in fourth grade, I went with Stacey to visit him. We waited anxiously in the backseat while Beth went in to talk to him first. Five minutes later, Beth stormed out, red-cheeked, and started the car again, announcing, "He can't pay child support, he can't see his kid."
On the drive back to Oak Park, I stared out my window, feeling sick to my stomach for Stacey, who chewed on the ends of her dark hair, trying not to cry. Beth played the radio as loud as it could go, Led Zeppelin making the windows rattle, Stacey and I learning to find solace in a blaring rock song.
My friendship with Stacey was never supposed to change. It was supposed to stay frozen in time like the photograph on the mantel in my living room: me and Stacey, ten years old, eyes bright, our forefingers pulling our mouths into goofy, jack-o'-lantern grins. It would be okay if our hair and clothes changed with the times, but we were supposed to be standing side by side with wacky smiles on our faces until the day we died.
A week after eighth grade graduation, Beth broke the news that she and Stacey were moving to the neighboring town -- and different school district -- of Berwyn.
She tried to butter us up first, ordering pizza for dinner. We ate in front of the TV as usual, but after The Real World ended, Beth turned it off.
"We need to talk about something." Beth took a deep breath before blurting, "We're moving in August when the lease is up. I can't afford Oak Park rent anymore."
Stacey and I both sobbed and begged and pleaded, but it had no effect on Beth. She scowled, one hand on her hip, the other palm outstretched, sliding back and forth between us. "You girls wanna get jobs? Wanna see if I can get you dishwashing positions at the restaurant?" She jerked her hand away. "Didn't think so."
I wrapped my arms around myself and cried harder. Stacey screeched until she was blue in the face, calling Beth things she'd never dared, like "motherfucking bitch."
Finally, Beth roared, "Get to your room before I ground your ass for the entire summer!"
Stacey grabbed my hand and yanked me down the hall. She slammed her door and blasted a Black Sabbath album. Beth shouted at her to play it louder. Stacey changed the music to Nine Inch Nails, but Beth said she could turn that up, too.
After fifty similar arguments, Stacey didn't want to talk about it anymore. But I kept scheming to keep us from being separated. I even tried to convince my parents that we should move to Berwyn, too.
I accosted them in the kitchen one night while Mom prepared dinner and Dad thumbed through the files in his briefcase. I contended that we could find a cheaper house in Berwyn and the taxes would be lower. Feeling desperate, I also asserted, "Berwyn has the car spindle that was in Wayne's World. Oak Park doesn't have cool public art like that."
Dad snorted. "Kara, that thing is beyond tacky. And we're staying in Oak Park for the schools. That's why I work so hard to pay those high taxes."
"Doesn't Stacey deserve to go to school here, too? Maybe she could live with us or at least use our address -- "
Dad cut me off with his patented "Absolutely not!" signaling end of discussion.
Mom chased me upstairs to my bedroom, where I threw myself on my bed, shouting, "Dad's so unfair! He didn't even listen to me. He doesn't care about anything but his stupid job and he doesn't understand..." I buried my face in a pillow, sobbing.
Mom gently stroked my hair. "I understand," she murmured. I turned my head to look at her. She brushed away the ginger strands that clung to my damp cheeks before explaining, "My best friend's parents sent her to an all-girls Catholic high school. I begged my parents to send me, too, even though we couldn't afford it."
"You do understand. Will you talk to Dad?" I asked with a hiccup.
Mom smiled in that patronizing parental way. "Sweetie, Jane and I stayed friends even though we went to different schools. We hung out after school almost every day. That's what you and Stacey'll do. She'll only be a couple miles away. And you'll meet new friends like I did. It'll be okay."
"No, it won't!" I spat, feeling betrayed. Mom tried to hug me, but I flopped over on my stomach, growling, "Get out of my room!"
Mom spent the summer trying to reassure me that everything would be fine, but I couldn't shake the feeling that our annual trip to my aunt's cabin in Door County would be the la...