Leslie. Photo by Annie Cotten.

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Summer Loss

It’s a Tuesday night. I sit, toe-tapping, all alone in a short-term rental in Cashiers, North Carolina. The deadline for this essay is swiftly approaching and I’m frantically trying to invoke the muse while conjuring images of my childhood summers in the South and examining those contradictions within. I have fond memories of Nantahala Village—a lodge-and-cabin resort about an hour’s drive west of here—and sweet, lingering impressions of the family vacations we took there in the 1970’s: the mingled smells of OFF!, Coppertone and the dense Carolina woods; the particular pleasure and start-your-engines feeling of eating half-melted, soggy ice cream sandwiches after a grocery run to stock the rental; air-dried, crunchy bathing suits scented by chlorine and Ivory Snow; Coca Cola in 6.5 oz glass bottles; beaded belts, made by the Cherokee who performed for tourists, purchased as souvenirs. I have other, less tender memories of these vacations: of drunken parents and their co-traveling friends late at night talking too loudly for me to sleep in our tiny cabin; a lingering handprint on my thigh following a slap from the front seat; my brother’s boy-complected, relentless antagonism; sunburn, sunburn, sunburn.

But my muse is elusive. I’m stymied not only by panic as this piece of writing is due in two days, but also by sadness and shock following news of the sudden death of a friend. A good friend—someone I knew well, had a complex relationship with and loved. I have lost friends before, but not like Leslie. This loss feels different. This loss feels unbelievable, suffocating and life-altering. Wrong in a way I can’t name.

Leslie died in the summer, in the South. Can I write about her?

Not about North Carolina, or Nantahala cabins or car games or picnic tables on the highway or pimento cheese sandwiches or dad drinking beer in the car on the Natchez Trace.


I met Leslie in the summer, in the South—in New Orleans, where we had both ended up—through a mutual friend. We were introduced and when I remarked to Leslie that I remembered her name from my high school years, she replied in a surprising, unexpectedly deep, mellifluous voice, exhaling cigarette smoke and with a syrupy Mississippi accent that otherwise evades description, “Everybody thinks I’m a bitch, but I’m not.”

I was smitten.

The rest of that summer through the next was mad with Leslie. I was at her house once a week, I joined her (short-lived, completely insane) book club revival, we met for lunches and dinners, we talked on the phone like young girls used to, we shared book reviews and magazine articles, we drank, we argued (she won), we went furniture shopping—I dared Leslie to eat the plastic grapes at the furniture store and she did.

Leslie was stimulating. She was leagues beyond “smart” or “bright”—she was intelligent in a natural way only very rare people are. Her mind was sharp—she observed, saw, heard, analyzed and understood, seemingly, everything. Her mind was fast—she processed, organized, stored and recalled information as if she were a computer. My intellect was wet sand next to Leslie’s—heavy, dull, gray—hers was brilliant and nimble.

Leslie was generous. One of her friends commented on Facebook that she never left Leslie’s house without a PILE. This was true for anyone who darkened Leslie’s door, I think. After a visit to Leslie’s house you left with some food, a lamp, a few books, a blouse, a breast self-examination kit.

Leslie was fun. We shared a habit of exorcising demons with compartmentalized bad behavior. She came to my elegant birthday celebration at Commander’s Palace where a group of well-dressed ladies brunched, then she and I went to The Columns and got drunk. She and I had secrets I will keep forever.

Leslie was beautiful. Leslie was interesting. Leslie was curious and concerned, tough and tender, refined and raunchy and righteous and a bad-ass and riotously funny.

I think Leslie was lonely. She had scores of friends and fans but outran us all—she had to circle back every now and then and keep an unnatural pace just to be with people. Did she need us? She loved us. She tolerated us.

I will miss Leslie more than it ever occurred to me to consider. I never thought I’d have to.

When Leslie became involved with her partner, we socialized less frequently, but no less intensely. A visit with Leslie was never superficial, polite or boring. She’d get right IN—to “it,” to politics, to philosophy, to gleeful gossip—to you.

Remembering her, it occurs to me that, perhaps because New Orleans is mostly hot and evergreen, all my memories of Leslie seem to have taken place in the summer. Or maybe it’s because being with Leslie always felt like summer camp—like time away and adventure and sneakiness and late-night stories and smuggled snacks.

I last saw Leslie in the summer, in June. I called her from my car en route to a burger joint she had turned me onto years before and said, “Meet me, now.” I hadn’t seen her in months. She came. It was heartbreakingly good to see her, but something was different. I felt sad afterward. We texted a few times later, about her dog. Not enough. Not nearly enough. I want to scream her name, throw my arms around her body, beg and cry for her to stay (all things she’d hate). You can never be present enough for your friends, for the people you love, but no matter how many times you realize this, you don’t feel it until they’re gone.

Leslie’s loss feels like the worst kind of summer; like an oppressive, heavy, unbearably uncomfortable August; like you can’t breathe, like the bright sun isn’t pleasant at all, but burns your skin, hurts your eyes and seems somehow to emit a dangerous sound—a warning.

We lost Leslie in the summer, in the South, in New Orleans. I was told she was in her kitchen and her partner was away at the vet having their beloved dog put down. Her heart was broken and tired and she collapsed. I hope her death was as fast as she was, I hope it was painless, I hope she jumped into it with her unique abandon, hollering in her surprising, unexpectedly deep, mellifluous voice, exhaling cigarette smoke and with that syrupy Mississippi accent that otherwise evades description, “Fuck y’all, I’m gone,” while sticking her thumb out for a ride—to an eternal summer in her own, beautiful South.