The first time I saw Belerma, she was sitting under a tree in the yard behind my elementary school. The little kids’ playground, because we were only in the first grade.
She was tiny and beautiful with long curly black hair, a frilly white dress, striped knee socks, and sneakers.
I knew instantly that I wanted to be her friend.
We went to a school that was full of very rich white kids. Belerma was part of a specialized ESL program and bussed in from an entirely different part of town. I lived in the one tiny little wedge of the school zone that was not wealthy.
I don’t know whether soulmates send out pheromones or I’ve just always been attracted to eccentricity or if there was just something about her smile. But I knew, even when I was six years old, that she was my person.
And she was my person. From that day, under the tree on the playground when we were six years old, until today — one day after her forty-ninth birthday — we’ve been part of each other.
Every adventurous thing I’ve ever done in my life has a thread that leads back to Belerma. She taught me how to dance and how to talk to a boy without passing out and she insisted that I jump off the pier into the ocean the summer that we were fourteen.
We bonded over our unusual names and gave each other common boys names as nicknames —Mine was Terry and hers was Nicky. I named my son Nicholas after her.
(Interesting side story: decades later, my youngest daughter and her friends gave each other their grandfathers’ names as nicknames: George, Carl, Larry. Great minds, I guess.)
Being Belerma’s best friend meant that I didn’t spend all of my time surrounded by people just like me. I practically lived at her apartment, in her Los Angeles neighborhood, which wasn’t anything at all like my middle-class suburban one.
I ate food I never would have eaten, watched telenovelas, and just lived a different life than I would have if my best friend lived in my neighborhood and was a middle-class white girl like me.
We protected each other from the culture of bullying that was pervasive in our school. We were a team.
We spent the summer of 1986, when I was fourteen and she was fifteen, in Costa Rica with her family.
The fact that I was allowed to go on that trip was shocking to me then and is even more shocking to me now that I’m a mother myself. Belerma and I traveled alone to a tiny coastal town where her mother lived. There was a public telephone on the corner — but no one had telephones in their houses in Puntarenas in 1986.
My father knew Belerma’s father. My mother had met him, but only in passing. But her father wasn’t traveling with us. Neither of of my parents had met her mother or any other adult who would be with us in Costa Rica.
None of the adults in Costa Rica spoke English.
In fact, once I left the airport, I didn’t see another person who spoke English except for Belerma, until I got back to the airport to go home.
That summer changed my life. I fell in love with a beautiful boy named Miguel. I started my period for the first time. I jumped off that pier into the Pacific Ocean (again and again.) I danced in nightclubs. My two years of junior high Spanish and the Spanish I’d picked up from Belerma and her family turned nearly fluent that summer. The sun bleached my hair blonde.
I was utterly independent. I came home knowing that I could do anything.
I also came home heartbroken, because Belerma stayed with her mother. She didn’t come home with me. I was devastated.
(I learned years later that when my dad and step-mother learned that Belerma was staying in Costa Rica, they were afraid I would refuse to come home without her. They honestly thought that I might just not get on the plane. It hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing was a possibility or it might have happened. Or at least been considered.)
That summer, for me, has always been the delineation between my childhood and everything that came after it. Within a year, Belerma was married and had a baby. My family had left California for Las Vegas and my father was in prison — things fell apart pretty spectacularly for the Grimes family for a while.
There was no going back to who were were before that trip, even if we could have.
In the 1980s, there was no easy way to stay in touch with someone who lived in another country. Belerma and I wrote each other letters for a while. I saw her one more time, when her baby was three and I went to California to visit my mother and she was there, too.
And then we lost touch. For more than twenty years, I thought about her so often, but I couldn’t find her. When I got married, when I had my babies, when that first marriage was imploding, I’d find myself having conversations with Belerma in my head, wishing she was with me.
But she wasn’t. Not until Facebook reconnected us. One day, several years ago, there she was. My Bele. And then this week? I got to hug her again. And meet her children and her grandchildren.
I was back in Puntarenas, on the same beach with the pier I jumped off of when I was a girl. She still lives nearby, in a suburb.
It’s funny, you know? When you haven’t seen someone for so long — thirty years or more — and then you do, all you see at first is the age. Wrinkles and gray hair and how you’re really not fourteen anymore.
You see the way that they’ve changed. And that shines a big old spotlight on the way that you’ve changed. But then something shifts. They smile. Or they do that thing that you recognize, some quirk, and suddenly there they are.
The age drops away and your person is just there. And it’s all okay. The time doesn’t really matter anymore.
This time, I didn’t jump off the pier because it was closed for repair.
Yeah. Right. I didn’t jump off the pier because I’m old now and I didn’t want to break a hip. And forget puberty, I’m in the first stages of menopause. But Belerma is still my soulmate.
There is no me, that I can recognize, without her.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.