Vada loved Kris Kristopherson, mountain country, scotch whiskey, and smoking pot – perhaps not in that order. She was aloof, indifferent to the opinions of other people, wild, and fragile. She was also my friend. I loved her but she scared me a little. There was always this little piece of me that knew she could go too far and that I might go with her.
I met her during my college days in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I’d seen her in the student lounge playing cards. (She was something of a card shark, actually.) I officially met her at a keg party but she didn’t pay the least bit of attention to me. On one occasion we ended up seated next to one another in the back seat of a car riding with a gang of folks to an event that I now can’t remember. We struck up a conversation and I found her interesting. I had no idea whether or not she liked me and sorta figured she didn’t. She was one of those girls that I thought was cool but I knew I wasn’t in her league and never imagined that we could be more than passing acquaintances. I was always a little amazed that we ended up being friends. She told me once that her first impression of me was that I was a “do-gooder”. I was puzzled – was that a good thing or a bad thing? I asked what she meant. She responded, “you know, a Pollyanna – a goody two-shoes.” I suspect she also meant silly and prudish although she didn’t say so. Then she shrugged in her lackadaisical way and said, “Well, you really are a do-gooder but I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover.” I decided it best not to ponder that further.
Lots of guys were attracted to Vada but rarely did she give them any encouragement. Vada was definitely not a flirt. But that didn’t stop those guys from being “hangers-on” or sometimes pressing her for a more serious relationship. Even when she let them know there was no hope of anything further than her friendship that didn’t keep them from being starry-eyed and ever hopeful. I learned that she held to her heart her first lover. She called him “Roger Ann” to his face and to me privately. I knew it was her way of belittling him in an attempt to deny the power he had over her. Still she secretly clung to a romantic ideal of him. In truth, he was not worth her time. He never appeared more than slightly interested in her – most probably because he was lazy and shallow. But, sadly, sometimes first loves live on in the hearts of young girls without just cause. And so this unrequited love seemed to me.
When handsome Vince Bascalupo showed up I was hopeful that the unfortunate, one-sided relationship was over. I have to admit that I would never have guessed that Vada would be interested in Vince, despite his good looks. He was too sweet, too nice, too polite – not that those are bad qualities at all – it just seemed to me that Vada was inevitably drawn to “bad boys” and Vince was definitely not one of those. Their improbable relationship lasted longer than I ever imagined it would and I was hopeful for a while. But in time Vada tired of him – which didn’t surprise me in the least – but it did make me sad because I knew that she would return to her old ways. Inherently she sought to sabotage herself – she just couldn’t seem to help herself.
When my then boyfriend proposed to me I accepted. We planned a June wedding and I asked Vada and another college girlfriend, Debby, to be my bridesmaids. Vada agreed and never voiced any opinion until my wedding day. Vada, Debby, and I stood together in a small room downstairs in the chapel of the church where I was to be married in a matter of minutes. Vada turned, picked up her pocketbook, took me by the hand, and looked me dead in the eyes.
“My keys are in here and my car is right outside. Let’s go. Don’t do this. You don’t love him.” She spoke earnestly and urgently. I was stunned. Yet in the stillness of that instant I knew deep down in the core of my being that she was right. I certainly loved the man waiting upstairs at the altar but not enough to marry him. But there I was in my wedding dress with my family upstairs waiting for me, guests had traveled some distance to be there, my cousin was playing Wagner on the baby grand piano, and time was running out. I should have nodded my head, grabbed her hand and headed for her car. It flashed across my mind to do that very thing but it seemed cowardly. The fact is it would have been the bravest thing I could ever have done – I just lacked the courage to do it. Instead I turned my eyes away from her face, shook my head and laughed. I have played that moment over many times in my head. It is now sealed in infamy.
The moment passed, the day moved forward, we all marched down the aisle and toward whatever was waiting for us – me to a doomed marriage, Debby to her own distant doom, and Vada to ditch Vince and move far away from me for a time. With my friend hundreds of miles away I was left to stumble gracelessly on my own which I did until at last I landed flat on my face. I was divorced, disgraced, bereft, and lonely. When I received a letter saying she was moving back to Virginia I felt as if I had come up for air after wallowing and choking in a rolling turbulent sea. I could not have been more relieved to see her face. I thought at first that she would return to college but she surprised me by landing a job. So the two of us were employed by day and free for adventure every night and weekend. And oh, boy! Did we have some adventures? Indeed, we did.
We both loved poetry and frequently spent languid afternoons reading to one another – each of us dreaming our own dreams. We could spend hours philosophizing, considering, contemplating, and speculating on any number of subjects from literature to music to politics to religion. We were young, energetic, and curious but without a well-laid plan or, for that matter, any plan at all. Life seemed to be an endless road before us and we traveled it without care or urgency. Our Sunday ritual was to shake loose our Saturday night hangover, listen to Kris sing “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, take turns soaking in a tub, pour ourselves some scotch, and go cruising through the hill country – sometimes winding up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was our church. The majestic views of mountains and valleys and meadows could take your breath away. The feeling of being connected to every single thing was palpable. But always there was a tinge of sadness and yearning. As Kris Kristofferson so aptly penned “ ‘cause there’s something in a Sunday makes a body feel alone”. There are many stories I could tell you about this particular time together but perhaps they should stay where Vada and I left them – scattered about in the valley and those hills and in a few bars as well – wild, luxuriant, and unrestrained. Mostly they were wonderful – occasionally akin to divine – and sometimes they were as scary as an open grave in moonlight. Those scary times were what worried me. Eventually, those days together came to an end. After I spent some vacation time in North Carolina visiting with old friends I decided to pursue life in my old stomping grounds. I needed the security and sanity I found there. Without a word to Vada, I proceeded to find a job and an apartment in Raleigh. I knew that I couldn’t tell her without risking either her anger or her trying to talk me out of my plans. I knew I needed to have things in place before I told her. And I was right. The first thing she said was, “I thought we were going to get an apartment together” and she was right that we had briefly discussed such a venture but it was just talk. I countered by suggesting that she move to North Carolina with me but that was not within her realm of possibility and I knew it even as I laid out the offer. She ridiculed my decision – her tone sarcastic and bitter. Yet I knew at the heart of it she was hurt. We both knew I had betrayed her.
After I moved to North Carolina we corresponded by occasional letters although hers were slow in coming in the beginning. My letters to her were a way of consoling myself for having abandoned her. When I remarried she came to North Carolina to visit me and to meet my three-year-old daughter. I knew then that she had forgiven me and I could stop feeling guilty. She told me that she’d met a guy and I could tell that she was in love and really happy. It wasn’t long afterwards that I got a letter saying that they’d been married. My husband and I went to visit them in Staunton. Sandy was good looking, smart, gregarious, and an engaging conversationalist who didn’t seem to notice that my husband was shy and quiet – and so he wasn’t. We had a lovely evening. It seemed that Vada had become very domestic and she laid out quite a feast. I was proud of her. It pleased me to no end how happy she seemed. I thought I could stop worrying about her. She wrote me later that she and Sandy had moved into her Aunt Mary’s vacant house in the country and I savored pictures of her in my mind holding hands with Sandy on the porch swing and basking in the mountain air. It turned out to be a short-lived fantasy. Sandy was from an affluent family in Staunton who had taken great care to guard the secret of their son’s alcoholism from everyone. Once he came home from college to roost and take a wife it was out of their hands. Vada was now the sole caretaker of a very sick man – even more fragile than she. All of this was unbeknownst to me and I embarked on what I thought would be a carefree “girls weekend” and drove to Vada’s to spend the weekend. I figured Sandy was off fishing or hunting or spending the weekend with old college mates. Nope. Soon after my arrival Vada informed me that she and Sandy were separated and she no longer wanted him in her life. I heard all the sad and terrible stories of their marriage and saw the pain in her eyes and heard the heartbreak in her voice. I was glad of our time together – glad that she trusted me again – glad that she could share her burden. But I knew that I would once again be responsible for worrying about her.
I returned to my life in North Carolina and became enmeshed in all of its twists and turns and intricacies. Vada and I corresponded by mail less and less. Occasionally we managed a phone call – but those were not the days of email and cell phones. Long distance calls were expensive and there was no call-waiting or voicemail. Folks either answered or they didn’t. And so our connection grew faint although she never dimmed in my heart.
In the late summer of the year 2000 I learned from our friend, Debby, that Vada had passed away. I heard later from my ex-husband in Staunton that Vada had been ill for quite a while before she died. I don’t know any other details. Somehow I was not surprised. I thought how like her to choose the new century for her death – if you choose such a thing. The following year Debby and I traveled together to visit her grave. We lit a cigarette for her, poured out a bottle of scotch, and lit a stick of incense in her memory. Then we sat on the hillside with her for a time. That spot could not be more appropriate for my friend. The view is lovely – a lush green hill cascading downward and edged by trees with blue mountains in the distance. I no longer need to worry about my friend for I believe that Vada is at last serenely at rest – something I think she yearned for all her life. Her beloved Kris Kristopherson penned and sang the following words that could not have been more suitable than if he had written them with Vada in mind:
“Epitaph (Black and Blue)”
Her close friends have gathered
Lord, ain’t it a shame
Sharing the blame.
But when she was dying
Lord, we let her down.
There’s no use cryin’
It can’t help her now.
The party’s all over
Drink up and go home.
It’s too late to love her
And leave her alone.
Just say she was someone
Lord, so far from home
Whose life was so lonesome
She died all alone
Who dreamed pretty dreams
That never came true
Lord, why was she born
So black and blue?
Oh, why was she born
So black and blue?
~ words by Kristopherson and Fritts