I first met Kari on a dirt road outside of Morris in June, 1991. We were both just a month past our high school graduations, and I had come to the University of Minnesota campus for the first time in my life, to register for classes. Kari pulled up alongside us somewhere between town and Pomme de Terre, and knew one of my friends’ friends (who was in the car with me), and I liked her easy smile and the gap between her two front teeth. She had blonde hair like cornsilk (though it was only chin-length, then), and a laugh that I believed in.
When we moved into Spooner Hall in September, I was thrilled to see Kari just four doors down the hall from me. Our floor had twenty-eight women, one telephone, and as much drama as you might expect. Kari and I shared a love of good punctuation, a small-town girl naivete, and a ridiculous sense of humor. For Christmas that year, we bought each other watercolor paints, because we both fancied ourselves 6th-grade level artists. I had gone the cheap route, and bought the dollar store brand; she’d splurged on me and bought Crayola washable watercolors. We sat in the lounge between exams, and somehow went from painting on thick watercolor papers to decorating each others’ faces. Her blue eyes looked even bluer under watercolored lids, and she painted a heart on my chin. Our laughter rang down the hall, and I’m sure did not help our more studious floormates. The best part was when we went to wash it off: the cheap paint I’d bought her had no intention of coming off my face, that day or the next, and her washable watercolors splashed away easily. She helped me scrub, but still I went home for Christmas break with a heart on my chin.
That year we wore the same size clothes, and on a floor full of size eights or lower, we shared the challenge of finding plus-sized clothes that were still cute. She was one of my first friends to tell me she thought I was beautiful. We were walking north, up Atlantic Avenue, in the glorious central-Minnesota spring time, and had just bought ridiculous floor-length vintage dresses at Second Hand Rose. I took her hand and told her she was beautiful, too. It remains one of the happiest days of my life.
In the end, we were friends for three and a half years. She bought me drinks on my 21st birthday (she turned 21 nine weeks before I did, so I couldn’t do the same), and we knew we’d know each other forever. We wrote letters over breaks, and promised each other obvious bridesmaid status. We helped each other with homework, and crochet projects, and compared our farming families’ stories and wackiness. She was a poli sci major, did an internship in Washington, adored Paul Wellstone, and I promised to help her run for office, someday, or help her help someone else run.
The last day I saw her conscious, she was about to leave Duluth to visit her boyfriend. Love suited her, and we were seniors in college, and everything made us grin like fools. I hugged her on the mall that last Thursday of finals while fat white snowflakes fell around us. “Have a great break. See you next year! Call if you get lonesome.” I would ache for years that I had not sensed something, made her go to Turtle Mountain Cafe for ice cream, or to Pizza Hut for breadsticks. Anything to change the arc of time.
She stopped and bought a blouse in JCPenney’s at St. Cloud, then turned up highway 23 to Duluth, where after a little while a pickup crossed the center line and climbed up over the hood of her car. You can read my poem for her here, if you like. She was conscious when the EMTs arrived, which is not a good sign in such a serious accident, they told us much later. I got to see her four times in the hospital in Minneapolis before she died, on the 9th of January. She never woke up. I kissed her, and sang to her, and touched her long hair. I told her she was beautiful.
I would give up an awful lot to be able to hear her voice again, today, on her 41st birthday. Our babies were supposed to know each other, and we were supposed to have decades more of friendship. Today, though, I’ll try to focus on the three and a half we did get, and hold her laugh in my heart.