(All group and individual names have been changed)
When I was seven years old, the back cover of the Archie or Richie Rich comics often featured an ad for Sea Monkeys. You opened a packet into a bowl of water and splash! Instant pets! I sent away for them once. The little shrimp looked like brown sprinkles of cinnamon or cumin, not like the ad’s images at all. They died within days. The experience didn’t stop me from sending away for toys and trinkets advertised on comics or cereal boxes. But I learned that friends don’t appear by simply adding water.
Fast forward a decade and a few years to college. I was one of many cute Candy Store Girls, a cashier/clerk at the University’s Student Store in the candy and greeting card department. The CS girls were all cute and friendly, either Latina or Asian, some also members of the same sorority, all of us a tight-knit group that liked to drink, dance, and blast disco music while we stocked the Jelly Bellies and wrapped up truffles for our clientele of harried professors, starving students, and Berkeley’s most famous eccentrics and/or celebrities (Rick Starr, the Naked Guy, Jason Kidd). Soon, the CS Girls became managers and only hired their friends. But once in a while, the non-student management weighed in and that is how Cheryl got a coveted spot in our department.
Cheryl was not your typical CS girl. She was a mousy little freshman with straight brown hair, small green eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles on her button nose. She hailed from a small town in the Central Valley and wore t-shirts in neutral colors and faded jeans over white canvas sneakers. We got to know each other over curling ribbon on the quarter pound bags of candy. I could tell she was overwhelmed by our campus so I gave her advice on classes and the best places to study. In gratitude, she bought me a Chinese fast food dinner.
From that first work day together, Cheryl became my loyal new friend. She wanted to know everything about me. She wanted to meet me outside of work to hang out at a café or share a meal. I was a first-year grad student so I was busy with my two jobs, coursework, and student-teaching but she would call me on the phone when I declined her invitations. I liked her and wanted to support her. Soon, her behavior went from charming to irritating. She wanted to know all about Peruvian culture and food and asked if she could meet my family some weekend. She loved my clothes and shoes so she went out and bought her own. When she started chatting up my ex-boyfriend Julius, a security guard at the campus store notorious for his womanizing ways, I really became disturbed. The other CS girls joked that I was just jealous but they had not experienced Cheryl’s neediness the way I had.
One afternoon, I stopped in to check the schedule. Cheryl presented me with a tissue-wrapped object. It was a simple sterling silver ring. She proclaimed me her best friend. Freaked out, I made an excuse and left. I threw the ring away and stopped taking Cheryl’s calls. Within days, there was an awkward conversation at work in which she focused on Julius as the problem between us. In delayed response, I wrote her a note requesting that she leave me alone. If we worked a shift together, we did so in relative silence. Eventually, she took a position in a different department and I never saw her again.
Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t too harsh with Cheryl. She was younger than me. She really needed a friend. She wasn’t a terrible person, just lonely. I could not and did not want to live up to her expectations. I can only hope that she learned that friendship doesn’t happen in an instant.