School cafeterias have a very distinguishing smell. Like no other place in the world. My junior high was no exception. Salisbury steaks, burritos (questionable), hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. The unmistakable aroma of paper lunch sacks and bananas that have browned in a locker for half a day.
I can remember the smell and the sounds of that large echoing room, but I do not ever remember choosing a song on the jukebox.
That’s right. A jukebox.
I have no idea how or why our cafeteria ended up with such a delightful contraption, but our school was known for it and we all were impressed with the availability of fun tunes while we ate. I mostly enjoyed the music other people chose.
Distinguishing smells, echoing chatter, song ballads by Chicago (‘You’re the Inspiration’) and friends. Dear, dear friends.
In my eighth grade science class, I met Dena. I called her Dena Joe. Joe was not her name and it annoyed her. Which means the name stuck.
We laughed a lot together and enjoyed talking.
In the visiting clumps outside of the lunchroom, we would chat.
She would roll her eyes a lot. And she had an opinion about everything.
I admired that.
Somewhere between the post lunch clumping, the science labs, sleepovers and many long phone calls, DJ became my best friend.
We talked about boys. A lot actually. We both had crushes and heart breaks and first kisses. She knew all those details about me and I knew all those details about her. And it was safe.
She was organized and on time. I was always late.
She endured this trait in me but spoke loud and long about how ridiculous it was.
I kept her out of a lot of trouble. And I kept secrets loyally. (I still haven’t told anyone why she got her first ticket.)
She depended on me. And I depended on her.
She was Baptist. And I was church of Christ. And it didn’t matter one iota.
I went to church with her. And she came to church with me.
And we talked (and agreed) about God, all the time.
One memorable conversation took place on the stairs in the education building of the church my family attended. My dad was finishing stuff up in the office after an evening youth activity, so DJ and I were waiting for him and visiting on the stairs outside his office.
We were talking about our future.
She wanted to be a doctor and have a career. She said that she planned to date a lot in college but absolutely would never fall in love until she was in grad school or just after.
She was confident and independent. Just like I wanted to be.
I, on the other hand, already knew whom I would marry and that I would have a dozen kids.
We laughed at this, because we knew it wasn’t true. I would not have a dozen kids. But I would have a lot of kids. Three maybe.
She thought it was cool that I was in love. And I admired her amazing goals. I knew she would be an amazing doctor. An amazing anything.
After some easy silence, DJ told me that when she thought of my future she always pictured me around a fire in Africa, teaching people about Jesus.
I laughed at her.
Are you serious?
I hate camping. And bugs. I am not brave. (I never even chose one song on that stinking jukebox.)
She listened to all my doubts and laughed (at me) with me over my reticence and fears.
Then she said, “All the same. That’s where I see you.”
Dad came out of the office about that time. And we took DJ home.
DJ and I would learn to drive, watch a million movies, discuss and analyze all the worlds problems and our brilliant solutions, laugh at a million inside jokes, eat a lot of ice cream, cry some tears, shop, get tickets, paint signs, eat lunches, annoy each other and remain fiercely supportive.
College took us to different towns and new adventures. We wrote letters (remember those?) to stay in touch.
She mentioned Scott in one of her first messages. She said how cute he was but that she was absolutely NOT falling in love.
But I knew she was. And felt sure she would fully admit this by letter three.
I was right.
She and Scott dated exclusively for four years and married after graduation.
I lived her dream. Straight through college with no serious love commitments. We entered our senior years, her engaged and planning a wedding. Me, decidedly single.
She was my first phone call when I met him.
“His name is Jeff. He wants to live in Africa.”
She said simply, “I told you so.”
I haven’t seen DJ in a very long time.
We occasionally write letters, only we type them and call them email now.
I know she is raising her boys. Loving her man. And making a determinedly beautiful way in this world.
She’s probably still rolling her eyes.
I miss her.
To have a friend. And to be one.
Treasured. And well remembered.