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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rora




Every year on March 8th marks the birthday of my friend Rora Lynn Darden. I use the day to celebrate her and keep her memory alive. She died in September of 1997 and I think of her often. She was one of my best friends in junior high school and then she vanished out of my life like a ghost. She would haunt me off and on via phone calls for ten years, always reaching out when she needed a friend. I wished I could have done something to help change the course of her life, but I was powerless. Although the circumstances of her death are murky, the story of how she lived especially when we were close comforts me and carries me. The story of our friendship is detailed below in an updated version of a post from my old Myspace (!) blog from four years ago about her. 

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I was 13 when I met her for the first time. Toward the end of my second semester at Frank D. Whalen Junior High 135 in The Bronx. I was getting my ass kicked on a daily basis by bullies. During the days I hated life as a poor, fat white kid that walked right into every cruel joke, pants-ing in gym class and kick in the balls that life could give. At night I had a double life where I was the cool kid in musical theater groups, star of the show or playing my guitar on the weekend. I had great best friends and a reason to smile, but during school hours I was scared and depressed constantly. Some times I was in my own world too much to care about anything and absorbed the abuse like most kids do I guess. I was too scared to fight back because I was outnumbered 100-1 or so I thought.

I would have been okay if they just left me alone. Somedays I was almost too busy rocking my Songs From The Big Chair, The Wall, Master of Reality, Fragile or Zeppelin 4 cassette tapes to notice all the idiots and their games. But I was in constant trouble because I was too smart for the dumb jocks, but not smart enough for or cool enough for the cool kids. I couldn't make "weirdo" work for me enough for the ultra hip kids either. Middle School Limbo they should call it. The geeks and dorks were my crew. As for me personally I knew in my heart I was a talented, snarky smart-ass but the self confidence was always fleeting and fake. If you weren't cool you had better be tough, which I wasn't either. That came later. Back in 7th and 8th grade I was kind of the Alpha Square, wannabe leader of the pack of a band of misfits that probably needed to be left alone more than it needed a leader.

And then she showed up. I became aware of her as she strode down the halls like she just didn't give a fuck. And she really didn't. She had her own style of dress, like an 80's renegade. One-third Alley Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, one-third Lena Horne and one-third Rob Halford- pure badassery. And she was pretty mature for a 13 year old at the time. Whip smart too! She was cool and wise, funny and cute, girly but tough. A good kid and a screw up all at once. In 8th grade she sat in front of me in homeroom and that's where we bonded. On our first day there she told at least three people to shut the fuck up and leave me alone. She treated me no different than anybody else right from the start, but always with respect more than anything. I couldn't even get over it, it was that mind blowing. Rora taught me to slowly stand up for myself, but also to pick my spots since the system was a fail and never caught up with anyone. She sat with my little band of self-styled Goonies types in the lunchroom while Italian teacher/lunchroom gestapo Mario Pizutti barked out "Lunch Caaaard! Show me ya lunch carrrrrd". You had to be there I guess. Meanwhile – we had friends in common. She already knew Curtis from their neighborhood and he seemed to know her well compared to the rest of us. But I'm not sure anyone really ever knew her well. I think many were afraid of her and stayed out of her way. Just being around her was empowering because it was like the safe, asshole free zone and I am one of those paranoid, never let your guard down types. Did I say I am still? Oh well.

She had a mutant ability to phase between the cool kids and the outcasts and never be uneasy or at odds with either. She just ....was. In her own words it was us, the free thinkers, musicians and poets who were too cool for the cool ones and she never left us flat for them. We were the chosen kids to her and she watched our backs. But the dillweeds still flocked to her. She was exotic looking being half-African American and half-Japanese. Fairly well developed for her age she drew constant attention from boys and even teachers propositioned her in front of students! Those were some shitty times indeed. Despite her air of supreme confidence, she told me often this made her feel terrible.She always said she felt "fat and unattractive" even though that was far from the truth. Rora was beautiful by any standard. She picked a couple of terrible guys to go out with back then as they were after one thing. When they got it they dropped her. She got a reputation as "fast", but she didn't care. I think she was just looking for love or an equal or just anybody who could challenge her. Anybody to shake things up with.

She also was an A student, but never shied away from a fight, even with teachers. She was kind of a renegade trendsetter in terms of fashion, music and movies so we listened to her and exchanged notes. We often talked of starting a band which we never did. Rora was a real revolutionary to a crew of kids scared of their shadows. Like the big sister none of us had, Rora was our leader and carried the sceptor well.

With all that going on apparently her home life was pretty terrible and she ran away from home at the start of 9th grade. Without her around I had to start defending myself to all of the various dicks and ultimately got out of there in mostly one-piece thanks to the Jedi training she gave me. Her family gave the police my number and they called me every few months to see if I heard from her or knew her whereabouts. They often threatened me as if i was lying, questioned my mother even. I really didn't know where she went away to. She was just gone. She contacted me from time to time in the late 80's and early 90's in various stages of duress, but always the same tough demeanor as that young girl in school had. I knew she fell in with the wrong crowd and got into a life that she didn't want or could handle, but didn't know how to get out of. I used to try to give her some brotherly advice, but she'd always tell me she didn't know how to make the first step back to a normal life. I was always really sad when those calls were over.

In September of 1997 my mother died right after my birthday and I was in the course of making arrangements and calling people. That's when I got the news that Rora had died. I was dealing with a world of shit naturally so I didn't have time to process it until much later. I suppose it should not have been such a shock to me, but it was anyway. I always saw her as that fearless, Athena-like girl who was so full of spirit and fire. Even when she went down a path she couldn't get off of. People's lives turn out different than how you imagine it when you are sitting at the lunch table in junior high at age 14. Rora would have turned 39 today, and I'll never forget her or what she did for me.

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