Leila Abu-Saba was ten feet tall, and had the sinewy limbs of a lioness. She blew into our freshman dorm, Noah Hall, at Oberlin College, like a tornado. My mother remembers her first words to me, that first day of college. She bounded into our room, yards of bouncing black curls, and flopped down on MY bed, hollering out, “I’m here.” She from Greensboro, me from Durham, North Carolina.
And “here” she stayed. From learning to belly-dance with Leila (on our opposing beds), to taping a line down the middle of the room to demarcate her dust-bunnies and disorder from my pernsnickety neatness, to duets played on her violin and my oboe, to crazy plans to raise Palestinian and German flags in the middle of the quad, and thus irritate our Jewish friends and fellow students, to Krullers at the bakery, and late-night chats about men, friendship, parents, and what to do in life. To the easy swap we made with each other’s roommates, the safer ones (me and Peggy) going off together, while the wild Leila and Eva forged their friendship, never replacing what Leila and I had with each other, just digging deeper into issues that Peggy and I tended to view with the eyes of tourists.
Eva. Our Pied Piper, whose music, darkness, and irony, lured us all, in the end, I truly think, to choose New York.
And there Leila and I saw each other again…after losing each other sometime after freshman year…and picked right up where we had left off. She on East 3rd, me on East 7th, and then Queens. It was just natural. Her anecdotes, and life on the edge always seemed to outdo mine (and I was no slouch). I remember a steady diet of Kraft noodles, and other crap, hoofing it first from Astor Place, and then Astoria, to work in tony places that knew nothing of my real life.
I had a crazy plan to make money with Leila, buying antique scarves in large lots, at auction, and then selling them for more. Leila wisely backed out, leaving me, rather irritated, to carry through this project (and never pick it up again, after weeks of lugging bags of scarves around Manhattan). There were lots of other adventures; they kept going, through our first marriages, to Mo and Joseph, people we both admired for artistry, to children, and second lives, real lives, not virtual, and what we proudly thought was a rather settled existence, for self-made scrappy souls like ourselves.
Look, let me tell you, Leila is here now. I am sure of it. The first days, I cried often, in parks in Rome, on the head of my dog, on the shoulder of my daughter, into the door of my closet, on the telephone, in bed, on the back of my mate. But now I am more peaceful, because I feel Leila here with me. She has always been with me, like a sister. I talked to her a few times, long, this summer. Her last email, September 23–I want to kiss it. Her grace and mirth and generosity, her belly laugh, and shriek when something was just too outrageous, ring in my ears. She must be here. I think of her, and always have, with such immediacy. She is me, you see, like my mother, my father, my sister, my children, are me. Leila and I became people together…we had silent and raucous friendship for thirty years. This, even death cannot erase.
My family and I are here for Leila’s sons, and for her wonderful husband, and would like to let them know they’ll always have a home in Rome.
Love always, and eternally,