We Were Three By Rhonda Leland
My two best friends, Rick and Ronnie, taught me how to maneuver through life. The hardships of our abusive homes brought us together. We all knew what it was like to fear walking through the front door, never knowing what danger we'd find on the other side. We lived our young lives defending one another.
Our families hung out in the same circles in Northern California. Ronnie and I had known each other throughout childhood, but grew close in our preteens when my family settled down near where he lived. Rick and I became friends when we were both skipping school in seventh grade. I wet my pants during a morning beating compliments of my step dad and was told to go to school in my spoiled clothes. Instead, I hid in the bushes, unknowingly overlooking Rick’s house. He heard me crying and offered to sneak me in so that I could take a shower and change. We listened carefully in case his drunken mom came home. I wasn’t embarrassed because I felt he understood.
In the summer, the three of us would each hitchhike to a nearby creek. If one of us didn’t show up, we'd automatically think the worst. One day as Ronnie and I swam, I saw Rick’s mother drop him off, presumably on her way to the bar. Rick walked with his head down and I raced to meet him. It was my job to check for tears or bruises, and fix them with a smile or a joke before we reached Ronnie, who expected Rick to be tough.
Our daily mission was to walk down the highway from our swimming hole to the market, where we met the guy from the food bank, who picked up day-old sandwiches. “You kids grab yourselves a sandwich and be quick about it,” he’d tell us. We took off running with a sandwich in each hand. Sometimes, we stashed one leftover in a little crawl space under the bridge next to a rolled up blanket in case one of us had to come back that night, escaping the wrath of the monsters pretending to be our parents.
As we grew older, things got more complicated. It was a hot summer day when I took my new boyfriend David to meet Ronnie at the creek. I was 15 years old and proud of my boyfriend, who had a job, a truck and, most importantly, a normal family. I saw the hard look on Ronnie’s face when we approached. “What are you doing with this square? Are you pregnant?” he asked in his toughest voice. I looked at the ground and mumbled that he was my boyfriend, and yes I was pregnant. I was no longer proud but rather ashamed that David wasn’t one of us. Ronnie walked away, leaving David and me alone.
Around the same time, Rick and my step dad started hanging out. I felt so betrayed. How could he be friends with the monster who made my childhood hell? I even caught them getting high on meth together. I found out later that my stepdad had introduced Rick to the magic line that could make all of your problems go away. Ronnie also followed in his own parents’ footsteps and started using, but always kept it away from me.
It was about four years later when my house caught fire on Christmas Eve with my three children, all under the age of four, inside. I saved my two older children, but lost my youngest daughter, Maria. A few days after her funeral, I ended up sitting in front of Ronnie’s house. Ronnie’s mom opened the door and motioned for me to come in. I dragged my broken self up the steps into her arms and cried as if God himself had forsaken me. When I could no longer cry, I went into Ronnie’s room and fell asleep. It was the first time I had felt safe since the fire.
Ronnie came in and laid on the bed fully clothed as my tears came in massive waves again until I made myself sick. He held my hair, or what was left of it, as I threw up in the toilet. In the early morning, I heard his motorcycle start and knew he was on a meth journey. I soon joined him. After my daughter’s death, my step dad introduced me to meth in the same way he did with Rick. I approached loyalty as if it meant blindly following others, even into disaster.
I had been running from my problems and chasing substances when Ronnie and I accepted a ride from Rick, unaware he had stolen the truck. When police tried to pull us over, a high-speed chase ensued and Rick shot at police. Ronnie and I jumped out of the truck as Rick sped away. Ronnie escape on foot while I stayed in place and was detained by police.
At 25, I sat in my jailhouse blues when a prosecutor said, “Your honor, this woman expects us to believe she was just an innocent passenger taking a ride with Rick and Ronnie who happen to be childhood friends ... These people would do anything for each other.” When she said “these people” I took it that she meant to separate us from “normal people.” However, woven in her statement was some truth: I would do anything for my friends.
I was found guilty of attempted murder of a police officer and 11 lesser offenses. Rick’s involvement in another chase with police after my arrest ended his life. Ronnie eventually came forward, but wound up going to prison for 20 years for another crime. We wrote each other endless letters until he got out of prison and later died of a drug overdose.
When I overhear people saying that they would do anything for their friends, I have to stop myself from interrupting with, “How much of your life are you willing to lose?” It has cost me 23 years. Today, I chase my dreams behind razor wire. For now, that’s ok, because I am alive. I climb the mountain of self discovery using my past circumstances as lessons.
I often think back to the little boys who protected the voiceless girl, who didn’t believe she could survive this world alone. Once we were three; ultimately now, it’s just me.