It was the summer of 1997. I had happened upon a flyer in a coffee shop for an art exhibit that would be on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The exhibit, entitled “The Helga Pictures”, contained a large portion of the hundreds of paintings the artist Andrew Wyeth had secretly made with his neighbor, Helga, over a period of 15 years. The paintings captured Helga in various stages of dress and undress, and a variety of moods and settings. These secret sessions were conducted unbeknownst to Wyeth’s family or Helga’s husband. The premise of the paintings, this furtive collaboration between Wyeth and his neighbor, fascinated me. I easily convinced my best friend that we should drive the three hours to New Orleans and enjoy a day in the museum and about the city.
As I recall, we took the acid as we crossed the bridge into the city. We found the museum with relative ease, and as the alteration to our consciousness set in, we wandered the exhibit, entranced. Once through the exhibit I tagged on to a tour group as the guide walked them through, and listened with rapt attention as he went from seemingly random selection to selection, giving his exposition of the piece and background on the artist. My senses heightened, I drank in each word, absorbing the history and significance of each object.
I found my friend sitting on a bench outside of one of the gallery rooms. “Are you doing OK?” I asked her, “Are you wanting to leave?” I knew that this was more my thing than it was hers.
“Oh no,” she assured me, “I’m doing great. This is really cool.”
We walked through the Faberge room and the corridor-like room displaying the mixed media works of Joseph Cornell.
After roaming though the museum for a bit longer, we departed for the French Quarter. We walked though the streets, stopping for drinks to escape the summer sun. Our last round of cocktails were consumed at the Top of the Mart, the revolving lounge at the top of the World Trade Center.
And then we lunched at a restaurant called Le Madeleine’s (now Stanley’s) a small bistro on the perimeter of Jackson Square. We particularly enjoyed our order of strawberries Romanoff, consisting of plump strawberries in a sweet brandy sauce.
We laughed and talked and drank in the scenery as we made our way up the steps of Jackson Square and had a seat in the center of that staircase to have a rest before the drive back home. As late afternoon took hold, the sun was still bright but not so hot. We sat on those steps and watched the people go by as we laughed and talked…talked about work, friends, boyfriends, and the perfect day that we had enjoyed together.
My friend reached into her vast backpack and came out with a deck of cards, and so there we sat, laughing and playing games of speed on the steps of Jackson Square.
That hour or so that we sat on those steps, at the end of a perfect day, is what I would consider the absolute zenith of our friendship. There are other special moments that stick out, but none shine so brightly as that moment that we sat in the square in New Orleans.
At that moment I could never have perceived the changes that the next fifteen years would bring to our friendship. I would not have know that as I grew I would shed my desire to alter my mind with any substance, valuing instead the stabilizing effect of being grounded in reality. As the body ages it can scarcely weather the after-effects of late nights and all that fun. When the husband and the house and the children come, you’d rather spend your time and money on building foundations there than on securing contraband.
Nor could I have anticipated my dear friend’s descent into addiction – to cocaine, crystal meth, pills, and finally, methadone maintenance. I would never have believed that we would go four years once without speaking when the chasm between our lifestyles became too great to bridge, or that, even after reconnecting and making sporadic contact, our friendship would never reach the level of intimacy and confidence that we once shared.
How I’ve missed my best friend. I’ve never replaced her. The blank in my life since her departure will always remain unoccupied. I claim no one as my best friend.