“Sugar Magnolia” – Tina Edge

1st Place Non-Fiction

On January 15, 2001, I received a call from my grandmother at around 6 a.m. “Tina, I didn’t know if you had heard already, but I just heard and had to call and tell you. I’m sorry honey, but Gina Grant was killed in a car crash last night. She hydroplaned and hit a semi-truck head-on.  She died instantly.”

Every time I think about that call, I relive each second of my reaction and return to every raw emotion.  The grief is the same with every memory of that moment. Sometimes the memories come in waves for weeks at a time. Other times, they erupt at awkward times, like while I’m folding clothes or sitting in traffic.  The only way to find peace is to recall our history as best friends, all of it.

She was Gina Grant and I was Tina Edge.  Our last names were one syllable words.  In my small town there had been an unspoken rule that people with one-syllable last names would always be called by their first and last name.  It had never been, “Gina and Tina are going to the game;” it was, “Gina Grant and Tina Edge are going to the game.”  We loved that.  We enjoyed being a match, paired by name. That small, weird commonality, all by itself, connected us forever.

I met Gina Grant in art class while in high school. We never really spoke to one another during class.  We preferred communicating indirectly (another character flaw we immediately picked up in each other).  We would crack jokes and bounce words off one another.  She was my smoke-break partner.  We liked being some of the few girls that smoked “cowboy killers,” Marlboro reds.  We never exchanged numbers back then.  We never hung out. We liked one another a lot though, another unspoken fact.

At the onset of adulthood I lived by myself in a tiny, one-room house.  I had been sitting there one afternoon when Gina Grant pulled up in her Z-28.  The sight of that car around town had always been cool, with its black body and gold ground effects. I hadn’t seen her in six months and had no idea of what she could possibly be in need of.  I opened the door and greeted her.  She invited herself in and then promptly said, “I couldn’t remember if we were friends in school, but I always liked you.  Do you want to be my friend?”  And that was Gina Grant.

Gina Grant was gorgeous!  I don’t mean pretty, and I don’t mean beautiful.  She was astonishingly gorgeous.  Her hair was shoulder-length and blond, but sometimes red and sometimes green.  Her smile was large and showy, a great attribute when you have perfect teeth.  Her almond eyes held irises that looked like kaleidoscopes.  Around the center of her pupils her eyes were bright yellow.  The color slowly faded to a hazel green-brown. Where those colors combined, flecks of red, blue, and purple would sparkle.  She had a bright face that was always decorated with a genuine grin.  Her frame was a perfect size.  She could wear anything and often did.  Her staple outerwear incorporated hats, Birkenstocks with socks, and a thigh-length, oversized, patchwork jacket.  She loved jewelry and would shove as many rings on her fingers as she could.  She ran a contest between her ears to see which one could fit more piercings than the other.  That said, when she dressed up she was a knockout.  She had the ability to brighten black. She could make a dress from The Salvation Army, her frequent shopping mall, a fashion statement that was fit for a princess. I adored her looks and so did everyone else.

I battled with depression for many years, and Gina Grant taught me how to smile through the storms.  I was usually sad, or angry, or unsettled back then, but Gina Grant kept me grounded.  She would do anything to brighten my mood.  Once, she showed up wearing a dress she made out of aluminum foil and asked if I would ride with her to Greenville.  Of course, I

went.  And where was it she wanted to take me? The Happy Store.  The Happy Store was a gas station that displayed a huge smiley face on its sign.  Every time we ventured to Greenville, we stopped there, but on special occasions we would make trips with the Happy Store as our sole destination.  After all, the Happy Store was where happiness could be purchased.

Gina Grant was an artist.  She made art out of everything.  She’d use cigarette butts, pennies, and shoe laces. There was no limit to her talents.  She could always make something from nothing.  Once, she picked up trash from a parking lot and made a “trash collage.”  Old gum, crust from a slice of pizza, and an empty drink cup made parts of it.  I still have several pictures of some of her creations.

She loved coming up with her own quotes.  She also enjoyed rhymes and repetitions. Gina Grant had a sincere hope that some of her quotes would become famous.  The easier they were to understand, the more she promoted them.  My favorite quote she derived, after several hours of conversing about all things logically ridiculous, was “Numbers are not real and rutabagas are hard to cut.” It ended up being her claim to fame in our little bubble of cohorts.  Her car would sound, “The door is ajar,” in a feminine, robotic voice. She responded, “The door is not a jar!  A jar is not a door!  A door is a door!  A jar is a jar, stupid car!”  Every single time she entered the car she would say that, and I never tired of it.  Many times I even participated in the harassment.

I left for the Air Force after experiencing the dullness of every-day life as a single, working girl in a tiny town.  Gina Grant was not impressed but later spoke to a recruiter in an effort to join me on my adventures.  Luckily for the Air Force, her slight scoliosis prevented her from enlisting.  The military didn’t have enough defense weapons to protect them from her antics anyway.  I promised things wouldn’t change.  I promised we would still be roommates in the future.  I promised we would still go into business together one day, an ongoing dream we shared.  It was to be named Psychedelic Pets; a record store and pet adoption center in one.  My final night as a civilian included a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert.  The last song they played was “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” We sat in the grass, our arms around one another, and sang the lyrics as we cried.

After graduating from boot camp, I received letters from Gina Grant.  They were full of more quotes and hilarious ideas, but something had changed.  She became worried and was very lonely.  One letter was full of anger.  She was mad I had left her by herself.  Her world had changed.  When would I return?  When would I call?  When would I write?  I always had excuses.  I was excited and in a new environment with new friends.  It was expensive to call long distance.  When I did call, she wasn’t home.  My visits home would always include some time with her, but we both had changed.  I felt distant from her and for a couple of years we barely spoke.

The last time I saw her was October, 1999.  I had gotten married, and my husband had never met her.  Gina Grant and I made plans to go out, and we decided to get ready together like we used to.  We had the best time.  We debated over the little things, like whether to wear hats or not.  It took much time to decide whether to wear mismatched shoes or not.  Childish and sophomoric ideas amused us.  We tried on pair after pair and laughed with our full stomachs at the silliness of all things we considered.  We stood in that tiny bathroom for hours and caught up on all the little things we had gone through over the years.  The major items had been discussed during our years apart, but the details had always been lacking. I had missed that.  We would let time stop briefly, as we were trying a new eye shadow or putting on blush, just to let one another know that we still were the best of friends.  We had a moment of blissful reconnection, where all the woes were swept away. We transcended in time, back to our wacky years.  I wore, by tradition, a pair of her black, Calvin Klein jeans and proclaimed a truth, “Gina Grant’s jeans always make me look skinny!”

A bunch of Gina Grant’s friends met up with us:  her new boyfriend, her new girl friends, and several acquaintances.  We had a wonderful time listening to new tunes and discovering we were still passionate over the same old songs.  We found it glorious that, even with the distance between us, our musical tastes were still tightly meshed.  We discussed new, underground songs we adored, songs no other friends would connect with us on.  That revelation served to re-tie our souls together.  I had been an indie music junky before meeting Gina Grant, and had introduced her to The Sugarcubes, The Sundays, and Rickie Lee Jones.  In turn, she taught me the spiritual benefits of listening to Bob Marley.  My ears were virgins to rockabilly and folk until Gina Grant forced Grateful Dead cassettes on me.  Janis Joplin’s voice nagged my eardrums until Gina Grant declared, “But that’s my mama!!!” Indeed, my musical tastes were forever changed as her input had increased.

The night was wrapping up and I was exhausted.  My husband had enjoyed himself but asked if I was ready to go home.  I spoke the word “no” but nodded instead.  I didn’t want to walk away from that moment.  I had longed to get back to where we had been in our friendship so many years before.   I had achieved my goal, and I was afraid to lose it again; nonetheless, the night was turning into day, and it was time to go.  I returned to the group and gave my regards.  I hugged Gina Grant tightly.  That awkward moment in a hug, where you’ve hugged for too long but don’t want to let go, came upon us.  We suddenly both grasped even tighter, holding our breath to squeeze together as snuggly as possible.  We were happy again, gleeful.

I said my goodbyes and began to walk away, and before our eyes unlocked I heard a voice.  All sounds were muted.  My body was still in active motion of turning away.  The voice.  I knew I heard it.  I did hear it.  The voice simply said, in a matter-of-fact way, “This is your final goodbye.  You will never see her or talk to her again.”  My husband had my hand.  He was fully turned toward the door.  I snapped my hand back.  I was jolted.  I wanted to scream.  I didn’t understand.  Was my brain talking to me? Was it my heart?  Perhaps it was the fear of losing our familiar friendship again.  No.  I knew I heard it.  It had been an audible voice but somehow without sound – a silent whisper.  I stood still.  Gina Grant and her group were walking away toward one end of the bar, and my husband was walking away toward the opposite end.  She never looked back at me.  I wanted to frantically run up to her and tell her what I had just heard.  I wanted her to tell me I was just being weird, overdramatic, or even drunk.  I wanted to talk to her again.  Talking to her again would prove the voice to be a liar.  That didn’t happen though.  I took three steps toward her, but her exit was real.  My husband demanded, “It’s time to go.”  We left.  I was inconsolable on the drive home. My husband didn’t understand my sudden sadness.  As he drove to my parents’ house, where we were staying, I tried explaining through my tears, “She’s gone.  I heard a voice.  She’s gone forever.  I’ll never see her again. That was it.” I dropped my cheek against the car window and peered at the wee-hour morning stars, and ran my finger down the tears that slid down the glass.  I heard the voice, but no one else had.

The next day I told my mother of the events.  I explained the voice to her and what it had spoken.  She didn’t know the best way to respond but sensed my bewilderment.  My husband and I had to head back to Florida.  We had made arrangements the previous evening to see Gina Grant before we left. I had to return her jeans and shoes.  I called before leaving but she hadn’t answered.  We went to her home, where we were scheduled to see her, but loud knocking had not caused a response.  After several minutes I resolved to leave her items at the door, unable to give one last goodbye before returning home.

Over the next year and three months, my attempts to get in touch with her were unsuccessful.  I heard that she had moved two weeks after that visit.  She left her boyfriend for another guy.  I called her mother’s number, but it had been disconnected. I went to North Carolina and left a letter at her mother’s house, begging for someone to call me.  I called so many people I finally found her old boyfriend.  He was worried about her, as he had heard rumors she was not doing well.  He had no way of contacting her.  Calling her employer offered no hope.  She had quit her job and no one knew what she was doing for employment.  I called her aunt, who was my grandmother’s hairdresser, and she had lost touch with her as well.  I resolved to give up the hunt in September, 2000.  Three months later was when I received the call.  When you die, suddenly everyone knows where you were, what you were doing, and who you were with.

The story I was given was that Gina Grant had recently married the new guy, but their relationship was dysfunctional.  They had gotten into an argument, and she was driving to her mother’s house to spend the night.  It was nighttime and raining.  She was arguing with her husband on the cell phone when she hydroplaned and lost control of her car.  That’s when the void in the universe occurred.  That was the moment that silence became deafening.

My marriage had also been in a deep valley at the time of her death.  My lonely drive to North Carolina was riddled with thoughts of suicide.  My marriage was in turmoil, I had lost my best friend, so I feared what would be next.  I looked for trees to slam into.  I searched for a very large one, one that could do the job.  To hit a smaller one may have just left me as a vegetable, and I had no wishes to be a burden to anyone.  I finally just allowed myself to modify my grief in order to make it through the journey. My sadness turned to anger on I-95 North, somewhere between Ridgeland and Walterboro, SC.

When I arrived in town I went straight to her mother’s home. Her mother was aloof and told me she had made the decision to have an opened casket at the viewing.  I asked if I could sit in Gina Grant’s bedroom for a moment.  The room was empty, ransacked by her new supposed-friends. They had pillaged all the items that made her unique.  The lamps she made were gone. Her art was missing.  Every stitch of clothing had been taken.  Her bedroom had been made lifeless.  I wanted to cry, but I was angry at her mother’s lack of consideration.  I felt I had been robbed of one final connection.  I couldn’t help but to believe that, in Gina Grant’s last months, she was surrounded by selfish people.  I had no proof of such, but it had been obvious to me that I had been the only friend who had known what a sanctuary Gina Grant’s room had been to her.  I was upset that her mother seemed to lack any desire to hold on to the only pieces of Gina Grant’s existence that remained.  I held my words though, out of respect.  Before leaving, her mother said, “You know, I think she finally got right with the Lord a few days before the accident.”  I had no mind to discuss such a topic and quickly left.  I understood the loss affected her differently than it affected me.  My anger subsided and mourning returned.

That night I went to the wake.  I peered into the casket only to find, what appeared to be, an 80 year old woman with a tight, short perm.  She was not recognized as the Gina Grant I had known.  I thought I was looking at a stranger.  I searched for clues to prove to myself that the person in the casket was my best friend, but her mother had instructed the mortician to cover all of her tattoos with thick makeup.  A wig was placed so her hair would look normal.  Gina Grant would be laid to rest in an ice-blue, lacy dress and had eye shadow to match.  A picture of her was next to the coffin.  I guessed that it served as identification for the person who lay in it.  It occurred to me that her mother had tried to erase who Gina Grant really was.  She had been ashamed of her daughter’s nonconformity to societal norms during her life.  She tried to eradicate the evidence at her death. I became infuriated.

During the service, a preacher announced that all in the congregation should withhold their judgment of Gina Grant.  I wanted to spit in his face for judging her himself.  The music her mother picked out was that god-awful “In the Arms of an Angel” by Sarah McLachlan.  It began with the demeaning words, “Spend all your life waiting on that second chance….”  What?  Gina Grant had not been waiting for second chances, and she could not stand Sarah McLachlan! She had lived her life as she wanted to, how she wanted to, and with her own set of rules.  I wanted to stand up and scream, “My god! Did anyone in this room actually know Gina Grant, besides me?”  The compilation of music should have included The Grateful Dead, The Spin Doctors, Bob, and some Joplin.  No wonder she had felt the need to substitute Janis Joplin for her own mother.

If anyone had a clue about her real character, they would’ve played the song I had always dedicated to her, one that honored her spirit, “Sugar Magnolia, blossoms blooming, head’s all empty and I don’t care.  Saw my baby down by the river, knew she’d have to come up soon for air… she’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need, takes the wheel when I’m seein’ double, pays my ticket when I speed.”  If anyone had bothered to think about what Gina Grant would’ve wanted in a funeral they would’ve asked me, for I knew what she would’ve wanted.  No one else did, not her new husband, nor her new friends, not even her own mother. As if her death wasn’t traumatic enough, her wake, quite literally, functioned as the final nail in her coffin.

I returned to Florida to my dysfunctional marriage, to a state I hated, surrounded by a culture and people I loathed.  I was done.  I had enough of all things dreary and dead.  I wanted a pulse in anything.  I needed something to make sense in my life.  Gina Grant’s funeral had left me hopeless with humanity.  It gouged the meat of my heart, and there was nothing left to make me smile.  Any light that was left in my world was fluorescent; stagnant, and stale, and fake.

I began asking the large questions.  Where did Gina Grant go?  Surely that entity that deemed himself “The Almighty” would not have made such a contribution to this earth only to remove that purity of spirit, as if it never was.  What would have been the point?  Gina Grant wasn’t just blood, tissue, and bones.  She wasn’t just clusters of molecules and DNA.  She was light.  She was spirit.  She was hope.  She was freedom.  She was all of those intangible parts that make a mystery, yet inexplicably real.

My mind was inundated with either hostile thoughts against that god, or wonderments of his incredible ability to add Gina Grant’s spirit to that fleshy sack of bones and body.  I began thinking of the voice, and how it had spoken a fact to me.  I had received that whisper back then, from some unknown source, about the future.  I couldn’t lie to myself about it.  I had proof and I wasn’t crazy.  My mother and husband served as witnesses, and what the voice told me ultimately came to pass.  It had been a truth-speaking voice, but where had it originated from?  Why had it spoken to me?

I tried not to think about it anymore.  I had tired of trying to figure it out.  I had tired of everything.  My life had been sputtering and spewing.  I lacked the desire to go to work.  I lacked the desire to watch TV.  I became sleepless.  I no longer wanted to be married, but didn’t have the desire to get a divorce either.  I had just wanted light back in my life, a real one.  I wanted some joy.  I wanted some nonsense, some ridiculousness back in my life.  I wanted something that wasn’t so serious.  I wanted laughter and dreams.  I wanted my best friend back.

Months passed.  I decided to separate from my husband.  I blamed him for my constant sadness and unhappiness with the universe.  As I drove away from our home, I drowned in my tears.  I felt lost and had reached hopelessness, yet again.  I didn’t know anything anymore.  I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but then questioned who was to judge between right and wrong, anyway.  Was that being who took my best friend away, was He going to judge me?  Did He judge Gina Grant?  If He had, He better have done fairly.   I could barely handle the waves of thoughts.  They felt as though they were crashing into my heart. I believed the pressure would kill me.  My questions were far too big for simple answers, and I was tormented.

I felt out of control and pulled to the side of the road.  It was night and raining.  I had been sobbing and couldn’t see, my eyes swollen from the teary trauma. I wondered why Gina Grant was taken.  I wondered who took her soul.  I had never believed in the soul until her death, and upon believing I wanted to know who was in charge of taking care of it.  The more I thought about the loss of her zest and her ability to pull me out of deep pits, the more I reached in my mind, looking for Gina Grant’s enlightenment. Gina Grant was gone, though.  There was nothing left for me to even pinch.

I pondered everything at escalating speeds, and my mind rifled through the files of my life.  I needed to escape.  I needed to pull the breaks on the chaos in my head.  I screamed. I screamed, and sobbed, and pounded away at everything within reach of that driver’s seat.  Then, as silently as before, I heard the voice.  Upon hearing it, every millisecond of my existence came to the forefront of my mind, and I was able to capture each piece with stark clarity.  I had not forgotten the stoic and solemn sound of the voice.  It had proven itself to be truthful, so I didn’t question it.  I listened and was attentive to what it had to say.  That time the voice spoke, it spoke to me about love.

When someone you love dies, there is nothing physically left of them to sustain you. You no longer have their face, their voice, or their smile. You can’t hear their laughter anymore.  Their anecdotes and jokes are no longer available to brighten your day.  There is nothing left of their earthly body, but the love associated with them still exists.  Love is all that’s left to own, or to take part in.  You are unable to experience the breadth of love, and the tangibility of it, until the vessel that housed the soul turns to dust.  Death is where love is isolated.  Death is where love stands alone.

Love is not a feeling, it’s an entity.  It’s not just some emotion that’s created by neurons firing in the brain.  Love is not explained by science.  Love just is.  It cannot be limited to a unit of measure, because all amounts, whether significant or small, would be of equal value. If the stimulus that causes love is removed, love is still there.  Love is held without touching it, and it touches you without feeling it.  Though it is invisible, you know it surrounds you. Its existence can’t be proven, yet it exists.  It defies death.  It never dies.  It conquers death.  It is eternal.

That voice provided me with a pathway that led to today.  Today, I still have specific questions about Gina Grant’s death.  I know most of them may never be answered; however, I’ve discovered a significant reason for her creation.  It was necessary for my salvation that she should exist, for her earthly being had helped me create an image of my God.  Once she was withdrawn from life, I sought the source of her existence. I found her within the peaceful realm of love.  Within that realm, I realized her true image and, because of Gina Grant, I discovered the true God.