In one of my writing classes, we study the literary device of reverse storytelling. I ask my students to think of a moment in their lives they regret, a situation when they wish they could turn back the clock, do things differently, change the outcome. Then I tell them to write the story, backwards. Of course when I sat down to write beside my students, I thought of Nic.
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A FRIENDSHIP, IN REVERSE
In Memory of Nicole Rhoads Peppelman*
It was standing room only at her funeral, a service that brought none of the hundreds who stumbled out of the Cathedral into the cold, early spring afternoon any closer to closure. The air smelled like daffodils dripping rain, and our whispers tumbled similarly from our lips, asking, “How did this happen? How did we let this happen?”
Before that, I sent a text to her son, telling him we loved him, begging him to hold on. I could not fathom what he was going through.
Before that, my son, his friend, clung to a conspiracy theory with a tenacity far too naïve for 13. “Someone broke in and killed them both, Mom, someone killed his parents. A robber. A stranger.” Even after my son had watched the news and read the autopsy report some asshole posted on social media. Even after the boys’ friends had written words of strength on their arms in Sharpie, he crawled into our bed at night insisting, “The police need to find who did this.”
Before that, I threw up chai tea under a gunmetal sky and the chaotic slap of the news helicopters circling overhead. I accused our mutual friend of lying. I had been planting lillies when he told me. “You’re wrong!” I told him, throwing my shovel down so it clanged against the driveway. “I’m sure it was a gun. He shot her and then shot himself. What you just said,” I swallowed bile, the warnings of the coming tea, “that’s a disgusting lie!”
“I’m sorry,” our friend backed away, hands up in apology—none of us needed any more violence. “I shouldn’t have said anything. But my cousin is a first responder, he was there just now. It wasn’t a gun—it was a chainsaw.”
Before that, her ex-husband choked her, stabbed her and murdered her, before killing himself, orphaning their three boys. Their oldest son came in from playing basketball to find them.
Before that, she and I were holding our littlest ones on laps at an end-of-season game, cheering for our boys on the ice, bundled in Flyers fleece blankets and sipping powdered hot cocoa gone cold. She half-joked that she was going to smuggle her youngest home with her, even though it was HIS weekend to have the kids. Farther down the stands, he overheard her. The last time I saw his face it was twisted; an ugly, angry snarl.
Before that, he came to Sunday pond skating on a custody weekend, patiently tying their youngest’s skates, carrying a generous stack of boxes--steaming pizza--and though his skin was painted with the familiar ruddy tinge of rage and hard drinking, his eyes lit up watching everyone skate under the bare birch trees, chased by the dogs. We all drank a beer, leaning against the side of his truck, basking in the late winter sunshine that promised spring, and I remember I thought, he seems to be making peace with the divorce.
Before that, I wish-wish-wished I had grabbed her arm with my mittened hand and asked, under my frosty breath, “ARE YOU SAFE?”
Different rink, same kids on laps, he started a fight. Custody stuff. Coparenting stuff. Money stuff. He played to the crowd. It got ugly fast. Foul language, mud slinging. I wished for more than a wool hat for my daughter – earmuffs, noise canceling headphones even. I wanted to leave, for Piper’s sake, but stayed, thigh to thigh with her under our shared fleece blanket, trying to drown out his accusations by cheering loudly for our boys. Squeezing her hand. I am here. SOLIDARITY.
Before that, a Christmas party in someone’s basement, too much eggnog and red wine, and she made a not-funny joke about the state of their marriage—“Why do you think it looks like I have two black eyes?” And I thought, squinting in the twinkling holiday lights, “But it does look like you have two black eyes.” I said nothing.
Before that, I heard there were problems. That she was trying to leave him. Rumors, like fall leaves, swirling on the soccer field where we cheered on our boys from the sidelines. I didn’t ask. We talked about the game. I thought I was respecting her privacy.
Before that, they stood side by side at our Labor Day party, him in ridiculous lobster print shorts, her hair in a casual ponytail. We ate burgers and drank hard cider and swapped medical war stories about our boys while the husbands chatted about the upcoming sports' seasons, and the kids played tag in the wildflower field.
Before that, I picked our boys up at their house after summer roller hockey. Happy chaos. She apologized—she had served them Mountain Dew and Doritos. He had taken the furniture out of their carpeted living room, and they were playing knee hockey with all of our kids and more, one parent in each goal. Laughing.
Before that, we got babysitters and drank too many margaritas at a tropical themed swim team fundraiser. We broke into the school gym and played couples’ badminton, husbands and wives on opposite sides of the net. I asked him the story of how they met.
“All these years of us being friends, of our kids being friends, playing sports and I never knew your love story?” His eyes shone when he talked about a pick-up basketball game, how she caught his attention by dunking on him. And I remember I thought, Oh, he loves her so.
Before that, years and years before, we met on the field hockey field, when our boys were just babies on sideline blankets. She strode across the green grass with confidence.
“Hi, I’m Nic,” she introduced herself, smiling, swigging from a water bottle, gum snapping as she pulled her hair into a shiny ponytail. She drove a ball effortlessly down the field to me like it was a late spring dandelion fluff, like it was nothing, like she would do a hundred times in our games, a gifted, generous athlete. I liked her immediately.
And I remember I thought, smiling, “We are going to be friends for a long, long time."
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This essay is posted with permission from Nicole's family to raise awareness of domestic violence. Donations may be made in Nicole's name to the Laurel House Shelter 5k.