i only really knew celeste as a child. we rode the same bus out to the suburban magnet elementary school we attended from first grade all the way to sixth grade.
since we were both magnet students, we were also in the same class year after year.
almost ironically, our bus picked us up in front of the deteriorating inner city schools that, were it not for someone somewhere along the line identifying us as “gifted” in some capacity, we would have been forced to attend.
most years, i was the first one on the bus. her stop was 66th Street School on san pedro, so it was maybe the one right after mine, or the one after that.
i can’t believe i remember that.
i used to wait for her every morning.
celeste was a bit of a tomboy, so she never wore dresses. i seem to recall her only wearing fits that consisted of baggy shorts (that sometimes went past her knees. sometimes not.) and an equally baggy button-up, jersey-style shirt. her hair was always slick. she had black, shiny, wavy hair that her mama did up in ponytails, and her ponytails always looked like thick ringlets. her hair was always wet to the touch in the morning, and really glossy looking. and sometimes, she used to have a solitary curl pulled out up front for her bangs. i also remember her being thick. she had thick ankles and calves. not chubby, especially as we approached our preteen years... but just a solid girl. it's how she felt when we hugged.
once celeste got on the bus, things would get cracking. it would only be a matter of minutes before i was doubled-over in laughter because she had some funny story to tell at the expense of one of her sisters...or because she was launching in to some eye-rolling, ridiculous impression of something or someone...or because she was clowning some poor kid on the bus. hell, there were plenty of times when i was on the receiving end of celeste’s patented wisecracks. she was always telling me to keep my hair combed because it was ALWAYS tangled. at some point, she even took to addressing me as her "tangle-headed friend."
and while she was clowning you, she would have a curler in her bangs and an “esleep” jersey on...almost DARING you to try to say something...
but no one ever did.
no one was seein’ her.
and she never meant to be mean just to be mean. she wasn’t a bully or anything. she was just funny. and clowning is how you make jokes where we came from. it’s how you got people to laugh.
she was my partner in crime in class. and at recess.
we could be bad.
we used bad words.
we played “booty tag” with the boys.
we got attitudes with our teachers and talked about them behind their backs.
we got attitudes with our peers and talked about them to their faces. at least celeste would. i found myself often following her lead.
some teacher at my school (i don’t remember her name...she was white and had a bad blonde dye job, complete with black roots...what was her name? ms. calico? something like that...) took to calling us and a few more of our friends “the gang” as in, “uh-oh...here comes ‘the gang.’” *rolls eyes*
we took the name and ran with it. considering where most of us were from, that lady really should not have been calling us any kind of “gang” like it was a joke...but it stuck. we even took pictures together.
“okay, let’s take a picture with ‘the gang.’”
me and celeste were best friends.
my mom never had time to shuttle me around to birthday parties or sleepovers since she worked 18-hour days monday through saturday making sweatshop clothing (shitty elastic belts with butterfly buckles, and rayon/polyester off-the-shoulder blouses, and baby doll dresses...things like that) at the factory and at home, but i do remember spending the night at celeste’s house once. she spent the night at my house once too.
at her house, we had a pillow fight where she whooped my ass. we jumped on the bed. we took pictures with draws on our head...pictures she used to threaten to bring to school just to embarrass the hell out of me. pictures that i think i may have somewhere at home. her older sister selena (who was in junior high by then because she no longer went to school with us) made me the best, sweetest cream of wheat EVER. for some reason her father owned a goat, and it lived across the street. she had a chihuahua named “minnie” that had just had puppies. i held one of those tiny puppies in my hand. she held one on her lap. and then it pooped on her. a nasty, wet, green, baby poop too. it was so gross, yet so hilarious.
actually, it seems that could have been an amalgamation of more than one visit to the payano home...maybe it is. i honestly can’t remember.
at my house, i didn’t have a goat or puppies or cream of wheat. we ate ice cream, watched my little tv. we were in my kitchen in the morning, mom was at work. i think i was making us something to eat...maybe grilled cheese sandwiches. it was either that or ham salad (cut up ham, lettuce and mayo on a hot dog bun! yum!) since those where the only two things i really knew how to make. and celeste was sitting at my kitchen table, and gotten a hold of a book of food stamps that was on the shelf above her head.
even though we were all ghetto kids, we loved to make fun of each other’s poverty. each other’s hoopties. each other’s dirty ass, small clothes (note: we were broke, but neither celeste nor i were ever dirty). each other’s need for welfare...or food stamps.
i remember i was horrified. celeste lived with a mom and a dad...her family wasn’t as poor as mine. and i braced myself for the clowning of my life, and even began mentally preparing for the subsequent public humiliation that would come on monday, when celeste mentioned finding food stamps in my house on the bus. but instead, she just looked at me as she flipped through the book and said, “i wish i had colored money like this.”
the last time i actually saw celeste in person was in sixth grade. that was in june of 1992. we had our little graduation at school (where the sixth grade class of 1992 treated the audience so stirring renditions of bette midler’s “from a distance,” tevin campbell’s “tomorrow,” and a re-worked version of the jackson family’s “2100 jackson street.” instead of “2100 jackson street,” we sang, “ambler elementary...always hoooome”), and afterwards, one of the kids who lived by the school (and had a pool in his or her backyard) had a graduation party, so we went.
at the time, she was “going with” this boy from mr. d’amico’s sixth grade class (he wasn’t in magnet like us) named willie norwood. let me name drop here...YOU may know willie as r & b wonderboy Ray J.
so we were at this pool party and everyone was there.
nicole, with her boyfriend bubba (yes, i knew a 12-year-old called “bubba”). and tifphanee was there, and the boy who’s name i don’t remember, but everytime he pops up in my memory, i think of kwame’s song where the hook was something like “who’s that guy with the sleepy eyes?” um...yeah, even charles, the fine janitor (who we ALL loved all throughout elementary school mostly because he was fine, AND drove a convertible mustang 5.0) came to wish us well...celeste and i took a picture with him.
neither celeste nor i brought our bathing suits and we both lived far away, so we had to stay out of the water. actually, looking back, i have the feeling that celeste wasn’t about to get into a bathing suit no how. i have the feeling that she may have been a bit self-conscious about her body. it’s funny how when you remember things, you can get a sense of moment in more ways that just what happened or didn’t happen.
anyways, we managed to keep in contact even after i left los angeles for seattle that summer after sixth grade graduation. it wasn’t frequent contact, but we had some written letters. when i asked her about her relationship with willie she said that once he got big (with a regular part on sinbad), so did his head, so she was done with him. she told me that she was embarrassed about it, but that she had done some acting and had been featured on sister, sister and that the mowry twins were nice. she sent me a prom picture. i remember looking at it and being amazed at how gorgeous she had become. not that she wasn’t always beautiful, but there she was in a flowing gown with her hair done, and a smile that could light up a million skies. that was a picture i put in my wallet and held onto when i went to college.
when i finally decided that i was going to college in the l.a. area, i was excited. part of that excitement was that i’d have the opportunity to connect with my long lost friends. the last conversation i remember having with celeste was from my freshman dorm room around thanksgiving 1998...or maybe it was before christmas break that year. i don’t remember much from the conversation. only that we talked for a long time, and that we talked about plans of getting together. i told her that she would come out and visit me in claremont, or that maybe i could go out there.
it never happened. i don’t know who didn’t return whose phone call or how we came so close to connecting, and just never did...but i never saw celeste in my four years at school. and she never saw me.
we didn’t write.
we didn’t talk.
at some point while i was in college, i saw celeste’s younger sister, christina, on a show called undeclared on fox (a quality show that was never given a fair shot to survive, by the way) and that, of course, made me think of celeste, but it was just a fleeting thought i guess. i thought that maybe i could e-mail christina via the fox website, but then i thought that it might look like i was trying to reconnect because of christina’s newfound success...so i didn’t do it.
i’ve thought about her every january 6. that’s her birthday. but i never did anything about it.
anyways, fast forward to december 23, 2004. it dawns on me that since i’ve found a few friends from my ambler elementary days on friendster, that maybe i could reconnect with celeste too. maybe she was on friendster. so i looked for her name, and got nothing, so i thought i’d give googling her name a try. couldn’t hurt.
so i googled her name, and this article dated in 2003 from the des moines register out of des moines, IOWA comes up.
it says that the killers of a celestina payano from los angeles have yet to be found.
i had a glimmer of hope that maybe it wasn’t her because the article said that she was 22. it was 2003, and her birthday had passed. my celeste would have been 23. and what the hell would she have been doing in iowa...of ALL places?
as i read further, i saw that the article was a follow-up article on the original story about her murder that had run in 2002...and that she was killed on september 12, 2002.
when she was 22.
the article also mentioned her mom’s name...wanda.
and i couldn’t remember if her mom’s name was wanda or not, but it sounded so familiar. i thought i remembered that since my name is rhonda and hers was “wanda” that there had been some kind of thing about that...like a joke about it or at least a reference to the fact that our names were simliar.
after i got back from atlanta, i dug through my books, and through storage boxes and found my sixth grade autograph book where celeste had written her phone number and address and told me to keep in contact 12 years ago.
i tried calling the number a few days ago, but i got no answer.
yesterday, i called around 7:30 PM, and someone picked up. she had a sweet, matronly sound to her, and i knew right away, so i said, “mrs. payano?”
i explained to her who i was...that i was a friend of celeste from ambler...and still holding on to the unlikely possibility that the celestina payano of los angeles who was slain in 2002 was not our celeste, i asked for my old friend...or if she knew of any way that i could reach her.
she was quiet for a moment, and at that point, she didn’t have to say anything because i knew but she said, “i’m sorry to have to tell you this but celeste has passed. there was an accident in 2002, and she’s gone.”
from there, in the silence between my sobs, mrs. payano told me that she knows how i feel, and that when she heard, she just had to give it up to god because it was too much for her, that celeste is in heaven and that we’ll see her again...and that she is buried at the inglewood cemetery.
then she asked me, “what did you say your name was? is it the same as mine?”
i clarified for her that my name starts with an “r”...and i guess a light went on because she said that she remembered me. that i lived off of slauson and my korean mama.
“that’s right. you were my baby too.”
once i collected myself, i asked her about her other daughters. she said they were fine. she asked me to visit her the next time i’m in l.a., that we could go see celeste together. i said i would and it’s a promise i intend to keep.
there are so many different ideas floating around in my head right now, i don’t even know where to begin. beyond the deep sadness and sense of loss i feel for my old friend and her family...
there’s the fact that she was just 22 when she died at the hands of someone they have not yet found.
there’s the fact that i’d assumed that, for all the times i’ve thought about her over the years and never acted, i’d be able to find her number, call her mama’s house and find her, talk to her, catch up.
there’s the fact that she’s been gone for two years, and i didn’t even know. i don’t know if we were destined to be best friends forever, but i should have known whether she was dead or alive.
there’s the fact that i’m painfully reminded of how precious life and time are, and at the same time, how easy they are to waste. and i’m so frustrated that it takes things like this-- it takes a tragedy like this to make certain things that should be obvious clear. and who knows how long such clarity lasts?
mrs. payano told me that there’s nothing i can do but to live well, and that is so powerfully convicting coming from a mother who lost her daughter so suddenly and in such a violent manner.
in my sixth grade autograph book, a book everyone signs at the end of the year, celeste used a red ink. she drew a silly face with ears and a tongue sticking out in the margin on top. she addressed it: “2 someone i will probably neva forget...”
and in her message, she asked me not to forget her when i moved away.
i hope that she knows that i never have.
she ended her farewell note to me with a p.s. reminding me to keep my hair combed.
that took me a little while to figure out, as is evidenced in my junior high yearbook pics, but i think she’d be proud.