I met her indirectly, via a letter to the editor.
Letters, I should say.
She was somewhat prolific — enough so the managing editor (to whom letters to the editor were nominally addressed) once said to me, exasperated, “I wish we had more people as enthusiastic as her. Run this one today, and the next one tomorrow.”
I was the news editor — the night guy, responsible for laying out the paper, among other things — so it fell to me to actually place these letters on the page.
I wasn’t compelled to read them, yet I read them and was compelled.
And so, when I finally met her directly, introduced by mutual friends at my hometown pub, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Oh, you’re Deb Aziz!”
To which she gave me the furrowed brow that I would come to know so well over the years, the one that said, “Yes, and your point is?”
At which point I explained how I knew her name, and that her letters always brightened my night.
And she smiled, and we were friends.
I was but recently back in my hometown after a few years away, whereas she had in the interim moved to town and befriended people I knew.
I would thus come to know her well, mostly through sitting around pub tables drinking, playing cards, and shooting the shit.
I learned that she lived with rheumatoid arthritis since the age of nine, and it had damaged many of her joints but not her spirit.
I can still see her, crunching open pistachios on the table, using the bottom of an empty beer mug, as she lacked the finger dexterity to open them manually.
She loved those things, and would regularly feed a few dollars worth of quarters into the candy machine that dispensed them.
I can still hear her yelling “Cripple deal!” when it was her turn to deal and she had to pass the cards to the next person, owing to that same lack of finger dexterity.
She loved playing cards, and once they were dealt and in her hands, she was nails at whatever game was up.
I can still see her face, perking up when a woman with a low bustline walked by.
She loved women, and was not shy about it, and in that small town where we lived for those years, that would get her called brave, but she wouldn’t claim that. It wasn’t bravery to her — it was who she was, and fuck anyone who had a problem with it.
“I’m a crippled lesbian,” she would begin, laying the label out as a bona fide before opening an argument.
She moved to the city before I did, relocated by her job. By that time, I was dating the future Empress of Whisky and would soon face the choice to move to the city as she, too, relocated for work.
(I chose well.)
Through the years that followed we would meet more friends, go on vacations, have so many dinners and game nights, watch sports, celebrate a slew of birthdays and weddings, mourn together at our oldest mutual friend’s funeral.
When she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis she was not expected to live past 30.
Well, fuck that, she said, and proceeded to live another 21 years past that mark.
Which made her 51 when she died last night.
I … want to have something profound to say here.
All there is is longing, and despair, and missing my friend.
And a regret, too.
Deb was amused whenever I referred to a friend by an alias, which I am prone to do here.
She particularly loved The Empress of Whisky.
I told her I’d come up with something for her, but I never got around to it.
So now I ponder what that might have been.
It could have been My Friend The Letter Writer.
(Shortly after moving to the city, she got a letter to the editor placed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which delighted her. “I made the big-time, bitches!” is how she announced it.)
It could have been My Friend The Ethical Cheater.
(Long story. It involves cards and blatant, obvious table talk.)
It could have been My Friend The Former DJ.
(She was a disc jockey in college and had a lifelong love and enthusiasm for music. Once — and this is a long story, too, but fuck it — I made a playlist for The Empress of Whisky. It was for a big milestone birthday, so I made a list of the top 100 songs released the year she was born. It was meant just to be a fun playlist for the car ride up to the cabin where we were celebrating, but we turned it into a game — how many of these songs can you identify?
(None of the four of us in the car were great at it, but by the time we arrived we had made it through about a third of the list, and our scores were in the 10-20 range. We decided to keep playing until others arrived, but when Deb got there, she wanted to join. Despite the late start, she absolutely killed it, scoring something like 60 out of the remaining 65 songs and beating us despite our head start.
(She enjoyed the game so much, she asked that I do the same for her 50th birthday. I did, and, of course, she wiped the floor with us.)
There are so many options.
My Friend The Historian.
My Friend The Trivia Whiz.
My Friend Who Shares My Love Of Babylon 5.
My Friend The Philly Sports Fan.
My Friend Who Knows Way More About Comics Than I Do.
Good night, my dear and true friend.