There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious. These days are also accidents, and they don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, so they must somehow be turned into stories.
Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir. This was a trip we both needed. Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year. Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before. Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to. “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said. She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded. There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.
Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around six thousand feet elevation. Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke. But when the high country burns, the smoke stays where the fires are. Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires. It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good. I trolled small streamers, and I landed and released five or six fish in a few hours. They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides. But after lunch, the fishing slowed. Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion. When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often found each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then. In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the conditions are right, the aquatic insects that flyfishers imitate with their feather and fur flies erupt in a hatch—a sudden blizzard of bugs that emerge from the water at once. When this one started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface. I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs. Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie. The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish. Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.
“Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said. When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies. They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis, or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir. Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs. The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more. These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir. The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again. From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.
When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout. For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch. It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back-and-forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were. Cheryl died a few days later. But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket. Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.
BRUCE BALLENGER, a professor of English at Boise State University, is the author of seven books.
I entered the terminal in a rush, wondering if I’d be asked to turn my phone to flight mode before the what the hell? texts started coming. At that point, things were basically over. Trying to explain your actions via SMS is the same as cybersex. You might finish, but is anybody really satisfied?
The problem had started at dinner, somewhere between coffee and “The Tonight Show.” This was the end of a busted week in Los Angeles. I had told everybody I was coming to “take meetings” when the real purpose was to surprise my manager, who had been steadily ignoring my calls. Desperate to prove I still had value, I had pitched him a series of increasingly poor ideas: the girl with daddy issues stuck in an evil computer. The hitman who kills using an Asian ghost. The billionaire who pretends to be two competing billionaires to get the girl because all girls dream of being lied to by a rich guy.
“I kind of like the robot one,” Nathan said, chewing his burger while I pawed at his fat fries.
“Me, too,” Jen said. Jen was Nathan’s wife and the only girl I’d met in California who didn’t talk about juice cleanses. They were a young power couple in LA and I’d spent the week sleeping on their couch, wondering if they had any faults besides talking about their cat like he was a human being.
“Nobody has any patience for non-evil robots,” I lamented. “By the way, Jen, you look very attractive in that dress.” She was one of those people in complete harmony in every situation, meaning the opposite of me. I could never think of anything to say. I preferred to stay on the fringe of social situations, mocking the successful around me, following the old if-you-can’t-build-something-destroy-it philosophy. Faced with someone who simply enjoyed life sapped me of my observational jabs. So instead I complimented Jen often and ecstatically, a toy dog yapping for its master’s attention, steadily ignoring the WTF looks I’d been getting from Nathan.
“You look nice in that button-down,” she rejoined. I had worn the shirt three days straight. Nathan raised his eyebrow, anticipating my response. It was, “You’re so wonderful. I love you.” The tone was supposed to be jokey but the words left my mouth sounding open, earnest. It was truthful, too, since I had fallen in love with her the moment we had met, as well as their anthropomorphic cat, Sam.
“Oh, I-love-you-too” Jen said in a way that meant both the opposite and I-pledge-undying-fealty-to-my-husband-angrily-chewing-a-cheeseburger. I couldn’t be stopped at this point. It was weird.
“We should have an affair. Elope or something,” I said. What the fuck are you doing? one side of my brain asked. Don’t worry. If you go too far past the point of no return it will go meta and be seen as performance art, the other side said. “I’m much taller than your husband,” I added.
“Don’t you have a flight to catch?” Nathan asked.
As we crawled down the 110 in traffic I tried one more joke, the social equivalent of that last bet in Vegas when you’ve lost it all and are borrowing twenty dollars from the former best friend you’re trying to cuckold. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something to do with “Wife Swap,” a popular show on ABC once upon a time, except I didn’t have a wife so Nathan could borrow a life-sized wax head I won at a carnival. That went over predictably well and we drove the rest of the way in silence. I should have just taken a bus, I thought, but since this was Los Angeles, it’d probably be more efficient just to give my wallet and phone to any passing transient rather than go through that whole shiv hassle.
We arrived at the drop-off spot and I shook Nathan’s hand and looked him in the eye, a thing guys do when they want people to think they’re serious. I offered Jen a limp handshake and when she looked confused, I gave her a light hug, whispering “You’re both very lucky with each other,” into her ear. That was as close as I got to an apology. I grabbed my bags and headed to the terminal, looking back once to see if they watched me go. They were already gone; their hybrid slunk away silently. The automatic doors to the terminal parted and I automated myself inside.
“Just you?” asked the check-in girl and I nodded, yes, just me, always. “Did you enjoy your time in LA?” she cooed.
I nodded again, wondering what would happen if I told her the whole dinner situation. “Um, okay…” she would have said, uncomfortable at my honesty, confused why I’d messed things up. “These things just can’t be helped,” I’d explain and she’d be the one nodding, silently judging me as she passed me my boarding pass.
By the time I got on the plane I had not received any messages. Maybe they’d never come, I reasoned; maybe Nathan would sleep on it and understand that hot wives deserve to be hit on by your childhood friends. This was a sort of male bonding — Nathan had won the wife game and I was indicating my approval by dropping lines about affairs. Men can’t be straightforward with their feelings. It’s part of the rule book. Yes, that’s it, I decided. All is fine in the world. I asked the flight attendant for a glass of wine and wondered what they were selling in this month’s Sky Mall.
But as time passed, my mind replayed the week’s events in lurid detail. That’s the trouble with planes; they’re engineered to make you reflect on your life. Buses and trains offer the dual distractions of finding your stop and not being murdered by crazies, but in the sky there’s no scenery, no proper indication of time passing. There’s nothing but the noise of the engines, the buzz of your life at a crossroads. I tried to distract myself with more wine and in-flight entertainment. But all I could think of was what had got me here, and why I had messed with a friendship simply because I couldn’t be bothered not to.
At this point, the only thing to do was wait. I waited for my ego to take over, for my momentary bout of self-awareness to become hard, defensive. I channeled my inner Homer (the classic one not the yellow one) and readied my yarn for spinning. I must be the hero of my story, so heroic I would become. It was Nathan’s fault I was in this position to begin with. If he were feeling weird he should have said something. My brain analyzed each situation not for my indiscretions but for Nathan’s. It rewired each memory, rewriting my role as the falsely accused.
What the hell, Nathan? We were long and fast friends. I had got him his first condom at age seventeen in a Chinese sex shop while dismissing an old woman’s upselling attempts for nipple clamps and rust-colored anal beads. I had shopped with him for flowers to impress one of his many sub-par girlfriends. I was there to commiserate right after Lindsay dumped him on the phone, his angry yelps cut short because her roaming charges were too high. Did Nathan really think I was brazen enough to hit on his wife? Or stupid enough to hit on her in front of him? So I’m a cad and a moron. Real nice, Nathan. I jabbed at my in-flight meal angrily, fully convinced now that I was the scapegoat.
Next I played our upcoming exchanges. It would start with the thank-you note I’d write. My dearest Jen and Nathan, it would read, thank you very much for letting me stay at your great apartment in LA. What a view! I had a wonderful time and you guys are great. I hope you appreciated my unique sense of humor and hope to see at least one of you in Hong Kong. You know what I mean. Nathan would respond rudely. Fuck. Off. It was as if he had no sense of propriety, or humor for that matter.
In time, the story would spread to family emails, dinner party tales, and class-reunion letters. “It was a normal dinner …” I’d begin. Jen would still be perfect—at least that part of the story would be true—but I was the happy-go-lucky everyman who had come to LA to find my old friend transformed! Nathan was a workaholic, rage-fueled beast; his green-eyed irrationality scorched everything around him. “You should have seen it,” I’d tell my audience, “his eyes literally turned green.”
“Like the Incredible Hulk?” one might say, looking for validation.
“Exactly like the Incredible Hulk,” I’d affirm.
“That sucks. Some people are just dicks,” another would say.
I’d take a moment to process this truth. “We used to be close,” I’d offer. And I’d sigh a heavy sigh, full of the terrible weight of others not living up to their expectations. “I just—” here’s where I’d pause for dramatic effect—“wish that it weren’t the case. That everybody could be cool and not make a big deal out of nothing.”
I imagine the cute girl next to me putting her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re cool.”
“We are cool,” I’d agree happily. Then I’d raise my glass to friendship and to the people who really understood me.
YALUN TU is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @yaluntu, where he very rarely updates anything.
Through our mid-twenties, this friend of mine, Tom, hosted an annual party at his family’s cabin in rural Wisconsin, and that year—the last year he invited us all there, incidentally—we were the last two to crash. The dawn was coming up quick, and we were watching the blackness outside morph into gray, into a fog that would settle on his family’s forty acres and on the half-mile gravel drive leading up to the house. I called it a cabin, but it was definitely a house. This friend of mine, his parents had bought this land and built the place as a retirement escape. Then his father had died, suddenly—I think he was fifty-nine, just like that, an aneurysm—and his mother had settled instead into a condo in the city.
Tom and I were in a sunroom off the kitchen, sort of a three-season porch thing, with screened walls and wicker furniture. The air was muggy and cool, and the sweet smell of wet grass had settled on everything. He was slouched in a chair. I was sprawled across the love seat, busy pining for a girl asleep upstairs. Pining, because I was dating someone else, though I was already in love with that girl up in the loft, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave my girlfriend and pursue—
No, he said. Probably wouldn’t work out anyway. Why risk it?
Even then I recognized this was terrible advice, but he was himself newly single, frustrated, and lonely, with no patience for these woes. And in that moment, he didn’t want me to go. He asked if I would stay with him, if I’d sleep there with him. Sure, of course I would. We’d been friends for a decade. I’d slept next to him many times. And then he asked—with a pause, mid-beat—would I hold him? Would I hold him, just the once, and just that, out of compassion if not desire?
I knew Tommy was in a rough spot then. I’d never seen him so vulnerable, and isn’t that what we all want, what we all need, someone to just be with us, like that, through the worst parts? Still, I said No. May as well have said, Will never happen.
I did sleep there, but on the floor. I was always out of reach but never more than just then. He was looking for a little compassion, a little tenderness. And I said no. As close as we are, everything we’ve been through together, this is as close as we’ll ever be. An arm’s length away. That space between us, he couldn’t close it, and I wouldn’t. And why not?
Why didn’t I hold him, just for a minute, like he’d asked? Maybe because I was still telling myself we were just friends like any other, and because even then, especially then, I knew this wasn’t exactly true.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d invested a lot of thought into my sexuality. Not so much because Tom, my closest friend at the time, was gay, but because he had spent the previous year—since coming out to me, and to me alone—trying to convince me I was gay, too. Because he wanted to get it on? Because he wanted company? Probably a bit of both, and either way I was familiar with these impulses. I could relate. That said, understanding that my masculine self is a construction of sorts, that gender is a learned performance, and that sexuality can be a fluid, evolving thing, my own hetero-ness has always seemed inherent to me.
I am of slightly below-average height. I have flat feet and a weird space between my first and second toe. I inherited—from my mother—a genetic blood-clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, for which I take an aspirin a day. My eyes are hazel. And at eighteen, the image of Brad Pitt in his Fight Club prime opening a door wearing nothing but rubber gloves only ever inspired in me a competing mix of admiration and envy, while a mere glimpse of the thigh of the girl who sat next to me in Economics roused erections like flagpoles.
So my sexuality was never really a question, not for me, but when we were teenagers—sixteen, seventeen—Tommy did what he could to convince me otherwise, mostly by telling me I was gay, over and over, all the time, mistaking my denials for Denial. Eventually the rest of our friends picked this up too and started telling me I was gay, groping my chest and asking if I was turned on and responding to my firm nos with Hey man, it’s okay if you like dick—the predictable and condescending high school taunts I never knew how to answer. Really, it was only a couple of our friends that did this. Knowing them now, I wonder if they would have been so callous if they’d actually thought I was gay. Or if they’d known he was?
It was half my lifetime ago, so his actual coming out to me is a hippocampal blur, but I think it went something like this: We were juniors and had been spending most afternoons in our high school’s weight room (and adjacent locker room, notably, surrounded by all kinds of hard-bodied adolescent boys in various states of undress: tall, short, bronze, black, white, footballers, wrestlers, runners, the gamut), and eventually we started going on long warm-up runs around town. We were friends before, but those runs were really what made us. Away from the weight room fugue, we could actually talk, and we talked about all kinds of things. Like what? I have no idea. I can’t remember any of it, except that one day Tom turned to me and told me he’d just spent ninth period in the janitorial closet by the theater with Mike Miller (a cherubic sophomore boy, and a rising talent in the drama department) getting a blowjob.
Once the initial shock—that my friend was now, apparently, getting some—wore off, I didn’t think much about that coming-out moment. I didn’t really return to it until a decade later when a group of us old friends spent a post-wedding night drunk and reminiscing, and he reminded me what I’d said to him: “You got a blowjob!” And he thanked me for how I’d immediately accepted him, gay or whatever, getting head in whatever closet. He said that back when we were teenagers he hadn’t realized how lucky he was. When he said this we were both in our late twenties—I was married by then, and lived on the other side of the country, so we only saw each other every few years, usually at a bar the day after Christmas—and I was grateful that he still thought about our lapsed friendship at all, as I did, as I do. Of course, I told him. You were my best friend.
Back in the day I suppose he was confused about my sexuality in a way I wasn’t. After he came out to me, I didn’t stop working out with him. I didn’t stop changing next to him in the locker room. Was I supposed to? Well, I didn’t. He would point out some pumped up cornerback, with a chest like a longshoreman, and I would say, Yeah, impressive. Out running together we would see the lean cross-country boys in the distance, and I would agree, Yeah, they’re something. I remember he once asked if I’d noticed Tony Steino’s junk, and I replied, How could I not?! and he said, I know! My being straight and my taking an active role in these conversations—and my lathering up next to him at the end of the day—never seemed like a contradiction. And maybe he thought my continuing to act as if nothing had changed meant I had to be gay too, but really, what had changed? For him, I suppose, a lot. For me, not much. At least not much I recognized then.
This dissonance, I think now, was the beginning of that space, that rift that would eventually grow not so much between us as between our worlds, though I wouldn’t understand this until long, long after the fact.
Eventually, after a year or so of trying to convince me I was gay, he let it go. Why? Because, get this, he realized there was no way I would have been able to resist his advances for so long unless I actually was straight. He told me this. So, so arrogant. And probably true, which you’ll understand if you were ever a horny, hard-up teenaged boy, as I definitely was.
We graduated on to different colleges, but both worked summer jobs cutting grass for our hometowns. After work, we would go fishing. We called it fishing, but really we just canoed around local lakes and rivers, occasionally casting for bass, occasionally swimming. There are more than forty lakes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, the land where suburbs meet country, and we made it to many of them. Sometimes other friends tagged along, and when it got too cold to swim, or too dark to paddle, we’d end up smoking and drinking coffee and eating fries at the local Denny’s, eventually dragging ourselves home only to be back on our lawnmowers a few hours later. This was our routine, for a while. We didn’t spend all our time together—I had one girlfriend, and then another, and he had one boyfriend, and then another—but a lot of it we did.
At that point—our early twenties—Tom was a constant in my life, a point of reference. As I imagine I was in his.
Just the other night I drove home with my arm out the window, the evening a cool seventy-five after an eighty-five-degree, humid day. I was on gritty 35th Street in the city, but that didn’t matter. I was singing along to the radio, like we did back then, and there was the same heavy wet smell in the air, and even though if I was thinking about anything, I was thinking about the pomodoro on the stove, or the class I was coming from, or if I’d catch my two-year-old before he hit the crib for the night, that smell suddenly knocked me back fifteen years and there I was, driving home from the lake, him shotgun, the bow of our canoe dripping algae funk on the windshield, Neil Diamond coming at us with Sweet Caroline. You know, Good times never seemed so good. I’ve been inclined to believe they never would. But now I…
Summer nights are the best nights. I was so young then, and had no idea. Those were some of my best nights.
I never understood why we drifted apart. Rather, why he let me go. For a long time I thought he resented my absence when his dad died. I was living in Japan at the time, and it happened quickly, and I wasn’t there for him—not that I know what being there would have meant exactly. As it was, I sent a card. A heartfelt card, but how lame was that? It didn’t even occur to me to call—I barely called my parents back then. Later, we lived in the same city for a couple of years, but only hung out a few times. We would make plans and he would break them, and eventually we both just sort of amiably stopped trying. The only way I could understand this was believing he was still upset that I hadn’t been there when he needed me, or something like that. I was reaching for an explanation, and not having another, I accepted this as truth.
We build these truths like walls around us, and it can take a long time for them to crack. Ten years on, and one otherwise ordinary day, epiphany: that night in the sunroom, the two of us still up at dawn, my eventually going to sleep on the floor. I realized that tick on our timeline might as well read End of Era. It hadn’t seemed significant before, probably because although I’d thought about that moment many times, I’d only thought of it in terms of where I’d been, and where I was going just then. It hadn’t occurred to me that mine wasn’t the only story being written in that sunroom. But then it did occur to me, suddenly, the way a crack finally splits one thing into two.
Why didn’t I hold Tom that night, just for a minute, like he’d asked? I hadn’t said No to him like that since high school, back when he was so sure all it would take was a little convincing to get me to join him in that janitorial closet by the theater. Maybe I was afraid that if I crossed one boundary he would ask me to cross another, and we’d be seventeen again. Maybe this had been a fear of mine for a long time, even though we had both grown so much, and things were obviously different then. Maybe I was afraid things weren’t so different after all.
Anyway, he asked and I said No. A resounding No. A final No.
That girl up in the loft—we’re married now and have two kids. What if, in a way, in that moment, I chose this over that, her over him? In a way, that’s exactly what I did, though like I’ve been saying, it was never really a question.
In any case, things were never the same after that.
Losing old friends is nothing new, but I feel this loss the most. And would I feel differently, about this, about him, if he were just another straight guy I used to hang out with? If he wasn’t gay, would we ever have grown so close in the first place? Can there ever be a friendship like this without an attraction of sorts, one-way or otherwise?
In my early twenties I was close to a number of women, really close, on an intimate emotional level, and I was convinced I could maintain these intense friendships indefinitely, but the truth is you can’t, or at least I couldn’t. There simply isn’t enough space in life, because friendships as intimate as those, well, you’re never really just friends—that familiar old story. Intimacies like those either wax or wane and eventually slip away. Such has been my experience with women. Why not with him?
Tom and I were friends, just friends, but I suppose it was never so simple. I loved him, my friend, but not like he needed. Philia in abundance. Agape even. But a dearth of eros. And you’d be right to respond: As if you know what he needed. So, so arrogant. But it would explain things.
He recently moved to within a hundred miles of where I live and called a month ago, but we haven’t connected. Still playing phone tag. I know he’s getting married one of these days, to a doctor, a guy I haven’t met yet. We’re still friends, I would say, but certainly not like we were. The old Pop! Fizzle… Déjà vu. I’ve been here before, many times, but not here exactly. Such a familiar story—but suddenly it feels new to me.
I suppose this is just a blown-up case of nostalgia, what with summer sprung on us once again, and Neil on the radio, with the lakes warming up, the landscape gone green, the days growing longer, and then already, a little shorter. And these sore muscles this morning, and these joints stiff like they’ve never been before, are a reminder too that like all those summers past, my youth, such as it was, is finally and totally over, lost, and with it the closeness we once shared, irretrievably gone.
—Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
CRAIG REINBOLD’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Brevity, Ruminate, Zone 3, Mud Season Review, and a number of other more or less literary places. He is also a regular contributor to Essay Daily, the blog-cum-conversation about all things essay, and is co-editor, with Ander Monson, of How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (CoffeeHouse Press, 2017). He works in the emergency department of a Milwaukee-area hospital. When he’s not there, he spends his days alternately hanging out with his two boys and studying to become a nurse.
Leslie had been deployed nine months when Troy tried to grab my dick. He lived in the apartment next door, and I would go over there when Carmen went to sleep for the night. I would bring the baby monitor so I could hear if she woke up while Troy and I drank Dominican rum and smoked cigarettes. He was a flight attendant and would be gone for weeks at a time, but when he returned, he was always looking to hang out. His place provided brief moments of relief from the loneliness of our apartment. I always felt guilty, like I was doing something dangerous or neglecting my kid, but she was a good sleeper. Once she went down for the night, she wouldn’t wake up until the morning. Plus our building and apartments were so small; in his kitchen, I was literally two rooms away from her crib.
He was a nice guy but kind of a weirdo. Overly cheerful about his obviously isolated life. Overly enthusiastic about his one year in college at Colorado and his choice to drop out and follow Phish for a couple years. He was a rambler, jumping from subject to subject, not ever really allowing or needing me to get a word in. A bit spaced-out in his explanations about the beauty and connectedness of things, like he’d dropped too much acid in his twenties. Troy was also a close talker, always leaning in my face or ear as he talked, as if he were divulging something important and as if I were the only one he made privy to that information, though he probably told those stories to anyone who would tolerate them.
His stories always had to do with him on vacation. As a flight attendant, he got free trips to the places on his airline’s routes, so on his breaks, he would take advantage and travel. It seemed these free rides were pretty much limited to the eastern seaboard or the Caribbean, and appropriately, so were the settings of his stories; this limited his stories to places less exciting than I’d like to hear about.
“Where else have you been?” I’d ask.
His favorite place was the Dominican Republic where he would always describe lazy beach days and wild nights clubbing with a woman name “Tamia” who he called his girlfriend. I always found his relationship with her suspect. How could he spend enough time there to not only find someone but become romantically involved? It’s not like he was visiting every week. He could only take off a couple days a few times a year.
Another thing always in the back of my mind when he described Tamia was that a couple of neighbors who had lived in the building long enough to know Troy more than I did had indicated that he was gay.
Adam, in the unit directly below mine, said that Troy tried a little too hard to hang out with him all the time. That Troy was “trying to put moves on him.”
Ashley, in the first floor corner unit, outright asked Leslie about Troy. “He’s gay, right?”
Gay or straight, his life paralleled my own. We were both guys who lived in small apartments. Our partners were far away from us. This, besides the fact that he was generous with his booze, was one of the reasons I liked hanging out with him. We shared a similar struggle. He would sometimes ask me about Leslie, and what is was like for her to be in Iraq while I was taking care of our one-year-old.
That night he added, “You have a beautiful family. You’re so lucky, dude.”
I took a deep breath and said, “It’s not that hard.”
This was how I responded to most people in my life:
“Seems like I’m able to handle it.”
“Sometimes it’s easier than when she was here because there’s less conflict.”
Or: “I get to make all the decisions”
Even though I felt that way sometimes, it was mostly that I wanted to come off strong to my friends, coworkers, and family members. I didn’t ever want to be someone who needed sympathy or help. What was I going to do? Wallow in tears because my wife was in a war zone? I was in grad school, writing poetry while she was off driving tractor trailers over the Tigris River. Stereotypical gender roles were reversed. I was trying to be tough and macho.
Other times I had to admit to myself that parenting is hard, especially for one person. And for all the stories I heard growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the largest Naval Base in the world, about military wives recklessly spending their husband’s money, letting the house go to shit, or sleeping around on them, I came to realize it’s not easy to be alone with the kids for so long. When a spouse is so far away, so close to death and destruction, to war, the absolute worst thing in the world, so near the possibility of being killed or maybe even worse— having to kill—there’s a certain longing for recklessness back at home, even though it seems everything in our nature should guide us toward the opposite of that, to comfort, stability, and safety.
I was thankful that family gave me great support. My mom, who lived close by, would take Carmen any time she could. And every once in a while Leslie’s parents would come down from Winchester and take Carmen for a week or so. We called it Camp Grandparents. These week-long breaks allowed me to catch up on the overwhelming amount reading, writing, and grading I had piling up, and gave me a chance to live momentarily as a carefree bachelor—kind of. I would have no child to take care of and no wife to answer to, more or less, so I would try to go out and have a good time. But there was something odd about having a good time in public when my friends knew my wife was deployed. So mostly, I found myself not doing much. I wouldn’t really go out or spend a lot of money. I mostly just drank some beer by myself and went to sleep earlier than I would when Carmen was there. This, I thought, was probably more relaxing than calling my single friends and hitting a bar. So I didn’t regret it.
One morning when Carmen was away at Camp Grandparents, I ran into Troy in the hallway. He’d just returned from a two-week trip. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so we agreed I’d come over that night. I could drink and smoke, and at least I didn’t have to do it alone.
That night as we settled in, he picked up a framed picture of him and Tamia standing at a hotel pool. He shoved it in my hand and looked at it with me.
“She’s so beautiful, isn’t she? We are in love.”
In it she was wearing a server or staff uniform and looked like she could just be an employee who agreed to take picture with him. There was no indication of romance.
I gave a general response like always. “That’s nice. She seems great.”
He took it back and stared at it longingly before putting it down on the table. I could imagine he needed someone or something in his life that he could say was permanent. Flying around and staying at hotels for weeks on end would probably compel most people to latch onto any connection they might make—whether it was real or imagined.
We shot rum and chased beer. I lit a cigarette and feigned laughs as he told me work stories.
The buzz provided a moment of clarity. I was putting on a front. Some of my strength and resolve at that point in my life, like Troy’s relationship with Tamia, was just imagined.
He put on a cassette tape of some Pink Floyd, closed his eyes, and swayed. He was drunk. I was drunk. Realizing it was time to go, I pointed to the clock.
“It’s pretty late, man. I should roll out.”
Not ready to end our “chill session,” he swung around me in the narrow, galley-style kitchen, reached across my chest and shoulder into a top cabinet, and grabbed a bag of weed and a pipe.
“I can’t smoke ’cause they’ll test me, but you should smoke some. It’s so good.”
His eyes were just slits. His grin curled.
I was reluctant, but I relented even though I knew it would mean I’d have to hang around even longer. I couldn’t just smoke a dude’s weed and leave. He said he wanted to close the door, so I didn’t smoke out his whole apartment. I thought this was odd because he didn’t have a problem with chain smoking Camel Lights in every room. Breaking up the nuggets of weed and loading up the pipe took me back a couple years—back to undergrad when I worked in bars, before I was married, before Carmen.
When I found myself making stupid decisions during the time Leslie was deployed, I chalked it up to the fact, that as a country, we had found ourselves tumbling recklessly into a war we should never have started, so I could justify letting myself tumble recklessly into something stupid, into places I should have never found myself. I was a stateside casualty of war. The terrible foreign policy decisions that got my wife deployed begot any terrible life decision I could make. This was a lame excuse, and I knew it.
I lit the pipe. Troy flipped the tape.
An hour or two later, the bottle of rum was empty and the kitchen was starting to turn at a carousel pace. I needed out. I made my way to the kitchen door.
“All right, Troy-boy. I gotta go.”
He snapped out of his musical trance and hurried after me. “Just drink one more beer.”
I turned so my back was against the door, the fridge to my right. Before I could respond he had opened up the fridge and was grabbing two more beers. For a second I was pinned between the two doors. He emerged and dropped a can at my feet. As he bent down to grab it, his hand didn’t move toward to floor. It stayed at crotch level and his body lunged forward. He was right on me. He went for me. I opened the door and moved back and out of the way. On one knee now he looked up at me. He suddenly seemed completely sober.
“Aww, come on… What’s wrong, man?”
It was like he knew his move didn’t work, but he still had some hope that something might happen. I turned my head at him in confusion.
When I got back to my bedroom, I noticed how messy it was. Clothes on the floor. Baby toys scattered around Carmen’s crib. Disorganized changing table. I don’t think I made the bed once since Leslie left. I had escaped, but Troy was still just two rooms away.
I couldn’t give much more thought than that to what just happened—I didn’t really want to be sure that it did, but there was an awkward feeling, a sense that this dude had just tried to grab my crotch, molest me. I tried to rationalize. Maybe he was just falling or not paying attention. It was an accident. He couldn’t have really…
But I knew. When he moved at me, it was like the way I had moved at girls in high school—I’d be ready for things to escalate, to get under their shirts or in their pants. The way I moved away tonight was like how those girls might have moved away from me. Okay with staying close but not ready for that kind of touch. I felt creeped out that I had made someone feel the discomfort I now felt. It was that discomfort that let me know his move was real. That he was going after something. And what if I’d let him? What if I didn’t move away? What did he think was going to happen? What was his end game? This I still don’t know.
As time went on, I tried to avoid Troy as much as possible. It was pretty easy since he really wasn’t home much. When I ran into him weeks later outside the building, I just gave a passing nod and said, What’s up? There wasn’t any bad blood or even real tension. It was just that we both knew we weren’t going to be hanging out anymore. We went back to being our lonely, isolated selves. I could consider my loneliness and isolation as a lingering effect of war. Something that absolutely affects every military spouse, something that isn’t calculated with cost and casualties. But if they can’t even provide proper treatment for soldiers with PTSD, it’s understandable why a depression like this often gets pushed to the side, forgotten about. But I had Carmen, so I wasn’t really alone. Right? Troy was still alone. Leslie was still alone.
The next day when I Skyped with her, I told her about it. She seemed as surprised and confused as I was.
“Oh man,” she said. “I’m glad you got out of there.”
It became a joke between us, and we thought that any questions we had about Troy’s sexual orientation were answered.
“Well, Adam was right.” I said. I even joked that now I knew I was desirable to men.
“Don’t you cheat on me,” Leslie joked. We could make light of it, but when she would bring up the guys she was deployed with and how they would constantly say how horny they were, how they objectified the women, their fellow soldiers, I got worried.
What if something like that happened to her? That was the one and only time anything like that had happened to me, but women in the military are more likely to be sexually abused or raped than to suffer injury or be killed in combat. The abuse often occurs during periods of deployment. The majority of women who are sexually abused don’t feel like they can report it. Out of those who do report, large numbers have faced worse repercussions than the men they accuse. She’d have no door to escape. She’d have no apartment to hide in. I couldn’t imagine what she would do if she found herself in that situation.
Another part of me was scared of the possibility that she’d want someone to make an advance. She could in be in a such a state of isolation and fear and trauma that intimacy would be the one thing she needed—that so many of the those lonely, horny men would be willing to provide.
I’m not mad or weirded out by the thought of what Troy did. I do wonder what would have happened if I had gone super-hetero on him, punched him in the face, and said terrible things to him. How dare he do some gay shit like that? But I don’t fight. I’m not macho. My wife is the warrior. I write poetry.
I can understand that his attempt at having something, even just for a moment, to feel like someone wanted to be with him, to touch another human, wasn’t necessarily something so terrible. I can say that during that year Leslie was gone I don’t know how I might have reacted if a woman made the same move. I may have been just as vulnerable and desperate as he was.
I woke up the morning after, sore in the head and body. My eyes peeled open to the messy bedroom, Leslie’s side of the bed and Carmen’s crib, empty. First the bells, then the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Time” rushed into my blurry mind, “Ticking away, the moments that make up the dull day… “ It would be three more months before Leslie came home. Before I could touch, be touched by her.
NOAH RENN is writer and teacher living in Norfolk, Virginia. His poetry and nonfiction has appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, The Quotable, Undressed, Princess Anne Independent News, and Whurk, among other journals. He is a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches composition and literature at Old Dominion University, and he leads a poetry workshop at the nonprofit organization, The Muse Writers Center.
The first thing I remember about Nancy is her laugh—full throated, companionable, frequent, wise. Nancy was about thirty-three then; I was nineteen, in college studying journalism. With her, I felt secure and mature, understood and supported. We met at a competitive hunter-jumper show stable in upstate New York, where we both boarded horses, hers bought with a husband’s money, mine with a father’s funds. Nancy encouraged me to be more serious about my riding goals and slightly less serious about school, to have more fun, because if I wasn’t at the stables, I did little but study. Nancy was confident, capable, and spontaneous. She had grit, and what my father used to call gusto.
Nancy’s interest in me felt palpable, and it seemed I could tell her everything, if I wanted. I watched her keep confidences and protect others in the often snipey, political world of horse showing, and I saw that she was loyal. I knew a secret sent her way was sealed. And so I told her mine. That I was secretly in love with a black stable manager back home in New Jersey, that I was occasionally and of course also secretly seeing a married horse show manager, and that despite the horses and ribbons and Dean’s List and my father’s polyester money, I’d always felt like an outsider.
But here’s the funny thing about a friendship rooted in a shared and specialized activity: two people can spend a lot of time together—in riding lessons, on the trail, in the stalls, setting jumps, sitting up overnight when the other’s horse is sick, driving to look at horses to buy—and know everything about how the other rides and what she can and can’t do in the saddle, and what she dreams about in that narrow arena of equestrian longing, and still know little of that person’s life outside, in the world. It’s shocking then, and a bit sad, to find that the person you already counted as your closest friend (or maybe that’s closest horse friend), has another life away from you, and that it is also wide, satisfying, and absorbing.
Slowly, I realized that what I knew of Nancy was only what she chose to reveal to other horse people. It wasn’t until six months after we became close that I realized in many ways I did not yet know her at all. I knew she was married, but not to an erudite, urbane man twenty-one years older than she. I knew she was a part-time stepmother, but not to an out-of-control teenage girl who routinely told her to fuck off, and to a twenty-two-year-old money-sucking manchild. I knew the horses came via her husband’s money, but not that he was the founding partner of a prominent local law firm. I didn’t know she’d first met Mark when he was on a business trip and that it broke up his marriage and that his first wife went a little crazy over it and once tried to hurt some people she loved. I didn’t yet know that Nancy had started out in a lower middle class family and floundered after college, but that by the time I met her she could stage a charity gala, do the New York Times Sunday crossword fast and in ink, or that while she loved having time and resources to ride, she secretly speculated about doing something else entirely.
I learned all of this almost all at once the first few times Nancy invited me for dinner at her house, which was about midway between the stable and campus. I’d unknowingly driven past it almost daily. I quickly became a regular, eating, watching movies, playing Scrabble, settling in. I loved having a family to hang out with, a house to feel at home in, where I could walk in the back door without knocking. We three spent many nights, for many months, then for years, around their kitchen table, me trying to figure out so much, including what I should do about the married horseman and how much of my post-college life to spend on the show circuit. Because I took college courses over the summers, Nancy and I grew closer, and because the twenty-mile drive between campus and stable worried my father, I moved into a condominium steps from Nancy’s house.
I was five when my only sister left home in New Jersey for college in New England; the void seemed unfillable, but soon Laura and her family moved in next door. She was two years older; our connection was immediate and intense, and until midway through high school, we were often mistaken for sisters. We liked being called “Lucy and Ethel” for the hijinks we got into, especially when she traveled with my parents and me. Though Laura temporarily abandoned me for a boy, her future husband, I forgave her because I abandoned her, too, when my father’s business profits spiked, bringing me the horses I’d yearned to own.
Once I started riding—late, at age fourteen—I always also had a “best horse friend,” though typically not another spoiled teenager. I drifted instead toward young women who were older than me and either could afford only mediocre horses or whose parents managed a promising horse but not the monthly board and show fees—riders who were “working off” expenses by mucking stalls, resetting fences, cleaning tack, packing the horse van. I liked their workmanlike demeanor and pragmatic approach, because though I never needed to work to whittle expenses (at one point I owned three horses at a time or, I should say, my father did), I also had parents who didn’t brook entitlement.
Laura, a runner, had no interest in horses, and I had no interest in training for a marathon; she had a steady boyfriend, and I had a steady need to spend every moment with my horse. While this might have broken up other teenage girls who had been friends since preschool, it didn’t break us.
Mark and Nancy were good neighbors, and I burrowed further into their family. It was Nancy who found a handyman (before Mark came home) to fix the garage door that I backed into. It was Nancy who folded me in her arms and poured me a scotch and talked me over the unfamiliar grief when the married guy was killed in an accident. It was Nancy who kept me fed when I was too busy studying and too nervous about finals to shop or cook.
When I graduated, it was Mark who gave me a generous check and conducted mock job interviews, and helped me weigh unpaid internships and low wage journalism starter jobs against my father’s offer to fund a few years on the horse show circuit while I tried to make it as a freelance writer—and didn’t criticize my inevitable decision to light out for the West Coast horse show circuit, typewriter in tow.
And when, after eighteen months in California, I moved my horses back to New York and the East Coast circuit, it was Nancy and Mark who gave me their guest room while I apartment-shopped and healed from another break-up, and Nancy who performed a mini-makeover when I plunged into a depression about my big-boned, brown-haired, Italian-girl appearance, fueled by constant exposure to California girls, horse show princesses, and the hopeful actors who had lived in my Los Angeles apartment complex.
Nancy wasn’t classically pretty – she had a long nose, big teeth, kinky hair, freckles, chunky calves—and I liked that about her because I had a wide nose, a broken (and not very elegantly fixed) front tooth, frizzy hair, and thick thighs. But Nancy knew how to buy cosmetics and use them, what expensive clothes could do for a soft figure, the wisdom of paying for a great haircut, and how to use the right blow dryer and brush. She knew, in the early 1980s, about teeth-whitening, juice cleanses, all natural facials, the tonic of a weekly pedicure (manicures were a waste for riders), and what not to wear. She suggested, I nodded. She selected, I agreed. And though I could have paid, she treated.
I’m not sure what I did for Nancy, what I offered or gave her. Perhaps I was the stepdaughter she didn’t get—guileless, rule-bound, happy to hug and hang around the dinner table, who valued her counsel. Maybe I felt like family, when her own was hours away and disapproving, and her husband was consumed with work, and all around town she kept running into people loyal to Mark’s ex-wife. Though she was friendly with other riders, I was the only one whose reach extended beyond the stable driveway. Maybe there was no other reason except, as I’ve always believed, we just clicked.
What I knew about friendship by then was only this: you stuck, until the other person peeled away. And then, you stuck still; things might change. During college Laura was consumed with pre-med studies and her future husband; me with horses and writing, but we reconnected on college breaks and pretended to still understand one another’s lives. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding a few weeks after I graduated; she helped pack when my parents moved to Las Vegas; we loaned each other shoes.
After college, while I was riding on the West Coast circuit and writing for equestrian magazines, Nancy and I kept in touch with phone calls and letters. But her letters grew shorter, clipped, the calls abbreviated. I often reached her answering machine, and I wondered if she was standing in her kitchen listening, as I’d seen her do many times when someone she didn’t care much for phoned with some request. Soon, the letters and calls were mostly about why Nancy and her horses were leaving the fancy equestrian center for a smaller, less competitive stable when she grew more interested in the slow dance of dressage and the science of horse breeding—and in dogs.
When I moved back and settled in an apartment near her house, I returned to our old stable and trainer, but Nancy never visited me there, though I spent chunks of days at the barn where she’d moved her horses.
One chilled spring night she and I met a plane at the nearest major airport, where a flight attendant passed us a sealed medical bucket, a tube of high-priced semen from a champion dressage horse inside. We drove an hour back to Nancy’s stable, freezing because we blasted the air conditioning to keep the sperm active, and when we arrived, I held her mare’s tail aside as Nancy inserted the baster-like syringe. Eleven months later, we slept on horse blankets tossed over hay bales, taking turns to check on that mare every twenty minutes, and I was the one who first spotted the steaming foal in the straw.
Perhaps experiences like this seduced me into thinking we might stay bound, for a long time, forever. When my three-year post-graduate “parentship” of riding and writing ended, I left for a regular job in Manhattan and an apartment back home in New Jersey. There, I found a place at Laura and her husband’s kitchen table, where I also eventually found someone special, someone appropriate and available. I’d still occasionally make the four-hour drive north to visit Nancy and Mark, and one weekend I brought Frank. By then they were living on twenty acres in a stunning Danish modern house they’d designed together. Nancy, by then, had her own barn, but owned more canines than equines and was considering becoming a dog trainer.
For someone who, for thirteen years, had been spending much of each day in a stable and at horse show grounds, where dogs of all kinds and sizes were always in residence, I was surprisingly intolerant of the animal. I found many dogs cute and sometimes admired their loyalty and how their humans loved them, but I did not love dogs. I detested being licked, and I was always tamping down blades of fear that rose whenever any dog, large or small, got too close: as a child, I was once charged by my grandmother’s huge Collie, who lived, wild and wolf-like, on acres of his own.
I wanted to be good-friend-enthusiastic about Nancy’s dog plans, and I thought I was, but that weekend I sensed that she wanted more from me, wanted me to be invested in her three dogs and bigger dog dreams, to be physical with them, and to want to know everything about them, as we once wanted to know everything about one another’s horses. These were Australian Shepherds, energetic, and to my mind, frenetic, aggressive dogs, and I couldn’t get beyond an obligatory pat. The time I’d hoped we’d spend with her horses while Frank and Mark watched a tennis match, we instead spent in an open field, Nancy showing off her dogs’ natural and learned skills. I watched, muttered faint praise, but I was bored and at moments, frightened. I know it showed.
Years later, I would come to think of this as the reason our friendship fractured, but at the time it was clouded by something else that seemed more threatening. On Sunday morning when Frank was in the shower and the three of us were around the kitchen table, I asked what they thought of my boyfriend. Oh,he’s nice, they said, areally great guy—but. But he has no college education. But he’s kind of unsophisticated. But we always pictured you with someone older, someone with money.
I laughed it off, tried to lighten the moment: Ha! I know! Opposites attract, right? But the kitchen air felt heavy and no one was laughing.
I had valued Nancy’s opinions and Mark’s, too, for years, maybe too much. I wanted to remind Nancy that, years before, her friends had warned her off Mark (too old, too married, two kids). I also wanted to say that they were not the only people to think this, that what they were saying I had even said to myself a few times, but that my heart pulled me. But no words formed in my mouth. The subject changed.
A year or so later, I married him.
Since the weekend visit, Nancy and I had talked by phone, written letters. In those conversations, on those pages, everything seemed the same and also different. Though I still had a horse, my equestrian life was winding down, my career and home life expanding. Nancy was selling off her horses, immersing herself in the dog world.
Years later, re-reading those letters, it seemed clear that she was losing interest in what had tied us together, the horses and stables, and maybe more in the idea of keeping up a long distance friendship with someone whose life and interests now no longer matched hers. All I knew then was that so much was left unsaid, unexamined, so unlike in our previous friendship, the one we’d forged in person, on horseback and around a kitchen table.
Frank and I were getting married on Mother’s Day, and several people had replied “regretfully cannot attend,” citing mothers or mothers-in-law or stepmothers. Months before, Nancy had laughed off my request that she be my matron of honor (I’m too old. You should ask your sister), and she’d shown little interest in my wedding planning. Still, this didn’t alarm me. She’d always favored the unfussy approach to traditional events. I was confident I’d see Nancy and Mark at our wedding; Mark’s mother was dead, Nancy’s then estranged, and they disliked “Hallmark holidays”.
But they did not come to our wedding.
When no response appeared, I called, left messages (Did you get the invitation? Are you guys okay? Are you coming?). Even if the invitation had not arrived, my letters had all the details. I knew only that they were just 200 miles away, and that someone who they once held dear was getting married, and they did not respond, did not come, did not send a gift, or a card, did not.
In the end, one of those who stood by my side was my old friend Laura, and her husband handed Frank the ring. They had a child by then, were settling in to parenthood, had a sprawling expensive house, and ascending careers. None of that resembled the life Frank and I were then forging. But we’d stuck.
I thought I might try contacting Nancy and Mark again after my honeymoon, thinking that there must have been some major problem. Mutual acquaintances, however, shrugged and said they knew of nothing that might explain their absence. In the months that followed, I cried, but that was all I did. I did not call, did not write, did not.
In the silence of rejection, guilt and regret rose up. Something precious and important to me was ending and there must have been something I’d done.
Eight years later, I saw Nancy one more time.
After several years of infertility, I then had a two-year-old son and had just miscarried another pregnancy. What had always helped me after an emotional setback was a weekend on my own. I drove upstate on a Friday and spent Saturday visiting a beloved college professor and my old stable—people and places that once made me feel strong and confident, back at a time when I was sure so much good was ahead.
I knew Nancy and Mark had moved ninety miles away, and I took a quiet, long, out-of-the-way route home on Sunday, see-sawing in my mind those first eighty-five miles, debating if I’d stop in or not. I didn’t have an address, but I assumed it wouldn’t be hard to locate them or perhaps Mark’s son Alex, now a caterer in the same small town. When I phoned information, Alex’s number was the first offered, and when I called, he immediately realized who I was, his greeting so effusive that I wondered if we had once been friendlier than I remembered. He said he’d call ahead to let his dad and Nancy know I was on my way, that he was certain they’d both be so very pleased to see me after so long.
As I turned off the main road, it was Mark who was already waving, already trotting out the front door and across the porch and down the front steps, Mark who was smiling when he jogged to meet my car in the gravel drive that separated their large home, a converted Dutch colonial barn, from a huge metal pole barn and kennels where, I’d learn, Nancy ran a major dog training, breeding, and boarding business.
It was Mark who said how happy he’d been when Alex called, Mark who hugged me. It was Mark who assured me that Nancy would be thrilled to see me when she got back from the farmer’s market. And so it was Mark who I talked with for an hour over coffee, Mark who took me on a tour and explained how they’d moved the barn to the property and restored it with period materials and furnished it with regional antiques. It was Mark I told about my small struggling child and his developmental issues and the babies I’d lost and how I might not have another, and it was Mark who said how he was never so happy to have been wrong about someone, meaning Frank. As he talked, I realized that for the first time—which even then I knew was ridiculous given how obvious it suddenly seemed and must have been since the first night I’d had dinner with them—how much Mark reminded me of my father.
He said Nancy would show me around the dog operation, would want to tell me everything about her thriving new business, and why she didn’t ride anymore.
But none of that happened. Nancy came home and registered surprise but little other obvious emotion. She scrubbed vegetables while we talked, and the conversation didn’t have that intense compressed quality of reunited old friends who talk over one another’s sentences and are unable to stop grinning. She did not show me the dog buildings, and we did not talk of horses or the show ring gossip I’d heard the day before. Since I had already told Mark my other stories, I glossed over it all, hoping he’d fill her in later (hoping, too, that he would not). I felt the visit slipping from me. Until then, the weekend had done its job, replenishing my depleted energy, balm for my sore heart, reminding me of all that can still lie ahead; now, I was spiraling back in the other direction.
I had to go.
First though, and while Mark was out of the room, I did ask what I had come to say: “I’ve always wondered—why you didn’t come to my wedding? Did I do something?” I chickened out at the last moment from adding, Why did you leave me? Was it me? I missed you so much. You broke my heart.
I was prepared for anything—a secret illness, scandal, a simmering grudge, an argument that I’d forgotten or pretended was trivial when it wasn’t, some slight I’d once dealt and then denied—but mostly I was prepared for something, some reason, any reason.
The answer came, on waves of Nancy’s throaty laugh. She couldn’t remember, she said. It was years ago, she said. There must have been something going on, she said. Maybe that was when Mark’s business collapsed. The time she’d had kidney stones. Or when they were moving. It could have been breeding season. Maybe they were in Europe.
I am now warm friends with several women at least a decade older than me. Occasionally, when I’m having brunch or a glass of wine with one of them, I find myself thinking, this is someone Nancy would like. When I’m keeping in touch with them via text, Twitter, and Facebook, I occasionally think, if only we had so many ways to stay in touch back then, maybe Nancy and I would still be in touch. Maybe.
I thought of Nancy most recently when Frank and I were setting out food for the New Year’s Eve board-game-party we toss together at the last minute every year with Laura and her husband. Over the years, they have gone as far in the opposite directions as possible from us in matters of politics, religion, child-rearing ideas—even sport teams. But we stick, still. That night, in those quiet moments between our laughter, I drifted, as I do sometimes, to new theories about losing Nancy: I was searching for another older sister who, unlike my own, thought horses were important, and later, when my sister and I grew closer, Nancy sensed that I had less need of her. I was the younger sister Nancy always longed for, and then I eventually, naturally, outgrew the role. I took advantage of their hospitality too constantly. I was the child that she’d agreed, when she married Mark, never to have, and once I’d moved on to adulthood, we’d all outgrown those poorly understood roles.
A few years ago, I looked for them both on Facebook. Mark returned my friend request within hours: So glad to reconnect…what nice looking sons you have…I hope you and Frank are well. He was in his late seventies, posting about running road races, new business ventures, fine wines. He looked great, fit and friendly. For a year, I hit Like on many of his posts. Then they all stopped. I was afraid to find out why.
My friend request to Nancy (Hello old friend…I’d love to be back in touch…I have so many great memories…) languished, and when finally she approved it, there was no personal reply. Her Facebook page was all about dogs. I had nothing to say about that, and finally, nothing to say at all.
LISA ROMEO is a freelance editor and founding faculty member of Bay Path University’s online MFA program. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Under the Sun, Sweet, Hippocampus, Sport Literate, Under the Gum Tree, and several anthologies. She is seeking a publisher for her memoir, The Father and Daughter Reunion: Every Loss Story is a Love Story. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo, or at her blog, where she posts interviews and resources for writers.
My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.
That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.
But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.
“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.
“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”
But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.
As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.
Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.
My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”
“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.
We hugged. Then we laughed.
“What the heck happened to you?” I said.
“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.
“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”
Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”
Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.
We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.
I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.
I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.
At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”
I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.
The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.
I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.
“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”
Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.
“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”
The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.
“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”
“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”
“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”
During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.
“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.
At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”
I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.
“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”
“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
[“Justine” isn’t her real name. —ed.]
KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.
“I’ll take the big room in the back,” Marie announced after our host family waved good-bye, dust trailing their little red Fiat. “That way, you get the room by the front door,” she said to me, “so you can protect us.”
Marie and I hadn’t traveled together for years, and back when we did, it was usually in triple-sheeted luxury hotel rooms at resort destinations where booze and business mixed, and our corporate expense accounts picked up the tab. She’d been that go-to friend for over twenty-five years, even though time and distance and life meant that we sometimes went months—even years, a few times—without talking much. She was the anchor during my divorce over two decades ago, and I can still hear her laughing when I’d call, irate over my estranged husband’s latest transgression. “The only thing funny about it is that you’re so shocked and angry,” she’d say. “Let it go!” She was right, of course, and I’d been reminded of her sage counsel more than once in recent months. My second marriage was crumbling under the weight of deceit and abuse.
Here we were, together again, this time in Solanas, Sardinia—a tiny beach village along the island’s southern coast—in a home exchange arranged months earlier. It had been advertised as a “charming, rustic beachhouse”; it bore little resemblance to the luxury hotels of our traveling past, and, as far as we could tell, had no proximity to anything resembling a beach.
Marie had been my go-to source when Sardinia beckoned, not because she’d ever been there or had any special insight, but because her grandparents emigrated from Sicily over a hundred years ago and their Italian roots held firm, even if her passport proclaimed her an American. What is normally considered spaghetti bolognese, she calls macaroni with gravy, and her pasta lexicon is numeric, vaguely explaining those mysterious numbers on pasta boxes. She’s the diva of her Italian-loving Manhattan meet-up group, and I’m convinced that should someone cut off her hands, her tongue would fall out as well. For all things Italian, she’s my source.
And for that matter, maybe all things too hard to navigate alone.
We’d met back in our DC days, me a young lobbyist for the plastic bag industry, and her, the savvy insider, keeping safe the distilled spirits industry of America. She peddled Boodles gin, Moet champagne, Absolut vodka, and single malt scotch while I tried to convince the nation of plastic’s benefits. She drew the crowd, and I rode her coattails.
It was her DC apartment—its tiny galley kitchen, ten-foot ceilings, and Victorian molding—that was my respite during the drama of my first divorce. My then two-year-old, Owen, knew her as “Aunt Marie,” our wacky friend with the elegant apartment where we had pajama and movie parties, mostly when Mom seemed sad and needed a friend. It was a regular enough occurrence that Aunt Marie’s apartment came to be stocked with Owen’s own melamine bowl and plate and cup, and a can of Chef Boyardee, to be opened only in the event of dire emergency. It should be noted that the can was never opened, Marie horrified by its mere presence in her cupboard. She finally tossed it, declaring that no kid she loved would ever eat that junk.
Sometime after my first marriage and two new kids into my second one, she was my pick to stay with my babies when my new husband and I secretly jetted off to Honolulu in search of schools, housing, and jobs, the next step in my plot to move my family from beltway politics to the beaches of Hawaii. She routinely questioned my logic, first on the new husband—whom she called Church Man because she never remembered his name and because we met at church—then on both my moving strategy and my common sense in choosing her to watch my kids. Unmarried, with no kids of her own and no tolerance for the suburbs, she looked bewildered as I handed her my house keys and a map to the preschool and waved goodbye.
She swears I never called to check on them, a point I contest, but maybe it’s true. But when I returned two weeks later, she’d become the Peter Pan in my children’s magical world. Five-year-old Austin introduced her to Thomas the Tank Engine, and she sat with him, transfixed, convinced that the show’s narrator, George Carlin, would surely revert to his stand-up calling of smut, that this children’s movie phase was purely hallucinogenic.
Like the actress glumly owning her box-office failures, she reported that two-year-old Emmi couldn’t be swayed by Coco Chanel’s timeless fashion wisdom about elegance and simplicity, insisting instead on prints plus stripes plus plaid—and the tiara—on a daily basis. “That’s okay, I guess,” Marie told me. “I did what I could. She’s young. There’s still time. And thank god the women at the preschool knew she wasn’t mine.”
Teenagers now, Austin and Emmi had not spent much time with her in the years since—just short visits whenever we passed through New York City, her home since retiring from her high-flying lobbying days—but time and distance hadn’t dulled her mystique. To them, Aunt Marie was a living, breathing, designer bottle of pixie dust. Me? I believed that bottle to be filled with truth serum and honesty. Exactly the potions I needed about now.
For our Sardinian adventure, we rendezvoused at the airport in Calgieri and giggled like schoolkids as we engineered the inclusion of my family’s meager carry-ons and backpacks in the rental car after stuffing it full with Marie’s steamer trunk, designer carry-on, and expensive leather satchel. There was none of the usual whining as Austin and Emmi crammed in on top of their bags, their feet settling for the cracks between the suitcases on the floorboard. Marie drove, while I navigated the nonsensical maze of narrow, twisting, scare-you-breathless roads between the capital city and our Solanas summerhouse.
While our hosts—Italian grandparents straight out of central casting—escorted us through the history and rustic nuances of their family home, I exchanged nervous glances with Austin and Emmi. Their eyes registered our common thought: the queen of luxury—with her designer bags, Chanel sunglasses, and perfectly manicured nails—is actually going to stay here?
The small, dated kitchen with the lean-to roof jutted off the covered porch, separated from the rest of the house as though an after-thought, behind the bougainvillea vines threatening to overtake the eaves. A wobbly table and chairs—circa 1950 with the formica top and metal frames—anchored the room. Rickety cupboards flanked the fireplace where a picture of the Virgin Mary leaned against the mantle, food splatters suggesting she’d enjoyed more than a few meals here.
Across the small porch, past the simple square table and two wooden straight chairs, Grandma guided us through three sparse bedrooms flanking a space that might have once been the entryway, before TVs demanded a room. Grandma pointed to the mismatched, folded sheets on each bed, miming that we could make our own beds as we wanted. She showed us where she’d cleared the closets so we had room for our belongings and shook her head forcefully when pointing to the closed bureau in the small master bedroom. Off limits. We got the translation. Ignoring our nervous glances, Marie smiled and tested her rusty Italian, chatting and miming with Grandma, conveying our understanding and appreciation.
Outside, Grandpa scurried around the property, showing us the fresh herbs in the garden. The basil and rosemary we recognized immediately, but the thick green leaf vines brought us to a bi-lingual, miming quandary. Crowns, the couple mimed, weaving the vines together and placing them on their heads. Plucking the leaves individually, they held them to their nose then pretended to drop them into a pot, their eyes pleading that we figure it out.
“Bay leaves!” Marie suddenly declared much to our collective relief, our American city-dwelling ignorance in full bloom. Our meager herb gardens never included bay leaves, and we reveled in the just-discovered truth that they weren’t brought forth as those dry, sad leaves in the McCormick jar.
Pulling a small, distressed plank of wood from his pocket, two old fashioned keys bound to it with baling wire, Grandpa tugged me, leading us to the rusty double-wide chain-link entry gate—the one at the end of the dirt path, off the dirt road that intersected the main road that led back to the house—then handed me the key and motioned that I demonstrate my ability to successfully lock and unlock our fortress. I struggled at first, then again. He demonstrated a second time. Marie giggled quietly over my shoulder; I knew better than to catch her eye. With Grandpa’s calloused hand guiding mine, I eventually maneuvered the key into the intricate lock, forced it open, then locked us back in the safety of the compound. Grandpa nodded with satisfaction.
In the kitchen, he pulled the bottle of Mirto from the refrigerator and pointed to the small glasses reserved for the occasion. More miming—berry picking, grinding with a pestle, cooking, stirring, tasting. A Sardinian specialty made from honey and myrtle berries, Mirto liqueur warms from the inside out and sucks the breath away with the first sip. His bottle was hand-labeled “Rosalba Mirto 2012.” He’d made it himself, and named it in honor of his wife, Rosalba. We nodded appreciatively and walked them to their car.
As instructed, I took the room by the door to the porch, the door that didn’t quite close completely, the door for which the only lock was a padlock. On the outside.
No cell service, no Internet, and definitely no three-sheeted luxury beds. A rusty old gate with an antique key that I’d successfully mastered once in my four attempts. A crossroads village with one restaurant, a couple of markets, and one gas station. A winding, indecipherable maze of switch-back, harrowing roads leading in all directions but with no maps or GPS to explain them. And absolutely no idea what we’d do for the next two weeks. We reached for the Mirto.
For the next fourteen days, over early morning coffee at the simple square table on that front porch, kids still sleeping, a catharsis unfolded. Always the first one up, I cut up some melon, made toast, brewed coffee, and retreated to my writing while the birds awoke and chattered in the surrounding trees. Marie joined me an hour or so later. In our faded pajamas, hair pulled back, no signs of make-up or any trappings of luxury, we sipped our coffee in silence until our brain waves fired with the first jolts of caffeine. Then the stories poured out. Each morning, a ceremonial ritual commenced, an exhalation, a release of the long-held weights that I’d not even acknowledged I’d been carrying.
“I never, ever expected to be twice divorced at fifty.”
She nodded and shrugged.
“I loved him, you know.”
She pursed her lips, shook her head ever so slightly, and locked her eyes onto mine. I knew the look all too well. It was the same one she gave me whenever I doubted my ability to get a job done. Or when I wore something she didn’t approve of, which happened so often that I took to planning my wardrobe around my plans to see her. A look of impatience, hoping I’ll eventually catch up and realize the error of my ways.
“I’ve supported myself and my kids all these years, but can I really do it again? Can I start over? Re-build a career?” Her eyebrows arched, the pshaw audible. “I’m a tired, fifty-year-old, overweight woman with rebuilt boobs cross-stitched by a freeway system of scars and no nipples because I never went back to have that done after the mastectomy. And I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m going to do next.”
Marie guffawed, the kind of belly laugh that she’d release whenever I complained about my first ex-husband.
“Really?” she said. “We’re here, facing all this, and we’re talking about your boobs?”
Once again, she was right. I laughed. “At least they’re all perky again. I don’t have to wear a bra, you know. They stand up all on their own.”
Over those mornings, on that porch in the wobbly chairs beneath the bougainvillea vines, along with the smell of fresh toast and a dwindling supply of coffee, I exhaled, letting go the months—years, maybe—of fear and destruction and failures that defined my marriage. That Marie never quite liked Church Man in the first place made it all the more poignant. She never reminded me she hadn’t liked him. She just listened.
I held back the lurid details: the slamming me against the walls, the forced sex after my chemo treatments—rape, I’d eventually come to understand—the monies stolen, hidden, and squandered. But in those mornings, those facts didn’t matter. I wasn’t quite ready to speak those truths out loud, preferring instead to write about them first.
With Marie, it wasn’t about the details of what had happened, but rather, what was happening with me. Now. Time and distance would sort out the past, I knew; my challenge now was the journey forward, what happens next, and she was my most trusted guide.
“How could I let my kids down like this? Will Emmi ever know what a healthy relationship looks like? Will Austin?”
“Yes,” she reassured me. “They will. Because you will teach them.”
“How could I have been so stupid? How did I rationalize it, ignore the obvious, let it keep happening? Am I really one of those women, the he-loves-me-no-matter-how-he-treats-me types?”
“You loved him,” she reminded me. “You believed what you wanted to believe.” Then she reminded me of her friend, the one whose husband was fired from his seven-figure post, and only after his failed suicide attempt did she know of his years of deceit and embezzlement—and that they were completely broke. “It happens,” she reminded me. “And we pick up the pieces and move on.”
I talked about my anger—the type that boils up from within and sticks to the tips of my fingers and the back of my tongue, tainting everything that passes through my hands or from my mouth. I talked, and she listened.
“Life never turns out like we think it will,” she said. “Who’d have thought I’d end up single, facing retirement in a 600-squarefoot mid-town apartment and loving it?” She told stories of her childhood, living in a walk-up apartment on East 5th, between Second and Bowery, raised by doting parents whose factory on Canal Street in Chinatown made Christmas stockings and aprons and hats, and doll dresses in the off season. “I remember we were the only ones of all my friends to have a shower and a sink in our bathroom,” she recalled, smiling. The teenager who always wore her best dress to visit the neighbors, apparently a fashionista even in the ’hood. The young lady who got a secretarial job and climbed the corporate ladder to eventually be the legislative voice of a multi-million dollar company. She’d defied tradition, expectation. And none of it had come easy.
“Remember your treks out to Staten Island?” I reminded her, giggling. Every weekend—even into her fifties—she’d retrieve her car from the garage to visit her dozens of cousins and ailing aunts, all of whom sent her home with fresh tomatoes and basil and pastas, because “you just can’t get good food in the city.”
“You and the kids really have to come to New York at Christmas,” she insisted. “Come to my party. Matt and Jake put up the ten-foot tree and do all the cooking,” she explained, “and I only invite people I really, really like.” Her family—friends from a rich career and special people collected along the way—all gathered around for the holidays, and Marie holding court. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the season.
I listened to her stories of dinner and theatre dates with girlfriends she’s known for decades, and stories of the men she dates occasionally—nothing serious, just company, she assured me. I admired her strength—the same strength and charisma that drew me to her so many, many years ago. “You’re a great mom,” she said, abruptly changing the subject. “You’re going to be fine.” Her sudden turn shocked me. In that moment, somewhat surprised, I realized that she admired me, too.
Without the clutter of technology, under the birds’ chirping and flapping, in the company of that old friend rediscovered again, I found the acceptance to own my past. And the realization, as she put it, to rebuild and move on.
Eventually our mornings turned to afternoons, and breakfast gave way to a drive into Villisimius, the resort town seven kilometers away, where the waiters at La Lanterna held our favorite table and knew our favorite dishes. We wandered in and out of every tourist shop, jewelry store, and occasional boutique and made a point to try every gelato joint in town.
We managed to conquer the switchback roads, and even went exploring beyond Villisimius a few times, always getting lost, and always managing to eventually wind back to the summer house, our only landmark the blooming cactus that hung so low over the dirt road that I ducked every time we drove under it. I handed off my gate duties to Austin, who turned out to be far more talented at ancient key mastery than me.
Sunset always brought us home again, to those wobbly chairs and creaky table, where re-matches of “Name that Tune” would commence. The kids had thought it lame when Marie suggested it that first night after dinner, in those hours when TV and the web might otherwise fill the void. But when she cranked up her iPhone to sounds from Flo Rida and Emeli Sande in her first few challenges, they were hooked. It became their obsession, and over the two weeks, and countless challenges, Marie never missed a beat.
I wandered through the summerhouse garden, hanging our laundry on the clothesline strung between the trees, just past the rope swing where Emmi and Austin wiled away the early evenings. I marveled at the bay leaves, their strong vines weaving a maze amidst their small plot. They aren’t dried and wrinkly at all. Sometimes discovery is gradual. Sometimes, it comes all at once. No, my marriage couldn’t be saved, I realized. And what’s more, it shouldn’t be.
Our two weeks coming to a close, we reluctantly packed our things and headed to bed on our last night there. I drafted an email to Marie, to be sent once we finally had internet again, attaching a copy of the essay I’d been writing—the long, rambling, lurid story of my marriage, its collapse, and the truths too painful to share on that porch. “Here’s the entire story, including the stuff I couldn’t say on that porch,” I wrote. “Thanks for listening.”
Just then, Austin whispered, “Holy shit!” loudly in my direction as he looked out the window into our courtyard, just beyond the table where we sat every morning. “Come look at this, Mom!”
Emmi and I rushed to his side, adjusting our eyes to the dark garden, lit only by a glimmer of moonlight through the olive trees. Slinking along the wall of the shed, silently gliding towards the porch, it was unmistakable. The moonlight cast an eerie reflection off its beady eyes—a rat, far bigger and fatter than any housecat we knew, and it was headed straight for the house.
“Don’t tell Aunt Marie!” Austin and Emmi whispered in unison.
“No shit,” I said in return.
I slammed shut the door next to my room—the front door, the one onto the porch, the one without a lock—and slid a chair in front of it for extra measure. She’d put me in that room for protection. It was the least I could do.
POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two kittens, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She is currently plotting to split her time between Honolulu and her other favorite city, Paris, where she spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop. Besides Full Grown People, for which this is her second essay,her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including Travelati, Hawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. She hasn’t made it yet, but she still plans to eventually show up at Marie’s annual Christmas party. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.
My best friend Dan has a girlfriend. She’s tall, like me. She wears cowboy boots and has a lot of energy and almost a thousand followers on Twitter. She’s a talented artist, and is launching her own business, and is friendly and pretty. Dan says that he likes her very much, and he seems happier than he has in a long time.
This is great. All I want, I’ve been saying to anyone who would listen for the past two years, is for him to be happy. He’s a great guy and he should find a great girl and be really happy. Great!
Except now I’m miserable.
Two years ago, my best friend was my boyfriend and we were living together in an apartment in San Francisco. We were indeed best friends, and roommates … and it kind of felt like that was the extent of our relationship. We were both pretty depressed and in bad situations at work (that is: we hated our jobs). We stayed in and binged on pizza and TV and movies. We didn’t really have any other friends. Everything was almost a flatline. Dan and I were both so easygoing, so low-energy, that if there was a problem we’d just shrug and go bury ourselves in a book (him) or the internet (me). When I told him I wanted to break up, he kept saying, But we get along so well. I don’t understand. I said that was true, that we were great friends, but there was something else that was supposed to be there. A spark that was lacking. An intensity. Just a little passion. For our own lives—to get out of our awful jobs, to go surfing and hiking and take trips like we always said we wanted to—and for each other. I was sorry, but I was firm. It was over.
The next three months were some of the worst of my life. We were both trying to find a place to live, sleeping in the same bed at night but not touching, except sometimes when I was crying and he would hold my hand. We’d mope around the apartment until one of us said something funny, and we’d laugh until we remembered we were breaking up. Then we’d grow sullen again.
We never really took a break. I knew that I wanted Dan to be in my life forever, but I said it was up to him if he wanted to remain friends. If he needed some time and space away from me, I totally understood. But he didn’t, and we moved right into a close friendship. Even though we were broken up, we were still each other’s “person.” We picked each other up from the airport. He watched my dog while I was out of town. He was the one I texted when something funny happened or I heard a stupid joke about Willie Nelson. We went to movies, took surfing lessons, went camping and hiking. We did all of the things we’d talked about doing when we were dating. And I kept saying, I just want him to be happy! We both got better jobs. He dated a few girls, but those relationships just seemed to make him stressed out. I dated a few guys, but that went nowhere. None of them made me laugh like Dan did. And we went on, going to museums together, going to concerts, eating hot wings… Until she showed up.
At first I was genuinely glad for him. And then I was not. Then I was a wreck.
I was hurt, too. Hurt that he didn’t have as much time for me, hurt that he might enjoy another woman’s company as much or more than mine. All the time that I’d been encouraging him to move on, to let go, I didn’t really understand what that would mean, what it might feel like. It felt like a cannonball to the stomach.
I began to feel jealous. Dan and I would spend a great day together, riding our bikes to the beach and getting lunch, browsing second-hand records, laughing and joking the entire time. And then we’d ride back and he’d break off to bike to her house, to spend the night with her while I went home alone.
Choose me, I began thinking at him when we were together, when he would text me that he couldn’t hang out because they were going to some party or some pop-up fashion show or something else so cool and exclusive it would have never even appeared on my radar. Choose me. Choose me. The thing was, he had chosen me, and I had ended it. Somehow I managed to turn his moving on into a rejection. He was leaving me; he was breaking my heart. Somehow I had to prove I was the better woman; I was the right choice.
Oh, come on, you selfish asshole, leave him alone and let him be happy. You just want what you can’t have, were some of my first thoughts as, I’m sure, they are your first thoughts.
And to that I will say: fair enough. Except. Except.
I’m not completely sure that’s true. It’s never been easy just being Dan’s friend. I still believe breaking up was absolutely the right thing to do. We’ve become more active, much closer, and a lot more honest. When Dan and I were together, I had a lot of secrets. I was alarmingly preoccupied with my previous relationship. I was a raging, obsessive Grizzly on the inside. I was so stuck on how this other guy had wronged me that I couldn’t be present for the guy who was in front of me, who took care of me when I had a scratched cornea—waking up every three hours to give me pain medicine, feeding me pizza, washing my hair while I soaked in the tub and cried. But I was too afraid to tell him about the beast in my head. How would that conversation go? Sorry I’m acting so weird. I’m just completely obsessed with my ex-boyfriend. Well, yeah, maybe something like that. At least then it would have been out in the open, and we could have talked about it and maybe I would have been surprised by the result. But I didn’t give us that chance. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. I was so afraid I would lose the relationship that I didn’t speak up to save it. And then, after a while, I just gave up.
So what? I had my chance. What was I doing during the two years before the great girl (G.G.) entered the picture? Well, I was alone for a long time, trying to figure out what kind of life I wanted. I was dating other people and realizing how rare it was to connect with someone so deeply. I was getting the proper help for all the bullshit that I was carrying around from my other relationship. I was discovering that intensity wasn’t love, and that Dan’s way of showing love was maybe not flashy, but it was heartfelt. Over the past year I would sometimes look at him, and feel both a warmth and a sadness, wondering if things would be different now. Would I still feel that lack of spark, or would I find it now that I could be really, truly honest and vulnerable with him, now that I was no longer keeping a piece of myself tucked away like a demented squirrel with a rotten nut? Now that I could accept him for what he was, instead of critiquing all the ways he wasn’t my psychotic ex?
I didn’t get a chance to find out. He moved pretty quickly from a tumultuous, six-month relationship into one with the G.G. He told me about her right away, and said he wanted me to meet her. All right, I thought, he’s finally found that great girl! And she is great, actually. We’ve met a few times, and she doesn’t mind if Dan and I are friends. (I honestly can’t say I would be cool with my boyfriend being such good friends with his ex, but maybe that’s because I have a treacherous mind, and she’s a G.G.).
So why am I suddenly not okay with it? I don’t know if it’s because he’s becoming someone else’s person and I’m mourning the relationship that ended two years ago, doing the grieving I didn’t really get to do because we moved so quickly into a friendship. It might be that things are shifting and changing, and that a lot of times that really hurts, even if it’s a good thing. Maybe eventually it will stop hurting, and I can truly feel glad for him without a sting of pain in my heart. I have to accept that we won’t spend Christmas or Thanksgiving together. We won’t go visit his dad in Texas. But that’s what a break-up means, and maybe we’ve just been putting it off. Maybe I feel a sudden, fierce need for him because he’s moved on, and I haven’t yet, and I don’t know what the future holds. I do know what the past holds—someone who believed in me and treated me kindly. And also someone who didn’t have a lot of ambition, who didn’t touch or hug me often or show affection in public. There’s no face on my future. It’s completely unknown. If Dan isn’t my person, then who is?
One night as I was sitting on my floor, crying and listening to Billy Bragg records, I wondered if I my dilemma had ever been represented somewhere. Had I seen this before? Was there something I could look to for guidance, for comfort? I realized that yes, there was something, and it wasn’t very flattering: I was a less charming Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. All this time I was feeling sorry for myself, but I had not been wronged. If anything, I got what I asked for. And if I took things further, if I started to try and pry them apart, to highlight all the ways I was right for him and she was wrong, I was going to be the villain in the story. It doesn’t feel great to realize you’re the bad guy, even if you aren’t trying to be.
So, what am I going to do? Nothing, really. All this confusion requires no action except that I back off and keep my mouth shut. I will not spill to him about my internal struggle. I will not tell him that when they post Instagram photos of their adventures together I want to punch a wall. I will not say, I think maybe I might want to try again? Because as it stands, he’s unavailable and I am unsure. Even if I were sure, I would have no right to interfere with his new relationship. His happiness is, in fact, very important to me, and so is our friendship. What I am going to do is keep working on myself, and figuring out what I want, and keep moving forward. I will wonder, and be sad, and write about it, and just be his friend. Part of me thinks I’m a terrible person for even having these feelings, but then, they’re just my feelings. If I’ve learned one thing from sitting in a rut, thinking isn’t doing. I can dissect my thoughts to the atomic level and no harm is done. Like I said, there is nothing to be done, unless he becomes single and I am certain I want to risk our friendship for another shot at romance.
Who knows—maybe she really is his person and their relationship will finally close the chapter on whatever it is Dan and I have been doing the past two years. Maybe her arrival will be the best thing that ever happened to our friendship. Maybe I’ll send her flowers.
BROOKE FERGUSON lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her dog. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, Index/Fist, and Sparkle & Blink, and she was recently a writer in residence at Starry Night Retreat in New Mexico. She blogs about movies at http://tallbrooke.wordpress.com/
[This is kind of art you get when your editor is a former band geek. —ed.]
By Rebecca Stetson Werner
In the enormous domed metal building—a cavernous space dominated by three regulation size basketball courts where adults coach the kids’ teams, shouting to be heard above the din—I find the court for Nicholas’s game and quickly sit down on the bleachers. Every once in a while, a dissonant buzzer shrieks, so awful a sound, so jarring it makes my scalp tingle, and I curl in on myself in anticipation of the next blast.
Nicholas’s good friend passes him the ball. He catches it, sort of, but his grip is not quite firm enough, and it barrels on through his hands and down onto his shoe, bouncing out of bounds. I hear a groan and a snicker from somewhere to my left. I fight the desire to turn and glare at the person. Nicholas smiles, forcedly, and I see him apologize to his friend.
Then he throws me a pained look. Hoping to communicate with him as the one person in the crowd who knows and holds his vulnerability, I try to return my best version of what proves to be an impossible expression: a blend of a smirk moving into a softening around the eyes and then a goofy grin, with a bit of a shoulder shrug.
But I am not sure I get the expression right, and I may have missed my chance to connect and communicate with him. Because today, from the moment I entered the arena, I have retreated to the sidelines, taken a stance as an outsider. I am tense, self-conscious, distracted, and frustrated with those around me.
While all the other parents on the bleachers chat and yell and gesture and growl, I am caught up in my own head, spinning through a series of questions. When did this happen? How did we get here? When did we stop wanting our children to play nicely together, stop insisting on apologies when they hurt one another, stop valuing kindness and social skills above competitiveness and drive? And when did it become a good play to foul someone on purpose? When did we stop calling careful with that stick across the playground and start shouting check him?
“Out of the paint!”one parent bellows. Another shouts, “Boards!” every time a player shoots. I have no idea what they mean and wonder if I may be eavesdropping on a bizarre carpentry-focused reality show. I amuse myself for a bit by trying to overlay this crowd’s behavior onto a playground scene from when our children were younger. I imagine what it would have been like to sit on the benches next to the swings with coffee cups in our hands, interrupting one friend’s narration of her clogged mammary gland to shout to one of our kids: Swing harder! Pump those legs! Come on, work those monkey bars! Share those Cheerios!
I’m tempted to turn to the parents beside me on these bleachers and offer an explanation for myself: I was in the band.
In high school, I was a band geek, although there were lots of other, less kind names for members of this motley gang of musicians. On Friday nights, when the popular kids would sit in the bleachers with their French fries and sodas and cheer for their friends on the football team, I was there, too. But off to the side, clad in a royal-blue polyester men’s uniform, helmet perched atop my head, its plumes long ago snapped in half, yellowed, or simply lost.
On school days, I stood when the intercom called for the pep rally participants to go to the gym, and I left the room with all the Blue Knights in team jerseys and school colors. In the gymnasium, however, I was absent from the groupings of chairs in the center of the polished wood floors. Instead, I sat First Chair, adjusting my piccolo to a well-tuned B flat and offering it to each member of the pep band. Then I’d sit down again and await our turn to accompany the cheerleaders and play our school’s fight song.
And it wasn’t just pep band. I could also be counted on to maintain the spacing and pace of the most complex marching band formations, my whole row guiding left toward me, peering across the music holders affixed to their bent elbows. In the two-person pit orchestra, I routinely covered three woodwind instruments during school musicals, and would lean across the flute, piccolo, and oboe that lay in my lap so that I could reach the keys of the synthesizer. I must admit: I am a bit embarrassed for myself right now as I write this. Total nerd. But these musical talents did help me pass a bit socially, counterbalancing my polyester uniform and allowing me to relate to the jocks and popular kids. Sadly, these impressive skills were not sufficient to produce a flurry of prom invitations.
At some point during high school, I began singing, a sensible extension of my musical activities. Although some of my most important relationships were formed through singing groups, I never felt completely at ease in the choirs I joined. So I wasn’t surprised when, after her school choir concert, our daughter Julia unintentionally voiced what I also struggled with when singing. I asked her what it had felt like to be on stage, to stand before an audience.
“Well, I liked it when I played the xylophone,” she said. “I knew what to do with my hands. I didn’t know what to do with them when I was singing.”
Like me, it seems, Julia may be an instrumentalist at heart. I was accustomed to holding and playing instruments on stage, to having something protective between me and the audience. I often carried my black cases with me to keep my instruments warm enough, or because they didn’t fit in my locker, also conveniently giving my hands purpose as I moved through my school’s crowded hallways. I used to practice fingerings for scales on my desktop. It gave me something to do while I chatted with the more gregarious kids before classes began. Even now, when I am feeling nervous, my adult fingers long for the feeling of my oboe’s cold wood and silver. I can still call forth the smell of cedar and beeswax and saliva wafting up into my face as I open the case. I can even hear the creaking of the hinge as it opened and the snapping shut of the lid to my reed box. I mentally run my finger down the turkey feather I used to swab my oboe dry after I played.
But singing? As Julia said, it’s just you and your voice on the stage. But I pushed through this unease, this vulnerability, for whatever reason, and it led to something, someone, for me.
My husband, Jonathan, and I met in our college’s choir. He was a dancer and a singer in high school. He tells me of an awkward stage involving leg warmers and acne medication and asking a friend when football rehearsal was over. When we met on his first day of college, I was his assigned greeter, or what we called a hand holder, sitting with him while he waited to audition for the choir that I had already joined. What I noticed about Jonathan—after overcoming my fascination with his strange fashion choices, including a do rag, white t-shirt, tightly cinched pants and shirt cuffs—was that, though I was there to make him feel less nervous as he waited, he was not nervous at all.
The next time we met was in the basement storage room of the performing arts center. I, in my role as choir manager, was responsible for fitting the newly selected men for their tuxedos. This was my first time measuring inseams for men’s attire, and Jonathan, third in line, intervened. Clearly I looked as confused and mortified as I felt, awkwardly holding a measuring tape, trying to figure out how I was going to determine pant lengths for all these young men I did not yet know. “Have him hold the top, and you hold the bottom down by his ankle,”he suggested.
Ah. Ankle. That’s good. I can handle ankles.
But I think the night that our relationship moved from friendship to more than that was at the famed a cappella karaoke night. That evening, we sang each other’s songs. Which is not a euphemism. We actually sang each other’s solos from our respective a cappella groups. There were a lot of red plastic Solo cups in people’s hands that night, though not in his or mine.
He actually volunteered to sing my song, confidently and in full voice, which was a folky Tuck and Patty love song. Jonathan knows how to work a room. But I was then involuntarily pushed up to the front of the crowd as his group began the accompaniment to his signature song, “The Reflex”by Duran Duran. He typically performed with full choreography, and there was clearly some expectation that I would shimmy along with his group as they boogied down. I was completely terrified and uncomfortable and breathless and uncool and not at all uninhibited by the contents of a Solo cup. Yet he stood in the middle of the crowd and mouthed the words for me, smiling warmly the whole time.
In that moment of my vulnerability and his strength, my discomfort and his ease, and during many other moments in the next few years in which we flipped and flopped roles of lending support and revealing weaknesses, our friendship grew into understanding of and love for each other. We were able to give each other what we needed when working through our most difficult, most vulnerable moments.
There was the night, sitting in the middle of our college’s clay tennis courts, in which he—overwhelmed by his work and the high expectations and his exhaustion—confessed, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” And I told him he could, and we did. Together. We created our us and, eventually, our family. We sang Tuck and Patty while rocking our babies years later. And our kids still think we are so weird when we lapse into the fle-fle-fle-fle-flex refrain on road trips.
Back then, we didn’t think about selecting someone who had skills that complemented the other’s. We didn’t anticipate the need to tackle our own home improvements or the requirement that we support all of the different homework subjects. Or that one person’s musicality should be rounded out by the other’s athleticism. And therefore, given our poorly planned love, our house is repaired with duct tape and the kitchen faucet drips. Yet we have inadvertently managed to rock the homework subject coverage at the kitchen counter. And, although our three children each fall in their own unique place on the continuum between gregarious and introverted, luckily, between Jonathan and I, we truly understand them.
Yet without question, our weakest collective skill set is athleticism. Jonathan is a self-described great blue heron with sore knees when asked to assume an athletic stance. And I am awkward and clumsy and often find it difficult to walk across a room without tripping. Of course, as with home improvement and homework coverage, engineering well-rounded genetic loading for one’s potential offspring is not typically how one goes about choosing a mate. One is much more likely to be drawn to another who likes the same things, someone who also shows up to the same a cappella karaoke event.
This us, Jonathan and I. What we know from experience, despite our lack of sports expertise, is the importance of allowing oneself to feel and express one’s vulnerability. And we know the importance of where you place yourself in a crowd. As a couple, we are the result of the push and pull of social dynamics playing out while two people connected amidst a crowd’s pulse and noise. And we know how coming together—finding each other through an extended moment across the room—can evolve into a life together. A dance in which two people stop synchronizing themselves with those around them and fall into their own rhythm. Jonathan and I? We wish for nothing more than these moments, these connections, for our children.
Lately, I have been returning to that nervous, uncertain glance Nicholas shot me across the basketball court. About who I was, or perhaps wasn’t, for him in that moment. And about how Nicholas saw me, sitting among the spectators as well, caught up in my wonder at how our children are getting older and at how parenting requirements change with time. I lost sight of how this is all still about the connections, about forming the closest and strongest relationships we can with each other, relationships during our childhood serving as a springboard for embracing and moving out into the rest of the world. I want to change how I receive his searching look when it next comes my way. Though I know this will not always be the case, our children are still young enough that their raw and vulnerable glances are still directed at me.
Nicholas’s glance has also sent me back into my memory of that moment, albeit a more grown-up moment, between Jonathan and me so many years ago. Of the feeling of finding Jonathan across the crowd. And how that look moved us forward, shored us up, and helped us live. And the desire for connection with Jonathan is still there. I still hope for our eyes not to pass over each other, searching through the mess of parenting and work and distraction and stress. For our eyes to meet and linger, for this look to make the noise around us quiet. Once these intense and precious few days of parenting these beings has shifted and they move outward, that Jonathan and I will still be us, still finding each other, as the crowd thins and moves on. And for our growing children to see this, to know we are in the crowd for them now and for each other, available and strong. And for them to someday find this for themselves with another.
REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband and three children. She has contributed to Taproot and Grounded Magazine; this is her second essay for Full Grown People. She writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at treetoriver.com.