January 26, 2007
The four of us, Erik, Judy, John, and I, met in college and were the best of friends in every way. There was one night we went to dinner shortly before graduation where we made a toast and vowed that we would always remain that way, closer than anyone had ever been before, what we thought would be the key to our friendships’ success. We were naïve and self-centered. As if no one had ever made that vow before. As if we were in some way original. As if saying something would make it true. Who would have thought that such a toast would lead to us knowing too much about one another? Who would have thought that only twenty years later, my best friend would be dying and my daughter would be asking why my husband and I had split up when she was just ten years old?
Different parts of me want to tell her different things. One part says to just tell her the truth already, she deserves to know. Another says that she’s just not ready, wait a little longer. Another says that even if she was ready to hear the truth, I promised I would never tell her (and even if I was willing to break the promise to myself, I could never break the promise I made to him). The part of me that’s in pain, already mourning the loss of my friend though she is still here physically, that part just wants to scream at my daughter that now is not the time for her to be thinking about herself and the past; she should be there for Carrie, who is losing her mother, and that she’ll regret it later if she isn’t there for Carrie now. That’s what you do for your best friend when she’s hurting. You put your own problems aside and focus on someone else’s. It’s also the best way I know to make it feel as if you don’t have any problems yourself, a form of emotional procrastination.
But good luck telling that to a teenager. Then there’s that last part of me. The part that knows that the real reason I won’t tell my daughter the truth is because I’m afraid of what might happen as a result. It’s a domino affect. Once I tell her this truth, who knows how many other secrets will come out. I used to imagine what would happen if I told it, just who would be affected and in what ways. But then I began losing track of my calculations and the enormity of it all combined with the fear to keep it locked away somewhere in the back of my throat. Right now, all the hurt is trapped in the past. Telling the truth will only bring it to the present and let it loose into the future.
“Mom?” I came out of my daze. Samantha was waiting impatiently. “I’m sick of being given the run around every time I ask about this. Every time I ask Dad he gets all red and mad and says, ‘Ask your mother why don’t you?’ When I ask you, you just ignore me all together, like I’m going to just forget about it.” She pauses to catch her breath and hesitates before going on again. “If it had anything to do with me… Just tell me, okay.”
I immediately go into Mom-mode. “Of course it had nothing to do with you.” She doesn’t seem very reassured. I wouldn’t be if I was in her situation. I wish that I was in her situation. As bad as not knowing can be, the torture of possibility isn’t nearly as bad as not being able to do anything about a painful truth. I want so much to spare her from the pain, shame, humiliation, I don’t even know what. I won’t do it to her, and that’s that. I won’t be responsible for hurting her. I’ve already done enough. “Dad left because of me.” I say it in the same cold tone I know I always use when I talk about Erik. The emotions I used to hold in connection with him vanished a long time ago.
She doesn’t realize that I’m trying to protect her. She seems to think I won’t tell her because I’m embarrassed about not being able to hold my family together, that I fear the truth behind my failure. That’s the way that her teenage mind works. She doesn’t know that I gave up on success a long time ago. I’ve learned that with time the shame that comes with failure dulls. But then, she still doesn’t know what I’ve known and lived with for more than just the six years since Erik divorced me.
“Come on, Mum. It had to be about more than just that. I mean, why did he leave us? You were the one who put up with him and his outrageous hours for years.” I’ve got to admit, she knows how to word it to try to get me to open up. Fake sympathy and understanding, classic. Her use of “us” could break my heart if I let it. “If anyone had reason to leave it was you. So why didn’t you? You didn’t want your marriage to break up or you would have done it yourself, so why didn’t you fight for him when he left? If it wasn’t important enough to fight for, why not leave him first?” Now she’d turned the marriage into a competition, and according to her rulebook, I’d lost.
I can’t tell her that I’d resigned myself to the reality of my miserable marriage long before my husband left me, because it had helped to assuage the guilt; that I’d let my husband leave me because it was the easiest release.
Instead I tell her something that isn’t technically a lie but is most definitely not the truth. “He and I had a difference of opinion and found out we wanted different things from life at that time.” It’s bullshit and she knows it so I try to shoot her a look ordering her to drop the subject, but she can’t help pushing it a little bit further. She thinks that she’s wearing me down.
“What does that mean?” she asks. “You guys had one blow-out fight and decided to throw in the towel?” Now she was letting her anger show.
I look my daughter in the eyes with a look that, hopefully, demands that this be the end of the conversation. “Your father wanted to have more children. We tried but found out that we couldn’t.”
She doesn’t say anything else, just rolls her eyes and walks out of the room. But before she turns the corner she shoots me a look of her own, one that says that we may be done talking about it for the moment, but that the subject is by no means closed. She learned that look from Erik, I’m certain of it. I’ve seen it too many times to doubt it. What she doesn’t know is that she’ll have to figure most of it out on her own, just like he did. I’ve always been exceptionally good at keeping my mouth shut and it will take more than just her stubbornness and juvenile determination to get it out of me.
September 27, 1985
I pushed her into this night and she knows that I owe her for it. She’s a little on edge. I’m nervous about tonight too but not in the same way that she is. She hasn’t even met John yet so I guess I understand why isn’t sure about our setting her up with his best friend. I’m nervous in that giddy way I always seem to have when I have a date with John but tonight is the real test.
Even though we’ve been dating for a few weeks now, I’ve put off introducing him to Amy. Part of it is the simple fact that I don’t want to share him with anyone. I mean, of course I’ve told her about him (I’ve told her every little thing to the point where she bought ear plugs to shut me out, but I only gushed louder at her). But now that she is about to meet him, I’m afraid of what she’ll think of him. I can put any criticisms she may have about him to the side while she hasn’t officially met him. Once they talk though, all the doubts I have will start to eat at me as I await her reaction. She has always been nice enough and veiled when we discussed the ones she’d met, but what she doesn’t say is always sitting there between us and I can just tell what she’s thinking. Like the guy I dated who did the spitting thing. She didn’t say anything about it and it hadn’t bothered me before she met him, but her not saying anything about it spoke volumes.
It used to drive me crazy trying to talk to Amy about serious things. She is so content to just sit back and listen but rarely says anything back, and certainly not what she’s really thinking. It’s always made me feel awkward and like I’m talking to myself. Now though, I appreciate it and understand her need to keep things to herself (well, I understand that she does it, but I’m still not certain as to why she does it). She doesn’t seem to have many friends other than myself. I guess it’s because there are few people who are up to the challenge of figuring her out or trying to get to know her. I know I was surprised at how much time and effort it took when we were freshman roommates, but I also got to be around her when she was apt to let her defenses down (which, let me just say, isn’t all that often).
Tonight, her senses are on high alert and I feel guilty about putting her into this situation. If things go badly I know I’ll never forgive myself. John has been asking to meet my friends for a week or two now and I had no problem introducing him to a handful of members from my usual group of friends, but I didn’t want as much pressure to be put on his meeting Amy (if that makes any sense at all). Meeting the best friend is just one step before a guy meeting my parents in my book. That’s why I began pushing the idea of a double date of sorts. John had told me about his best friend and frat-mate Erik so I suggested the two of us setting our two best friends up. The more I think about it now in the minutes leading up to the boys coming to pick us up, the more I’m realizing that it’s a stupid plan that’s probably going to backfire in my face.
But as Amy turns around before me in a navy dress with short wispy sleeves and that ends just below her tanned knees, I smile as though I have no doubts about anything. Her face is calm and serene the way that it always is and always will be, but I know that she has a great desire to stab me with whatever implement is at hand the moment something goes awry this evening (it’s probably good we’re going to an Italian restaurant and not a steak-house).
“Hold on,” I tell her and turn to my jewelry box. I pull out a sapphire pendant on a silver chain and help her put it on. It goes perfectly with the v-neck cut of her dress and makes her grey eyes seem bluer. She refused to let me tease her hair up. Instead she has let it out of its braid and it lays in golden waves over her shoulders and down her back. I gave up trying to convince her to get it cut shorter and style it in a more… popular way last week, but maybe will try again next week.
“Amy, it’s too much,” she protests and makes a move to take it off but she catches her reflection in the mirror and her fingers stroke the fine chain.
“It’s not too much, it’s the only piece of jewelry you’re wearing. You won’t get your ears pierced so you’ve got to have something to keep his eyes up towards your head.” Though the necklace actually brings the eye down… but she won’t understand what I’m saying. Anything just so long as she doesn’t look underdressed. I don’t want her to make me look like an idiot for suggesting this. “Now move over so I can check myself. You sure you don’t want to borrow my eye shadow? I’ve got a nice blue that’ll go with your outfit.” I rub my front teeth with my finger to make sure there’s no lipstick stuck on them. Amy’s still focused on the necklace.
“No, but maybe I’ll borrow some of your lipstick after all.” I pull the lipstick out and go to put it on her myself but she manages to wrestle it out of my hands and applies it herself, just enough to hint at some color.
“Now come on. You can’t even tell that you put any on.”
“That’s the way that I like it,” she said simply and tossed the tube into the pile with my other supplies. I grind my teeth a little, hoping nothing broke.
I spray on some more hair spray to keep a few stray pieces in place and adjust my skirt so it shows more leg. There’s a knock from down the hall and I know that the boys are here. I step into my spike heels, nearly twisting my ankle as I hurry to answer the door. Amy wears sensible heels, which remind me of something a librarian would wear but I know I’ll be asking to trade with her later when my feet start killing me.
I open the door where John is waiting in a wrinkled shirt, holding out a handful of cheap grocery store flowers. The man I assume to be Erik is hanging back a little and I wait for John to introduce us. I take the flowers and invite them in. Groping for a vase in a cabinet but have to settle for a washed out spaghetti sauce jar to house the flowers. I lead them further into the apartment. Amy is nowhere to be found so I have to call out to her.
September 27, 1985
I can hear Judy let them into the apartment and I freeze. I can’t believe that I let her talk me into this blind date, double date, whatever the appropriate name for this disaster-in-waiting is. Judy has a way of wearing a person down. I know that I could have lasted longer in my refusal if I really wanted to but this gives me the leverage with her that I’ll need in the future when I want to have my younger sisters stay with us. Judy has little patience with the girls and I have already promised my parents they could stay while they go on their trip to Washington for Dad’s business conference in November. At least I think that I’m prepared for the worst.
Judy has finally called me in as backup. I walk down the hall and turn the corner where the three of them are waiting for me. I wish there was some way for me to simply slip in unnoticed, but my own hesitation has made that impossible. I try not to look at the men too much and seek out Judy’s familiar face. I find myself looking at one of my potential dates for this evening. He’s got a friendly face and doesn’t seem as aware of his slightly disheveled appearance as I know Judy is. I can see her pulling at the wrinkles in his shirt as if this will beat them into submission. It’s clear that this is the infamous John, Judy’s boyfriend. He looks at me but can’t seem to introduce himself or even the friend standing behind him though he’s cleared his throat a few times trying to get someone to say something.
I turn to my date and look him over. He’s a little more put together in his neatly ironed shirt and he even has a matching tie on. It must be a set that came already matched. His hair has been combed and he carries a single purple tulip. I finally find Judy who is struggling to stuff a small, limp bouquet into a tall drinking glass she found.
I suck it up and take a few steps forward and hold out my hand to the one I have concluded is John. “I’m Amy. You must be John. Judy’s told me so much about you.” It sounds fake and mechanical but it’s the only thing I can think to say. At least I’m saying something instead of perpetuating the silence. He takes my hand, nodding that I’ve said the right thing.
“Yes, I’m John, John Clark. And this is my friend, Erik Shaw,” he motions to the wrong side of him but Erik steps forward and offers the flower. I reach for it with my left hand not really noticing that I haven’t let go of John’s hand. Judy starts to laugh and jumps in introducing herself to Erik. The four of us are quickly becoming a tangled mess but it’s put us more at ease.
Judy plops the improvised vase of flowers on a shelf of the bookcase by the entryway. As a group we’re moving out the door fast; the guys made reservations and don’t want to be late. I don’t know what to do with my lonely tulip so as Erik herds us out the door I stab the tulip in next the glass with Judy’s wilting white chrysanthemums.
Dinner is quiet and not nearly as painful as I’d imagined it would be. The conversation flows easily, thanks in large part to Judy’s ability to talk to no end about just about anything. Erik talks for a while about his plans for going on to medical school and pharmaceutical studies. “Why pharmaceuticals?” I can’t help but ask. “I mean, it sounds like some of the same work for becoming a physician. Why not go that way?” I know my question probably sounds rude, especially considering I’ll probably end up working in a library or teaching. Who am I to judge?
“Pharmaceuticals has less pressure. I don’t have to deal with patients directly, so I don’t have to worry about getting attached and seeing things not work out. I don’t know.” He chuckled and began playing with the napkin, adjusting it in his lap so he could look down and avoid my eyes. “I’ve just never been good with seeing people in pain. I want to be able to help them, but being around them too much, I get anxious and make mistakes. Doctors need to be good under pressure and I just crumble.” He flushes and I feel guilty for having cornered him into admitting something he clearly sees as one of his biggest weaknesses.
Judy breaks the subtle tension by telling stories about her grandmother’s foolproof remedies for various ailments. John didn’t say much until Judy prods him into divulging his future plans.
“Business,” he says simply.
“Oh, come on Johnny.” I don’t think he likes the nickname but Judy probably thinks he’s just embarrassed by her display of intimacy in public. “Tell Amy more about what you’re going to do.”
“I’m actually looking to start my own accounting firm when I graduate. I’ll probably start out at an established place until I pay off my debts and while I save for my own. It’s not much really. Pretty boring actually.” He looks down at his Sprite and plays with the ice in it.
Erik backs him up. “Anytime I have a question about my bank statement I just turn it over and ignore whatever he says until it’s fixed.” Erik is sitting between John and myself and struggled to reach an arm around John’s shoulders. “I’ll always be your number one client. And you know, if I ever decide to ditch pharmaceuticals and go for a ‘real doctor,’ as my father puts it, you’ll be the first one I go to when I open my own practice.”
John nods his head but isn’t as enthusiastic as Erik. Erik doesn’t notice. He’s had half a beer and has become more self-centered, even with only that small bit of alcohol. I sip my Pepsi and watch Judy working on her Long Island ice tea.
John wants the attention off of him and asks me about my own plans. His eyes plead for me to take the spotlight away. “I’m an English major, actually. Which will translate to teaching, most likely. I’d like to write, I think. I’m not completely sure what I plan to do, so for now I’m here, treading water until I make up my mind to swim back to shore or go for it in deeper waters.” John smiles and Judy starts to laugh. She knows that I’m being clever or funny and is trying to determine which it is and how much she should be laughing.
“Teaching is a noble profession,” Erik puts forth, not really knowing what to say. It’s clear he doesn’t think much of my likely choice. “It’s great that you want to help children like that.”
“Yes,” I begin. “Well, children are the future and I believe that the earlier you can get to them and manipulate them into following what you believe, the more likely you’re going to be one of the happier ones later in life, safely in the ruling majority.”
Judy is horrified by what I’ve said, but Erik bursts out laughing. He laughs so hard that there are tears in his eyes. I can’t help cracking a smile myself. John even chuckles a little. Only now does Judy realize I’m being sarcastic and giggles in an effort to look like she got it from the beginning. John rolls his eyes at her a little and looks down when he sees that I caught him doing it. As much as I dislike being the center of attention, I like that these two men seem to find me to be good company and I’m surprised that I’m having such a good time. I even like my blind date.
September 27, 1985
This evening began awkwardly enough. John insisted that I come if only to take a break from my studies. He was determined to do what he could to please this new girlfriend of his. She’s pleasant enough even if she doesn’t seem to be the brightest girl. It can be painful to watch, but she tries so hard.
Not like my date. Amy hasn’t said much this evening but she has shown a great sense of humor and a deal of wit with the few words she has spoken (it’s a little odd at first but I think I like it). From the beginning I felt she was odd but now I know that she is and that simple knowledge has put me more at ease around her and I’m finding I like her better now than when the night began. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was uneasy sitting next to her but now I know it’s just the way she has of staring me down. Hers is a stare in which I feel exposed but simultaneously, reassured. With one look her eyes tell me that those thoughts and secrets I keep to my self, well, she knows what they are but that I don’t need to worry because I can count on her silence if nothing else.
I now feel embarrassed for having talked so much about myself in order to fill, what I thought were awkward silences. She’s clearly seen through it and I only hope she doesn’t hold it against me. Her silence is peaceful, calming, not awkward.
I have been nodding my head along with the conversation (maybe she’ll notice my attempts to let someone else talk, to exhibit my own ability to shut my trap and pay attention) but I don’t know what’s been said until the two girls get up to use the rest room. John’s date looks overdone when she stands next to Amy. I’d thought Amy had dressed too simply but now I realize it suits her and she looks more beautiful for it, though I can’t quite figure out what the “it” is that she has.
After the girls have walked away, I lean to John and give him a nudge. “Wow. Isn’t Amy something?”
“She’s not what I expected,” John concedes. “Certainly not as vivacious or outgoing as Judy. I mean… Judy said she was quiet but I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone so shy.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. Amy is hardly shy. Reserved, yes. A little self-conscious, sure. But shy? No, not that.
“Now, I’ve got nothing against Judy, John, but I think Amy’s… There’s just something about her. You know, I’m really glad you talked me into this,” I confess. I know that when the night ends I’ll ask Amy for her number and will try to arrange for another date, a private one this time. Maybe a less formal dinner and a movie. I smile in Amy’s direction when she and Judy come back and stand to pull her chair out for her. Girls like that sort of thing. Sure enough, Amy returns my smile. I glance over at John but he’s facing Judy with a dorky half grin of his own.