The Friend That Got Away

Beverly Donofrio looks back on a friendship she hadn’t expected to make — or to lose.

Beverly Donofrio | Longreads | March 2018 | 11 minutes (2,860 words)

 

A year or two after we graduated, my best friend from college went through a breakup with a two-timing cad who nearly broke her. I knew from conversations that there had been epic fights and that she’d kept a journal through the worst of it. I was trying to be a writer in the middle of my own epicly bad relationship and asked if I might borrow her journal to read. I thought there might be some knowledge, some insights, and perhaps even some good lines I might ask to use in the novel I was planning but never actually getting down to writing. Katherine handed me her spiral notebook, one hand on top, the other on the bottom, like a Bible for swearing on, and asked me to promise I’d take good care of it. And I did promise.

And then I lost it. Katherine hid her disappointment well.

***

My friendship with Katherine began when she was 28, I was 26, and we were in the same boat: single mothers, old to be in college. We were together in each other’s houses about as often as we were alone in our own. Katherine’s oldest daughter, Sophie, and my son, Jason, were best friends and both 8. Katherine’s youngest, Lucy, was a wild little 4-year-old I loved to pieces.

The university called Katherine and me “Nontraditional Students,” and the administrations’ situating us on the same dead-end street turned out to be brilliant social planning. We were three single mothers, a graduate student’s family, and a couple of untenured professors’ families. We had cooperative meals and cooperative daycare, which meant we parents only had to be at home one day a week and be responsible to watch all our kids once they were let out of school. This utopic situation was all thanks to Katherine, who’d had the ideas and organized everything.

Yet the first time I laid eyes on her, I wanted to turn on my heel and run the other way. I was about to round the corner of our road carrying an armful of used books I’d bought for classes that would begin in a few days. She pulled up in her yellow VW bug, rolled down her window, a golden-brown pageboy tucked behind her ears, a smile flashing very white teeth. “Welcome to the neighborhood. Golly, it’s nice to meet you,” she practically effervesced. I did not believe anyone could be that cheerful — or glad to meet me — and disliked her immediately. But I had just transferred to Wesleyan, and because I was a community college transfer to the pseudo-ivy league, I was feeling like the little match girl who’d climbed in the lit window. And because I did not know this social class’s rules of engagement, I managed to suppress the sneer I held in reserve for any show of bubbliness I had the misfortune to witness.

But Katherine and I met again at those cooperative meals, at which she relentlessly invited me to tea, and before the fall had turned chilly, we were friends, even though I’d found out that, just as I’d suspected, she’d been a cheerleader in high school. She was also an economics major and a Republican, who couldn’t be more different from my working-class Italian, dyed-in-the-wool, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democratic roots. Her extroverted friendliness was a counterpoint to my own distrustful, misanthropic tendencies. She cheered me up and I made her a little more real.

My friendship with Katherine began when she was 28, I was 26, and we were in the same boat: single mothers, old to be in college.

Soon, we were eating together every other night, having sleepovers, dancing with the kids, and disciplining each one as if they were all our own — at least I was disciplining hers: “Lucy! Take that spoon of sugar out of your mouth.”

Sometimes dinner wasn’t served until bedtime; sometimes the refrigerator had no milk. At McDonald’s we’d let Lucy sit on top of the table and Sophie and Jason order the food and serve us. Katherine had a piano in the corner of her dining room that she sometimes played at night, smoking and drinking, and if we could corral the kids, playing songs we all could sing. When she served spaghetti for dinner she put green beans and a plop of cottage cheese for protein on every plate; something that would be positively weird in my family, something I began doing too.

Mostly Katherine drank Tab by the gallon, but some evenings she switched to gin and tonics, and I smoked pot, watching Katherine sip her drink, chew bubblegum, smoke Virginia Slims and pace with short sliding steps, picking up a shoe, an empty glass, an ashtray, seeming to fret, but smiling, always smiling. Various professors and Ph.D. candidates had crushes on her and dropped by to sit on her sofa or porch and not take their eyes off of her. They were not very attractive and extremely boring, so I made fun of her for letting them drone on and on while she pretended to be interested. But it didn’t take long to see how often Katherine’s smile masked a crackling rage, and that those men were invited in to distract her from a sadness that reached deep down and far back, a sadness that touched my own and made me love her.

She had an easel set up in a corner of her dining room, where sometimes she worked on her painting of a sky with moody clouds lit up with silver and gold, and rendered in grids.

On the precious weekends we were free of kids, we’d dip into John B’s, a student hangout bar. We’d be there by noon on a Saturday, and no matter how sunny it was outside, it would be dark inside, red glass globes on every table, glowing a little like hell or a cozy fire. It felt like home, like chicken in the oven, a cup of hot chocolate on a cold rainy day. At the bar, we ordered gin and tonics then loaded two dollars’ worth of quarters into the jukebox. We sat in a back booth to avoid the sunshine you could see through the front window, reminding us of the laundry we weren’t doing, the groceries we weren’t buying, papers due, books unread.

Katherine would hold up her glass, “Here’s to us.”

Other students came and went. They played pinball and their own songs on the jukebox. We nursed our drinks, ordered others and nursed them too, and in what seemed like a few hours, the sun at the window faded, and the last thing Katherine and I wanted to do was leave, but there was so much we’d avoided doing that now needed to be tended to.

Outside the air smelled of the Connecticut River, sweet and muddy and redolent of the day we’d missed. A few miles away, our homes sat empty and lonely. We were both thinking the same thing: It was time to go home. And then I finally spoke.

“I’ve got to read Middlemarch. Do you know how long Middlemarch is?”

“It’s better than Statistics.”

We slammed the car doors. I groaned and Katherine would have groaned, too, if such a sound were in her repertoire. We stared through the windshield at nothing for a while, and then, coming to the rescue, one of us said, “Feel like a Dairy Queen?”

***

Those days when Katherine and her girls were our family are long gone. Katherine graduated the year before I did, moved to New Haven, and found a job selling radio time to advertisers. When I graduated, I moved to New York City and worked lousy part-time jobs while trying to be a writer. For half a decade, on Thanksgivings and Christmases, Jase and I spent the day with my family a few towns away, then drove to Katherine’s to spend the evening with her and her girls. Katherine and I drank wine, Lucy followed me from room to room, and we snuggled on the sofa, while Sophie and Jason retreated to Sophie’s room, closed the door, and probably traded crazy-mother stories.

We visited during the year, too, and we wrote letters. When Katherine fell in love with the cad, I was afraid she was becoming an alcoholic. She lost 30 pounds and her smoky blue eyes turned turquoise. Eventually she caught him cheating on her and broke up with him. She took him back a few times, until suddenly, shockingly, he married someone else. She went a little mad.


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When she gave the journal to me to read, I promised to take good care of it, even though I was not taking very good care of myself. I’d entered a tempestuous relationship of my own, with a drunk afflicted with severe separation anxiety. When it finally sunk in that I’d become a drunk myself, and his captive, I asked a girlfriend to wait outside while I broke it to him that I was leaving. He grabbed my arm and would not let go, so my friend called the police, who barred his way as I walked out the door with my son and only the clothes on our backs. Jason and I slept on my friend’s living room floor until I could afford a place of our own. One day when I knew my ex-lover would be at work, I sneaked back and retrieved Jason’s and my clothing but left everything else behind — including Katherine’s journal.

I apologized, of course. And although she never said anything more about it, I doubt she ever truly forgave me.

***

When Katherine came to visit me in my new little East Village apartment that winter, we drank cognac at the table facing Avenue A and didn’t laugh as much as we once did. She was supposed to meet my new boyfriend that night, but she insisted I go see him without her. When I returned, she was missing. I worried that I’d been rude to leave her, and when she didn’t answer the phone, I worried that she was dead somewhere. I called and cried and called all night. Finally, late in the morning, she answered. She’d missed the last train and spent the evening locked in Grand Central.

Katherine handed me her spiral notebook, one hand on top, the other on the bottom, like a Bible for swearing on, and asked me to promise I’d take good care of it. And then I lost it.

We became involved in our own lives, had new best friends who lived closer. But we wrote a letter now and then, called and still visited occasionally. The summer before my first book was to come out and I would turn 40, I rented a big house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for three months, and invited Katherine and a few women friends from the MFA program I’d attended to chip in and stay for however long they could manage. Katherine’s two-week visit coincided with my friend Kirsten’s four-week visit. Katherine seemed distant and odd, and possibly jealous. She barely interacted with Kirsten and refused to go along when we went dancing at night, or to the hot springs, or hiking up in the botanical preserve. Instead she decided at the last minute to study Spanish. She was in class six hours every day, and busy with homework every night. She had never studied Spanish before and would not continue once she left. It seemed she was bent on avoiding us. Jason and his friend from college were also visiting, and each of us took turns making a feast a week. When it was Katherine’s turn, she bought a rotisserie chicken and tortillas at the market.

I didn’t call her after that visit and she didn’t call me.

***

Half a decade later, when Katherine was 48 and I was 45, Sophie invited Jason and me to her wedding, and we couldn’t wait to go. But I squandered what could have been a really rich time by bringing the man I was newly infatuated with. He was still in love with his old girlfriend but wouldn’t admit it, and I spent more time at the wedding trying to seduce him than visiting with Katherine or Sophie or Lucy. Katherine and I never spoke again.

When I was 60, Jason and Sophie found each other on Facebook. Jason told me Sophie’s a psychotherapist who runs a mental health facility, Lucy’s a graphic designer with a wife and two children, and Katherine’s now a Democrat who campaigned for Obama. I wrote Sophie to ask her to please send me her mother’s contact info and to pass mine on to her mother. I never heard from Sophie or Katherine. I searched Facebook for Katherine and Lucy and couldn’t find them.

Then at 64, not ancient but well past middle age, it began to feel like the closer I got to my end, the more present my past seemed to be, visiting my days like smoke after a fire you’ve already put out. An image, a smell, a song could fill me with a bittersweet longing to go back, if only for a moment.

I was no longer surprised to hear that a friend or an acquaintance had had a heart attack, a stroke, or was undergoing chemo for cancer. In the past three years a close friend had died and I’d buried both of my parents. I have a brother, two sisters, a son, daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, but I wanted more family, and I wanted more people in my life who felt like family. I was surprised that at my age I felt like an orphan, and I wasn’t surprised when the song “Never Can Say Goodbye” began playing in my mind like an echo. I hummed it out loud on the grocery line, on the toilet, as I washed the dishes, checked my cell phone. I sang it in the car and when I walked my dog. I began thinking, again, of my old friend. I did not want our lives to end without us ever talking. I planned to apologize for my behavior, and ask if perhaps I’d done something in Mexico to offend her. Maybe she’d forgive me.

I Googled Katherine’s name, and finally, like a message in a bottle, in the free white pages on the internet, I found her address and phone number. I called and left a message, asking her to call me. But she didn’t.

When she gave the journal to me to read, I promised to take good care of it, even though I was not taking very good care of myself.

Until one Sunday afternoon a few months later. I forgot how light and musical her voice is, how her laugh bubbles up between her words. We’re so familiar it’s as though we talked last week, but there’s so much to tell. We told each other about our kids, our grandkids, their lives, their spouses, her last job, my writing.

I did not apologize; I didn’t want to risk ruining our good time, and there seemed no need to — or so I thought. But maybe I didn’t apologize because I dodge conflict like a ton of bricks about to fall on me. Conflict can lead to more intimacy, and perhaps I like to well the wall I’ve built around my heart — one rock of disappointment and hurt piled on another — built of the pains that happen in the course of any life, as though keeping them close will protect me. It’s not logical. But it’s true. Many people are able to let down their defenses or break right through them to deeper love, while I am an emotional coward. I do have close friends, ones who would be surprised to hear me say I have trouble with intimacy, because we share our stories, our hopes, our fears, our shame. But come to a potential bump in the road, and I’ll circle round it like a champion bicyclist, which is what I did that day with Katherine.

Instead of talking about the lost journal, our terrible time in Mexico, or my rudeness at her daughter’s wedding, Katherine and I talked about my mutt, Lovey, who is the same size her mutt, Pupper, once had been. We remembered how Snoopy, the Beagle from next door, used to knock on Pupper’s door every morning, and the two would lope off across the soccer field into the woods. I told her I’d send her my latest book. We agreed that after she read it we’d meet in New York, lay eyes on each other, go to dinner, visit a museum. We hung up and I thought of how nice it was to hear her voice, to laugh and know there are no hard feelings.

***

Months passed and Katherine still hadn’t acknowledged that she’d received my book or called. One Sunday, I put water on for tea and looked out the window, at the barren winter trees, the snow in patches on the ground, and thought how our friendship is like the leaves that danced in the sun all summer then fell in the fall, and that’s fine.

I Googled Katherine’s name, and finally, like a message in a bottle, in the free white pages on the internet, I found her address and phone number. I called and left a message, asking her to call me.

It began to snow. My dog was asleep in front of the woodstove, a package with cards and candy was on its way to my grandkids for Valentine’s Day. I was grateful that the longing for those college days and my old friend had passed, at least for the moment. Katherine and I had had our beginning, middle, and end. Our time now felt complete. Even if we never spoke again, we got to have the last word.

* * *

Beverly Donofrio is the author of three memoirs: the New York Times bestselling Riding in Cars with Boys, which was made into a popular movie; Looking for Mary (Or, the Blessed Mother and Me); and Astonished: A Story of Healing and Finding Grace. She is on the faculty of the low residency MFA program at Wilkes University.

Editor: Sari Botton