Portrait of a Friend

You were listening to voicemails on speaker phone in the kitchen the other day, standing by the sink as your youthful companions and their friends sat around the table eating grapes. Most of the voicemails were short and to the point: Meet me then, see you there, can’t wait, talk to you soon.

One of the voicemails was not short and to the point. It was long and rambly. It included a brief pause: “Hang on, I’ve got the dog and I have to cross the busy street now!” and then picked up again: “Okay, I just crossed the busy street!”

Maybe you were laughing as you listened, or maybe you were just smiling, but one of your youthful companion’s friends turned to her.

“Who’s that voicemail from?” she said.

“Her bff,” said your youthful companion. “Can’t you tell?”

Yes. The friend could tell. They watched you as you hung up the phone (can you use the term “hung up the phone” for a phone that is shaped like a small flat brick and has no discernible buttons? Probably not). You must have still been smiling.

“Do you wish you lived across the street from your best friend, Mom?” asked your youthful companion, who, because she has grown up listening to you on the phone with your best friend, long conversations which often end with If only you lived across the street from me, already knew the answer, which is yes. Unequivocally yes.

There was a time when you lived, not across the street from your best friend, but down the hall. And then across the hall. And then a few hundred yards away. Those were the years that you were in college together, at that little school in the Green Mountains. Even then, back when time, although it was precious and you knew it, seemed endless, you knew how lucky you were to have all those endless days with her.

She was the first person you met on the first day of college. Your parents had helped you lug your boxes and bags out of the old station wagon and up to the fourth floor of the dorm, and then you had waved goodbye to them and watched the wagon disappear down Route 125, back to the Adirondacks, and then it was time to go get your student i.d. card.

You took your place at the end of the long line snaking out of the student i.d. card building and looked around at the golden trees, the mountains rising all around you, the chattering students, none of whom you knew. This was your new life. This was the beginning of a life that you hadn’t yet lived.

The girl directly in front of you was tall and slender. She had honey-brown hair that reached just below her shoulders. You couldn’t see her face. As you recall, she was wearing her jean jacket. She was also wearing hiking boots, and you remember looking down at them and admiring their bright red laces.

She must have taken out the laces that came with those boots, you remember thinking, and then she bought new red laces and re-laced them.

This struck you as unimaginably creative. Had such a thing ever occurred to you? No. You had gone your entire life meekly accepting the laces that came standard-issue with your sneakers and shoes and boots. This girl had not.

You decided to take action and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Do you know by any chance know where the dining hall is?”

This is what you remember asking the girl with red-laced hiking boots, but it’s possible that you asked her an entirely different question. Any question would have done the trick.

“I do!” she said. “I’ll show you where it is. What dorm are you in?”

That is what you remember her saying to you, and while it’s possible that she said something partially different, the dorm part of it is right. That much you know for sure, because as it happened, she lived just down the hall from the room into which you and your parents had just lugged your belongings.

That night you went to dinner, there at the dining hall, with her and some of the others from the fourth floor of your dorm. In your memory, that was the day that she became your best friend. Did it maybe take a little longer than that, like, a week or so? Maybe. But maybe it was just as effortless as you remember it: Stand in line behind a girl with red laces in her hiking boots, strike up a conversation, become best friends.

It’s worthwhile to remember that some things don’t take work, don’t have to be nose to the grindstone, don’t have to be struggled over. Some things really are effortless.

She was 17 and you were barely 18 when you met, and ever since you have been threaded through each other’s lives, warp and woof. When her number appears on the screen of your little mango-colored brick of a phone, you press the green button.

“Oh thank God it’s you,” you say.

“Oh thank God you’re there,” she says.

That is always the feeling that fills you, at the sound of her voice: thank God. The hugeness of your relief at the mere sound of her voice seems vastly disproportionate to the weight of your conversations, which are usually not weighty at all.

But there you have it; you give way with her. Now you’re thinking of how, when a football player gets injured on the field, the coach and the trainer put his arms over their shoulders and help him off the field, so that he doesn’t have to bear all his own weight on his own two feet. That’s how the sound of your best friend’s voice makes you feel.

Back at college there was a long, steep, tree-lined hill, the one that led up to your dorms. At the bottom of the hill was the library, classroom buildings, the gym. Farther yet down the hill was the little town.

“Allie, I just do not have the strength to make it up this hill,” she would say, after a long night of studying in the library or a long night of dancing at the bar. “I simply cannot do it.”

And you would get behind her and brace your arms against her back and lean in and literally push her up the hill. Strangely, the act of pushing her up the hill also made your own trudge up the hill easier.

Like so many of those you most love in this world, she has always been who she is. So, in a way, have you. Early on you knew things about each other: that she would spend her spare pennies on art, art of any and all kinds, from a pretty scarf to a handmade notecard to a tiny silver ring, that you would spend yours on a plane ticket to anywhere. And that both of you would spend it on a double-dip Steve’s ice cream cone.

In college, she loved the color blue and all its variations: teal, lavender, navy, and whatever the name is of that particular kind of blue that exists in bottles lined up on a white windowsill to catch the sunlight. She still does. There is a room in the house she lives in now that is blue, and it’s her room, and she calls it the “blue room.”

She has never been able to bottle up, for long, something that troubles her. This does not translate into a hot temper, or a quick trigger; what it means is that if something is bothering her, she will talk about it. She will work it out.

This is something that you have always envied and admired about her: she will not hold within herself anything that threatens her sense of who she is or what is right. You have learned so much from her in this regard. You can’t always put it into action the way she can, but still, even if it’s taken decades, you’ve gotten better at it.

Something else about her that seems unrelated and yet somehow, yes, related to this refusal to bottle things up is her astonishing and wondrous ability to nap.

“Allie,” she would say in college, in the late afternoon, after classes and before dinner. “Wake me up in 20 minutes, would you?”

At first you thought she was joking. Wake her up in 20 minutes? How could anyone just lie down on a bed and fall asleep like that?

Your own earliest memories include staring at the cracks on the ceiling above your crib, waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting, for your mother to come in and lift you out of the damn thing.

And yet 20 minutes later, knock knock knock, there she was, peacefully asleep. It was like a parlor trick. To this day, she is a master of this particular parlor trick, and to this day, you still marvel at it.

Back then, one of your daily goals was to make her laugh so hard that tea would come out her nose. This was not a rare occurrence. It would happen near the end of dinner time in the dining hall, when you and her and your other friends would postpone the return to the library by drinking endless cups of coffee and tea.

Come to think of it, this tea-out-the-nose-thing is still one of your goals.

Back then you liked to go to parties or out dancing, her in the lavender shirt and you in the red shirt that in your memory you both wore every weekend. You’d wait until the cover charge at the Alibi was half-price and then in you’d go. That tiny dance floor, that long wooden bar, the pool tables downstairs, the bathrooms that everyone tried to avoid. That bar is still your favorite bar in the entire world, despite the fact that it exists now only in memory.

You typed papers to make money in college and she was a checker at the dining hall. This meant that she sat on a high stool at the entrance while students filed in, each reciting their i.d. number, which she then checked off a long list of student i.d. numbers.

Hers was a powerful position, a position of social engagement and deep intrigue, because everyone had to file past her on the way to the cafeteria line. Those were the days of myriad crushes, for both of you, and many was the time that you stood in line directly behind one of hers, trying with all your might to catch her eye, because you knew she would start to laugh, and then she would not be able to stop laughing, and then either the secret would be out or the tea would come out the nose, or, if you were really lucky, both.

Years passed, and you both left the mountains and moved to that city by the sea, where for those first few years you lived on the cobblestone street by the river and she lived three cobblestone blocks up the hill, just down the street from Primo’s Deli.

In the late afternoon she would come down to your tiny one-room apartment before her waitress shift at the chi-chi restaurant down theĀ  block. She would be wearing her green chi-chi restaurant waitress apron, the one with the big pockets to hold a corkscrew and tips, and she would sit down in your one chair, the one you sat in to type out your stories on the typewriter balanced on the apple crates.

She would sit, and you would stand, and the two of you would talk as you French-braided her hair. Sometimes you would braid it in a single braid down the back of her head, sometimes two braids that you tied with ribbons. Once in a while you would braid a single braid that wrapped around her head; that was your favorite. It was the most challenging, the most unusual.

Off she would go for her shift, and late that night, when the restaurant closed, back she would come and tap on your window (you lived on the ground floor) to see if you were still awake. If you were she would come in and you would sit on the floor together. She would empty the big pockets of the green apron and you would count her tips together and talk about the customers, the tables, the other waiters and waitresses.

You might light a Duraflame log in the tiny fireplace that somehow, magically, was built into the tiny room, and you might talk late into the night.

You remember the party in that city by the sea where she met her future husband. It was late, very late, and there had been much music and much dancing and many drinks and much merrymaking, and he wrote her phone number on his palm with ballpoint pen and then kept his wits about him enough, once he made his drunken way home, not to wash it off.

That was it, for her and for him, and a couple of years later she was sitting on a chair in a distant bedroom, a long white dress spread carefully around her, and you were standing in back of her, slightly bent, your hands in motion, French-braiding her silky hair.

You don’t know, when you’re 18 years old, what life will hold. You don’t know that there will be more times than you imagine, back then, when you feel as if you can barely hang on. Those times have come for the both of you, as they do for everyone.

Unlike your best friend, you did used to keep secrets. One in particular. All the years of college in the mountains, those mountains that turned to flame every fall, and for years before you went to college, you were keeping a secret that was literally eating you up from the inside out. And yet it felt, back then, as if your very survival depended on keeping this secret.

You hated yourself for what you were doing, but even though you vowed every day to stop, you couldn’t. This is why you look at the trembling fingers and the dark eyes and the jiggling legs of certain people you know, some of your students, people you pass on the street, and you can feel their self-hatred, their desperation, and you look them in the eye and send them silent strength.

You kept your secret from everyone: your family, your friends, your boyfriend, and even her, your best friend. You never told it to anyone. It took two years after college –long, hard years of silent, solitary, daily, baby-step work, of sitting on the floor of your tiny room on that cobblestone street, the sun shining in the window, talking to yourself– to climb your way out of that wilderness of your own making.

When you knew that you were out of that wilderness, truly out, you sat down and wrote letters to the few people who knew you best, and told them what you had kept hidden all the years they knew you. It was awful, terrifying work, writing those letters.

You dreaded writing to her. You dreaded telling her what you had never told her, all those years of your best-friendship, when she had kept nothing from you. You imagined her opening the letter –it was not something you could tell her over the phone; it was not something you could tell her in person; you knew she would need time– and all your imaginings were awful. You felt your own self-hatred stealing back into your body.

You put a stamp on the letter anyway and carried it down the street and put it in the blue mailbox. Two days later she called.

“Allie, I got your letter,” she said. “This is going to take me time. This is terribly hard for me. I can’t talk about this now. But I had to call you and tell you that I love you. I love you. Just know that.”

I love you. She knew you so well that she knew you had to hear those words, so that you could keep going while she, on her end, did what she needed to do to get through. During those dark days, while you waited, you kept her voice and those words in your mind.

What did you learn, from others who called and wrote when they got those letters, who came to your tiny apartment and literally held your hand, who wrapped their arms around you, who told you how sorry they were that you had gone through that, that they hadn’t known, that it hurt them to think of you going through it all alone, believing yourself unlovable? What did you learn from all of them, but especially from her, your best friend?

That the power of love is formidable. That love can, in fact and in act, be unconditional.

You remember her standing with you outside the little stone church when you yourself got married, holding your hand. And you remember her voice on the phone many years later, when you could not stop crying, agonizing over the hurt that your children and those you loved would have to endure by a decision that you had to make, and her voice like a murmuring river. Her voice on the other end of the phone, telling you that everything, including your children, in the end, would be all right.

Oh thank God it’s you.

Oh thank God you’re there.

Best friends can live 1500 miles apart and see each other only a few times a year. But another thing about love is that it is transcendent. It knows nothing of physical distance or the clocks by which we measure out time.

You have been through the fire with each other. You have watched each other go through things that neither would have wished on the other, were you in charge of the universe.

There have been times when one or another of either of your children were in pain, true pain, and you hung on tight to the phone and said to each other, If only I could do it for him, or, If only I could go through it for her, so that she wouldn’t have to suffer.

Such is the nature of love. And such is the nature of life that you can’t. All you can do is hang onto the phone for dear life, lie awake at night breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in thank you, breathing out goodbye.

Once, you were going through something very bad, and she knew it, and you knew it, and you tried to pretend you weren’t, and she knew you were pretending, and it became something that you couldn’t talk about, but which you tried to talk around. That you chattered around, trying to fill the space of what you weren’t talking about with words, any words, none of which worked.

There came a period of time in which, because of everything that wasn’t being said, there were not many phone calls. Then one day the phone rang, and you could hear the determination in her voice, the same determination you have heard all your life with her. She is not one to keep things bottled up inside.

This has become something that we can’t talk about, she said, but I woke up the other day and I knew that if you weren’t talking about it with me, you weren’t talking about it with anyone. And you need to. And so I decided that all I can do is love you. And that is the easiest thing in the world for me.

Your entire body sagged with relief.

So, she said then, I’m going to listen. Now talk.

And finally, you did. Because you could. In your life there have been three people, including her, who see you as you are, for exactly who you are. For them to love you, without condition, all you had to do was be born.

This makes you a lucky, lucky person.

The years go by, don’t they? They just keep right on going by. Last October you were holed up in your one-room shack in the Green Mountains, trying to finish a novel. It was a lonely slog, and you were alone, and suddenly you didn’t want to be alone anymore. You flung your clothes into your duffel and got behind the wheel of the rental car. It was late afternoon. You called her.

“Oh thank God you’re there.”

“Oh thank God it’s you.”

“Listen, I’m at the shack and I can’t take it anymore.”

“Come on down!”

“I’m already in the car.”

You slept in her away-at-college son’s room. You wrote the novel while she and her husband were at work and their daughter –whom you think of as your niece– was at school. You sat on the blue couch in the family room, light pouring in the windows, surrounded by the things your best friend loves: the family photos, the heart-shaped rocks, the collection of sea glass that she picks up on the beach.

You were not alone. You were not lonely.

You are typing this at 23,000 feet in the air, which is neither here nor there in terms of your best friend, except that looking down on the patchwork earth below has the effect of making you envision all the years of your friendship as if seen through a telescope.

Has there ever been a day since that red-lace hiking boot day so long ago that she has not been a part of your life, and you part of hers?

The answer, no, feels like a revelation, although it’s anything but.

And the question that immediately follows —what would I do without her?— also feels like a revelation, although it, too, is not.

When you think of her, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Is it her smile, that wide smile that so often ends in a laugh? Is it the sight of her on the blue couch in her family room, her husband’s head in her lap, him half-asleep as she rubs his head? Is it her distinctive handwriting, which is not handwriting but printing, and the especially distinctive way she forms her “E”s?

Her letters and postcards and birthday cards? There are a couple of boxes in the wall of boxed-up letters from all the people you love, labeled with her name and sent from Vermont, from London, from Connecticut, from Massachusetts, from all the places that she has called home over the years. Is it her hair, that silken bob that has not changed in all these years?

Whatever it is, it’s not the red laces in her hiking boots. They already served their purpose, that long-ago day when you first thought up that “do you know where the dining hall is?” question, just so you could start a conversation with her.

It has been many years since you French-braided your best friend’s hair. Next time you see each other, a few months from now, maybe she’ll humor you and let you braid it again for old time’s sake.

Oh thank God it’s you.

Oh thank God you’re there.