And After I Was “That” Kind of Girl

Brenda wasn’t big on why her 7-month marriage ended while That Guy (or Poor Guy, as we started calling him) was trudging through the Mekong Delta. She announced it in a matter-of-fact letter that focused more on the logistics of shipping her clothes back to Massapequa and whether she was going to take a bus or a train home.

My vicarious thrill was over.

Once she got settled into college, she made Dean’s List right away. It was a sign that she would whiz past Jill and me in this forum, too,  even though we had a head start. College meant the three of us found new friends, something we swore we’d never need.

Brenda and I lost touch for a while after graduation. Then, in our early 30s, there were phone calls once in a while. She had finished graduate school on the West Coast and had PhD after her name. I had Mrs. in front of mine. I was the mother of three, and had recently been named “Worst Housekeeper in Buffalo, New York” for the second straight year.

They were chatty, catching-up calls. She talked about academic journals. I had a few things to tell her about toilet training. Brenda said things like, “Ugh. . .  I don’t know how you do it.”

I don’t think she meant that my life had turned into a minor Greek tragedy or anything, but even if she did, I could hardly blame her. When you have three kids under age 5 and you live in a place where it snows in April, you’re doughy, dry-skinned, and weepy for a while. You don’t want to be. It just happens.

Sometimes I felt she was calling from Pluto. I knew nothing about the majesty of the Palouse or the energy burst Downward Facing Dog gave you. Until she mentioned them, I’d never heard of The Green Party, a bodega, or going vegan. What I did know — the best way to get a kid to eat carrots — I learned to keep to myself.

In her mid-30s — wanting to be one step ahead of her ovaries going south on her — Brenda intentionally got pregnant. She was parenting her daughter alone. She traveled — to Africa and the Far East — where she took teaching jobs. There were still men.

Communication dribbled down to Christmas cards, filled with recaps of our busy year.  Then maybe just a picture of our kids and an upbeat one-line greeting.

And then the cards stopped altogether.

Our mothers still lived in Massapequa, and they still ran into each other. I didn’t put up a fight when they conspired a little reunion in 1993 when Brenda and I would both be in town.

When the day of our reunion at my parents’ house arrived, I worked my mascara wand extra hard and fiddled with my hair. I practiced a few anecdotes I planned to dance out as if they’d just come to me. I could hear my family downstairs, even my brother who remembered Brenda and was curious to see how she’d turned out. I heard car doors closing outside.

“Here they come,” my brother called up the stairs.

“How does she look?”

“Ummm … well, you probably have time to do a few more sit ups.” I sucked it in as I came down the stairs. But I stopped when I relaxed in her hug.

We sat on the back deck and ate lunch.  She had stories that made us laugh and made my father lean forward so he wouldn’t miss a word. He asked her about what she ate in Algeria. She talked about trying to fit into Japanese culture. My favorite story was a homogenized version of her latest romance, with a real cowboy in Wyoming.

At the end of the afternoon, Brenda and I wandered slowly to the base of my parents’ driveway, just the two of us. Right here, we had parked our bikes as kids. Right here, as teenagers, we picked out our children’s names and planned to live in houses next door to each other. And though we hugged, we were speaking different dialects now. And we knew it.

 

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We said our goodbyes with promises to meet again. We never did.

Last year I was poking around online, and I found a book of poetry Brenda wrote. The cover is a black and white photograph of a naked woman’s back. She’s holding up her long hair and turning her face just slightly toward the camera. It’s her. It must have been taken when we were young and our backs were strong and powerful.

I stayed on the page a long time, just looking at her crazy brave profile and its sweet shadow.

Feeling my Age at Panera

Whenever I eat alone in a restaurant, I bring a little notebook and jot down what I’m thinking. It helps me feel less awkward, as if people might be wondering why I don’t have a lunch partner. Sometimes I write down bits and pieces of what I’m overhearing, conversation I may use later in something I’m writing.

I read an Anne Tyler interview once where she said she takes her notebook everywhere and writes down what she hears around her — dialogue, inflection, words that lead with the famous Baltimore accent. So when I pull out the little notebook, I just pretend to be her. I’m always hoping someone will mistake me for her, too, like they’re thinking: Hmmm, maybe she grew her bangs out. Hmmm, she looks a little heavier than she did on her last book jacket, but — you know — that happens. As far as I can tell, no one has been fooled yet.

I had my notebook out one day last fall when a group of high school kids walked into a sandwich place in my neighborhood. They took three tables and slid them together and, as their first official act, plopped down their phones. Their talk kept getting interrupted by different customized ring tones and scores of texts going back and forth with other kids who weren’t at the table.

It felt exhausting to me, not being able to understand all of what was going on. And I’d had this exact feeling when I was a kid. Instead of technology, though, it was Italian that did me in.

Our neighbors across the street were first generation immigrants from Milan. Their niece, who was my age and bilingual, would come to visit from Brooklyn with her Italian-speaking parents. One summer she and I got to be friends and I was invited across the street often, where she acted as my interpreter.

In my mind, her extended family ate a lot, more often than my family did, it seemed. Maybe the dinners were just longer and louder. Conversations constantly switched from English to Italian and back again without warning, sometimes in the same sentence. My friend never lost a word of whatever the topic was, and I was jealous of that. I found getting half of any story frustrating.

One day I said to her, as if this would be no big deal, “I want you to teach me Italian.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” she said. “If you just try really hard, you’ll be able to understand everything my parents say. Just listen to e-v-e-r-y word.That’s what I do.”I know she wasn’t purposely steering me wrong, that in her mind that’s what she’d done since she learned to talk.

I, of course, continued to be exasperated that I’d get to the end of a story and suddenly the medium would change on me and I’d be lost. I must say that what these high school students were doing at the next table wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for old people like me either. A lot of questions seemed to go unanswered as their heads bobbed up and down from their phones, and their thumbs were in constant motion. They wore earbuds and went from listening to talking to reading without warning.

What really caught my attention, though, was when they started talking about the John F. Kennedy assassination. The 50th anniversary was coming up, and I’m sure there were hashtags involved, whatever the hell that means. For all their advanced technology, though, their facts were sketchy, and one of them — who kept showing his hand with words like Los Angeles and killed in the hotel kitchen — was talking about the other Kennedy assassination.

For a minute, I thought about gently leaning over into their space and setting the record straight, perhaps the old school teacher in me. I realized, though, that if I started talking in an I was there tone, they would look at me as if I’d been front row at Ford’s Theatre, too.Because when I did the math, I realized that, chronologically, they’re about as far from Kennedy’s death as I was from the McKinley assassination (about which I know nothing). I wisely stayed silent.

It’s easy to keep quiet when you realize that you came of age watching a black and white TV, and the kids at the next table have a good chance of somehow confusing that with Morse Code. Or Mamie Eisenhower with Mary Todd Lincoln. Or any number of mix-ups that would make you feel #old.

[Up on Thursday: “11/22/63 at Parkside Junior High School”]