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.

“Plus You Have a Really Bad Accent”

As a college freshman in 1968, I landed in the middle of New York State and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a decent bagel anywhere. I was homesick for Long Island, the center of my universe. I’d never seen so many pickup trucks or people chewing (and spitting) tobacco as I did on Main Street in Cortland. It snowed on Halloween. I felt like I’d moved to Jupiter.

To counterbalance, I talked about Massapequa incessantly — how you could find anything you needed on Sunrise Highway, and how my high school had a championship football team. One day in the dining hall, I was in the middle of explaining to some girls why my hometown was known as “Matzo-Pizza” because it occurred to me that near-strangers were mesmerized by stories of my youth. (And here you’re thinking, she hasn’t changed much. You’re on to me.) Anyway, I was taking way too long in my explanation, figuring I had to go slowly because they’d probably never heard of matzo or stepped inside a real pizzeria.

Finally, a girl from Utica had enough.

She stopped me and said, “You know,” The City doesn’t always mean New York City, and The Island doesn’t always mean Long Island.”

I think I paused here, maybe with my mouth open a tiny bit, because she felt the need to simplify. “There are other cities and other islands in this state.”

Somehow, this was big news to me.

She wasn’t finished. “Plus you have a really bad accent.”

The first part amazed me, but as I began to look around I could see she was right. Who knew there were girls in the United States who had never stepped foot in a mall? Or that a town might have only one supermarket? Who knew that you could spend kindergarten through 12th grade in one building? For that matter, I don’t think I realized that people actually lived on farms. I thought they just hired people.

The second part stung. I didn’t know I had an accent, much less a bad one. Until I got to college and met people from Syracuse and Buffalo, I’d never heard a “flat a” sound in my life.

So I took a breath, and later that afternoon — being the deep thinker I was back then — I began to reinvent myself. I decided I kind of liked the way upstate people spoke. They sounded buoyant and hopeful. That’s what I wanted to be. I started with the word “cawfee” and went from there.

I also changed my handwriting because suddenly all the complicated capital letters in the ornate Palmer Method no longer suited me. I went instead with a print-like conglomeration that I hoped would say Linda is a simple, generous young woman, who does not overwhelm people with her large, loopy letters. If you didn’t know she was from Long Island, you might think she came from a quaint little hamlet on a lake with a population of 150.

After a few months, I stopped mentioning Massapequa every ten minutes like it was the cradle of civilization. By second semester, my accent — bad or otherwise — was completely gone, and my mother was complaining that my handwriting looked like a second-grader’s. When I graduated, I stayed in Central New York.

The first time I reopened my high school yearbook probably took five years. When I did, I read lots of this: “Never forget all the fun we had in French.” Or the laughs we had trying to conquer the uneven parallel bars. Or the day the lunch lady dropped that tray on John.

When the 10-year reunion happened, a time when I could have refreshed my memory about that gym class or poor John and the lunch tray, I couldn’t make it. I’d just had a baby, and if I’d considered traveling 300 miles to stand in a hotel ballroom with anyone, it wasn’t going to be when I hadn’t slept in four weeks and my breasts leaked milk every time I looked down at them.

The 20th reunion took place the year I was in a bad mood. We had moved to Baltimore. I couldn’t understand anything people said because they spoke in a thick dialect meant to throw Yankees off course. We had bought a split-level house — the type of home I swore I’d never live in. And my kids were a sloppy mess about how much they missed their friends.

Now our 50th reunion approaches, so clearly it’s been a while for me and the Class of ’68. I wonder how much I’ve changed, or I wonder if I’ve changed as much as I think I have. The older I get, the more I think that you pretty much are what you were when. Except for changing a few vowel sounds. And now we come with more stories to tell.

I think by 2018, our class will have long forgotten those singular, sweet and silly memories of high school that we inscribed in each others’ yearbooks. But we’ll be filled with the only bond that really matters. Massapequa will always be our “when.”

Maybe the day after the big party, we’ll have “cawfee.” And maybe I’ll even say it the right way.