I did not like her. I did not dislike her, either. I thought she was attractive, and I was a little afraid of her. She was my best friend's girlfriend, and she was sick.
She would lie in bed all day long.
My father had been sick. He is dead now.
He had cancer. She had...something. Chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia...something. She was pale. She had dark hair and thin, austere lips. I often thought she looked like the stained glass martyrs I had seen on church windows, staring up to the Heavens oh-so meaningfully while I sat bored in my pew with the rest of the 1999 graduating class of St. Margaret Mary Elementary School.
Sometimes, I also thought, she looked more than a bit like the old black and white photographs of Native American chiefs.
She had high cheekbones, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose that you knew was just like her father's without ever having met the man.
Her eyes expressed a wariness and a fierceness, in particular, that I had seen in those old photographs.
Imagine the "Indian" in the photography studio: the tired man forced to stand so still and stiffly by the white anthropologist. It is the late 19th century, photography is very young, and Manifest Destiny stretches from sea to shining sea.
He stands in silhouette, in traditional regalia. His tribe has been violently displaced. The photo is for posterity.
She had a very pretty smile, and when she slept she was utterly at peace, but mostly her expression was wary, and fierce, like she was just waiting for you to drop the facade and shove a Remington rifle in her face.
One day not long ago, I had looked in the mirror and seen that same old feral expression on my own face. I was surprised that my own fear and anger had become so obvious. Perhaps I was unconsciously imitating her...I could easily consider her a role model. She is old enough to be my mother. My best friend is old enough to be my father. He really isn't my friend so much as my father.
Practically speaking, they are a childless couple. There is a hypothetical teenage son, but he lives with my friend's ex-wife. The boy never calls him, and only rarely visits anymore.
He is missed.
They gave me keys to their house.
They told me it was ok for me to visit at any time.
I frequently sleep over. Often in the guest bed -- the boy's bed.
I try not to think about the implications, but once, while helping my friend on an antiwar protest, a couple he was acquainted with, but who didn't know him very well, walked over to me and asked if I was the son whom they had heard so much about. I'm short and skinny, and honestly I look more like Harry Potter than a burly carpenter's son, but I'm nobody's son at all. I'm just a young dyke. I told them "no".
I didn't even correct them and tell them I was a woman.
I was attracted to my best friend's girlfriend, so I tried not to talk to her very much. Whenever I did, I would stare at the floor, rub the back of my neck, and giggle nervously. Secretly, I liked her very much indeed. And when I was alone and I had time to think about it, I felt guilty and afraid.
He drank a lot. They fought over it. He was often out of the house, with me and his other buddy. Even when he was home, he spent more time with us than with her. She was sick all the time, she was bedridden; she was, at best, withdrawn during the times when she wasn't yelling.
One day he decided to move out. It would be temporary, he said. He tried to encourage me to keep his girlfriend company while he was away, but I was very reluctant to. I just didn't think she liked me very much. We didn't seem to have anything to talk about. I was embarrassed by my crush (he was probably elated by it). And finally, she reminded me of my sickly father.
Late in the separation, I watched a documentary on Charles Schulz with her, her boyfriend, and our buddy. She insisted we keep it on although the men were bored. She seemed to know a lot about Charles Schulz. I was surprised; I felt my knowledge of comic strips and cartooning was quite lowly in comparison to her formal training in the fine arts.
Later that day, while the men were at the store, we talked about "Peanuts". Her eyes were not wary or fierce then. We did not look at each other very much, I did not giggle, but sometimes we would smile. We discussed Schulz's simplified drawing style. So flat, clear, and repetitive, it was almost like reading pictographs.
Perhaps two weeks later, I learned that she was working on a comic book. I was very excited. I told her I would help her if she needed it. I guess we were both dubious about my art skills, but she let me read the draft. I had expected thumbnail sketches, or maybe a script. Instead, it was an essay. It was about how she had gotten interested in punk.
It wasn't hard to imagine her as a tough, rebellious teenager...though picturing her with a mohawk was a little much.
But she hadn't been a rebellious teenager at all. She had been a shy overachiever, quietly resentful. College left her exhausted and alienated. Adulthood began, and she became sicker and sicker. She didn't know what was wrong. She couldn't hold down a job as a high school teacher because she felt sick all the time, so she worked at a gift shop in the same museum where her boyfriend exhibited art.
Then, at the age of 30, she saw Green Day playing on David Letterman.
She was involved with the pretentious American art scene, she was 30 years old, and she loved Billie Joe Armstrong. Not ironically.
Everything changed. She discovered how angry she really was. She read zines. She got political. She went to local punk shows. One day she packed up and left to live in New York City. She joined an art collective that put on punk shows and promoted anarchist politics.
But she still felt alone, because she was 30, she was female, and she was in absolute love with a goofy pop punk band.
I didn't tell her so, but I could relate to her childhood's anxiety and loneliness. I had also been very angry, very quiet, and very good at school. I was raised as an Italian-American; her family was from Italy. More abstractly, I was adopted, and had moved back in with my biological parents when I was 20: an Italian-Jewish-Puerto Rican amalgamation. She, meanwhile, had grown up being shuttled between Europe and the Americas, and was taught in "international" (actually American) schools. What a strange mix of cultures. It wasn't the same, but it was parallel.
I started trying to befriend her. My clumsy questions about her comic book were not deflected, but they didn't find much footing.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend's drinking got worse and worse. One day he got literally smashed, slamming face-first into the back of a parked car. There was blood everywhere, and part of his lip was dangling from his face.
I wasn't actually there. I had talked to him on the phone a few hours before it happened, and it sounded like he was already drunk. He was trying to talk me into going to a party, but he was already fucked up and I didn't want to deal with him. He barely even felt like a friend anymore. I had a Calculus test in two days, and his drinking problem was very stressful. The next day I talked to our mutual buddy on the phone. He had driven him back to the girlfriend's after the accident.
At first I thought it was funny. Ha ha, stupid drunk, served him right. Then I called him. His voice was muffled because of the injury to his jaw. He seemed depressed. I decided I should visit him. His buddy had the same idea. He picked me up in his car, and during the drive over he told me more and more about the accident. It seemed to get bloodier the further we drove. Finally, we got to her house and I unlocked the door.
There he was in the front room, lying shirtless on the couch. His face was bandaged, cut up, puffy, and red. His girlfriend looked even worse. She was terribly worried.
She wanted him to go see a doctor. He hadn't gone to a doctor the night before because he was very drunk and refused. He still insisted he didn't need a doctor.
He had a deep gouge under his nose that was probably full of filth from hitting the pavement. His lip also needed a clean snipping and some stitches. Furthermore, his girlfriend was a wreck. She clearly needed the assurance of professional medical care on his puffy, cut up face.
I argued he should go to the hospital, and finally he agreed to it. His girlfriend offered to go with him. His buddy offered to drive. I decided to go too, in a show of moral support.
There was not much love evident in this trip. The patient took the shotgun seat, and we women sat in the back. He bragged about the party, as if he were still a little tipsy. His girlfriend sat beside me, folding and refolding her hands.
It was strange going anywhere with his girlfriend. It was strange that she was going anywhere at all. She didn't leave the house. I had always believed that it was her illness that had made her into a recluse, but when we got to the hospital waiting room, and we settled down into our plastic and nylon bucket seats, her posture was familiarly timid. I could remember sitting the same way on crowded public buses, as a teenager traveling to and from high school. I would desperately hope that nobody would notice me and call me out for being such a glaring freak.
So too, the girl I had a crush on in 7th grade: a bookish girl who used to cry because the other students hated her. Having a gay best friend probably didn't help her much.
And so too, in my senior year of high school: the immigrant girl who was so cute and lanky and nerdy, who, as we waited for the teacher to arrive, would sit with her knees together, anxiously folding and refolding her hands.
We were teenagers. She was 40. No matter. I know it when I see it. She was afraid of people. She was hurt.
I'd like to say that I comforted her, but the most I did was briefly stroke her back after we returned to her house. In my defense, showing affection is not easy for me. I rarely touch anyone outside of sex. I had stayed with her and her boyfriend that entire night, even though I had a test the next morning. By the time we got back to her house, it was 3 AM, and I did not go to sleep until she had left to lie down first. I said nothing to comfort her, but I stood behind her as she sat wearily in a kitchen chair, feet propped up on another chair she kept provided with a pillow.
I walked to campus the next morning, but I did not take the test. I was exhausted. I sat up in the college library, reading a random book from the stacks. It was quiet up there, and I was alone. I could think.
After I left the library, I didn't go home. I returned to her house. I had the keys, after all, and it was always ok for me to stay. I didn't tell her about the test, or how worried I was about her, but I told I was really low on money and walking to campus was more cost-effective than paying the bus fare back and forth from my house at 2 dollars each way. I also told her I had plans on getting a bike. I wanted to stop being dependent on friends with cars. I didn't like cars, and gas prices were rising, so I had no intention on driving myself.
Later that same day, we watched a science news magazine on PBS. One of the features was a piece on gay penguins. An overwrought narrator carried on about what wonderful, loving parents the gay penguins were.
"Man, I wish my parents were penguins!" I said.
I didn't go home at all that week. My parents didn't call to ask me where I was, and I didn't call them either.
I wanted to be more self-sufficient, I claimed.
Her house is always cold. When I went to sleep that first night, there was only a thin blanket on the son's bed. I curled up tightly under it to preserve warmth. While I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, I sensed her softly treading presence walk into the room and cover me with a quilt.
So it went that week. And the next week. And the next week, on and off. Her boyfriend promised to move in again and find work. I lived at her house, walking to campus each day whether I had class or not, to score free food at the club meetings. For breakfast, I would have one of the dozens of bagels me and the buddy had dumpster-dived. I only went home to change my clothing. Being a nerd among punks, this meant returning every 4 days.
I was very anxious. I had very little money, I found Calculus very difficult, and I couldn't seem to hold a steady job. I frequently volunteered at community groups, but the social interaction demanded by the paying work took so much out of me. I could do it for stretches of 1 or 2 months, but even with therapy and Xanax it was excruciating.
I still had a small cash flow from taking commissions from local nonprofits. They always had a need for flyers, banners, and other graphic design pieces. I enjoyed it, I had a commission or two every month, but it barely paid. The art skills involved demanded as much cultivating as the classes I was studying for.
Things were coming to a head the week I began to crash at her house. I could continue torturing myself with a major yielding me few immediately practical skills, or I could drop it and study art.
I talked to her about my anxieties because there was nobody else to go to. I was driving myself crazy, and most of my friends were total extroverts, rarely allowing me more than a few sentences. I must admit also that I try to be very stoic. The stress, however, was breaking me down. I felt guilty about laying my problems on a sick woman, but what else could I do?
Besides, I noticed that she was improving. She was awake more often, leaving her room more frequently, and certainly talking a lot more. When I wasn't whining at her, we would discuss comics and computers and punk rock. All three are attached to very masculine subcultures, so they might seem like odd subjects for two women to bond over. However, to talk to another woman who was interested in comics and computers and punk rock was a great relief. Our conversations felt cathartic, regardless of what we talked about.
I found that I could make her smile and laugh. It felt very good. It felt very good indeed to have a positive effect on another person. I have been accused of being cold and negative. I have been called insensitive and aloof. I have also been called repressed and damaged. I don't think I looked very repressed and damaged when I spoke to her, but I suppose the circumstances were quite different from my usual.
She began to encourage me to eat more. Whenever she cooked for herself, she'd offer to share. She kept odd hours, so sometimes it would be 2 in the morning when she did. She'd offer me cookies and chocolates, too. I didn't always accept, but the longer I stayed, the more often I did.
The night she returned from a week-long visit to her parents' house, she practically stuffed me, first offering me her mother's pizza, then a chocolate bar, and then cooking rice and beans. It made me feel very warm, almost embarrassingly tender toward her. It wasn't a furtive crush anymore, but something stranger and maternal. It made me think back on another older Italian woman who had decided to take up being my mother.
She wasn't so nice to me.
Being fed and listened to made me realize that what upset me about this former woman, what had hurt me the most about her, was not the abuse, but the neglect. There was no real affection between us. If I would be too anxious to eat, she would yell. I couldn't talk to her. She didn't talk to me without yelling. She wasn't interested in anything I was interested in. I had headaches and was dizzy all the time, but I don't think she ever noticed.
I was just a terrible little freak. And wasn't I proud to be Italian? I was only Jewish or Hispanic when she was upset with me.
The girlfriend often spoke about Italy. She found American culture very wasteful. Do I suppose she missed it? All of her extended family still lives in Italy. The family I had grown up with still lives nearby, but do I ever see or speak to them?
By the time she returned from her parents' house, she was going out nearly daily to visit the corner store. She would buy those two necessities: cookies and cigarettes. I began to regularly wash the dishes and clean the stove top for her. I brought her books in a clumsy gesture of concern for her, bought her organic freetrade chocolate bars with the little money I had, and I lent her my crappy CD player for a trip to New Orleans she made to see Billie Joe play live.
In the days leading up to the trip, she would pace around the kitchen, whispering to herself. If she noticed I was there, she would smile weakly and raise her voice to audibility. What was she saying?
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God...".
"So much pressure," I would say, as she fussed over the cat's bowl. "So much pressure," she would laugh.
It was early on that she admitted to me that she felt very awkward about going out in public. Whenever she rode the bus, she said, she was worried. Once she had been waiting at a bus stop, and there stood beside her an old lady wearing a sparkly pink t-shirt and bright purple socks. When a driver pulled up to ask directions, the old lady interrupted as she talked to the driver, and began a wild rant on New York City traffic.
"I could see myself being that woman in 20 years," she said. "I always feel like people will think I'm scuzzy and crazy and weird."
"You're certainly the nicest scuzzy, weird, crazy person I know," I said.
"Oh, I'm not very nice most of the time..." she sighed.
I didn't say anything.
"You know, I used to feel really nervous about taking the bus," I said, finally verbalizing a connection between her anxiety and my own.
"Oh, as you get older, you grow out of it," she said. "You get more confident."
I didn't say anything.
I noticed then that neither of us was looking at the other. We weren't staring at the floor in that familiar diffident gesture, but our eyes were unfocused and our gazes directed at nothing in particular.
A few weeks later, I found among her pile of library books one on high functioning autism. It was entitled Look Me in the Eye. I read it cover to cover.
"I just finished that book by Augusten Burroughs' brother", I told her. "It was good, but it's got me a little worried...some of his examples of how weird his thinking is sound perfectly normal to me."
"I think that's because we only hear from autistic people who are very high functioning," she shrugged. She continued on to talk about some articles she had read on Augusten Burroughs.
A few days ago, we also had a conversation on solar energy and geothermal heating.