Never and Always

            I’m sorry to do this to you right now. I know the movers are coming in two days. I can picture you in your apartment: the sunset over the city glistening through your floor-to-ceiling windows, Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt crooning in the background while you bubble-wrap your dishes. I know you don’t have time for this. Timing has never been my strong suit. My only defense is: I can’t think about anything else.

            Do you, by any chance, remember the first time we met?

           It was the first day of junior high. You were the prettiest girl I had ever seen. We were both late to hit puberty, but while I was all awkward angles and pimples, you had retained a lithe, tender beauty.

           We were all waiting for Mme Cibaud’s French class to begin; she was running late for some reason. I was chatting about nothing with Amy Littlefield, whom I already knew from elementary school. I could see that you were listening to our conversation from a couple desks away, but it didn’t bother me. Out of nowhere, Jimmy Carpenter tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see what he wanted and he said, “Would you wear socks if you had no feet?”

           I didn’t understand the question, or why he was asking it. “What?”

           He repeated it. I still had no idea what he was getting at, but thinking it over, I supposed if I were an amputee or something, I wouldn’t need socks. “I guess not.”

           “Then why do you wear a bra?”

           Remembering how the tears sprang to my eyes, how excruciating I found that pitiful joke, I almost wish I could go back in time and give my younger self a hug. But I didn’t need the wisdom or perspective that I have now, because I already had you.

           You waited for Jimmy and his little cronies to stop laughing, and then you stood up on your chair. You put your hands on those tiny little hips—my God, what did you weigh back then, 60 pounds?—and you said, “Well, I bet if I pantsed you right now, everyone would see that you have no balls.”

           This part’s a bit hazy, but I think a hush fell over the room; it seemed like everyone heard you. “You wouldn’t dare,” Jimmy responded, but his voice quaked a little.

           That triumphant smile of yours—the one that always appears the second before you score a victory—flashed over your face. “Watch me,” you declared, hopping down off the chair and making your way to his desk.

           That was when Mme Cibaud bustled into the classroom, carrying four or five bags, oblivious to our drama, saying, “Desolée, desolée chers élèves, il y avait une circulation infernale.” The show was over. Like me right now, Mme Cibaud had abominable timing. For the rest of my life, I have regretted that I never got to see you pants Jimmy Carpenter.


           After that, you came over every day after school. Or maybe it wasn’t that often; maybe those are just the memories I’ve bothered to retain from back then. My mom would make us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we’d pretend to do homework, while we actually just gossiped and listened to music and read. We’d pore over the same copy of A Wrinkle in Time or Jane Eyre or Little Women—remember how annoyed you’d get because I was a slower reader than you? Then we’d argue about which March sister was more irritating (I said Amy; you said Beth) and whether Mr. Rochester was worthy of Jane.

           I’m sorry I pestered you for so long, trying to get myself invited to your house. Did I ever explain why it mattered so much to me? I wanted to see what it was like, the place that could produce someone like you. I wanted to see how your room was decorated; whether your house had a funny smell; catch a glimpse of your mysterious father. But you kept saying, “Today isn’t a good day,” until I understood that there would never be a good day.

           Of course I eventually made it over a few times. I think the first time was in high school. By then I was less curious, though, because you’d told me what to expect. It wasn’t as bad as you described. (I never did see any cockroaches—were you exaggerating? After all this time, I think you can tell me.) I understood, though why you gravitated to my house. I think I can count on both hands the number of words your father ever spoke to me.

           I should have told you that you didn’t need to be embarrassed by him—his faded clothes, his brusque movements, his constant assortment of injuries. They only bothered me insofar as they bothered you. But as you’ll see, I’m a coward. I worried that bringing it up would only amplify your shame. So, as usual, I said nothing.

           I know—or at least, I’m pretty sure—that it meant a lot to you: having my place to stay over, our conversations, my mother’s tender ministrations. She always liked you better than she liked us, her own kids. It pained me back then, but I don’t mind admitting it now. She loved your fierce arguments, your brash sense of humor, and your unflagging facade of confidence. You were what she wished to be, while my brother and I were a reminder of what she actually was.

           Speaking of junior high and bras, do you remember how my mother took you shopping for your first one? You were unflappable during the fitting, I remember, staring straight ahead into the mirror as the saleslady wrapped her tape measure around your burgeoning chest. (I, fully clothed and uninvolved in the proceedings, was mortified enough for the both of us.) It was only at the register that you grew bashful, when my mom quietly insisted on paying for it. Maybe you were just surprised to hear her argue about anything, but for once, you didn’t push back. Or maybe you were just secretly thrilled to be mothered at all.

           And then there were all those evenings and weekends on my bed, listening to my record player. I liked music, sure, but after a while I got bored; my patience was finite, especially when your tastes got too esoteric. I just wanted to listen to the popular stuff: the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Billy Joel. You were happy enough to listen to them too, but it made me crazy when you insisted on playing every artist who had ever influenced them, and then any artist who had ever influenced those influences. Remember when I suggested you study music in college? You looked at me in this withering, almost pitying way and said, “What would I do with that?”          

           Since both of my parents and my brother had gone to college, I never doubted that I would too. I didn’t think much about where I should apply—if every college had a quad, lectures, and parties, then how different could they be? What an idiot I was, only applying to UConn and Mount Holyoke. What a scam it was, that my legacy status there actually made up for my undistinguished high school transcript.

           For you, of course, it was different. I wish you’d listened when my parents suggested that you apply to the Ivy Leagues—they were probably right that you would have gotten a merit scholarship. Imagine if there had been the kind of financial aid in 1980 that they offer now! But, ever the realist, you couldn’t be bothered. Also, forgive me for saying so, but you’re more sensitive to rejection than you let on. You didn’t want to subject yourself to their judgment if you couldn’t afford to go anyway, right?

           I never told you this, but I wanted to turn down Mount Holyoke to go to UConn with you. I was embarrassed by how much I needed you, since you were obviously going to be fine without me. It was also a moot point, since my parents, in their mild-mannered way, put their foot down. I think they figured that if Mount Holyoke was going to be foolish enough to admit me, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to turn them down.

           It was a comfort to know that you were only an hour away, though it didn’t mean much since neither of us had a car. In the memory box in the back of my closet, I still have some of your letters from back then, full of descriptions of your classes, the debate team, the pre-law student journal, the concerts you attended. Were you making any friends? I don’t remember you mentioning any. You were so driven, so full of purpose, that you seemed too busy to be lonely.

           My letters must have seemed bacchanalian by comparison. Since I was barely attending classes, I had little to report about them. I talked about some of the novels I read, but I was embarrassed by how rarely they were the ones I was assigned for class. Were you annoyed by my pseudo-philosophical ramblings and my gossip about people you hadn’t met? Could you tell that I was high when I wrote them? I sensed your disapproval of my smoking—I got so upset when you called me a pothead, even though I often jokingly called myself one. I tried to downplay how frequently I was smoking, but I knew you weren’t fooled.

           There is one secret that I managed to keep from you. I had a few—even now, I don’t know how to characterize them—liaisons with my classmates, all of whom, of course, were women. I told myself that they weren’t a big deal, which in a way was true: none of the women meant anything to me. But I didn’t know how to talk to you about it, so I never did. I was afraid you’d judge me, like you very obviously judged the pot. I was afraid that when I got married someday, you’d remind me of this and tell me that I shouldn’t. Most of all, I was afraid you might wonder how I felt about you, and then you might be scared away.

           Honestly, I’ve never felt like I could talk to you about my love life. Not only did you flat-out refuse to answer any questions about yours, but you were so cynical that I felt foolish for believing in love at all. I still have the letter where you wrote, “Marriage is two people making unrealistic, unfulfillable promises to each other. If my parents hadn’t gotten married, Dad would never have expected my mother to stay, and wouldn’t have been so crushed when she left.I’ll never get married.”

           You never seemed to want a boyfriend. Did you? I can’t imagine you had time for one. It’s embarrassing to remember that while you were cramming for the LSAT, earning high honors, and interviewing at the top law schools in the country, I spent my senior year getting stoned and trying to make up credits so that I could graduate on time.

           Is that when the rift started, do you think? I have trouble pinpointing it, since there was no dramatic betrayal or screaming match marking the time of death of our friendship. It felt more like a distancing by a thousand small cuts. I know I wasn’t fair to you back then. I had no comprehension of how grueling law school was. (How could I, when I had taken college so lightly?) I should have understood that the lags between letters and unreturned phone calls weren’t personal. But you also have to remember: I was living at my parents’ house, shelving books part-time at the library. Every day that I didn’t hear from you felt like a week. And then when we did talk, it seemed like we had less and less to say to each other. Somehow, you had wiped out all memory of our high school classmates, so my hometown gossip always fell flat. I tried to ask about your classes, but then immediately get lost in your descriptions of obscure case law and Latin legalese. You had outgrown me and my friendship, or at least that’s what it felt like to me.

           That’s why I was so happy—and even relieved—when you invited me to your Columbia Law graduation. My parents were honored, too, you know. My mom kept saying, “I always knew that girl would make something of herself,” and I was so proud of you too that I wasn’t even jealous over the implied comparison.

           But then the disconnect only grew after you graduated. Remember when I came to visit you at your first office, that stunning, all-glass building in the financial district? You looked so sharp in that tailored navy-blue suit and pumps, wearing tasteful makeup, your hair in an immaculate bun. Since I didn’t need or own any professional attire, I had shown up in the only non-party formal attire I owned: plain black pants and a white button-down shirt. I looked like a cater-waiter.

           The mahogany desks, the elegant chime of the elevators, the framed, elite diplomas hanging on every wall, including yours—it all reeked of money and exclusivity, and I felt so out of place. I couldn’t understand how you, coming from even humbler roots than mine, seemed to have acclimated to it all so easily. I was sure that you were embarrassed by me, your country bumpkin visitor, and even now, I don’t think that was all in my head.

           You took me to lunch at Delmonico’s; I remember, because I was shocked that you could afford it. It’s too simplistic to say that I was jealous of you, of what you’d achieved. Rather, I was jealous of your law firm, your genteel colleagues—all the objects of your attention that weren’t me. “Why are you working for ‘the man’ instead of advocating for indigent women, like you always said you would?” I asked, like a brat. You subjected me to your most withering stare, and then proceeded to order the most expensive thing on the menu. You must have thought I had some nerve, interrogating you about your career choices when I still lived in my childhood bedroom, but you didn’t put me in my place. I was probably too pathetic for you even to tell off. It would have been like kicking a puppy.


           Thank God I met Eli later that year, or I might never have moved out—my parents were too conflict-avoidant to give me the kick in the pants I needed. Eli treated me like I was special, and even though I never believed him, it showed me how special he was: patient, kind, and thoughtful. I know you thought that our courtship was too short. You’re probably right that I shouldn’t have moved straight from my parents’ house to his, that I should have given myself a taste of an independent life first, but what can I tell you? I was in love. You never had been. How could I expect you to understand?

           My memories from my wedding day feel like scattered snapshots; they burst in my mind like random, blinding flashes of a vintage camera. The tears in Eli’s eyes and the feeling of his hand in mine as he recited his vows.My father-in-law’s joke during his toast, for which Eli never forgave him, about how if I wore the pants in the relationship, Eli obviously wore the skirt. I don’t know where you were for most of the day, though my brother later told me that you danced with him. The card attached to your gift, which I also still have, was lovely and congratulatory and heartfelt. But one of my memory-flashes from that day was during my first dance with Eli. Amongst the sea of smiling, cheering people, you scowled, your arms crossed over your chest.The displeasure on your face, so out of place at my joyful wedding reception, was so fierce that it literally took my breath away. Was it disappointment? Disapproval? Jealousy? I had no idea, and still don’t. It couldn’t have been antipathy toward Eli; I could count the number of times you’d met him on one hand. (Also, to this day, I can’t imagine anyone disliking him.)


           I really did appreciate the effort you made to stay in touch in the months after my wedding, even though you were always too busy to talk for long. Did you ever do anything but work in those years? Is there anyone in the history of your firm who made partner faster than you did?            

           And then, barely a year after the wedding, I had Izzy, and just two years after that, Andy and Aaron.

           I’ve always known that you weren’t a “kid person.” I was aware that you’d never babysat in high school like I did; I noticed you cringing and trying to move tables when babies cried in restaurants, like you thought their screams were contagious. But until I had mine, I never understood how deeply, viscerally uncomfortable you were around kids. I realize those years weren’t fun for any of our friends. Our lives revolved around diapers and colic and playdates. Still, I have to tell you: on the few occasions you saw the kids when they were little, your distaste was striking. You eyed them warily, like they were little aliens who had told you that they came in peace, but whose motives you still mistrusted. Your calls became even less frequent, but for the first time in our lives, it didn’t bother me; I barely noticed.


           And then there was the ocarina incident. Whose idea was it for me to visit with all three kids? I seem to remember that the sitter canceled at the last minute and Eli was away on business, so I must not have had much choice. I’d already rescheduled on you a few times, I think, and would have been ashamed to do it again.

           Izzy was about five years old, and the twins were three. I remember the wonder in their little faces when they saw your immaculate high-rise and chic modern furniture. It was like the awe I’d felt that day at your financial district office, except they were unselfconscious enough to show it.

           Of course they went straight for your musical instrument collection. Izzy was trying so hard not to pluck the strings of your harp, I remember; her little fingers were only a hair’s width away from them, as close as she could get without actually touching it.

           “That’s not a toy,” I heard you say, and there was Aaron with your ocarina at his lips. Ignoring you, he yelled, “Andy, it’s a triangle harmonica!” before starting to blow into it.

           “You put that down this instant,” you snapped. You stalked over to him and snatched the ocarina from his stubby little hands, and he recoiled as if you had struck him.

           I know now that it was an antique from Japan that you had paid thousands for at an auction. I could tell, too, that you immediately felt bad about how you had reacted. But even so, your unkindness horrified me.

           “Kids, don’t touch other people’s stuff without asking,” I said. But the words were perfunctory and unconvincing, because I was angry with you, not them. Your eyes narrowed and I could practically hear you judging my parenting, and finding it wanting. I didn’t need that—not from anyone, and especially not from you. I gathered up the kids and their stuff, barely stammered out a goodbye, and left.


           I don’t blame you for the silence that followed. After all, I didn’t call you either. Were you getting the Christmas cards I sent during those years? Since we weren’t talking, it felt like your life was frozen in amber. I pictured you living in that same gorgeous Midtown apartment, working 90-hour weeks, and attending concerts and performances on the weekends, just like you always had. If anything major happened in your life, I would surely know about it, even though we weren’t talking; therefore, since we weren’t talking, nothing major could happen to you. (Yes, I know how irrational that sounds.)

           That’s why I was so shocked to hear from my mom that your father had passed away. When I called you, you spoke my name with such tenderness and melancholy that tears sprang to my eyes.

           Maybe that would have been it, just some heartfelt condolences, if you hadn’t turned to me during the funeral and said, “Will you stay with me tonight?” I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you so vulnerable. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so honored.


           For all the hundreds of sleepovers we’d had, I think it was the first time we had ever stayed over at your dad’s house instead of my parents’.They say you can never go home again, but by some divine miracle, we did: sharing your bed and talking all night like we were still teenagers. I forget what dumb joke I made, but I somehow made you laugh, which felt miraculous. You seemed taken aback by the force of your own grief, maybe because your relationship with your father had been so fraught. But it made perfect sense to me: irascible, irrational and aloof as he had been, he had been present, and he had loved you as best he could.

           When you couldn’t cry anymore, you rested your head in my lap and I said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been the shittiest friend.”

           “Don’t start,” you said. I couldn’t see your eyes from where I sat, but I knew you were rolling them. “We both know it’s my fault. It’s just...babies.” You shook your head.

           “They’re not babies anymore,” I pointed out, suppressing a laugh. “They’re teenagers now.”

           You looked up at me, your eyes wide with surprise. Maybe you thought our lives had been frozen in amber too. “They’re almost real people now, and I don’t know them at all.” Your voice was laced with sorrow and regret, like it was already too late.

           “They’re not going anywhere!” I promised. “You’ll get to know them. Nothing gets in the way of our friendship anymore—agreed?”

           You blinked up at me and I was afraid you’d start crying again, so I added, “Except for antique Japanese wind instruments, obviously.”

           “Shut up!” You laughed, shoving me in the chest, and I loved feeling the pressure of your hands, the weight of your love.

           “There’s someone else, too,” I said. “I’ve been married for fifteen years, and you barely know my husband.”

           “That’s probably true,” you said, no longer looking at me.

           “I want you to.” I touched your shoulder, turning your face upward toward me. “You two are going to love each other so much.”

           And so you would have.


           Even now, it’s hard to talk about those first years after Eli died. I know I made the active decision, every day, to work at being a good mother. I had always been the primary caretaker, but I’d never realized how much he had done, unnoticed and unacknowledged, until he was gone. On the surface, I listened to kids, I cooked their favorite foods, I got them therapy that I couldn’t afford, and I truly loved them. But on a deeper level, I wasn’t there at all. I watched an exhausted doppelganger of myself go through the motions day after day—lunches and groceries and laundry and the bills and homework and driving, and of course, work. And then I’d lie perfectly still in bed at the end of the day with the lights on, staring vacantly at the ceiling, and I felt nothing, and I wondered if I was still alive.

           You don’t like when I say this, because you think I’m “denying my agency,” but I can’t say it enough: we would never have gotten through those years without you. How many hundreds of hours did you spend driving between Manhattan and Norwalk? How many scholarship and financial aid applications did you help the kids fill out? How many thousands of your own dollars did you spend stocking my fridge and pantry, knowing that my librarian’s salary and Eli’s life insurance was nowhere near enough to make ends meet? These are not rhetorical questions; I don’t know the answers, because you did it all so discreetly, never letting me see what it must have cost you.

           The first time you came over without asking, I didn’t understand why your car was out front. When I walked into the kitchen, there you were, quizzing Aaron for his history test, snacking on a banana, looking completely at ease. You barely even looked up from the textbook to say hello. It was as if you had been there for years, as if your presence at my kitchen table was the most normal thing in the world.

           That day, you brought a tiny votive candle into the pitch-black cave of my soul. You didn’t illuminate everything; no one could have. But you reminded me of the existence of light. Your presence showed me that, as unyieldingly dark as my world was, brightness might someday be possible.

           In the years that passed, I got too used to having you around. It never occurred to me that you might not be. Which leads us here, now.


           When you told me that the firm offered you a transfer to Austin, I wanted to be happy for you. You deserve all of it: the pay raise, the extra responsibility, the recognition of your value. It’s what you’ve been working for. But I’m a selfish monster, and all I can think about is the impossibility of being apart.

           I tried to broach it with you, in my usual cowardly way. “Won’t it be hard?” I asked. “You’ve lived on the East Coast your whole life. You won’t know anyone there. You don’t even eat barbecue.”

           You shrugged. “Who cares? It’ll be good for me to broaden my horizons. And it’s easier for me to move than my colleagues. No spouse, no children—no one needs me here.” But when you said that, your whole body tensed up, and your face clouded over with this expression I’ve only seen once: during that first dance at my wedding. I still don’t know what it means. I think it was a combination of bitterness, regret, and longing. But for what? Do you want to be needed?  Maybe I just saw what I wanted to see.

           That’s when I should have spoken up. I should have said, “I still need you.” Not like before, when the kids were still in the house. Maybe need isn’t even the right word. I don’t know how to express it. I’ve never known how to express it.

           Things were so different when we were growing up.

           Let me put it another way. A few months back, my niece asked me about you and me—how long we’d been together. She was so casual about it, like she was asking me what kind of sandwich I wanted for lunch. I had to stop myself from laughing, or maybe crying.

           How long have we been together? Never, and always.

           I’ve never said anything because the timing wasn’t right, although that’s only part of it. The real reason is I was sure I’d scare you away, and I couldn’t bear that.

           I’m not asking you to stay here. I’ll move to Austin with you. I’m sure they have libraries that need staff. With the kids in college, there’s nothing here in Connecticut that I couldn’t give up. Just tell me that you want me to.

           If I’m overstepping, or if I’ve misread you, just say so and we’ll never discuss it again. We can go on like this never happened, I swear it.

           But if we’ve both been too afraid to admit it to each other for all these years—if we’ve missed out because of our joint cowardice—I couldn’t let you leave without asking.

           So, my love. What do you say?

January 24, 2023
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