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Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg

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BOOK: She Matters
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Next month she'll be here for good. I hear her tell me the real-estate logistics, lament the hassle of switching schools, and I offer encouragement, but I'm thinking: me, I get Patricia back. Later I note I hadn't offered help. In crude mourning I don't feel competent at anything.

We darken our talk, that tough underlayer I wait for, private hopes, the kids' real scares and questionable behavior, uncertain
parenting, sex in our lives, silent humiliations, hatreds. Then we come to our fathers. Our grieving spreads over the table. She says things I've heard her say about her dad and the event, her frequent echoes, but now I've been repeating myself, too, unable to progress from the day of my father's death, the hospital's dull effects, how he
was
here but
is
not, and I get it: you go over and over it, you look for sense, try to place yourself, insist. Her father had been dead a few weeks when she collected all she owned, undid her kids' bedrooms, and moved away. I never saw what grief made of her, what she did with it. I couldn't follow. My father was alive.

“What was I thinking, that year?” she says. “Moving then. I must have been out of my mind. I barely remember any of it.”

“Yes, this year.” Its wash is blinding. What will I recall? How will I return to myself?

“It'll be great to be back. Helena's fine, we've loved the house, but I don't have friends there like this. Only you talk like this.” Her voice has settled, shed its vibrant rise and rise. She is just speaking.

“I have to ask you something,” I say. “When Jack was born, the first few weeks, you didn't see him.”

“I didn't?”

“No, you didn't come.”

“Was it summer?”

I'm briefly annoyed. “It was November.” Both my sons were born in November, Daniel first, Jack four years later. Patricia and I were very close by then.

“I wonder why I didn't. God, I'm sorry.” She looks a little stressed. I don't want that for her.

“It's okay,” I say. “I just wondered.”

This isn't true. I've stored hurt for ten years and let it seep into the friendship. That's what I should tell her. Come clean, Susanna,
unmask and voice regret. Apologize. A decade on, together in a bar that hadn't existed then, I can't fathom why it's important to bring this up, why I need her to know she hurt me. Except that grief disdains normal procedure, and my behavior keeps surprising me, as if it has snapped off from its source, broken away. I've been accounting for disappointments. Patricia isn't actually one of them. It was Patricia who packed the full Thanksgiving dinner in paper bags and left them covered on our porch the night Christopher and I brought our first newborn home. Until then, she and I had been happy to be friends, glad at the sound of the other's interested voice, but that night, when I'd been a mother for fifty-eight hours, as I dressed my baby in diaper, Onesie, fleece bunting, Patricia planned, baked, drove over, and changed our friendship. She marked what mattered between friends, what mattered in a couple, in a town. She showed me how simple: you witness and love, and you feel loved. She wasn't asking for anything.

Four years later, at the birth of my second son, she hadn't come to the hospital or to the house. Other people dropped by, brought wrapped presents and bouquets. I waited for my deep-down friend. She didn't even call. I'd been counting on her to remind me how I fit in this life, how connected I was to solid people. Patricia's eager, easy devotion in the past few years had helped to grant me mothering skills. I didn't have a reliable mother like she did, the experienced model and steady backup. Her mother worked polling tables on election days, where she chatted with a stream of lifelong neighbors. My mother, whom Patricia met once in a state of fascinated disbelief, was publicly fabulous and grand with a gesture but, for me, a notorious crisis. She didn't follow through, and when together, we did her, not me. In times of critical transformation I couldn't have her around. Before knowing me, Patricia wasn't aware such creatures existed.

Finally, a couple of weeks later—the time a new baby remakes everything, scrambles all intentions—Patricia appeared. I was mad, fed up. She sat at one end of the couch, I at the other, Jack shielded in my arms until I set him between us. She leaned over him, wowed and wondered, as others had, but there was something stiff, she was distracted. I might have asked, figured her out, led her to open up. I was good at that. But I didn't inquire, a punishment. I didn't let anger go, habit from the dangerous family I'd left behind, from being leery of women. I was good at that, too, the guarded disappointment.

The moment divided the first years of our friendship from those after. We'd known each other almost a decade when I had Jack, but as I pulled myself in against hurt, I let a single oversight decide our future.

Patricia strains to remember why, ten years ago, she hadn't come. As she reconstructs daily history out loud, I feel dumb. For so long I'd wanted apology and explanation, but now that I've asked for them, I find neither matters at all.

We move on, talk about her mother, how she's managing, about the rearranging in a family when one person dies. We didn't use to know. We'd been adding people, choosing people. Patricia puts down her wine. She says, “There is nothing that anyone can get past a forty-five-year-old woman.” We laugh hard, the first honest sound I make that afternoon, or in many days, each of us feeling the ravages of experience, our debt to enduring. We are not to be fucked with. We rule. Even as we age and help our children push past us, as we worry about the estimate for the roof, forget things we meant to do, regard our widening bodies, we rule. We've returned again and again to our original selves for another look; we have refined our purpose. Changes we thought we'd been resisting have anyway been wrought, and they have made us unbreakable.
On an early-spring afternoon, in a dark bar off a sleepy Missoula sidewalk, we sing the unbreakable. We spread out the landscape and, as we've always done, coax narrative out of unruly change.

• • •

Patricia found me. I was working in a restaurant, and I'd stopped at her table to fill the water glasses. “Susanna, right?” She reminded me we'd been introduced. “Aren't you from New York?” In Missoula a blurry month, after finding the apartment, the two jobs, I was aching for more society than my boyfriend. She invited us to a party,
lots
of writers, you'll
love
them, the MFA students, and
faculty,
just come! We came, my boyfriend and I, stuck near to the door at first, and Patricia, her face flushed with glee and gin, hugged an arm around my waist as she stitched together one person she liked with another. She gestured with her plastic cup and kept me by her side.

We were on. I dialed her number. I loved a new beginning, launched myself at candidates, hoping for the perfect companion. Until Missoula and its adventure of revised identity, my main company had been men. Usually, they'd been lovers first, then became my close friends. I knew how to make men last, trusted their allegiance and their reliable limitations. Women didn't last. Unable to help my hope and longing at the start, I opened myself, gave away everything, immersed in a woman as if I wished to disappear. Things blew up, or we lost focus on each other. I never saw it was a pattern, the fruitless lesson. Each friendship ended, like a fabulous limited run.

Patricia took me to Blue Mountain, a hike that gave us a view of the Missoula valley. Little rocks spit out from under my new sturdy boots as we worked our way higher, and then we stopped, out of breath, the vista at an angle to the river below so that stands
of trees aligned to erase the new developments and tracts of box stores, revealing soft hills, the gaping sky. She told how she'd met her husband, Mark, laughing at how young she'd been. I told how I'd met my boyfriend Christopher six months earlier, and now here I was. Here I was, living where he wanted to, in Montana. We compared favorite Alice Munro stories, which had affected us when, our desperate admiration. Let's read each other, we said, flattered by the other's interest.

“You guys should come to dinner. Sunday?” The friendship would hurry and deepen. On that night she opened the door, releasing a fragrant spell, smells of roast chicken, sauces. Mark clapped our shoulders and pulled us in. He poured us all scotch, turned the blues music up. At his friendly questions, Christopher and I explained ourselves, and the two of them remarked, their opinions noisy and enjoyed. Ice melted in the glasses and made room for itself. I stood before their wall of books and recognized editions. Patricia and I had started our collections at the same cultural moment. That bright red Cheever, the accumulated Norton anthologies of college, the sporty Vintage trade paperbacks of first apartments. Far from my home city and reliable friends, I could trust the books and the lovely woman who had hung on to them, and who wrote fiction, wanted to feed us, laughed big at embarrassments and literary gossip. “Tell me more,” she said. “What were the
Paris Review
parties like? You've met so-and-so? What's he
like
?” She couldn't believe I'd volunteered to evacuate such a world.

Patricia lived where she'd been born. Her parents had been born here. She'd grown, gone away, come back, and inhabited a town peopled by doctors and florists and mechanics who'd walked the halls of the high school when she did; lawyers, professors, bakers, engineers whose brothers had been arrested after parties;
arborists, farmers, journalists, real-estate agents, and landscapers whose sisters had divorced her cousins. She shrugged at the casual exposure, felt happily known.

In our early days, Patricia loved to do “big city” things with me, as if we were our own dolls. She'd suggest places for cheap lunches, seeing if I liked them, enjoying the fresh take a newcomer could get away with. Service always took awhile, me at first in an urban huff, but I copied her manners and learned the local way. She often walked the neighborhood mile from her house to her parents', which was on the National Historic Register. In summers the whole family went to a cabin. You picked huckleberries until dark, she said. You floated the rivers, tubing, casting. I'd never heard of huckleberries, or morel mushrooms, didn't know these river terms. She tended tomato plants in the sunniest spot of her yard. In spring she gave me garish orange poppies dug up from her garden, shaking earth from the roots as she handed them over. “Just put them in anywhere,” she said to dubious me. “They'll do great.”

• • •

A year and a half later I was waiting for her at a rear table, impatient, a bitter day in late winter. The restaurant was dark and almost empty. Patricia was late. From the table I watched the white space where the windows looked onto the street. A silhouette broke through the whiteness, her shape grew distinct. She was undoing scarf and layers as she hurried in.

“Hi!” she said. She was too cheerful to resent, bending to kiss me, breathless from the cold. “The sun's out! How
are
you, sweetie?”

“Okay.”

She dropped her gloves and hat by her feet, sat, laced the strap of her handbag over her chair. I waited. Again, but as if for the first time, she said, “How are you?”

“Not good,” I said. “I have to— I'm having an abortion.”

Her face then. I saw the change. The ashen shadow, the tense retreat. Christopher was my closest friend, but he was, by definition, too close for this. I needed a woman, someone who understood the body's rebellions in a way he could not, its sneaky devastations. She was concerned for me, mustered support, but her distress loomed. I ignored this. I had to speak my own trouble, my double disaster of accidental pregnancy and intentional abortion. I'd already had the preliminary appointment, was forced to stay pregnant one more week, stew with unsayable anger and fear, with the ruin and confusion in my marriage. Patricia had been married much longer. She'd show me the point to all this.

“Don't do it,” she said. This startled us both. I actually pressed against the back of my chair. “I mean, but are you sure this is the right choice?” I wondered if I'd misjudged, mistaken our mutual literary admirations and social pleasure for allegiance.

“We've decided, we have to,” I said. We did have to, a decisionless decision made in days of compressed, obsessive hours. Our relationship wasn't steady enough, it would have to find more definition. I was resigned, not yet brokenhearted.

“It's just—” She started to cry, her turn. Trying for so long, wanting badly to get pregnant, nearing forty. I felt the affront of my decision, then longed for magic—let me transfer the pregnancy,
you
make the baby. Please relieve me of this mission.

I think what happened at that table was that she hated me. She saw me squandering the precious. I saw she couldn't help me, that in our rawest moments, no matter our goodwill, we weren't better
than casual friends. We made a gap then—her longing, my burden, the blankness in between. We forgot our food, strangled through the hour, parted. I called her the evening after the abortion, and she was kind. To honor my mood, my act, she was kind, but I knew she didn't want to talk any more about it, so I didn't.

A year later, at her baby shower, I hated her. It had been a complicated year, as Christopher and I had recovered from the abortion, reconsidered parenthood, decided to try. I'd swallowed my anger—
Now
you're ready?—and I got pregnant. I felt urgent and possessive in the first weeks, guarding gestation without joy. But a few days before the shower I miscarried, and I was so sour and gone, hated all fertile worlds, especially Patricia's, filled with her mother and father, her friendly sister, her longtime friends. I dropped my present in the pile, sulked in a chair across the room as she opened them all.

BOOK: She Matters
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ads

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