Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg
When we stopped, Claudia reached across my lap, busted the door open, and pushed us out. “We can take a walk later,” she said and lifted her hand, but her gesture was undecided, scanning a wide swath of land that showed me nothing but trees close together, no roads, no houses. I liked known space, classrooms, airplane cabins, motel rooms. What did she do up here, where nothing could happen? I followed. Mick had built the root cellar, a hump of soil, a door shoved into earth, which opened into darkness, coolness. The floor was untended dirt. In dusty recesses hollowed into the walls, dishes, cast-iron pots, and a bong sat next to oil lamps and matchboxes and little rectangular cans. It was like sleeping quarters on a boat, maybe. No, I couldn't compare it to anything I'd seen. It was all strange. I hated when Claudia knew a lot about something before I did.
There was nowhere to sit, no proper area, except for a table, which was crowded with clear, empty jars, lids scattered. We went outside again and Mick disappeared, a rustle of steps and then gone. I meant to track him, didn't want to be surprised, but he was steering clear of me. What did he want us for anyway? He was obviously close to fifty, or at least forty.
Claudia wore what I called her hippie skirt, and leather sandals
and a white blouse that tied in the front. I was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a white sweatshirt with
in fat, pink script outlined by pink glitter. New York irony; but instead the woods and paralyzed vistas mocked me. The wraparound silence left me small. Claudia walked us away from truck and root cellar to reveal the cook site, the logs and low rocks that served as their furniture, proud of the make-do, of the organic roughness, proud Mick had taken her in. I couldn't remember where they'd met, didn't want her to know that. We called the place “the compound,” exaggerated teasing, but the trace in the word of military isolation made me uneasy.
“Are you smoking pot?” I said, parental.
“God, no. That's Mick's deal.”
“You want to tell me about this morning? How it went?”
“Oh, the âprocedure'? Good, good, it was nothing. I mean, they said I'd feel tugging and stuff, but I didn't, and it seemed to go pretty quickly, and then it was done. We got something to eat before we came to get you.” Her voice rose fast, broke high on
. “You're really here, here, here, this is so great.”
I didn't know what “tugging” was supposed to mean. What else was it like, abortion? I'd barely encountered the word before, never spoken it aloud. What actually happened? “Are you okay?”
“Don't I seem okay?” She drew herself up and gave a flourish with her hand down the length of her body, a gesture of admiration I'd seen her use on the flank of her horse. “I'm divine!”
I'd thought she would need me, that I'd go with her and hold her hand or smooth her hair. But she hadn't needed that, or she didn't need that anymore, as if the abortion of the morning had been months ago instead. Confused by blitheness, I wondered if she'd made up the pregnancy. My mother lied for casual amusement,
about anything, to anyone, so I stayed alert for it. But my best friend wouldn't make that shit up, not to me. Real friends wouldn't.
“So, it didn't hurt? At all?”
surgery, they keep telling you, it's on a million forms, but it's pretty fucking minor, that's all I can say, because I'm over it.” She said, “You always expect a drama, Sue, but I'm okay. Really. Except they told me, you know what they said? I can't have sex for two weeks. Fuck that.”
“Shouldn't you wait?” I followed those sorts of rules.
“Mick thought they're covering their asses, just, you know, so you don't come back in and blame them for not getting the whole fetus out, or something. He says they're always worried they're going to get sued. Anyway, no legal counsel will prevent
from having sex. Do you like him?”
“Yeah,” I said, lying badly. “I don't think he likes me though.”
“He's totally jealous of you, that's why. He said I was in love with you. I was like, who wouldn't be?” This was one of our routines, that we fit perfectly and were meant for each other, would end up together once we'd tried on and washed away the silly boys. But now she had a man. My lies so embedded, I kept forgetting I did, too.
“How's Ethan?” I said. He'd been her sort-of boyfriend from the spring. She'd obsessed about him through April, May, into June, and we'd obsessed as well about my flirtations, tiny and giant, my several to Claudia's one, my flights, her fixation. We said we had senioritis, big-timeâfuck finals! they can't matter now!âbut this was my necessary camouflage, making sure my best friend didn't uncover my mistress identity. Now it was late July, five weeks of being high school graduates, five weeks of saturated longing for my lover.
“Ethan? He went to one of those, you know, his family has those summer places?”
“Wow, Ethan, Mick,” I said. “What if they were in the same room?” I wanted to remind her of clean hair, smooth skin, Ethan's clean voice.
“I'm sure Ethan would drone on about the history of port taxes in the sixteenth century.”
“Yeah, to make a point, what he was reading.”
“And Mick would ask me later if Ethan ever got high.”
“And then he'd say he should.”
“Ethan adored you,” I said.
“No, Susanna. Ethan adored
“Well, I don't know!” I said, but I liked it. “I had Connor.”
“And poor Kip, he was obsessed with you.”
My teacher had told me, “Flirt with them,” told me to act “normal.” For prom I had Connor, and Claudia had Ethan, but we ditched them after we arrived at the fancy hotel. We danced with each other, sloppy arms and stagy affection. My teacher watched us, me, as he talked with the other standing adults.
Mick emerged from the dark of the root cellar, holding a blue metal coffeepot. A prop, I thought, for his Wild West. “Girls want coffee?”
“Yes! I'm starving!” said Claudia. “Are you, Susy?”
“A little. Sure.” I'd seen no trace of groceries, no bags in the back of the truck, only shovels, a folded tarp, rolled-up chicken wire. Mick retreated.
That night, after heating the canned food over the fire and washing pots and plates in a pond, we went to our berths. I could hear them having sex, all of Claudia and none of Mick, and I
couldn't tell whether she was objecting and crying, or enjoying it, which creeped me out, not being able to tell when I knew her so well, as well as I knew myself. He didn't make one sound. I turned to the wall, wondering what he was doing to my friend.
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Late in the summer, a few weeks before college began, Ethan called me. He was staying on the Upper East Side, a few blocks away. The city felt stopped and subdued, little traffic down Lexington, few shops open along Madison. Heat had canceled commerce. I welcomed his call.
“I should like to take you out for dinner,” he said with his imitation of British formality. Claudia and I could never tease him out of this, which only made us smirk, watching the color flood his face.
“Yes, why not, indeed? Do,” I said, but he didn't get it.
He arrived with half a dozen roses, which I left in the apartment, and we walked over to Third. Every phone booth, hydrant, and sidewalk square was glazed by heat, muted. Ethan reviewed his college worries, but his anxiety bored me, a step backward. I switched the subject to movies, travel, his family members who lived in the city. We knew it was conscious and strange not to mention Claudia. As he handled his wallet, searching for the right cash, I thought he was fairly sweet, especially when embarrassed. I kept trying to embarrass him so I could tell Claudia about it.
Then I took him to bed.
“Did you ever sleep with Claudia?” I said, as I closed the door to my room. I knew the answer but wanted him to say, wanted to see what became of the scene if we introduced her.
“I didn't,” he said.
I wasn't a virgin, which put me in charge. I can't remember making love with Ethan, or remember birth control, or whether he left in darkness or daylight. I was thinking about Claudia, holding her off with one arm while I took hold of her semiboyfriend. In the kitchen after sex, Diet 7-Up cans on the table next to the roses I'd put in a vase, we said that we couldn't tell Claudia, we mustn't. We were both very clear about that.
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That root-cellar summer Claudia and I phoned all the time, mulled our preparations and packing for college, where we'd be only two hundred miles apart instead of two thousandânot as close as we wanted, but close. She fluttered and didn't seem to know what she was doing, what to do, and this made me the one who knew more, who could calm her when things ended with Mick. I had our photo in a frame, the picture with our arms around each other, our faces splendid with a joke of our own cultivated vocabulary. Behind us you could see our former campus. I don't know who took the picture, because who else really mattered to us? She visited me in the fall, a weekend in my freshman dorm; and I took the bus to New Jersey to visit her, maybe twice, as I remember snow, and not snow. She walked me around, introduced me to dorm mates whose open doors we passed, but I wished for Sunday to hurry up, and I double-checked the bus schedule. We didn't understand how to tend our friendship beyond our common world. What could we talk about? I had failed to calculate the pernicious results of so much lying.
We went to brunch Sunday at a B and B, sharing the weight of my small duffel as we walked in the whipping white cold, snow and the crusted sidewalk breaking under our shoes. The dining room was close with adult voices and silverware, the low tones and the
high silver notes. We were used to entering, to our unrivaled female power, but after we'd put the popovers and seeded jam on our plates, filled our cups with coffee, she talked in her half-decided way, her stops and starts, she checked to see what I thought; and I wasn't listening. I just wanted to leave. She needed so much, and I knew I could withhold it from her, take from her, because I had, which made me anxious to get to the out-of-business gas station where we'd wait until the Adirondack bus lumbered around the tiny corner and pulled in, and then I could put miles between myself and the rotten real me. From my bus seat I looked down as Claudia waved both arms, hurling kisses at the window, the teen drama for others to watch, and I silently pressed the driver into action. Please pull away, I was thinking, and waving.
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The years after college we shared little. She couldn't afford to come to Montana, and she lived in Cincinnati houses I never saw, our connection less and less vital. “Hi, Sue!” “Hi, Claudia!” we burst out at the start of each call, excited and ready. History filled in for us.
“Guess what I heard on the radio! âOur Lips Are Sealed!' Still have that Go-Gos cassette?”
“It's in the car!”
“God, and Juice Newton sucked,” one of us would say. “Do you have any idea how much she sucked?”
Then the pauses. We were fading. We had our storiesâthe time we tried to order a pitcher at Pizza Hut, the time we pretended to be lesbians and
freaked out those boys by the bleachers. We stuck with those.
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Claudia had a new man, again older. He got angry, she said.
She said, “He tends towards violence.”
“He's hit you?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “He did break a wall.” She was upbeat. They got married.
One night she called crying, but it wasn't about him. Her father had drowned. I'd met him over graduation weekend, watched him eat a hamburger, had seen his fingers work the laces of his buffed, black shoes. How could these words be utteredâ
âhow could they
? She raced me through each frantic frame, crazed. I wanted to say the good thing, to gather her uncontained sorrow.
“Whatever you need,” I said, but what that might be was beyond my imagining. The scope of this experience was a blank to me. Again, she'd stepped into the terrain of significant event, major. For a while she called frequently, and it was the same call, stuck. She wore her father's flannel shirts and went over the accident repeatedly. I knew my job was to hear it repeatedly, but I drifted. Had I paid attention, she would have shown me a first real lesson about grief, its disorganizing confusions, its inescapable solitude. She talked stiffly of her marriage, their wrong-headed tensions, and at first I joined her agitated laughter about his AA meetings and his shoplifting charge, but I couldn't keep it up. I was worried about her, really worried. She got pregnant.
When her girl was walking, and we were thirty, she flew to Missoula. It had been many significant cycles since we'd seen each other. I was married, too, pregnant, and to both of us it felt important to herald together the start of this new phase. Touchstone, we said. That's how my husband understood her in my life, ready to feel courteous affection when he met her. I drove to the airport. She held her daughter's hand, bulging bags hoisted on
her hip, a backpack weighing from one shoulder strap, and after our long fervent hug we walked at the toddler's pace to the car. I kept looking over at Claudia, hunting the antic, loyal girl, my girl. I couldn't adjust to her as a mother, her tranquility and command in the role, but she was a motherâcalmed, attentive, adoring. As I made dinner, she played peekaboo under the table with her daughter, and then the next night, rhyming and singing to her the whole time, she taught me a recipe for enchiladas, coriander and shredded carrots to sweeten the tomato and onion, which I make still. She shrugged off her husband's danger, but he was the main subject; we spoke in code to protect the baby. We didn't mention the drowning. In the morning, after thinking about her trouble and risk and child, her fragile grief, I walked out of my bedroom. “Stay,” I said. “Just stay, Claudia, you can live here, we have the whole basement.” It was the good thing to offer, what the good friend says. At the same time, I was thinking, “Careful, Susanna. You don't know how to follow that through.” Claudia, I'm guessing, already knew that.