Read Small Change Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (5 page)

In early October we were beside a river with two friends. The woman was telling us that old friends of theirs had just moved away. They had moved away one morning, and in the afternoon she had walked past the empty house and couldn’t believe how relieved she felt. She laughed about it and went on talking, compelled to tell us, her new friends, about these old friends.

She said it was the woman in the couple who had pulled away, and she had never understood why. Simply, the invitations stopped, the Christmas gifts ended, various courtesies vanished. With their disappearance arrived her confusion and sense of hurt, so that when she walked her dog past their house she was never sure whether the woman came down the steps because she wanted to say hello, or because she felt she had to.

She said, “I talked a lot about work with him, maybe she felt left out. And then she went through a lot of changes herself and got her own friends.”

But none of these reasons was sufficient to explain a change so drastic, and she knew it.

She peeled a peach as she told the story. She avoided the words
dropped
or
dumped
or
rejected
. She said only that she didn’t understand, that once there had been steady contact
and then there was none, that whenever they saw each other they all enjoyed themselves, but afterwards there was nothing.

The peach was from the market, carried in a knapsack, a little bruised and one of eight. She peeled another, her fingers curving around the fruit, picking at the peel with her fingernail, then pulling it back. We sat on a blanket on the grass and ate tomatoes, bread, cheese, the peaches, a sausage. We ate with our hands and shared a napkin.

My friend dealt with being rejected by understanding and not understanding, stating and understating, avoiding certain things but staying true to the general picture. Her husband was impatient. He couldn’t be bothered, he said, worrying about such things.

This is the refreshing thing about men. They don’t brood so luxuriously about friendships gone wrong. They think about them very little, it seems, and talk about them less. Cézanne, for instance.

Ted said, “It’s hard when one person wants the friendship and another doesn’t. People change.”

But that only rubbed salt in the wound. Our friend wasn’t saying they didn’t want her, she was saying they seemed to enjoy her company and this was the source of her confusion. She was unable to give up the hope that she was liked.

I was thinking about her again this morning when I peeled a peach. I used the fingers of my left hand, picking the skin loose at the top as you pick one page free from the page below.

I was thinking about a conversation with Maureen. We were in a park and it was warm, it might have been late spring
or early fall. We were sitting on a stone wall and she was distributing food to the kids. (She was always much more prepared than I, never leaving the house without a variety of snacks and drinks.) She could not believe, she said, that certain friends with whom she had been incredibly close had faded away – she mentioned a roommate in university – yet she admitted it was so with tight lips, and I knew she foresaw our own end.

My sympathies are with Cézanne even though I am like Zola – the realistic writer using the people he knows. What defence can Zola offer? When accused of using the life of a friend to further his artful ends, what can he say? That it was his life too? It was my life too.

The Kiss

M
y children are asleep in the car. The last of the sun comes over the trees and falls on the porch where I sit. Maybe it’s the sight of the car with kids inside or my thoughts about Johnny, but I remember and dwell upon an early moment of almost exalted excitement. I was five, a child on the lawn waiting for a friend to arrive. The lawn was rough, poorly tended, and the house ramshackle. Its front porch concealed a treasure trove of lost objects under the steps: lipsticks in brass tubes, combs, broken bits of crockery half embedded in damp soil. I would be on my knees in that dark little place reaching through the horror of spider webs on my wrists for something shiny. A strip of grass separated the porch from the driveway. I waited there. Every so often I ran inside to look at the clock and to ask my mother the time, aching at the delay.

What happened between then and now? Between the child who felt nothing but delight at the prospect of seeing
an old friend, and the woman who cannot bear to be visited?

Sound of tires on gravel, illumination of leaves long before the headlights appear. People are arriving home from the city, they leave early and arrive now.

This is Johnny and Lee’s house, and I am here while they are away.

When I was a child, my father used to stare off into space while his lips moved and his fingers worked a napkin. He preferred to communicate with the stone walls he made and the flowers he grew. In his dressing gown and with boyish eagerness, he would clip several lilies, put them in a vase and bring them to the breakfast table.

I usually describe my father as a man given to impenetrable solitude. If I turn the phrase I can apply it to Johnny. Impenetrable happiness. For a long time I couldn’t enter his life because his happiness, or appearance of happiness – his unending smiles – locked the door. An ingenious strategy, to surround the thorns with a castle.

But now I have penetrated. I am in the castle.

I pause to touch things with that combination of curiosity, affection, and ill will that characterizes adult friendships. I touch bottles of perfume, open them, smell them, dab my wrists, and for a few minutes become Lee. I smell the way she does and hear the same sounds, wake at the same hour on the same pillow in the same light. I have a right to be
here because I am a friend, and so my intrusion is even stealthier, even more complete.

“You were much nicer to her than she was to you,” my mother said about the little friend who came by car. “You were very generous. I had to interfere because you gave her all your dolls.”

How do you get from there to here? From the unsuspicious longing for a friend, the generous early regard, the pure happiness in her company (a little awkwardness in the first moments, my friend tired from the drive, but soon we were playing in every room of the house) to here. The occupation of a friend’s house, and the wilful eagerness to find fault.

The first time I saw Johnny he was leaning against a car, smoking a cigarette and lost in thought. A month later we were on the beach together with a group of friends. It was late afternoon, we were stretched out on towels, and I said it almost in passing. “I have good news.”

His look was immediate, instinctive, unguarded. The look of someone facing an unexpected trespasser, a look of open and hostile reevaluation. I saw him register the news, I saw his view of me shift, and his resistance to the shift.

Once his face returned to normal he told me about his own plans, something he had never bothered to do and which he now did in great detail. He didn’t seem to care that he was underscoring how little I had registered, how easily and happily he had dismissed me.

I saw that look in his eyes a few more times. It didn’t have the nakedness of the first occasion but I recognized it: a
deliberate erasure of expression. I wondered what had started it. His envy or mine.

He left instructions about what to do with his garden. For two days I prune the forsythia, the mock orange, the lilac. The kids drag the clippings off to one side and make a hut. They tucker themselves out and at five o’clock the youngest falls asleep. I hold his small hand, feel the fibrillations, trepidations, movements of a small animal in sleep.

At night I close my eyes and down come forsythia leaves like soft green blotting paper. Even later, when I return to the city and cars pass by on the treeless street, these leafy forms swim into my mind.

You meet someone and take on their hue, form, tone, but against your will. They sleep in the next room and you can’t sleep. They are intruders who steal you away and leave you nothing for yourself.

You feel observed, not by the friend but by his presence. It’s as though you are being photographed in the dark. Nothing of you comes out, but the photographer is large and clear.

It was nighttime. We were coming back from a walk through the woods, moving past the cars in the driveway towards the porch light, when Johnny spoke about his family. Their first instinct was never the generous one, he said, and
neither was his. He was going to try to make it so. He was going to try harder.

“I’ve never thought,” I started to say, but he spoke over me. He said, “It would never occur to them to help a relative in need, and they have so much.” He looked back at me, his round face and nylon jacket shining in the porch light. It was January. There was snow on the ground and the lake had frozen. We had seen several deer in an opening in the woods.

I said, “I’ve never thought of you as anything but generous.”

It wasn’t true. I had seen resentment in his eyes and allowed that to govern me, so that I kept certain things secret, certain small successes, and wouldn’t meet his eye when he talked about work.

Johnny, in the light from the porch, after seeing the five deer grazing on low grass and weeds. He said sometimes he saw them through the bedroom window when he woke up in the morning. He said they travel in groups in the winter. He had never seen five of them together in the summer.

I stood beside him until the deer moved into the woods, then we walked on. Sometimes my gaze flitted past his, sometimes I looked hard at him in order to not look at all, but I couldn’t fail to see that sadness had changed the look on his face to one more open. His face was wiped with sadness the way a floor is wiped with wax.

The path narrowed. He walked ahead, I followed. He had put on a great deal of weight in a new marriage less happy than expected after the lavish wedding, the prolonged honeymoon, the general expectation that Lee would be pregnant in a month or two. But ten months had gone by.

“I have protective instincts, aggressive instincts, but not generous ones,” he said.

He could have been talking about me, I knew that. It even occurred to me from the way he looked at me so intently, that he was playing up a flaw in himself in order to point out the same flaw in me.

Six months went by, it was July, and my husband was saying, “You love to feast on the dark things that happen to people.”

We were camping in a hot, dusty, still state park, the grass burnt brown, the trees lovely where they were, but not enough of them. I’m getting an ice cream for Annie, he said, taking our little girl to the ice cream truck. They came back and Annie was licking an ice cream and so was Ted. Sorry. I didn’t ask if you wanted one, do you want one? Now that it’s too late to get you one?

What he said was true. I relished every dark detail and wanted to talk about nothing else: how in turning to pour Johnny a cup of tea I had noticed the bandage on his arm. Haven’t I told you? he asked, knowing he hadn’t and turning faintly red while his eyes went soft with misery.

I said, “Their year started with such promise and has ended so badly.”

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