Read Small Change Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (6 page)

“Good things happened too,” insisted Ted.

He refused to encourage me. Refused to take heart, as I did, from their misfortune. Refused to believe it was misfortune. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Couldn’t stop imagining, with a perverse sort of empathy, how they must
feel. Pulled into their lives even as my feelings disqualified me from friendship.

What I felt was a puritanical pleasure at seeing this golden couple go through hard times, a primeval envy satisfied by the primeval obstacle in their way: They couldn’t make a baby.

“Your heart was so set on it,” I said to Johnny.

“I have other hearts,” he said, and I could see from his eyes that he was protecting himself from me.

At every attempt to talk about them, I met my husband’s disinclination and finally his smile. “You love to feast on the dark things that happen to people.”

Does it show? I wanted to know. If it’s so obvious to you, is it obvious to them?

All weekend I read Colette. I read the line, “the cool freshness between four and eight o’clock in the morning,” then felt the truth of it, waking up cold about five and remaining cold under the single sheet until seven. This despite the tremendous heat all day and most of the night. Colette must have stayed up all night at times, or gone to bed very late, or risen very early. Or perhaps these were things everyone knew then, every rural person and even many city people.

In the morning I kept reading. I sat with my back to the domestic fatigue of tents, packing, quarrelsome children and dust, and looked out at the trees on the low hill and down at the words on the page: a story set in Paris, a beautiful woman
of forty-five who has little money, but manages, although her future looms ahead as one of profound loneliness in the face of which her courage sometimes fails. There were various truths in the story, things that were simply said. “She was splendid in attack, but inclined to lose her head when she was on the defensive.” I had been thinking only minutes before that I liked conflict, I liked to pick fights, but was too inarticulate to win them and too touchy to emerge unscathed.

And because I was inarticulate and edgy, and afraid people wouldn’t like me, and angry, and afraid people would sense my anger, I tied myself into knots about things that ought to be straightforward.

But what is straightforward about wishing the worst for your friends? And what is straightforward about having your husband turn away repelled?

“It’s what I most dislike about you,” he said.

I said I wasn’t crazy about it either.

By day I went over friendships, all their failings and pitfalls, and by night I dreamt of reconciliation, conversation, the gentlest affection. Maureen one night, Johnny the next. There was such a mood of relaxed peacefulness in those dreams, or in that part of the dream where it turned: Johnny turned to ask me a question, then said, “You know I’ve always felt the same way about you.” He meant he had always felt a steady regard.

In the same dream Lee claimed to like what I had in my hand. There was nothing in my hand. “What do you mean?” I asked her, and she couldn’t say. I complained about her
insincerity to Johnny, who replied that you can’t always say what you mean, you don’t always know. Then it occurred to me that she might have meant the light in my hand. I held up my hand to see how the light fell on my empty palm.

Lee was wearing a flowered print dress with a strand of pearls. I kissed her on the cheek before telling her that she looked admirably serene. Such a thing to say to a troubled woman. She answered that she too was very sad, in fact she found the situation so hard that she was driven to make sense of it in some way. She said this without any alteration to her smile.

The restaurant had many tables and a view of the garden across the street. The windows were large and clean. People could see us as we bent over our soup.

Tell the truth, I kept thinking as I listened to her. But I didn’t expect the truth. I expected what I got: the smile, the polish, the charm.

Delicate ill will. My suspicions reminded me of a flower – something petalled, present, so softened by other feelings that it seemed benign.

Outside we said goodbye. She turned right, I turned left only to go back after several blocks because I had forgotten my umbrella. I went back through the same glass door and scanned the restaurant just as I had scanned it upon arriving, but more quickly. I looked for the table, the chair, any sign of a telltale handle. It wasn’t there, but Lee was. She had been in too much of a hurry to order coffee. Now she had a cup in front of her.

It was something I had never had the nerve to do: rid myself of a friend before going back to drink coffee in peace. My umbrella was hanging on a potted plant beside the cash register. I picked it off the branch and left, taking with me the image of Lee’s small flowered back, recovering from me.

Johnny’s Smile

L
awn chairs were arranged in the shade as they were every year, food was piled high, children were tearing around with watermelon in their fists and dogs at their heels. It was the annual summer picnic given by Johnny and Lee. All day they took pains to appear untroubled, and if they alluded to their problems it was always in the most lighthearted way. This seemed very American to me.

They had failed to invite certain friends I had bumped into a few days before – “Did you get an invitation this year?” they wanted to know. “Are you going?” – and I mentioned them to Johnny. He said of course they were welcome, when you’ve been invited once you’re always invited. But no one was fooled. The people who came varied each year, some fell away without a word, lost at sea, never heard from again.

Ted tried to reassure me. He said, “Johnny’s incapable of being offended about anything.”

Whereas I thought he was capable of being offended by many things. I saw him as an easygoing man who was deeply competitive, an easily hurt man quick to rid himself of anyone who hurt him, a deeply disappointed man who refused to allow anyone to revel in his disappointment. A proud and friendly man who used friendliness to keep people at bay. Which one of us was right? Or did we simply bring out Johnny’s different qualities, so that with Ted he was someone who never took offence and with me he was the opposite? Was it a matter not of finding out the truth about Johnny, but rather taking note of how he changed depending on whom he was with?

You absorb someone and he comes out someone else, made again, and yet he still stands, the one who existed before you ever met him, right there across from you. And these two people, the one you can’t ever know and the one you think you know, become a large uncertainty. At best you are filtering parts of him through parts of yourself. Sometimes you filter his kindness through your envy, sometimes you filter his anger through your generosity, and each time you get a different person.

Over the years Johnny and I had had gusts of ill feeling followed by gusts of affection, the latter seeming to cancel out the former, but never a match for our mutual belief that neither of us had the other’s interests at heart. In hindsight our affection always seemed paltry, nothing to depend upon, and ill will the only dependable thing.

Over berries a week later – washing them in an old metal colander – Jill and I talked about Johnny. She had known him longer and had seen the various stages of his life and the cast
of friends who changed with each stage. (Though she had remained quietly constant and in the background – never so valued as to become close, never so undervalued as to be left behind.) Her fingers on the berries were jewelled. Always the same six rings on the same six fingers. They weren’t beautiful rings, they were heavy and ornate, and her fingers weren’t beautiful either. They were too stubby, too white. A strange habit, I thought, and asked her about it. She pointed to each ring, naming who had given it to her, her hands clunky under their load, but deft, and her logic always generous no matter how sick she became. We were talking about Johnny’s quick and abiding displeasure despite his smiles, so that we were never sure when the worm would turn. Once you’re invited, you’re always invited; and he had immediately phoned the uninvited friends. Naturally they hadn’t come, though they could have restored themselves only by coming, only by some
effort
.

Jill said, “I know there are many things going on and I also know that I’m always wrong.”

She meant that in seeing Johnny’s wounded, hurting, complicated underside, she lost the breadth of his personality. She said her observations cut through his jolliness and deepened him by reducing him. This paradox at the heart of friendship baffled her.

Her kitchen was beautiful. All of the rooms in her house were beautiful. The furniture was arranged, the various blues and reds employed in ways that spoke of a natural artistic bent. She wasn’t obviously talented in the way Maureen was, she hadn’t excelled as a child or attempted anything ambitious as an adult, but she was not without ambition, not
without disappointment. She was rueful, generous, with a wider reach than her memorable sister. Maureen’s conversation rarely strayed beyond herself, her children, and Danny. Jill was interested in you.

Even in sickness, especially in sickness, this remained the case.

“Feel my stomach,” she said. I felt all the lumps – the way they pushed up like knobs, some small, some large – doorknobs under her skin.

A few weeks later she was in the hospital reading Mary McCarthy’s
Cast a Cold Eye
(her husband had brought her the book), awful stories about marriage, she said, she couldn’t understand why he had given them to her. And she related one about a woman who had a garden. The woman decided she would leave her husband after the petunias bloomed, and she did. But she had no plan. She called friends who all said they couldn’t see her until the following week, or the week after that. So she stopped living – she went to movies – she did nothing until finally she went home again. The garden, when she opened the door, was full of weeds. She stood in the doorway, disbelieving, and her husband stood beside her. He said in a shocked voice, “Look how the weeds have taken over.” Then he took her hand and said how much he loved the garden, or loved her in the garden, or loved the fact that she had loved the garden – something she knew to be a complete lie – but she didn’t know what to say, and so she squeezed his hand in a false and outward show of emotion since nothing else occurred to her. She didn’t know what else to do.

Jill lay in her hospital bed telling me the story in great detail, a story she said was too awful to read, and I listened,
remembering it partially, the way I’ve recounted above, with the image in my mind of Jill’s garden and the tall tomato plants her husband had pruned to within an inch of their lives.

Then I told her a painful story about my husband. An old friend of his, his colleague Rudy Jones, had been fired some months ago. Jill had never met Rudy, so I described him to her as plump, milky-faced, bone-lazy; a wonderful talker, funny, charming, eloquent, but less than useless when it came to work. Everyone except Ted said so. For a year he and Ted had shared the same office and the same views. Ted had covered for him, boosted his ego, talked him up to the other people at work. After Rudy was fired he blamed Ted for not quitting in protest, and dropped him cold. He dropped us both cold.

One night when Ted and I were sitting together in the living room after the kids were in bed, I said to him, “You always considered Rudy a closer friend than he considered you.”

Ted said, “I guess you’re right.”

I was the one who expressed the anger he felt, then felt the anger he no longer wanted to feel. He spoke about Rudy only once. He said, “The biggest mistake I made in that job was to let my friendship with Rudy interfere with my judgement.” That’s all. He said it in passing.

His attitude mystified me. It seemed completely kind and good, a felicitous quality he had been born with. Things would come right, there was nothing bad that didn’t have some good.

“And Hitler?” I asked him. “Show me the silver lining.”

Yet I envied his steadiness – sanguine and very male – whose true value became apparent in friendship: he always saw the best in people, he always gave them credit. I, on the other
hand, took friendships between my teeth and shook them the way my old dog shook snakes. Day after day I found myself rooted to the sidewalk shouting at Rudy in my head. The din was terrific. Through some perverse magnetism I had drawn to myself all the clatter and clamour and weaponry of male combat, I lumbered around under its weight while Ted walked free, neither angry nor remorseful nor stricken, but a friend.

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