Just Between Friends

Just Between Friends

By L. Bo Roth

justbetweenfriendsThe noisy school gymnasium held dozens of women in their underwear, kicking boxes around with their feet. “Welcome to the Endless Knot Warehouse Sale” read a sign over the door. In the dim light, it took me a minute to adjust. Lining the periphery of the room were rows of clothing racks—roughly organized by color—filled with long dresses in rayon and silk, big blowsy caftan tops, and flowing pants in bright prints.

The empty cardboard boxes in the center of the gym, I gathered, were used to push around the floor to collect all the discounted clothes you wanted to buy. People were in this for the volume, clearly. Prices were slashed, and deals were to be had all for the price of ridding yourself of a little vanity while you stripped in front of three dozen women you’d never met, shoving them aside for some face time in one of the mirrors.

I’d just left my dance class and was still sweaty, but this didn’t seem to deter anyone else—at least not the folks from my class who waved me in from across the room. “Come on, there’s great stuff here!” they yelled. It was a bit of a stretch to think of summer caftans with winter rain pelting down, but I gave it a go. I’d just lost 50 pounds and had very few summer clothes that fit. After a bit of digging, I had three shirts in my hand and was heading to the back when I heard a familiar voice.

“Laurieeee!” she yelled.

I looked. I stared. I had absolutely no idea who she was.

“Laurie. It’s me. Greta!

Oh. My. God. “Greta? Is it you? I…didn’t recognize you!”

And I didn’t. The woman standing there bore so little resemblance to my old friend that I stood there, stupified.

“Well, that’s because I’m so fat!” she said with her hearty and familiar chuckle. She spat the word and it cracked like a whip.

It stung.

Greta, whom I hadn’t laid eyes on in years, was almost twice her previous size, which was never small to begin with. Greta, who’d made my kids dozens of macaroni and cheese “cocktails,” who’d giggled with me through endless Weight Watchers meetings, and snuck me out early so we could power-walk the lake, this same Greta was now zaftig. She looked like a completely different person.

I was at a loss for words, which is saying something. If we were still close, I might joke, “Hey baby, you’ve taken another step towards Goddess-hood!” But what I really would have said in the old days was more along the lines of, “You? How about me? I’m over the top!

Except that I wasn’t. And I didn’t know her that well anymore. She was huge and I wasn’t. Not anymore.

I spoke carefully. “That’s not it,” I said, with what I hoped sounded like surprise. “It’s your hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with long hair.” True fact. She always had what her husband once lamely called “butch hair” (boy, that was a memorable dinner party) and now it was shoulder length and straight. She looked incredibly tired and kind of washed out.

“But look at you!” she shouted, smiling. “You’re so skinny! Tell me. How’d you do it?”

I had met Greta ten years ago, back when we joined a playgroup for moms of toddlers. These were also, as it happened, the Weight Watchers years for both of us, when she was the one who lost 50 pounds (and I, instead, got pregnant). Days when she invited me over for fabulous lunches of soup and grilled eggplant sandwiches with goat cheese. (“And only four points! Do I rock or what?”) while our kids chased each other around the backyard. Years of last minute dinner-parties, always at her house, always with plenty of wine and where our gang of toddlers were easily lured to the upstairs playroom with endless refills of fish crackers and juice. She was the Martha Stewart of our tribe: crafty, helpful, a wizard with handmade gifts and fabulous baked goods at a time when some of us—okay, me—struggled to put out generic cheddar and saltines for playgroup.

Once I came to her house the night before Halloween, frantic beyond measure—me, anxious, gulping tea—while she calmly sewed my daughter a costume. She decorated sugar cubes for my baby shower with petal-pink flowers of liquid candy. She made chocolate-covered strawberries for playgroup, and often greeted me at the door with a pan of hot homemade scones when I was having a bad mom day.

When my second-born died from complications of heart surgery, the whole world sent me nice condolence cards and offered to help, but Greta showed up on my porch with a wooden box she’d painted red and decorated with gold stars and charms of baby booties and angels. “For memories,” she said. “It’s a memory box to put things in.” She brought scones, then, too.

People said they wanted to help, but it was Greta who came over with food, or walked me around the lake, who took care of things when grief overwhelmed me. And when I finally, after several miscarriages, got pregnant again and was about to give birth, she came along as labor nanny, playing card games in the birthing room with my eldest daughter, and then took what seemed like hundreds of hideous crotch shots as my son’s giant head came out, went back in and out and in again in an endless drama of childbirth hokey pokey. At 3:30 a.m., she picked up my sleeping daughter and held her up like a rag doll. “Your brother is about to be born! Watch, watch!”

I’d say we were close.

But seven years later, that baby boy is eight and I hardly know Greta anymore. I have this jumble of things I still know about her. Things that I don’t really know what to do with. Things that hang in the air when we meet like this, unexpectedly. That her husband drinks too much. That her daughter is mean. That her mother is meaner and finally died a few years ago. That she remodeled their house into a palace I’ve never seen. That she loves red wine and heavy dark beer, that she can cook anything without a recipe, and can throw a dinner party at a moment’s notice, with food it would take me a week and three cookbooks to plan.

Remembering the good times comes easily, like the summer day she made ginger carrot soup and we slurped it up on the wide concrete stairs of her front porch. When we laughed till we cried when her daughter cut her own hair with dull scissors, making her look like a tiny Edward Scissorhands. And Greta, frantic on that stoop when that same toddler decided to dump scouring powder in the VCR and put broken glass in her sister’s bed, all in the same afternoon. (Like I said, that girl was a challenging one.)

For the years we were in playgroup together, I hugged her children, and wiped their snotty noses without a second thought. I held her hand when her husband was cruel, I told her she looked beautiful in red because it was true, and praised her cooking like it was manna from heaven. We traded clothes and made each other laugh with snarky jokes only mothers of toddlers could appreciate, and she made me believe I was entirely fun. I offered pep talks and silly laughter over late afternoon beers if that was called for. And I told her, whenever you need me, just call.

But she stopped calling. I can’t pinpoint the exact day and time Greta began to pull away, but pull away she did.

Maybe it’s human nature to deny the truth, or maybe I was just determined to keep my friend, but it’s tricky to read the signs what with chasing toddlers, or running to the store for more of those orange fish crackers our children survived on. Each time she put me off, I told myself she was just busier than usual, or that maybe her phone machine was on the blink, since mine had recently gasped its last. On the other hand, on the hand I refused to look at, I’d lost most of friends after my baby’s death—my grief was too much for them, or maybe their fear was too much, they admitted six months (or two years) later—but Greta was one of the loyal holdouts; she stepped up when so many others dealt with it by avoiding me altogether.

I loved her. I couldn’t imagine losing her.

But still, she turned away. I invited her to my son’s first birthday party—a simple afternoon on a picnic blanket under the lilacs—but despite my pleading, she begged off. Not long after, she agreed to take a walk with me, when I asked point blank, what was going on. “Can you tell me what’s wrong? Did I do or say something?” She looked away and avoided my eyes. “I’m fine,” she said, picking up the pace. “We’re fine. I just don’t like to talk about all that emotional stuff like you do, okay? Can we just leave it?”

And so for a while, I left it. I let her set the rules and tried to follow them, sweating it out to stay fun because, after all, Greta was one of the few who knew where I’d been and the road I’d traveled. She knew what was hard, and she knew why. Even if she wouldn’t talk about it.

So I stopped calling so often. First I’d let a week or two go by. Then a month. I stopped by her house once to give back a dish, and she stood there at the door, lovely as ever, but never invited me in. (Back in the day, I’d let myself in and flop on the couch.) I could smell stew cooking on the stove, bread baking in the oven, and the smell was heavenly, and I told her so. She dismissed it with a wave of her hand as ‘just dinner,’ but we both knew company was coming and I was no longer on the guest list.

The second time this happened I decided stopping by wasn’t such a good idea, and moved on to emails, each one shorter and sweeter, each one ending with an invitation. “Lunch sometime?”

I’d say. “A quick walk around the lake? I’d love to see you.”

In some ways, losing a friend is harder than bearing a death, because when someone you love dies, they’re not down the street cooking dinner for someone else, or shopping in your local supermarket, or laughing with their new friends as they walk the lake, just like you used to do.

Somehow, years went by. It seems inconceivable, now, that I could move on without this friend whom I’d leaned on through the hardest days of motherhood, whom I’d laughed with, changed diapers with, traded horror stories with, cried with. I moved on because I had to, because I had no choice.

She just wasn’t that into me. And she wouldn’t tell me why.

Eventually, I fell into a pattern of checking in with Greta about once a year just for old times’ sake. I’d write and tell her I missed her, because it was true. I’d tell her something funny, tell her I thought I saw her car at the co-op the other day, does it still have that dent in the back left fender? And how are you these days?

And yet here she was, years later, in the flesh at the mobbed mumu sale, miles from home even though we only live a few blocks from each other, asking me—with a big friendly smile—how I’d managed to lose weight. Her face was smiling, open, receptive, like she really wanted to know. As though all that time hadn’t passed at all.

The irony was not lost on me. Yes, we’d spent years sharing the most difficult challenges of mothering, but then we spent more years where she never once picked up the phone. And here she was, out of the blue, wanting my secret to weight loss success. Waiting for my answer.

“Um….Atkins?” I stammered. “You know, very low carb. Lots of broccoli. No sugar and no alcohol, can you believe it?” (Wine had, after all, been our secret sauce for surviving toddlers.)

We gamely updated each other on our kids and their stats, but it felt perfunctory. The hole of those years felt too big, like it could swallow me in one gulp. Because in all those years, as the rhythm of a life filled with her laughter and Martha Stewart moments faded, I’d been forced to find my own rhythm. I had learned to live without those dinner parties and giggly afternoons; I had to find new people and discover what I really wanted to do with what little free time exists for mothers of small needy children.

For whatever reason, I was no longer worthy of Greta’s free time. And while it took me far too long to accept it, I realized, standing there with my old friend I hardly recognized, that despite all these years of missing her big heart and her laughter, maybe she was no longer worthy of mine.

We stood there chatting, me feeling a little awkward about my weight loss success, she with a couple of caftans in hand, while bright tropical shirts flew over our heads and frantic women kicked their boxes and said, “Do you mind?” to get us out of the way.

And we ran out of things to say.

We looked at our watches, and I realized I felt trapped standing there with my three little shirts. Greta had a full box at her feet, more shopping to do, and I suddenly needed to go outside in the pounding rain just to breathe. I asked her to call me sometime, as I always do. We both knew she wouldn’t.

Reading this now, it’s tempting to drum up patchwork answers. Some- thing that would give reason or neatly explain how someone who stood by you through the best and worst days of motherhood could walk away with barely a word. But now I’ve got another way of looking at it.

Maybe motherhood and friendship is like a big, 2,000-word jigsaw puzzle. There’s a picture there, a beautiful one, and together you work on it, piece by piece, bending over the table, celebrating each time you find a match, a piece that deliciously clicks into place, the big picture growing more clear. But in our case, maybe Greta and I got to the end of that beautiful picture and a key piece was missing. There’s nothing much to do then, but take a photo before you crumble it up and put it away. And be glad for the time spent, the memories of muddling through, happy for the pieces you shared.

Author’s Note:  I wrote this piece eight years ago, but, thanks to Facebook, I found out Greta was divorcing her husband, selling her lovely house, and moving across the country. One night before she left, I took a deep breath, grabbed my husband and knocked on her door to say goodbye. She greeted us with a huge surprised smile, poured us a glass of wine, and caught us up on the last ten years—at least the high points. We didn’t bring up what happened but we did laugh a lot. It felt a bit like old times. And despite everything, it was pretty great.

L. Bo Roth is a Seattle writer, editorial consultant, and pitch coach. This is her second piece for Brain, Child.

Art: Oliver Weiss