Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My family moved when I was ten. My new school had actual playground equipment, like basketball hoops and swings. At my old school all we’d had was an asphalt lot, and in the winter when it snowed, we would hide behind snowbanks and build forts.
The kids at my new school seemed to have known each other since birth. Unsure how to make friends at recess, I resorted to hanging out behind the snowbanks — my natural habitat.
It was there that I taught Angela Schaffer how to swear. My dad worked as a road-construction manager, so swearing was my native tongue. I made her rehearse “shit” and “fuck” and “damn” until they sounded natural in her high-pitched, fifth-grade voice.
Years later I was thankful this wasn’t the story she told at my wedding or my ordination into the ministry.
I was a volunteer at a high-kill animal shelter. Sadie was left there overnight. She was about a year old, strong and independent. Her coat was dark brown, almost black, and she had a kinky tail.
Intent on saving Sadie’s life, I found her a good home and drove twenty miles to drop her off. As we pulled up to the house, the entire family came out to greet us. They had bought everything she would need — collar, leash, food, bowl. The only problem was Sadie wouldn’t get out of my car.
I was forced to take her home with me and adopt her myself. Apparently I was Sadie’s one person. She wouldn’t abide anyone else — not my animal-loving friends, not my sweet mother, not my handyman. She didn’t want them around and made sure they knew it.
After four years with Sadie, I brought home my future husband, Geoff. To protect him while he visited, I kept Sadie on a leash, but she got loose. Geoff sat down on the stairs and let her run snarling past him several times. Then she stopped running and cowered next to me, astonished that he was not afraid of her. What kind of person was this?
Now she had two friends.
Walking my son to and from the school-bus stop was the highlight of my day. He would put his hand in mine, and we would talk about the sights we saw. Just around the corner from us, in a little white cottage, lived an older woman who was often out working in her garden. She was slight in stature, kept her gray hair pinned up in a bun, and typically wore a colorful, flowered dress. Her name was Eva, and she grew beautiful roses in shades of red, white, pink, and — her favorite — yellow. Their fragrance would reach us from two houses away.
My son would run to greet Eva and dart from bush to bush, commenting on her prize roses while she trailed behind him. My son liked her attention, and she, his. I could tell she was lonely.
I also knew Eva from my job as a 911 dispatcher. When she called, she was like a different person. She might dial 911 three or four times a day to complain that people were coming into her house and stealing her water pipes or eating her food or tearing the fabric from the bottom of her furniture. Her high-pitched voice would grate on my nerves. Sometimes she would yell and refuse to listen to me. Over the years I sent many officers to check on her. Always nothing would be amiss, but she might call again twenty minutes later.
One busy day Eva called (for the third time) screaming so hysterically that I could hardly understand her. She thought German airplanes were bombing her house. There were tears in her voice. No officer was available, but I convinced the sergeant on duty to drive by. A little while later his voice crackled over the radio: “Get me the fire department! I have a 904 structure fire. I’m going inside.”
Shocked, I sent the fire engines. He later described the flames licking the walls of Eva’s living room and smoke so thick he could barely breathe. Paint cans in the garage were exploding from the intense heat — those were Eva’s bombs. He crawled through the house and found her hiding in the hall closet under a pile of clothes. He saved her life.
Eva’s house was destroyed, and she was evaluated and declared mentally unable to care for herself. After she moved into an elder-care home, my son and I missed seeing her in her garden. I was able to talk to her social worker, who told me that Eva had been born in Hungary. In 1942, at the age of nineteen, she’d been rounded up by the Nazis with her family and her husband and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She had endured three years as one of the workers assigned to sort the clothes of gas-chamber victims. Her husband and the other members of her family had all perished.
The summer I was twelve, my family moved to a new suburban subdivision outside Chicago. Ours was only the second house that had been built. My mother was lonely, unhappy in her marriage, and eager to make friends. When a young couple moved in several empty lots away, she immediately hit it off with the wife, Ann. They would have coffee together and visit for hours.
I adored Ann for her personality, her attractiveness, her neat house, and her genuine interest in me. After she saw me pulling lemonade around in a wagon to sell to construction workers, Ann offered to pay me to help her clean house. I was overjoyed to spend time with her.
I don’t know how it came up, but one day, after we’d finished cleaning, Ann asked if I knew the “facts of life.” When I murmured, “Not really,” she said, “Well, if I had a daughter your age, I would want her to know.” And she proceeded to tell me, referring to her loving relationship with her husband. As she talked, a delicious warmth spread through my body. When she was done, I felt very grown-up and closer to Ann than ever.
That afternoon my mother asked what Ann and I had done that day. Somehow she could tell I was withholding something, and I admitted that Ann had explained where babies come from. My mother insisted I tell her everything. The warm feeling I’d had was gone. Like a robot, I repeated the facts, almost ashamed to utter such words to my mom.
After I’d finished (finally), my mother was quiet for a moment, then said Ann shouldn’t have told me, “but she did a better job than I could have.”
I did not go back to Ann’s house again. My mother was no longer friends with her.
It was my first day at my new junior high school, and I was having trouble fitting in. Answering math questions correctly did not win me any favor with my peers. Perhaps the next period — gym — would be better.
The other students gathered in small groups, dressed in matching gym clothes and new basketball shoes. I sat alone on the wooden bleachers in my cutoff denim shorts, my dad’s undershirt, dark socks, and old sneakers. Two physical-education teachers inspected us. The male teacher, Coach Richards, was tall and rugged and smelled faintly of bourbon. The female teacher, Coach Anderson, was squat in stature with a masculine haircut. When she introduced herself, a boy coughed out, “Bulldyke!” and the other kids laughed.
Coach Richards led the boys outside to the field and asked who among us had never played football. I hadn’t, but no one else raised a hand, so I didn’t either.
My team was on defense to start. Everyone seemed to know what to do but me. We lined up against our opponents and crouched down. Some numbers were shouted, and before I knew it, I’d been knocked to the ground. I never even saw the football.
This routine was repeated, and I ended up on the ground again. I thought my nose might be bleeding. What a dumb game. Why all the shoving? Where was the ball?
“Davis!” Coach Richards shouted at me. “Get in there! Be more aggressive.”
I lined up again and endured the same fate. The coach blew his whistle and asked once more why I hadn’t been “in there.”
I didn’t comprehend the question. Only one answer came to mind: “I don’t like running into people.”
Coach Richards’s eyes narrowed, and his face grew red. “Quit being a sissy!”
Some kids laughed, and I started tearing up. The coach told me to go sit in the gymnasium until I was ready to play football.
In the gym I stood by the bleachers with tears on my cheeks and watched the girls tumble on mats. Coach Anderson glanced my way, then told the girls to continue practicing and walked over to me with a not-too-pleased expression.
When she asked why I’d been crying, I shrugged. She asked again, irritated this time. I looked at the floor and told her Coach Richards had called me a sissy because I didn’t like playing football.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Look at me,” she ordered. I hesitated. She repeated the command, emphasizing each word. I reluctantly obeyed. “Something tells me you are going to be called sissy a lot in life,” Coach Anderson said. “You’d better get used to it.”
The tears started to well up again, because I knew she was right.
“But I want you to remember one thing,” she continued. “Those people who call you a sissy are assholes. And Coach Richards is the biggest asshole I’ve ever met. Understand?”
Coach Anderson said I still needed to learn to play football regardless, and I told her I was ready. With her words still in my head, I walked back to the field.
I grew up in a military family, which means I never knew how to answer the question “Where are you from?” I attended fourteen different schools throughout the fifties and sixties, including an international high school in the Turkish city of Ankara, where I probably spent more time with my family’s cook and driver than I did with my parents.
After graduation I went to a small women’s college in the heart of New England. I arrived unceremoniously at the campus in a taxi. Entering my dorm room, I saw my new roommate’s mother making her daughter Emily’s bed with cheerful linens and decorating her side of the room with potted plants and high-school memorabilia. I dragged in a footlocker that contained some unsuitable clothes and random toiletries. I couldn’t have stuck out more if I’d ridden up naked on a horse.
We introduced ourselves, and Emily’s mother asked when my parents would be arriving. Embarrassed, I replied that they’d left a few weeks earlier for a retirement trip to Japan.
I clearly had little in common with my roommate. For several days we circled each other like two cats, careful not to invade each other’s space. Then somehow we found ourselves in possession of a stale, half-smoked joint. Neither of us had ever tried marijuana, so we locked the door, turned out the lights, climbed into our respective beds, and passed the roach back and forth across the nightstand.
After a few minutes I said, “I feel nothing.”
“Neither do I,” Emily replied.
Then the joint accidentally fell into the coffee mug between us, and we burst into hysterical giggles and stayed up all night sharing secrets.
Emily’s family more or less adopted me and introduced me to the lifestyle of progressive New Englanders. I learned about social activism, Transcendental Meditation, and William Blake. Free of my conservative upbringing, I joined the National Student Association, which occupied the college library for three days to protest the bombing of Cambodia. Emily and I raised money for napalm-burned Vietnamese children and belligerently debated other students in the dining halls. We were eventually expelled — I think the phrase was “asked not to come back” — for engaging in politically radical hijinks with another student group from Brandeis University.
Life after college brought marriages, careers, and children for us both. We were often thousands of miles apart, but whenever we reconnected, our bond was as powerful as it had been on that first night we’d smoked pot together. Forty-seven years later it still is.
San Diego, California
When the package arrives, I wince to see the name of my friend’s widow on the return address. The few words she has spoken to me over the decades since her husband’s death have been unfailingly harsh.
She is writing to return some books I gave her husband twenty years ago. “The inscriptions are quite intimate,” her note says. “He always assured me that you were my friend, too.” She also mentions that I failed to attend his funeral or even send condolences.
What she doesn’t mention is that she failed to tell me he had died. I had to find out through a mutual friend. I debated whether or not to attend his memorial service. Staying home would mean not honoring him, but going would have risked intruding on his wife’s grief. The last thing she’d said to me had been “Stay the hell out of our lives!” — this after I’d called once too often while her husband was spiraling into a depression. He received several weeks of inpatient treatment, and after his discharge and recovery I let him know there’d be no more communication between us until I heard directly from his wife that she was comfortable with our friendship.
Years went by with no contact. Meanwhile she mailed me worthless, sentimental odds and ends that I’d given him, saying that I’d let the friendship degrade into a “junior-high-school romance.” I tossed the items into the trash and kept my silence.
What she didn’t know, and what I was not going to explain, was that I had tried — really tried — to be a friend to both of them. I’d valued her husband’s friendship but had rejected his romantic overtures. Whenever he’d given me a too-expensive gift or written me a poem that made me worry his wife might see it, I’d reciprocated with something less personal: a used book, a rock, a shell. I thought that if I put up with his infatuation long enough, it would fade. Maybe she was right — the allure of being adored kept me from ending it until she interceded.
Now she is accusing me not just of being a bad friend but also of lacking basic decency because I didn’t acknowledge her husband’s death. I suspect that if I had shown up at his memorial service or sent a card, that would have been the wrong choice, too.
In response I send a note saying that her spouse was a good man and a faithful husband. I express regret that finding the books has caused her more pain. She’s right, I say, the inscriptions were overblown. I tell her to destroy any other mementos of the friendship she might come across. I also say that if she is genuinely interested in exploring the possibility of being friends, perhaps we could meet and learn more about one another.
She replies that we are too different to become friends. I am relieved that there is one thing upon which we can agree.
I grew up Korean in Southern California during the 1980s. My family and I were among the first Asians to move to Huntington Beach, California — Surf City, U.S.A., land of blue eyes and Coppertone-tan skin. We lived in a three-bedroom tract home eight miles from the beach and a hundred miles, it seemed, from anyone who looked like us. At the age of five, I felt as if we were the only Koreans in existence. Every day my identity was questioned by my peers and teachers: “What are you? Where are you from?” Translation: You are not an American. You don’t belong here. To blend in, I needed to conform to the standards of the white majority.
Soon after our arrival in 1979, there came a wave of Vietnamese refugees who had fled their homeland in boats, landing in other Southeast Asian countries and eventually making their way to the U.S. Our town was on the cusp of an abrupt demographic shift. Within ten years the nearby town of Westminster would become known as Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese enclave outside of Vietnam.
Binh was the new girl in my first-grade class and our first Vietnamese student. When our teacher called her a “boat person,” I thought it meant her family owned a boat business. Binh had black hair and brown eyes like me, but otherwise we looked nothing alike. She had Coke-bottle glasses, a heart-shaped face, and a sheet of long hair. I had no glasses, chubby cheeks, and a short haircut. Yet the teacher often confused us. Whenever someone mistakenly called me Binh, I seethed. I wanted nothing to do with her. Being Vietnamese wasn’t cool, and I had just become friends with the most popular girl in class, a redhead.
I both hated Binh and was glad for her presence because I finally had someone who was a notch below me on the social hierarchy. Korea was considered the Third World, but Vietnam was even more so. Also the Vietnam War was perceived to have been a bigger loss than the Korean War. The other kids called Binh worse names than they did me. I wanted my classmates to recognize that I was better than she was, but no one really cared, just like no one had noticed my new dress on the first day of school.
Once, Binh tried to eat lunch with me, but I walked away. I preferred to eat alone than to be seen with her. If my white classmates hated my kind, then I did, too.
Today I wonder how my life would be different if I’d made friends with the few other Asians at my schools. Instead of trying to hide that part of my identity, could I have recognized the beauty in it sooner?
Los Feliz, California
As Evelyn walked through the courtyard of my apartment complex, she would yell obscene greetings at the balconies until she got a response. She scared me. It wasn’t as though she had any physical brawn. She was short, pale, and skeletal, and she reeked of stale cigarettes and booze and God knows what else. But whenever she appeared, I would go inside to avoid a confrontation, and I used caution entering and leaving my apartment. Maybe she was harmless, but I didn’t care to find out.
One morning I took the trash with me on my way out the door. When I tossed the bag into the dumpster, I heard “Ow!” and saw Evelyn climbing out. Damn it.
“Help me out, will you?” she yelled.
I went to give her a hand. She brushed herself off and started to laugh, revealing several missing teeth. Her lips had thick red cracks in them. Her tattooed arm was covered in needle tracks. I asked if she was OK.
“Yeah. Good. What’s your name, honey?”
Oh, God. I was going to become one of her balcony buddies.
“See you around, Miss Jody,” she said.
Every few days Evelyn and I would pass each other in the complex. As time went on, I felt less anxious about our encounters. Contrary to my fears, she never pushed the boundaries of our acquaintance. In fact, it came as a surprise when I learned that she had moved into an apartment near mine.
A parade of strange men crossed Evelyn’s doorstep. I counted maybe eight or ten within a couple of months. Most of them came once or twice, then never again. She had a pit bull she walked sometimes but no kids or female friends, just the men.
A few weeks went by in which I didn’t see Evelyn. Then one snowy day I spotted her on her patio wrapped in a quilt, smoking a cigarette. “Hello, Miss Jody,” she said, her voice weaker than normal. I asked how she was.
“I’m fucked up,” she answered. Her eyes followed the snowflakes falling from the sky. “I’m dying. I have cancer. I’m a dead duck, Miss Jody.”
I didn’t know what to say. Why was she telling me this?
She took a drag off the smoldering cigarette and said that, to be honest, she was ready to go. She told me that her son had died several years earlier and her daughter wouldn’t talk to her. “I’m a useless, fucking addict with no purpose. Now I have cancer, and I’ll be dead soon. And I’m out of smokes.”
I asked what brand she liked.
“Marlboro reds. Why?”
I smiled and said I had some errands to run. Later I knocked on Evelyn’s door and handed her four packs of Marlboro reds and a lighter. She cupped her hands to receive the bounty with gratitude.
“Miss Jody,” she said, “you are the kindest person in the world.” She told me that I was now her friend. I hugged her and said she was my friend, too.
Three weeks later I came home one evening to find the entrance of our parking lot blocked by emergency vehicles. This was not an unusual occurrence, so I thought little of it. As I walked to my building, I stopped to chat with our maintenance man, who informed me that Evelyn had died of a heroin overdose. He’d found her buried under pillows and blankets in her bedroom with a needle still in her arm.
I was sad she was gone but glad I’d gotten to know her. I hope Evelyn has found release.
Jody M. Johnson
Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin
After two days and nights at sea, Brian and I sailed our forty-one-foot sloop into the lagoon of Ailuk, a thirteen-mile-long sandy atoll in the Marshall Islands, home to about 350 people. The tallest point on the island was the top of a palm tree. Minutes after our anchor was down, we noticed a kid doggedly paddling toward our boat in an improvised rubber vessel just big enough for his kneeling body. He’d hooked flip-flops over his hands to help him paddle. “He won’t make it this far,” Brian said.
But he did.
“Where are you going?” I asked the boy as he floated beside us. “Jambo jambo,” he replied — Marshallese for a walk or wander. He used a raggedy length of rope to tie his “boat” to the nearest railing and climbed aboard, but first he bailed out the several inches of water his vessel had taken on during his journey.
His name was Danny, he said. He was fourteen but looked twelve.
“Are those your friends?” I asked, pointing to a passel of kids horsing around with their own makeshift boat. They were, he said, but none of them wanted to jambo with him.
Sailing in remote places, Brian and I had often had locals approach us on the water, usually because they wanted to trade fish, handicrafts, or bananas for gas, but our new friend didn’t seem to want anything. We had work to do on board, and, having exhausted the potential for conversation with Danny, we got to it. While I cleaned up, Danny appraised our cabins, making himself at home. He stretched out on the starboard settee as if testing it for comfort, like Goldilocks trying out Papa Bear’s bed. I worried that he was casing the place — I’d heard it was a rite of passage for young men on the island to steal something from a visiting sailboat. I scanned the shelves and nooks for missing valuables, but if he’d absconded with an item, it was worth more to him than it was to us, and anyway he couldn’t conceal much in his outfit — an oversized neon-green T-shirt and a pair of saggy men’s boxers.
Three sailing canoes raced toward the village, passing close to our bow. “That’s my father,” Danny said, pointing to a smartly painted green-and-blue canoe. “And my brother.” He said they used the boat to fish and harvest copra — dried coconut kernels.
“One day you’ll have a canoe?” I asked.
He nodded but seemed unsure.
Brian and I got ready to go to shore; it’s protocol to proceed directly to the village mayor, present your visitor’s permit, and pay the fifty-dollar fee. Danny helped Brian maneuver the outboard motor we kept on hand onto our small dinghy. I thought to offer our guest a gift for his assistance. We had a cache of bouncy balls and stale bubble gum, but that didn’t seem right for a boy on the brink of manhood.
Danny rode back with us. Brian showed him how to start the motor and handle the throttle, and Danny steered us into shore. It definitely wasn’t his first time piloting a boat. Maybe this was all he’d wanted.
We met with the mayor and were still ashore at the golden hour right before dark, when the village came to life in the diminishing heat. An older woman bathed a toddler. Women hit a volleyball back and forth. Men leaned against a breadfruit tree and waved to us. The bolder children approached and offered businesslike handshakes, requesting our names like polite little adults. Then we saw Danny, alone, riding a rusty red bike around the fringe of the crowd that had gathered. He gave us a knowing nod of recognition.
“To be the first to befriend us,” I said to Brian. “That’s what he wanted.”
I met Amber on the sidewalk outside Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, where we both had family members undergoing treatment. We chatted at the “smoking wall,” just beyond the NO SMOKING signs at the entrance. We knew cigarettes were bad for us, but the nicotine soothed our nerves, and it was a social outlet: sitting outside in the July heat, inhaling a carcinogen, and comparing lab results.
No more than five foot two, Amber had thick black hair and straight white teeth that gleamed when she smiled. Her Italian heritage showed in the way she gestured while she talked. She was thirty-nine, the same age as Jim, my oldest child, who was being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My son didn’t have a normal case of Hodgkin’s. The doctors at home in Florida had been stumped by his rapid decline. So here I was in Texas, sharing a smoke with a stranger.
Amber’s husband, Todd, had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had already been through chemo once in Michigan. Now he was going to get an experimental drug. Her voice was high and hopeful when she told me about it.
“Do you pray?” Amber asked abruptly.
I was taken aback but answered truthfully, “Now I do.” I found myself praying constantly: for a promising lab result, that the biopsy would go smoothly, that this would end.
“Me, too,” Amber said. “I don’t even know what I’m praying for anymore.” She said she just wanted her old life back. A few weeks earlier her husband had been mowing the yard.
Amber and I began to eat meals together, and we told each other our stories. She laughed that I still smoked an occasional joint — “At your age!” I felt maternal toward her. Old enough to be her mother, I should have had some wisdom to offer, but I didn’t.
Sometimes one of us would have a sleepless night and pace the hospital floors alone or sit in the lounge. Then the other would appear, up for a late-night smoke, and we would talk. Dawn would come.
Todd failed the cardiac test required for the experimental drug, putting the plan on hold, and I saw less and less of Amber after that. When she did reappear at the smoking wall, she gave me the news: Todd was being sent home to hospice. I held her as I would my own child.
The night before Todd’s discharge, I invited Amber to my hotel for dinner. As soon as she accepted, I regretted asking her. What would I say? That Jim was improving daily? That they thought he would be OK? It seemed insensitive to share good news with a woman who was taking her husband home to die.
We ordered a bottle of white wine and two expensive entrees. The wine we finished; the food we left untouched. Before we said our final goodbyes, Amber asked me, “If there is a God, then why?” Her eyes were longing for an answer.
I told her it can’t all be an accident. There must be some reason for the suffering.
The platitude was all I had, and I wasn’t sure I even believed it.
“Let’s toast.” Amber raised her glass.
“To what? Cancer?”
“No, let’s toast to God, if there is one.” We clinked our glasses.
Then she stood and hugged me goodbye. There was nothing else to say. We’d said it all in twenty-one days.
West Palm Beach, Florida
© Lori Barra
After college I moved to El Salvador with a Fulbright grant to research street gangs. I had spent the previous summer there and fallen in love with a penniless young poet, but within a few months of my return to El Salvador, he ended the relationship.
That winter I began volunteering as an election observer and met a vivacious British woman eight years my senior. She introduced me to her friends, and soon I was a member of their group. We sang folk songs, gossiped, cooked meals, and went dancing. When my roommate moved out, the British woman moved in.
We hosted candlelit cocktail parties on the terrace. We bought a secondhand couch and snuggled on it together to watch movies. Sometimes we would sleep next to each other on my giant bed, trading confidences under the powder-blue mosquito netting. She told me about her various rendezvous with married men — poor young fathers in rural villages, up-and-coming politicians. I withheld judgment, grateful to be trusted with her secrets.
Eventually I fell in love again, this time with a long-haired drummer who’d approached me while I was out dancing. He and my roommate didn’t seem to get along well, but they tolerated each other. I attended his concerts and proudly taped newspaper reviews of his rock band up on my wall. He said I was the first girl he’d ever told, “Te amo” — I love you.
On the night of my twenty-third birthday my roommate and I lit candles, put on some folk music, and set out bowls of chips for a party. The terrace was soon filled with our friends. I waited anxiously for my boyfriend to appear, but the party went on without him. By the time he finally arrived, after midnight, I was sobbing into my pillow. Instead of coming to me to apologize, he began to slow-dance with my roommate on the patio. I shut my bedroom door.
After most of the guests had gone home, I went to talk to my roommate. Her door was closed, and light shone through the crack underneath. From behind the door I heard murmuring voices and laughter. I reached for the doorknob, then pulled my hand away.
My mom and her friends had babies around the same time — all girls. My preschool playmates became like sisters to me. We toddled to each other’s birthday parties, and I went to school with them from first grade through high-school graduation. In eighth grade we started a “gang.” The initiation was to swallow a spoonful of pepper mixed with mustard and catsup at Breitie’s Cafe without choking or vomiting.
At sixteen Mary became the first in our group to get a car, and she sped us around the town square while telling us about risqué books she’d found in the town library. Her paraphrased passages made us scream with shock and joy.
We fell in love with the basketball players who barely mumbled hello to us in the hallways, and at games we cheered for them till our throats were raw. Martha’s mom let her throw a party and invite the basketball players, who came but were more interested in Martha’s mother’s brownies than they were in dancing with us.
Though we didn’t smoke or drink, after seeing James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, we bought matching red jackets. Life would have been perfect, except for our lack of boyfriends.
In college my friends and I went our separate ways. I attended the University of Wyoming, where, in 1960, the boys outnumbered the girls ten to one. I found a boyfriend, but still I yearned for my old female friends: the way we would shriek and laugh so hard that we fell like drunks into the bushes. I missed the heart-to-hearts, the shared secrets, the knowledge that our friendship was safe no matter what I said.
I got married, graduated, had kids, and taught school for years without acquiring a single close female friend. What was wrong with me? I wrote soppy Christmas cards to the girls in the old gang, wondering if I’d ever feel such closeness again.
Ann O’Neal Garcia
Pat and I sang together in our church choir, but we became friends only after we ran into each other outside my psychiatrist’s office: Pat was coming out as I was going in. We discovered we had the same diagnosis, were on the same pills, drove identical Hondas, and were both left-handed. Our husbands were both in barbershop quartets and even looked alike, with their thinning brown hair and beards — except mine had dementia and hers had back trouble so bad he could barely walk.
I’m not good at making friends. I chat amiably with my co-workers and people at church, but I go home alone, too shy and wrapped up in my own concerns to reach out. Thank God Pat makes friends easily. That’s the one big difference between us.
On the day my husband died, Pat held me as I wailed in shock and grief. She helped me gather his belongings and took me to breakfast while the morticians came for his body. In the five years since then, she has driven me to the hospital for multiple minor surgeries, and we go out to lunch almost every Sunday after church and share our troubles and frustrations.
Pat’s husband’s back has deteriorated to the point where he will soon need a wheelchair, and she’s worried about the future. I tell her that if anything happens to her husband, she can always live with me.
South Beach, Oregon
My friend Joey raised a ripe watermelon over his head and dropped it on the ground, where it broke into pieces, exposing the juicy red insides. I split open two more, and Joey, my younger brother, Buddy, and I began stuffing ourselves with cool, fresh melon. When we saw the farmer waving his shovel at us from across the field, we ran.
This was 1940, and I was twelve years old. The three of us had little adult supervision and often stole melons and vegetables from the Japanese farmers who operated outside of San Diego, just north of the Mexico border. Anything they grew seemed like fair game for our appetites: carrots, radishes, lettuce. We would take a few bites and toss the rest on the ground. Being chased only added to the thrill.
One day Joey, Buddy, and I were seeing who could pull the biggest carrot from the earth when I noticed a shovel and a pair of dirt-encrusted boots next to us. I looked up to see a stern-faced Japanese man wiping his brow with a red bandanna. He ordered us to stand and pointed to a nearby farmhouse. Scared he might use his shovel on us, we began marching. We paused timidly on the steps to the front porch, but he motioned us forward. I wondered if I would ever see my parents again.
Inside, the house was bright and warm, with colorful tapestries on the walls. An old woman sat on a blue-enameled rocking chair and smiled at us in a nonthreatening way. The farmer, whose expression had softened, asked us to sit down on a bench. From behind an ornate screen a woman appeared with cups — more like miniature bowls — of fragrant tea for everyone. After the old woman sipped hers, I stuck my tongue in the strange liquid, which tasted like grass. We were also given wafer-like cookies that dissolved on the tongue. I was beginning to feel like an honored guest.
Finally the farmer put down his cup, rose, and began to speak. He told us that he and his neighbors grew their crops to buy food and clothing for their families. When we stole or ruined their vegetables and melons, we were taking money from them. He went into great detail about the amount of time and work it took to produce each carrot or ear of corn. I had never considered that we were hurting anyone.
As I pondered the consequences of our actions, the farmer announced, to my surprise, that he wanted to be our friend. He understood that children got hungry while playing and said that we were welcome to pick and eat from his field — with one condition: we had to eat everything we picked, leaving only the nonedible parts behind. The farmer looked each of us in the eye one by one and extracted a promise to abide by this rule. Then he had us shake hands with the woman who’d brought our tea and the old woman in the rocker, and he escorted us to the door.
After that, we continued to roam the Japanese farmer’s fields, but we picked only one watermelon at a time and made sure not to waste any of the fruit, carefully burying the rind when we were done. We competed in a new contest to see who could best protect the other plants and clean up after we ate. When the farmer saw us, he would wave his red bandanna in greeting.
The following year Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and our farmer friend and his neighbors were forced to leave their carefully tended farms and move to other parts of the country. Although our parents told us to stay away from the abandoned properties, we did venture there one day, and I cried as I walked across the dried-up fields.
Santa Barbara, California
I met Betsy in college on the first day of Comparative Religious Thought, when we clashed during a classroom debate. She called me intolerant while I played the role of persecuted martyr standing up for my Christian faith. The professor watched us go at it for fifteen minutes. Betsy made a few points that challenged my beliefs, and I was embarrassed not to have a better defense.
When class was over, I made a swift exit, but Betsy found me outside. “I disagree with everything you said,” she told me, “but I like you. Want to have lunch?”
I accepted, and for the rest of the semester we would argue our beliefs in class and then eat lunch together afterward as if nothing had happened. Betsy inspired me to dig deeper into my faith and to ask questions rather than accept the platitudes I heard in church. I stopped trying to convert her and learned to appreciate her for who she was. She taught me to think for myself and not be afraid of not having all the answers.
Years later Betsy was a bridesmaid in my wedding. We still joke that our friendship doesn’t make sense, but that’s precisely why it works.
In the senior community where my husband, Larry, and I had just moved, the houses were close together, and the neighbors knew each other’s business. Most residents were scared of Frank, a man in his late seventies who lived alone across from us. At night he shouted obscenities inside his tidy house, but during the day we’d wave, and he’d wave back. After a surgery gone bad, Frank spent several weeks in the hospital and came home changed. He and Larry started sitting on our porch, talking about bike riding, music, cats, military service, and medical care. Larry joked that he was Frank’s new best friend.
Frank was good to us. He got us a discount with his plumber, introduced us to Luigi’s restaurant, where he’d been a regular for twenty years, and told us about a free monthly jazz concert. He kept inviting us to come with him to dinner or a concert, but I was wary of this new Frank. I still remembered the old Frank. Also I was afraid of what the neighbors would think.
When I saw the police cars in front of Frank’s house, I walked over to find out what had happened. Frank’s body sat in a white plastic deck chair, his head back, arms splayed. The police had questions for me: Did I know our neighbor? Did he live alone? Did we hear the gunshot?
Investigators ruled it a suicide and carried the body away in a bag.
That was a few days ago. Since then, I’ve gone over and straightened Frank’s porch furniture and started watering his plants. No family members have come for his car or to empty his house. A timer still flicks on his kitchen lights every night about 9:30 PM.
We did hear the gunshot, but we thought it was a firecracker or something far away.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
My husband and I were excited when the adoption agency announced that Camille and Jack had chosen us to be the parents of their unborn son. We arranged to get to know the couple in person. The adoption agent had described Camille as “hard to read” and “not much of a talker.”
We met her and Jack at a restaurant, and they brought two of their children with them. Camille was soft-spoken, intelligent, and a patient mother. Jack was friendly and talkative. We all expressed relief at how much we liked each other.
Camille asked that I be present for the birth. As her due date approached, we made a second visit and took Camille, Jack, and their children out for dinner. Afterward we walked to a nearby park and played with the children on the grass.
That night Jack called us at 1 AM: Camille’s water had broken. We picked them up at their apartment and drove to the hospital. I held Camille’s hand as she delivered a beautiful baby boy.
After the delivery Camille decided to stay overnight at the hospital. She invited us to the room and encouraged me to hold and feed the baby.
On the day of her discharge there was much bureaucratic shuffling of papers. While everyone stood around awkwardly, I asked for a moment alone with Camille. I put my arms around her and promised to take the best possible care of her son. I told her I knew this was not easy for her. We both sobbed.
Three days later my husband and I went to Camille’s apartment for her to sign the papers relinquishing her parental rights. Shortly after we arrived, the lawyer ushered us out. “There is no easy way to say this,” she said, “but Camille has changed her mind about the adoption.”
Numb, we went back inside to say goodbye. As I sat on the couch, Camille put her arm around me. “I’m sorry, Miss Bonnie,” she said. “I never meant to hurt you. You’ll be a great mother someday.”
The following morning my husband and I made the long drive home in a daze. When we arrived, we sat quietly in the car, dreading going into our empty house. Our next-door neighbor, whom we knew only in passing, was out walking his cat on a leash and greeted us with a friendly “How are you?” Unable to muster any pretense, I told him what we had just been through. He invited us to come sit in his backyard with him and his fiancée.
By the time we finally went home three hours later, we had made two new friends.