I had the advantage, in that I saw her first. Fifteen seconds, in which I could digest the fact that the woman at the desk was the one who had haunted me for years. She was concentrating on some paperwork, while I waited for her to lift her head to ask, presumably, how she could be of assistance.
Instead, she stared up at me, stunned. It must be fate, I said. Her face stiffened into, what? A kind of wary defensiveness, perhaps. Why would you say that? Without waiting for an answer, she said, almost angrily, What are you doing back here?
But I never really left, I said. I was sure you knew that.
We looked at each other for a long moment. Are you well? I asked.
Her expression softened. Yes, yes I am. She leaned forward, cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered, confidingly, I’m never going to retire. They don’t know how old I am, and you’d better not tell them!
My heart relaxed. If she could talk to me like this, then perhaps there was a chance we could find our way back, even briefly. The telephone rang. I have to answer this, she said apologetically. The call was brief; she put the handset down and leaned back, smiling. I have two beautiful granddaughters now.
I probably shouldn’t have said that I knew. She recoiled, her mouth forming a soundless How? I’m friends with K on Facebook, I said. .
I don’t like Facebook, she spat. Have no use for it. She was clearly shocked by the fact that her daughter was in contact with me, even if from a distance. I hoped there would be no repercussions for the younger woman, while understanding that my former friend was hurt. I couldn’t blame her, although a part of me thought You see? You might have discarded me, but she had her own loyalties.
I didn’t know where the conversation was going to go now, but was more intrigued than apprehensive. I felt like a clinical observer, watching the sea changes of my subject.
To my surprise, she began to talk about how the experience of having grandchildren had changed her, and how different was the connection with them than with her own children. I realized then what I had forgotten about her over the last ten years – how lyrically she could express herself. Our shared pleasure in the beauty of language had been something so special that, as I was now reminded, the loss of it flooded through me.
I’ve missed you, I said. I used to dream about you so often, that we were friends again.
I dreamt about you, too, about a month ago.
Why did you disappear?
I had longed to ask the question for most of those years and now it came quietly, without emotion. She cocked her head, looked past me. I don’t know. You know, I’d have to think about that.
I assume you got my letter, I said. The one I wrote about six years ago. She nodded, said nothing.
It hurt, that you never replied. She was clearly uncomfortable. This isn’t the place to talk about it, she said.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a scene – I just tried to understand why you withdrew like that without ever saying anything. I imagined all kinds of possibilities: that I had offended you, that you disapproved of my choices at the time, that…well, I had no idea. Perhaps you were just tired of the friendship.
She jumped on that. Yes, that’s probably it. I think we were just done, she said,
So there it was. As simple, as enigmatic as that.
I didn’t want to let go just yet. I asked about her husband, a guy I had liked a lot. And what about M? At the mention of her son’s name, she sighed deeply. You know, if you’d asked me about him a month ago, I would have burst into tears. He’s gone through so much, a lot of self-discovery, had to figure out what he really wants. But amazingly, now he seems to have done it, and he’s in a really good place.
She talked on about him, this boy I had known since he was born, had seen grow into a person of immense talent and spectacular intelligence. She confided in me as though we were back in those days when we’d have a regular date to eat Italian, staying late over endless cups of coffee, talking, talking, talking. Feeling through our fingertips – literally! – the electric charge of connection. Marvelling at how close we were.
She stopped abruptly. What are you here for, actually?
I explained. I had been advised to borrow a CD on meditation from this, the hospital library, in preparation for heart surgery. Her eyes widened but she didn’t comment. Asked nothing about me, nor the kids whom she’d known so well. She pulled a form from a drawer.
Just write your name and address here. You know, it’s just like when you were in elementary and you checked out a book. She laughed. No need to sign it. Did you ever sign a library card at school? No. Not here either. She handed me the CD and said I could keep it for 3 weeks.
We had reached the end. I knew it. But even though I had been dispassionately assessing her behaviour and odd reactions, unable to avoid the conclusion that this was not someone I could be friends with again, I still wanted to draw something from her unexpected confidences and uneven warmth. It was a few minutes before noon.
Any chance we could do lunch?
She shied from the question, startled and uncomfortable. I ’d seen this reaction before in her, this instinctive aversion to unpleasantness. Maybe some other time, she said.
No, you don’t mean that. And you still can’t say it. I shook my head and walked away.
It had taken a long time to get over losing my best friend, although her daughter’s bewilderment over her mother’s refusal to explain my absence helped me to accept that I wasn’t likely to get any answers, either. I understood that it would have been very difficult for her to say, flat out, that it was over, but I never really forgave her for what felt like cruelty.
Until yesterday that is, when, in an unlikely coincidence, I was handed the chance to ask the question that had bothered me for so long. And more than that, to let her know that it had been hard to lose her. Is it vindication? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s fair to face the consequences of our acts.
I’m free of my old hurt, while feeling some sympathy for her. Unexpected and unwelcome as it was, our conversation would have been unsettling for her, I think. In any case, the story has finally come to an end, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think the universe had conspired to make it happen.