Monday, February 24, 2003


There was that familiar sharp pang of fear in my stomach and distaste in my mouth when I saw her again. It was the same pain I felt when people mentioned her name years ago, right after the dissolution of our friendship.

I noticed that she was keeping her hair red, as it was in the days that I knew her, only I could see the brown roots showing through. That was so typical of her, with her bohemian sense of style - the brown "old man" coat she used to love, and the boots that were painted a different color each month, to hide how worn they were. She was a charismatic mixture of creative genius, frailty, and madness that drew so many towards her, only to eventually find themselves dashed on the rocks at her feet, like so many discarded whiskey bottles. Back then, I thought that I would be spared, that I was special somehow. I didn't notice the bruises and cuts until it was too late.

I instinctively ducked behind a column, because I wasn't ready for this, what, meeting? Confrontation? No amount of preparation felt like enough. Another sharp pang shot through my chest, this time of shame. Why, after all these years, was I still afraid of her?

I'd practiced what I'd say to her in my head a thousand times, if I were to ever see her again. The tone and text of the imaginary conversation changed many, many times, to suit my mood and situation.

When my father was dying, I imagined talking with the soft and empathetic side of her, the side I rarely saw but which kept me loyal to her all those years, the side that made me feel protective of her. Maybe she would be able to understand and make some sense out of my loss, since she had lost her father too, in a sense, due to the divorce so many years ago. Or maybe she would make me laugh and keep me from falling into the pit of despair? No, at some point in the conversation, I most assuredly knew that without warning, I would feel the sharp, cold slice of her verbal talons, as she would lay into my exposed underbelly with speed and deliberation.

The memory of cruel comments during my hospital stay, and the dismissive way she had handled my various heartbreaks over the years, informed the plot of our conversation. I could still clearly see the cold gaze of her blue eyes and the little smile that played on the corners of her mouth when she made her most devastating pronouncements. Shock would always render me mute, and later I would berate myself for accepting such behavior, until I would think of a suitable excuse for her behavior, so that I could slink back into cozy denial.

Although this fantasy brought me no comfort after my father's death, it comforted me in the twisted, ironic knowledge that even if we had remained friends to that awful day, she would most likely not have been much of a comfort to me. That knowledge in turn made me comfortable with her absence during the biggest crisis of my life. How pathetic that my closest friend for so many years would become a much greater comfort in her absence than in her presence.

At other times, when I was dealing with other personal crises, I imagined our conversation as if I was talking with the cold, manipulative bitch she could be when she wanted. In that version, I ranted and cried, lashing out at her for every insult and indignity suffered during our friendship. I wanted to believe that I could finally expel the formidable latent anger I felt towards her, towards everything. Her cruelty, the injustice of losing my only real parent so soon, the responsibilities hoisted on me early in life, the incredible gaping insecurity and self-loathing I felt - she became the target for all this and more in those rantings. But even in my imagination, she would get in the last bitter word, leaving me unable to move or breath or blink in the harsh light of her judgment. I was left stuttering in my impotent rage, even in my own fantasy.

Sometimes, when I was feeling emotionally or spiritually uplifted, I would attempt to imagine our conversation taking a positive turn. Maybe we could put the past hurts behind us and talk about how our lives had progressed since our previous acquaintance. Perhaps, dare I imagine, she would apologize to me for some of the things that had happened in the past, and I would be able to forgive her. If I could forgive her, maybe I could even forgive myself for putting so much emotional energy into a friendship that gave so little back. Perhaps I could get rid of the unhappy memories that still taunted me, eating away at no one else's esophagus and stomach but my own.

But the warm and fuzzy version of The Conversation stank so much of a big-budget movie ruination of the novel's true sad ending, that I couldn't even convince myself to continue thinking along those lines. I hadn't actually grown up enough myself to be able to forgive her, and worse still, I was still expending mental energy on someone who probably hadn't given me another thought after wiping her hands clean of me years ago.

Now, confronted with the physical embodiment of much of my anger and pain, I found myself unable to confront the demon. I stayed behind the column until she was well out of sight, my heart beating loud enough for the passersby to surely become alarmed, and I silently berated myself for my cowardice - my inability to face her, to face myself and my demons.

Never mind that she wasn't really ever there, that the woman I'd seen that day only reminded me of her. The truth is that no matter where I go, she is never far from me.

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