She is Ethel to my Lucy, Shirley to my Laverne, Louise to my Thelma. Lucy, Laverne and Thelma speak to my boldness, silliness and curious lack of grounding when shenanigans are at the ready. As for my friend, she perhaps has more cautious optimism, a touch of stridency and smart self protection ala Ethel, Shirley and Louise. And, she has this laugh that fills a room which never fails to tickle me. We found each other little more than a year ago, both stumbling down our suddenly and equally untethered paths. We are each a little lost in the jarring changes brought to us, and precipitated by us, in middle-age. Acquaintances for years, our friendship grew as we shared space on a mid-life Island of Misfit Toys. Our separate journeys brought us together for a transformative week in Ireland. It was a glorious trip that cemented our bond. We haven’t wavered since.
And so, in the absence of the traditional, we have become each other’s “person”. To wit: emergency contact, late night empathizer, compassionate advisor. Nary a shenanigan precipitates without one including the other. We have each others back and call each other out on the “shite” in which we sometimes dabble. My world is a little less lonely this past year because of her. I am confident the feeling is mutual.
I am rich in friends, but only one completely “gets” the space I inhabit in my heart and brain.
Saturday night I wanted to strangle my person. That’s right, take her to the woodshed, send her to her room without dinner. Saturday night, my friend did a terribly irresponsible thing that found my heart in my throat and my imagination racing to the dark side.
She is an expansive person; a bleeding heart who has found her vocation in adult literacy. When she speaks of her students she animates at once with passion wrapped in warmth. Her destination to this has been circuitous: public school teacher, private school teacher, reading specialist, tutor. All that exploration coincided with being a wife and mother whose family life moved her from Vermont to West Virginia, on to Texas and finally settling in Connecticut, where she even waitressed for a spell. I first came to know her as a tutor for my son. He loved her and she was dedicated beyond the imagination to his academic and personal success. Now, she applies that same devotion to motivating adults who cannot read. Adults most often living in poverty, who have decided it is time to do what is very hard in order to capitalize on the promise this country has to offer. They are lucky to know my friend.
I am lucky to know her, and even more fortunate that she pesters me, sometimes beyond tolerance, with check-ins, check-ups and texts which go like this:
“Let me know where you will be”
“Text me that you get there safe”
Most recently, an endless monologue regarding a “date” which included reference to woodchippers, background checks, and “text me with all his information, take a picture of his license plate, do you have a picture of him just in case I need to contact the police!”
I feign outrage, but am secretly comforted that I have won such a friend when I thought I had collected all the friends I might need for a lifetime. In appreciation, I am sure to check in when prompted, ever aware that her time on watch of me is invaluable.
This past Saturday night our roles reversed. I prompted a last minute invitation to get “a drink and nosh”, and she was game, as usual. Our plans would have to wait until she finished with a student at an undetermined time early in the evening. I was on standby, but aware that rather than meeting her student in a public place as is her habit, she was actually going to his home. It was their first meeting, and his home was in a rather unsavory section of a nearby city, economically distant from our suburban homes. In a nod to the safety game she texted me his address. I am still not sure her expectation regarding that empty gesture. I consider myself a bit of a steel magnolia, but am unsure that storming the barricades of an inner city dwelling was a likely response should the need arise.
I began prompting her at 6:00. No response. Again at 7:30. No response. I called at 8:00 only to receive an automatic reply, “Can I call you later?” Another newly collected friend called to see what I was doing, and I let him know I was planning to meet her, but had heard nothing in hours. Michael, a treasured addition to my new life, is part paternal voice and bemused observer of the antics whipped up by my friend and me. I meet him at the local pub, order a beer and some food and wait, and wait, and wait. I text my friend again. No reply. Michael texts her, also, crickets. It is now 9:15 and exasperation has turned to fear. Michael prompts me to do what I knew I should. I call the police, speak to dispatch, and wait. At 9:30 a patrolmen calls for more precise information, including my friends description, make and model of car, and reason for her to be in such a place at such a time. I can almost visualize his eyes rolling in his head as I relay to him the increasingly disconcerting circumstances. “Sit tight, I am headed over now and will call when I find out what has happened.”
The next 40 minutes are interminable. A quietly concerned Michael, who has arrived with no appetite, is suddenly unconsciously devouring french fries from my now cold dinner plate. We try to make small talk, but mostly focus on shallow breathing, catching each other’s eyes when not both staring at my silent phone. “This is bad”, he says with the saddest sigh. I nod in agreement.
My phone springs to life at 10:15. It is our patrolmen, “She is safe, she is fine, she was just exiting the apartment with her student when I arrived.”
Now I am angry. Relieved, naturally, but mad as hatter and filled with empathy for every mother who waits on teenagers to check in.
Five minutes pass and my friend finally calls. For all intents and purposes she is four hours late, and I feel 10 years older, worn to a frazzle in the course of one evening.
She leads with an apology and then has the audacity to mention that when the Patrolman met her in the parking lot with a flashlight, gun at the ready, and booming voice calling her name, asking if she is “safe”, she was so embarrassed for her poor student.
My response is rapid fire,
“this is not the time to get PC with me! Calling the police had nothing to do with him and everything to do with your lack of communication. You cannot ask me to be your “person” and not respond to texts or phone calls, when you as much as highlighted the potential danger by sharing his address with me.”
I am just getting ramped up and the “and furthermore’s…,” which I am determined to lay on her are lined up and ready to be fired. Articulation is not a challenge for me when I am outraged.
There is little pushback on the other end of the call. I rant to silence. Then this,
“I am capitol G, capital U, capital I, capital L, capital T, capital Y: GUILTY as charged. I am so sorry. It was stupid, I was stupid and I am so, so sorry.”
I desperately want to keep up the pile on, bury her with my well developed vocabulary, eviscerate her with the perfectly guilt inducing turn of phrase, but then she begins. Suddenly, she warmly and precisely describes the 800 square foot apartment of her Jamaican student, and lets me know that as he tries to learn to read in English she thinks perhaps there is an embedded learning difference She lets me know that he sends money to his mother, still in Jamaica, and that she chose to meet him at his home because her gut told her that he was fine. She didn’t demand a public meet because so often the adults seeking literacy work better in private, as they feel embarrassed sounding out basic words in public places. She lets me know that the Jamaican man noted to her, when the beam of a police flashlight found him, “Your friend was just looking out for you.” For the record, she had forgotten her phone in the car.
My anger melted easily. I am in awe of my friend and her passion and her journey inspires me.
In the moment, I assured her that we will one day laugh about this night. But not tonight. Time to reign in the new independence in which we are both emerging. Time to think smart, be smart, so that the glory of shenanigans can continue. We seek life big, not small. How wonderful to continue the adventure with this friend, at this time in my life.