Empty Well

She sat in front of me, restless and fidgeting, her short fingers lightly tapping against her patent leather clutch. The pearly white bag glistened dully under the dim red bar lights, flashing rhythmically to her nervous beat. White with a pinkish hue, the bag caught my attention as it flickered the muted reflection of the lights above.

The bag reminded me of my mother and her closet of things. As a child I played in there for hours in the cool darkness of her linens and shoes, trying on and manufacturing a fashion line for the wildly imaginative. She had a purse a lot like this one, the pearl colored leather gleamed softly with the long golden chain, dulled by time and wear.

A clasp at the top of the bag worked against me as a child with my tiny hands and smaller fingers. It never opened on the first try. With my tongue sticking out and my effort written across my forehead, I struggled against it to expose the soft pink silk lining. The struggle was always worth it in the end as the clasp clicked open and creaked at the small, delicate gold hinges in the corners of its mouth. I stored my trinkets and treasured there, deeply nestled in the belly of the purse that jingled delightfully against my knee.

The cushion beneath her rustled as she shifted in her seat and I shook myself out of my memories. My five year old face faded and before me she sat, anxious and waiting. I apologized for my distraction and flicked my gaze over her full face, flushed and bubbly.

This was our first meeting in years. I didn’t know what to expect. Time had crawled between us and the gap that began our last year of high school was now a cavernous well of unspoken thoughts and painfully memories. She was the first to make contact and I reluctantly reciprocated. My heart had moved on, our friendship only a faded headstone in a graveyard of memories.

Her brown eyes danced wildly, taking in the wood covered walls around us and occasionally swinging back my way, scanning my face for my reactions. Seeing if I really cared or if I was just there to please her intense need for closure.

The beer in my hand began to sweat onto the perfectly square cut cardboard coaster beneath it. A ring of rumpled colors and images was rising beneath the glass, an angry mark of a damaged good. I shifted the beer in my hand, tipping it slightly to swill the foam around the edge.

I swallowed, my tongue unable to move and make words. The shirt at the small of my back clung to the vinyl booth, sticking and shifting against my skin. Tight and unforgiving, my jeans hugged against my thighs and allowed me only small movements against the uncomfortable silence stretching between us.

If the situation wasn’t already unbearable, my clothing was making it more so. The tight waistband of my jeans cut into my stomach and it felt as if every inch of my clothing was lined with burs.

My breathing felt restricted and my skin crawled against the tension between us. Under me the vinyl squeaked with each shift and the table felt sticky beneath my clammy hands.

Yet I sat there, coolly and calmly across from my childhood friend, this stranger before me. My eyes drifted slowly, looking over the face I felt I should know. The dimples resting deeply in her smile. Those thin lips that stretched in a large mischievous grin when she plotted to embarrass me.

Her hair rested in bouncy chestnut waves around her full face, the curls reminding me of the time spent in her room, door closed, MTV blaring. Cable TV was banned from my house so the flickering images of bands and singers, cords wrapped around their feet, their tight jeans and heavy black boots shrouding their taut bodies, entranced me. I stared at them covertly, trying to seem unaffected by the gyrations of the performers and the odd visuals used to portray the songs I sang along with in my car after 7th period.

Instead I acted as though it wasn’t on, just background noise like it was to her. Sneaking peeks at the TV from the corner of my eye, I sat there quietly as she rolled her hair up into hot rollers for the perfect waves. She tamed her hair into submission with her fingertip melting velvet rollers, perfectly round and blistering. They were purple and made in different sizes which she strategically used around her head, smaller ones up top and larger barrels underneath.

Between the music videos playing in the background and her systematic preparations, I was enthralled into silence. I watched her wrist flick and fingers flutter as she quickly rolled up her shiny locks of hair to be pinned carefully in a crown of velvety cylinders around her head. Then, while she waited, she artfully curled the loose strands hanging limply onto her forehead and brushed make-up over her freckled skin, moving at speeds that felt foreign to me.

I drifted back to the bar and the lights, the scent of grease and salt wafting from the kitchen and sticking to the rough walls. The air felt grimy and the conversations around us floated by casually, reminding me that we used to do the same. A long time ago.

I looked down at my beer and lifted my hand to sip, feeling the dead weight of tension hanging around my wrist. Then she coughed, clearing her throat and looked up to speak.

“So,” she began. “How’s your little boy? I bet he’s not so little anymore.”

I smiled. Any mention of my son was a soft spot for me. I loved him fiercely and felt a sense of pride with him that I’d never encountered ever in my life. He was my reason for being.

“He’s good,” I responded, chuckling lightly. “Yeah, he’s really not a baby anymore. Growing so fast, I can hardly keep up with him.”

Her face lit up having hit a on a topic that made neither of us cringe. I smiled into my drink, sipping the cooling wheat colored brew. She shifted her hand bag off to the side and took a delicate sip of water through a long red straw.

Her nerves showed and made me more uncomfortable. It all felt forced and too polite. I waited for it to get real, for her purpose to show. She swallowed her water and looked up, her hands landing delicately on the table.

She waited.

I shuffled my feet under the table, slightly tapping the metal leg beside me with my shoe. It jolted me and I realized it was my turn to speak. All forms of social engagements seemed to be foreign to both of us and the conversation moved on like traffic on a hot, smoggy day through the downtown of a busy metropolis. Stop and go for miles is tedious on the muscles and I felt the strain in my shoulders as I gripped tightly to my glass, trying to steer this conversation away from the elephant sitting in lane three.

“How’s your family?” I asked, looking up to find her fidgeting with her sweater sleeves. Her nervous habit of drawing down her sleeves into her fists to absorb any dampness seemed to still be in effect. Good, I thought. I’m not the only one with sweaty palms.

“Good,” she answered a little too abruptly. Noticing her strict tone hang between us, she settled back into her chair, eyes on the table. “My grandpa’s health is starting to fail but the rest of the family is doing well. I have a few more nephews. Life is good.”

A gleam sprinted across her eyes as she spoke, happiness suited her well. But, the years of questioning her sobriety and whether or not certain people were still in her life, affecting her judgement and choices, made me skeptical. The gleam could be happiness but also the side effect of something else.

I sighed deeply, nodding in acknowledgement of her words. Her family was good, that’s great. But what about her? Was she alright? I took another swig at my drink, the bitter aftertaste stinging the back of my throat at the now warm beer made it’s way into my system.

I wanted to know, and didn’t at the same time. I wanted peace in knowing she was alive and I received that confirmation when her voice echoed through my phone the other day, calling to see if we could meet up, years after our last contact ended so abruptly. The drugs had been too much. And my life as a single mother could only take so much drama and abuse. The nights I waited to get a call back, to hear her voice confirm that she was breathing, unharmed and out of trouble.

“And…” I started, gazing at the knot of wood to the left of my drink. “How are you?” Looking up I found her stare hitting me hard in the face. Those deep brown eyes searching me for the right answer.

It was then I knew nothing had changed. What was left of my heart shattered as I watch her painted smile light up, charged from an unknown source inside. My mind grasped and fought with the idea that nothing had changed. That everything in my friend’s life had stayed the same.

That she was still broken. And that I couldn’t save her.

“Oh, I’m great!” She responded, sitting forward in her seat as proof that her words were true. “Yeah, things are good. I’ve got my own place and I’m working in the school district, you know, as a resource specialist. I’m still doing a little respite care work here and there but mostly my days are filled with paperwork and kids and helping them. It’s awesome, I really love it…”

Her voice trailed off as my mind slipped away. I listened halfheartedly as she went on about school and work and life and friends. Her trip to the Grand Canyon and the great first date she had the other night. Everything rolled off her tongue so smoothly, so seamlessly. Almost without real care. The tears began to gather at the back of my eyes and I blinked to keep them hidden.

“…I’ve been going to church too. Found a great congregation near me. You’d like it. They have a whole youth band play very rock based hymns on Saturday night. Nothing like rocking out to the Lord!”

At this last comment, I almost spit out my last sip of my now room temperature beer. After twelve years of the Catholic faith being pressed against us in school during the week and at mass on the weekends, we had both walked away from the church years ago. Partly in protest but mostly out of duty to ourselves. It was a faith we never felt apart of, no matter how much time we had spent praying on our knees. In hearing her pronounce that she had returned to not only a church but in such feverish interest, I was speechless.

It was the last thing I had expected.

I leaned forward on my elbow, wiping away the drop or two of spilled beer from my glass and looked at her, this time not flinching but really seeing her.

There, in her eyes, I saw the gleam wane. A slight shift and her pain suddenly reflected back. I started to recognize the gaping well of her irises staring back at me, dead and empty. The hidden resource in her system to mask her true feelings peeked out at me from behind her mascaraed eye lashes. She was using again and hiding behind it. She was also hiding in her faith, hoping with desperation that this last ledge was strong enough to hold her up, to keep her from falling.

Leaning back, the vinyl crushed beneath my heavy soul and squeaked loudly. She continued to smile, her mask slightly tipping. She was gone from me, again. And bringing her back was beyond my abilities.

Throughout the night I responded appropriately, nodding at the serious comments and laughing when she made a joke. I watched her hands flutter and expressively tell her tales, all signs to me that she was warming up, losing her inhibitions and gaining confidence in our friendship again. But I couldn’t find in me the ability to give this hurtful friendship another chance.

I left the bar that night, heavy and silent. She spent the rest of the visit chatting about God and music and her future plans, all with a noose tied loosing around her words, waiting.

And I chose not to be there when she fell.

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