If I know Carol, she sipped her coffee for a spell before dropping a bombshell in her email: Carol, sweet Carol, is filing for divorce. Her burly husband, downstairs watching TV, has no idea. In a couple of weeks she’ll go on a ‘trip’ during which time papers will be served and a friend with a key (what friend with a key?) will collect her things, she explained before signing off. La-dee-da but that’s my Carol to a tee, half-sleepy, half-dreamy, coffee or no coffee; it doesn’t mean her world isn’t crashing or that she’s OK, it’s just how she is, crisis or no crisis. Calm. Carol’s great escape, hatched in a dark-night-of-the-soul place without me, illuminates something more visible than tonight’s blood-red moon: I wasn’t there for her.
Once so close we nearly drew each other’s breaths, Carol and I were always together and if you were within a mile of our vicinity you couldn’t miss us cause we cut a spectacular contrast: she, an angelic blonde wisp; me, a smoky-eyed Asianette. Maybe legends in my own mind. We shared classes, apartments, cigarettes and beer not to mention secrets, though not all, mind you, and coffee, endless hours sipping, cupping, blowing into coffee, leaving lipstick prints like kisses, all the while believing we could figure out our whole lives over a long coffee break, even though we never solved a damn thing last time or the time before. There she is, pouring Half-and-Half, now tapping the contents of a Sweet ‘n’ Low packet, fingernails Raven Red by Revlon, to create the perfect milky brew in Waffle House and Lendy’s and Lum’s; in two different student unions as we started out at one Virginia university then transferred to another, first me then she; even in a downtown DC office for three years in adjoining desks where, if we were too busy to run around the corner to Leo’s Deli we made do with weak-tea coffee from the Xerox room. Nasty stuff. At some point early on Carol invested in a green plastic percolator that brewed coffee so strong my first cup had me laid out in bed like a junkie on speed, screaming my tits off. Meanwhile, she, a veteran coffee-drinker long before we met, casually puffed on her cig in the living room:
“It’s just the caffeine, Francie…”
In some abstract orbit, we’re still living that Life because once or twice a year I’ll spot her on Connecticut Avenue or in DSW, not her but a heart-stopping version, a doll so small she might fall to her knees on a windy day, which the real Carol did on the Drillfield at Tech, and the thought of having coffee with my oldest friend seems like too much to ask for.
Tonight, ten o’clock star time. My husband Gabriel and I wander outside to check out the blood-red moon that had the whole planet talking. We’re intelligent beings but moon science is over our heads and I tell you it’s like the blind leading the blind. Living in an urbane ‘burb with shops at our door, we find ourselves alone in a vast deserted parking lot shared by the likes of Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Starbucks. Look up, feel dwarfed. It’s kinda cool, like being in a comic book.
“Where is everyone?” I wonder.
“It’s a ghost town.”
Hand-in-hand we cross the hushed sidewalk toward Whole Foods, hoping for signs of Life. One or both of us whisper:
Several spectators are moon-gazing in front of the closed Whole Foods for a front row seat. A man with a daughter points up but why? Our moon-view is marred by an ink-blotted sky.
“The cloud covering comes and goes,” the man says. “Just keep your eyes open.”
I do, ready for the rare celestial event.
“Excuse me, do you know where we’re supposed to go?”
Fall 1973, a universe ago. The first words Carol ever said to me were accompanied by her hand on my forearm. Her touch surprised me. College orientation was a zoo and maybe we’d exchanged a word or two earlier but for all intents and purposes we were strangers. In the same boat as me and the throngs of incoming freshmen being herded from room to room, she was lost.
“Not really,” I said, glad for the chance not to be lost alone.
Chaos and confusion separated us but within a couple of hours our paths would cross again. There she is, in an empty hallway that was the English department, sitting on the floor outside the door of a college advisor with whom we’d both signed up for appointments. She sighed.
“He’s a no-show.”
Maybe I’m trying too hard to draw a parallel about the intersection of souls and stars and how fate aligned us but was it dumb luck that we just happened to share majors and last names beginning with the same letter – “P” – and found ourselves merged in the same spot, waiting for an absent-minded professor who never showed up?
You know, I don’t recall getting to know Carol. I only recall instantly knowing her. We had coffee. We talked. Unlike me, she saw only the good in people and didn’t have a bitchy bone in her bod. Like me, she had a solitary bent and I couldn’t help but remark that approaching me at freshmen orientation seemed out of character.
“I know, Francie,” she agreed, “I remember looking into the crowd and noticing only you.”
“What did you notice?”
“That you were like me. Petite.”
Honestly, I towered over Carol but she saw what she saw. Soon we became each other’s worlds.
A surprise Mother’s Day lunch for our moms at Lum’s turned out to be a dull affair of sandwiches and coffee. Silly us, we were hoping our moms would hit it off.
Our dads, not a chance. Mine was a personable and engaging man who was concerned when he thought my new friend was ignoring him.
“Fran, why won’t Carol talk to me?”
“She’s not ignoring you.” On the contrary, Carol was in awe that any father could be so nice. “Believe me.”
“But when I try to make nice conversation with her, how come she doesn’t answer?”
I witnessed this sick oddity with my own eyes: “Cause she’s not allowed to talk in the house when her father’s home.”
“What? What kind of man is he?”
Not a nice kind of man. He damaged her but how is the question. The mystery. Carol and I shared many things over coffee yet when I think about it, I did most of the talking and she did most of the listening. She could be private, nothing wrong with that. That said, I’m not sure Carol knows how her father damaged her, either.
FYI: Carol’s father, having long left her mom, still wake ups and cycles around his neighborhood, enjoying retirement while mine’s been in his grave so long he wouldn’t recognize the earth today.
Not fair. Not fair.
But like a candle on a cold night, I’m warmed by a thought: Carol knew him. Saw him pass by my bedroom with a wave while we listened to Loggins and Messina. To everybody else, my father’s merely a mythical figure I talk and write about – a lot. Yet he was here once, and when I talk to Carol, he comes alive.
Indeed, last time we spoke on the phone, she said she saw him in a dream.
We stay in touch but nothing’s the same. On opposite coasts now, we may as well be on different globes, circling away from each other, still loners at heart who are never lonely. Distant, like it or not. Our husbands have never met and I wouldn’t know her cabin from another cabin in rural Washington State where cell phone service is spotty and texts don’t come in – which suits a girl who rarely checks her email just fine.
Sometimes I drum up an image of the room upstairs where Carol composes her occasional message to me, always long and thoughtful much like her letters of yore back when we spent those semesters apart, usually very early in the morning and so black outside the window she can’t see the bears in her backyard. There she is, profile lit by a desk lamp, drinking coffee from a large pot she nurses all day. And while she offers up reports about her health-her aging mom-the weather, no dark night-of-the-soul stuff to speak of. Well, a long, thoughtful email from someone nearly off the grid is only good for a sound-bite here and there anyway, not the whole story. Like why she’s leaving her husband – for sure, she has her reasons. Who the friend with a key is – not me, a million miles away.
But too I wonder: All the nights she’s been contemplating divorce in a cabin in the middle of nowhere – what was I doing at any given moment? Drinking wine? On Facebook? Most likely not thinking about the one friend who was there for me the night I needed her.
Fellow earthlings gasp.
What am I missing? Even my husband, a guy who lectures about the Holocaust, has gone Gilligan.
“Look! See it?”
As a matter-of-fact, no. The cosmos is playing mean tricks on me, hiding the full picture: The blood-red super moon, they’re calling it. All I see is inky sky. Rorschachs galore.
There where, damn it? Meanwhile, everyone’s clicking away paparazzi-style.
“Quick,” Gabriel says, “take a pic!”
Blindly, I click-click-click only to come up blank. I knew it!
“Let’s go in,” I say.
So patiently I wait. And wait. And then, through a gauze of drifting clouds, a faint blood-red vision comes into view.
Cool but… why do I feel like I’m missing something?
About this time of year, thirty-six years ago, my then-boyfriend George and I were making dinner in a shoebox of a kitchen in his green row-house in Foggy Bottom. The phone rang and it was my brother-in-law Bob summoning me home. Home being the family residence out in the ‘burbs.
“Everything is fine,” he said.
I believed him because he was calm-sounding, not alarmed, though obviously handling a situation here – his wife, my older sister, was away on business and my parents were in Hawaii, the first leg of a trip around the world they had planned and planned. In my mind, I figured my younger brother and sister, teens at the time, had gotten into a squabble. What else?
George drove me to the Arlington duplex I rented with Carol just outside the city so I could get my car and continue down the highway to the family home.
“I’ll call you,” I said.
When I went inside to get my keys, I told Carol what was up. As if awoken from dream, she grabbed her handbag and said she was coming with me. Huh?
“You don’t have to, Carol.”
“I want to.”
Insistent, she scrambled into the passenger’s seat and we drove down the highway listening to the radio cause we always listened to the radio, unaware of the constellation above us.
Barely in the door, Bob directed me to the rec room and sent Carol upstairs. There she is, my Carol, running up the stairs. Who knows what room she went into or what she was thinking but I do know she was up there the moment I learned my father was dead.
I read this morning that a total lunar eclipse happens only two or three times in a person’s lifetime. Yet meeting Carol could only happen once. There she is, touching my arm, the timing magical as a meteor shower – I was no longer lost. Yet tonight I’m lost as ever, picturing her silhouette in a room three thousand miles away, wishing we could go for coffee.