Witnesses, or, Who Will Take Out The Trash?

Long Short Story by Michele Suzann

Witnesses, or, Who Will Take Out The Trash?

I.

For a while I had friends who used phrases like “holding space,” and “I had to get really quiet in order to receive guidance,” and “it just is,” and “so I allowed him his feelings.” They’d say “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” in a way that implied persons who might claim membership in the former camp were clearly more benighted than those of the latter, but hey, “we each have our own path [mine just happens to be more evolved].” This irked me, not because I myself am religious, but mainly because I enjoy being irked by what I fully admit I judge (not spiritual, either) as hypocritical garbage, watered down Eastern philosophies espoused by mostly white people who couldn’t delineate the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism if one of their one-hundred-and-eight lives depended upon it, except maybe to point out some pop-cultural avatars such as George Harrison and that guy from the Beastie Boys, oh but wait, has he passed, too?

I used to try to receive guidance, also—Tarot cards, dowsing, horary astrology, even the human pendulum, where you place your hand on your heart and make a statement, and if your body leans forward, the statement is true, and if it leans backward, the statement is false, as all deceptions are, ultimately, destabilizing. I’m sorry to admit I’ve wasted many hours this way, seeking answers, spinning the so-called answers I received, if these answers were not the ones I wanted to receive, and most especially doubting the ones that seemed to confirm what I wanted to be true; none of these divination methods ever provided me with a feeling of certainty. I’m also sorry to admit that I still sometimes lose hours this way, simply because I cannot make a choice, and want to postpone taking an action that seems risky, or else making the choice that is: no action (“when in doubt, don’t”). I use words like wasted, and lose, because I’m not sure I ever truly receive Source’s or Spirit’s or the Universe’s or a Higher Power’s guidance on any subject this way, which is not, after all “really quiet” but rather, really busy. The rituals, the desperate wanting that drives one to the rituals, it’s not exactly receptive, is it? For me, anyway; I feel the wanting occludes an answer. And when I voiced this idea to my friends, they nodded sagely and said they usually got their answers only after they had stopped wanting them. This too irked me. First, how could you stop wanting something you wanted? For instance, I was never able to say, “I’m okay with being homeless, if that’s what The Universe/Spirit/Source in its infinite wisdom has chosen to help me evolve.” A warm apartment with a door that locked just seemed so much more desirable than the cold abstraction of enlightenment. Which perspective may be my fatal flaw, I admit. Plus second, I couldn’t, ultimately, believe in a Universe so easily manipulated. Like seriously? All I do is say it’s NOT what I want and I like, trick It into giving it to me? Glad to know the Master of the Universe is as mature and unseeing as a fifth-grader. Eventually I gave away—I couldn’t even sell them!—all my decks of oracle cards, most of my crystals, and decided shrugging action was as good a guide as whatever staticky channel I had to Some Divine All-Knowingness; while my friends continued to accrue status and income, and to attribute these accruals to the fact that they “just knew” the answers after performing the right rituals, I resigned myself to being benighted, destined to push through life like a rat in a maze, only changing direction when I bumped up against a physical wall. To myself, I called this “acceptance.” To these friends, I called it “intuition.” My friend C. laughed, when I told her. “Oh Michele,” she trilled, “you don’t have any intuition—you’re poor!”

I say “for a while” because of course, over the last few years, all my friendships with the New Agers dissolved, as no amount of meditation, and positive thinking, and breath work, and volunteer work, and affirmations, and visualizations, and getting really quiet, nor even acceptance, could unscrew the vise-like grip of the material—or should I say (though really, I should not say, the New Agers would say), materially deficient—circumstances I found myself in. After the divorce, the firing, the subsequent inability to find work and therefore the resulting eviction, it was and still is quite clear to me that I have miscalculated often, made the same mistake in multiple arenas, failed to learn lessons anyone else would have mastered after one, maybe two bombs. And as I voiced my frustrations with and despair over the persistence of my straitened circumstances, most of my friends, already scattered hither and yon by commitments to their own families, or pursuit of their own blisses, or the simple necessity (“I don’t have to, I get to”) of removing to some cheaper outlyinger suburb of the now insanely expensive Bay Area, were unwilling, finally, to “hold space” while I freaked out, unable to “allow” me my feelings and yet remain friendly (and don’t think I’m not aware of the power dynamic implied with that verb, allow, there). Gradually, they stopped calling and emailing, stopped responding when I was the one calling and emailing. By the time the events of this story occur, I had accepted the fact that I had repulsed my entire cohort; like a wall, it was easy—required, really—to turn from them, to the scramble to keep myself housed and fed and not expiring from the sheer force of the shame and self-loathing I battered myself with on a daily basis. The disappearance of my friends seemed just another blow to endure, really, and clearly, I had brought it upon myself, not by karma (this life’s or a previous one’s), nor by forgetting to shield myself with white or purple light and thereby attracting the malign influence of negative entities, but simply because I was a dumbass, a forty-five-year-old with no marketable skills still making the same romantic and professional and social bad decisions she’d made in the previous decade, decades, even, because some of us just don’t get the lessons, ever. To put it simply: there are those of us who go on to study calculus [evolved], and there are those of us who never make it past Algebra I, and even that class we only got there because the previous teacher couldn’t stand us anymore [benighted/wall].

I had one friend I kept up with, however, through the trials and then even after. I found a steady job again, albeit two hours down the coast, and I found I could rent an incrementally cheaper apartment on my greatly reduced salary, and I didn’t mind the relocation, or the isolation, given the breathtaking natural beauty of the area. This friend of mine—I’ll call her A.—she wasn’t a New Ager. We spoke every couple of weeks, and I visited when I could scrape together the gas money for the three-hours-each-way trip to her turf, just north of San Francisco. But A. was eighty-four years old, and I was losing her, as well.

II.

On a January Sunday in 2016, I received a strange phone call from my friend A., who told me she had received a strange phone call from me the night before. It was funny, I thought—at first—because I had been thinking of my friend the day previous; had thought, in fact, on several occasions, that I wanted to call my friend and find out how she was doing, as she had been declining with cancer for some months, having chosen no course of treatment but to let it take her, and thus if I went longer than a week without speaking to her, I worried that our last conversation may have been, indeed, our last, and this idea sparked a whole host of additional worries, or rather a whole host of iterations of the same worry, which ran: I was not present with my friend in the way that one should be present at the end of a friend’s life; I did not conduct our last meeting, or conversation, well (by which word I meant: with the appropriate gravity and/or realism); I conducted our last meeting, or conversation, as if it were not our last, i.e. I was frivolous, I was shallow, I was avoidant; I conducted our last meeting or conversation as if we had what, fifty? a hundred? more to conduct.

But I did not pick up the phone to call my friend, and most especially not at six in the evening, which is the time, my friend told me, that she received the call from the alleged me, telling her that I had breast cancer and needed money. My friend (said she) became horribly upset, hating to think that I could be in such straits or pain that I was reduced or driven to calling friends and demanding money. My friend said that as someone with cancer herself, she hated to think of me with it also, as so many young women have been stricken by it now. She said that she then passed the phone to her daughter, who also listened to the cancer story and demand for funds, and who then chose to hang up on the alleged me, saying to my friend (her mother) My, your friend certainly is angry!

As my friend told me this story, I felt myself becoming internally quite agitated, and I heard myself answering (interjecting, really) (before she had even finished some of her sentences) with protestations such as but that’s crazy! and how weird! and even, well, but do you have any other friends named Michele, who sound like me, and could have breast cancer, and might need financial help?

It was your voice, my friend insisted.

I felt that, in these answers (interruptions, really), my speech was too loud, my laughter too harsh, as well as clearly in that category of display (the way one suddenly finds oneself talking more animatedly, or one’s companions more interesting or amusing, than in a moment just prior, simply because one has noticed one’s ex has materialized at same restaurant/ bar/supermarket/ beach). I felt, internally, quite anxious that my friend could even consider that her strange phone call of the night before was from me; that she did not immediately write it off as a scam, or the work of an identity thief, someone using their social engineering skills to prey upon an old woman. I also felt, internally, quite dismayed, that all my efforts—by which phrase I mean: all the instances of application of my one effort—to impress upon my friend’s daughter—to whom my friend had turned, after she (the daughter) had hung up on the alleged me, and exclaimed I think one of my best friends in the whole world has gone crazy!—the fact that I was not a gold digger, and the fact that I had not glommed onto her mother out of some sick spinster’s grab bag of motivations, including unresolved mommy issues and a pathetic and desperate lack of obligations with her own peer group, and the fact that my friendship with her mother was eclectically unique, not disturbingly unique—this effort had come to naught.

III.

The daughter’s opinion of me had been made clear the last time I had seen her, some two Thanksgivings ago, when I had picked up her eighty-two-year-old mother (my friend) and driven us over the hill, as the family called it, to her (my friend’s) beach house, a second home my friend and her first husband had purchased, and which was now shared between my friend and her one local daughter and this local daughter’s children; a house used for holiday celebrations (such as this one), or weekend getaways of the oceanic-healing-post-breakup variety. It was one of the original houses, unlike the by now more prevalent and multi-million-dollar and architecturally unique glass-and-pre-weathered-wood humongousnesses commissioned by US senators, and tech moguls, and blockbuster-film directors; it was a small drafty blue-painted two bedroom, the garage of which had been converted into a kids’ own vacation room, with three bunkbeds, and primary-colored wooden chests of toys, and walls covered in stencils of animal protagonists of old-fashioned children’s books—Babar; Paddington Bear; Curious George; Riki-Tiki-Tavi; the entire Wind in The Willows cohort. It (the house) was a single humble story with a septic system in need of repairs that neither my friend, nor her local daughter, nor the distant son, nor the three of them combined, could afford.

IV.

The daughter could not, at this Thanksgiving two years ago, conceal something, as with years of practiced motions she waved my friend (her mother) and me in, past the piano and into the main-room-cum-kitchen; could not conceal some tiredness or disdain or skepticism, for her mother collected strays of both the animal and human variety, and so here she was again and here I was again, tagging along to yet another mostly family gathering at her mother’s behest, her mother (my friend) having assured me my specific presence was requested, belied now by her daughter with a smile that didn’t quite reach the heavily linered eyes; by a smile that could have also been a smirk; by a dip of her head as if composing her expression, or attempting to school by swallowing some first, acerbic thought; as with a determined sweep of her arm she welcomed us in.

V.

Her appearance, I noted, as I set my friend’s green bean casserole and my own apple pie on the original kitchen’s yellow-tiled counter, had somehow in the intervening year shed all its fat and loose ends and slack, and also a harried if good-natured and self-deprecating cheer, leaving only narrowed eyes and gym-toned muscle, salon-dyed hair and -tanned skin, her body clothed not in the unremarkable chinos and blouses of folds and excess fabric favored previously, but rather in an expensive (by which word I mean: I wondered if it was silk) wraparound dress and the ubiquitous-at-that-time chunky platform heels, the buckles of which announced to a certain segment of the population a price tag of over five hundred dollars, both of which wardrobe choices I judged: wholly impractical for cooking the majority of courses in the ten-course meal.

The daughter’s new appearance broadcast that at some point in the last year she had made a decision, and the decision came down firmly in favor of something hard, like the thickly lacquered artificial nails of tasteful hue and length she now flashed, or the dissatisfied commands she now tersed out, while whisking the gravy, into her cell at some unlucky underling working in her stead this holiday.

VI.

I had seen this before.

Another friend of mine—I’ll call her E.—whom in 2012 I had not seen for over two years due to an ill-advised stint at a graduate program out of state (my stint, not hers), shocked me when she picked me up at the airport in her new luxury brand sedan, sporting a close-cropped haircut, as void of excess as her own remade-by-daily-workouts-with-a-personal-trainer body, as her own now impatient manner, as interested in, if not moreso than, the important work-related messages on her cell as in catching up with an old friend. This new way of being was on display at her fiftieth birthday party later that week, at which she could be heard, loudly and more than once, asserting that she did not suffer fools, and that she might not have book smarts—and at this phrase she would always cock her glance my way—but she sure as shit had street smarts, which of course was a lie, or rather, the typical misguided sentiments of a corporate denizen, insecure in the patent uselessness of their office job and defensive that it might not be preparing them for some imminent apocalyptic day in which survival of the fittest would be the actual metric by which they, well, survived; a typical conflation of business skills such as negotiating and recruiting with the sixth sense attributed to most street-level criminals by these corporate denizens thanks in no small part to blockbuster films portraying successful street-level criminals rising to higher-level and -stakes criminal activity thanks to their basic skills of negotiating and recruiting and oh yeah ruthless violence forged in the harsh unforgiving Darwinian streets—but I kept this judgement of my friend to myself, as I was still a rent-paying tenant at her and her husband’s home. It was there that I had multiple opportunities to watch her suffer a fool, namely, her son, a twenty-five-year-old self-described “cannabis connoisseur and entrepreneur” just working on his business plan and waiting out the two years until the substance was legalized for recreational use, he claimed, and in the meantime residing in his mother’s and her husband’s house, sampling strains and playing World of Warcraft at night and sleeping during the day, and at no time at all ever doing any of the two chores (taking out the trash, blowing the pine needles off the back deck with a battery powered mini leaf blower) that my friend E.’s husband had requested the boy do in lieu of paying rent. And as I was at this time unable to find employment that would net me a great enough income to rent my own apartment, and instead could only afford to rent a room, which I continued to do there at my friend’s and her husband’s for some six months, I was witness to several discussions and eventual arguments regarding E.’s husband’s frustration with her son’s presence in the house in general and lack of paid employment and chore-doing in specific. My friend, although hard, had confided to me in what must have been a soft and relapsing moment in which the admission of uncertainty seemed imperative, or simply comforting and therefore irresistible, that she really could not stand the friction that her son was causing, but she also knew, from experience, that she had to allow her husband his feelings, and also that she had to just detach with love from her son, for he would never change so long as she, and therefore by proxy also her husband, was asking him to. What about kicking him out, I had asked. E. had looked at me as if I had just asked my question in Latin, before shaking her head and smiling sympathetically as she squeezed my shoulder. “You poor thing,” she said, “without kids of your own the decisions seem so simple, don’t they?”

Thus it came to pass one morning, when the trash collectors had come and gone without emptying the household’s trashcans, because her son had again forgotten to wheel them down their steep San Anselmo driveway, that before her husband awoke, my friend E. rolled them down herself, stalking back up the hill in her robe, dialing Waste Management Inc. on her phone, and cussing them out for forgetting her house, again. Somehow the only party I could relate to in this drama was the garbage man, and I hate to say that this was the moment my friendship with E. began to disintegrate, because it of course only shows up my own self-righteous judgment of her, the self-righteous judgment of a middle-aged woman with neither husband nor boyfriend nor child to make complex emotional demands upon her and thereby increase her empathetic capacities, but I was never able to get past this, and I associated this lie of hers with her newfound hardness, and I found myself—still soft, I supposed, as well as judgmental—drawing away.

VII.

As I listened to A. relate the strange telephone call from the alleged me, I became frantic that I find some way to impress upon my friend the importance, even urgency, of impressing upon her daughter the fact that the caller was not me, and that I had been walking the coastal trail the night previous, which is how I spend almost every Saturday night, at six p.m., and that that even if I did have breast cancer, and knew about it, and was in dire straits, I would never take it upon myself to call anyone and demand anything, ever, being as I am the kind of person who prefers to discuss her health or lack thereof with others not at all, ever, lest they discern some weakness in or about me additional to the numerous I likely already broadcast; and furthermore that she convince her (the daughter) that I am also the kind of person who—having ruined two relationships already over money (once by asking a friend for a loan, which although I repaid on time and in full nonetheless drove us apart with a magnetic repulsion rather awe-inspiring in its force; the second and last by asking my own mother if she might send some of her heirloom wedding silver; silver she so often complained about having no use for now that she lived in assisted living, alone, three-thousand miles away from both of her oh-by-the-way-childless children, and certainly not about to entertain her own neighbors who were, to a one—she pointed out every phone call—both provincial and diabetic, each quality inseparable from the other, and deserving of more scorn than pity, as well as effectively ruling these persons out as potential friends let alone entertainees; silver I requested because I had exhausted my unemployment benefits during that rough season; silver which netted me one hundred and fifty-six-dollars for two place settings, which helped me afford food, but did nothing to stave off my eviction. It was not the relationship with my mother which was ruined by this request, by the way, it was the one with my brother)—had vowed at age forty-three never to mix the alleged need for funds with persons who were not explicitly representing banks and/or credit card issuing agencies, and even then, never to mix it with those persons, anymore, either.

The daughter simply had to understand this about me.

VIII.

At this Thanksgiving two years ago, then, my friend: distracted by and pre-grieving the imminent death of her special friend, whom she called Cuz, not because they were in fact related but because he was from the South, and reminded her of her mother’s people, who were some kind of North or South Carolina nobility that had been appalled when her mother ran off with a mere private-school headmaster, and worse, a Yankee; a man (the special friend, not her father) then in the throes of an alcoholic, cirrhotic end; a man my friend’s daughter had already referred to as a gold-digger, a mooch, a hanger-on, and a parasite, at the Thanksgiving previous to this one two years ago, at which event Cuz had gotten so plastered so early he had crashed through the dry-rotted deck railing and into the lagoon before all the guests had arrived, which, my friend’s daughter said, after her son, on break from Dartmouth, had fished him out, was probably for the best, let’s just hope he stays unconscious for the rest of the evening; a man who lay, at the moment of this particular Thanksgiving two years ago, in Hospice, and who would, in fact, die later that very night, at midnight, which is a whole ’nother story, involving my friend’s near-panicked urgency that she return to his bedside, and her insistent, nervous, and in fact rather drunken intransigence that I drive her back over the hill right now, which urgency was compounded by the fact that my friend, perhaps because of the richness of the meal and the amount of wine imbibed, was made profoundly nauseous by the hairpin turns that were the only way home, and which necessitated her having to ask me, in her tremulous, nineteen-forties-movie-heroine-accented voice, to pull over so she might be ill out the passenger door, which she was, there in the damp dark, spitting, crying with unrest, my friend, my friend.

IX.

I’d like to make it clear, however, that at this Thanksgiving two years ago, my friend’s daughter was never outrightly rude to me, ever, and neither did she accuse me—ever—of that thing I was so fearful she would attribute to me, namely: of being a middle-aged woman who, having no platonic, or romantic, or scheming-and-calculating, or even fire-long-since-extinguished-but-lazy-companionship-still-fully-operative prospects of her own, and finding herself absent that ten- or twenty- or even ninety-thousand-dollar sum it seems so many of her own fading-away New Age friends were just now coming into thanks to the passings-on of their parents, has somehow set her sights (as if I were a hunter!) on this elderly woman, whom she had met some years ago in an extension class at a local university. The class had purported to teach advanced techniques in shorebird identification, yet was in fact more of a hostage type situation, in which the instructor lectured at length on devastations being wrought by water temperature rise, wetland pollution, and eel grass die-off, and was really rather more of a science-based downer than we’d anticipated; even learning the subtle complexities of hybrid gull plumages would have been preferable. I remember we were staring forlornly at yet further slides of year-over-year population decline graphs for the San Pablo Bay Marsh, when my (yet to be) friend leaned over to me and whispered, in her precise accent from another era, what a blowhard he is, can you believe this? If I hadn’t shelled out five hundred beans for this I’d have quit coming after the second class. And I had suppressed a laugh and shaken my head and whispered back, I mean, is this what we get for not just studying our bird books harder? The catalog said we’d get five field trips and we haven’t had any yet! And thus our friendship began, as we took the matter of those field trips into our own hands.

My friend and I had often told the story of our meeting, to her various friends and family members, at these holiday-type gatherings, for she had immediately invited me into her life. I had not invited her into mine, not because I was ashamed to have a friend my own mother’s age, someone to whom I could not relate to at all, on certain levels—levels such as the former use of controlled substances, or certain sexual situations encountered or even endured, or whether the 18x20 string pattern on a tennis racquet was truly obsolete, for the average recreational player—but rather because I did not then have a life into which I could invite her, or anyone else, really. So I had tagged along to one Easter, one Christmas brunch, and three Thanksgivings. It was right after (by which I mean, about four hours after) her daughter’s peculiar welcome that I resolved—and not without regret, and also not without the knowledge that I was perhaps foolishly allowing my actions to be determined by some other person’s opinion of me (“That’s her stuff,” my friend C. would have said, stuff I should just allow her (the daughter) to have), an opinion perhaps wholly fabricated by my own internal anxiety, which attributed to her (the daughter) an opinion I was only afraid of being tarred with, not one she actually held (although, given as I had heard her refer numerous times to her mother’s strays and hangers-on, an opinion not irrational to suspect/fear), and that I could have been, as my friend E. would have deemed it, cutting off my nose to spite my face—I resolved

X.

never to accept another invitation to attend a family gathering of A.’s again. I understood that I was, in this way, denying both myself and her (my friend), and also I suppose any others in attendance, the potential for pleasant interactions, which if fleeting, are at least celebratory, and sometimes even interesting. But I also understood this: that my actual interestingness and therefore value as a guest had expired. This was evidenced by the wide-eyed, blinking, expectant expressions of so many of the guests when I was introduced, as if some explanation for my presence was anticipated; or, if presented with the explanation of being “A.’s friend,” then met with an open-mouthed, encouraging “ahhh?” or an “mm-hmnn?” meant to prompt elaboration, this elaboration clearly desired, “friend” seemingly insufficient. My expiration was further made plain by A.’s family members, most especially—and most hurtfully, I will admit, as we were peers; we were of the same age and under different circumstances who is to say that we could not have related on all or even only some of those levels I could never begin to relate with my friend, the daughter’s mother—my friend’s daughter, and even and most embarrassingly, my friend’s daughter’s daughter, a woman twenty years my junior, who most noticeably curled her lip at me as I showed up and deposited both pie and green bean casserole on the original yellow-tiled countertop.

For example, it would be all right—by which word I mean: socially acceptable—to not have an apartment of one’s own, and to be renting a room, and accompanying a woman clearly not my peer to her own family’s gathering, if I were, say, my friend’s daughter’s daughter’s age, or even, say, my own advanced age but however somehow taking ownership of my (American-style) privation by conspicuously and frequently announcing that I was saving scads of cash, which cash I would then use toward some pretty purpose that would be approved by anyone who had heard my initial announcements, a purpose such as buying my own home, or founding my own business, or even travelling around the world in order to discover some higher, pretty purpose, which purpose I could then monetize, which monetization would then enable me to own my own home, and plan celebrations, and not have to tag along to others’, etc., and finally take my place amongst the legitimate persons of this world. But all I was doing was renting a room because I had been evicted from my studio apartment during that rough season, and even though I now had a job again, its wages combined with my rental record—which once you get evicted, good luck—only afforded room rental. Or, for another example: it would be all right to be single, at age forty-five, if I were previously not single for an extended period of time (like my friend’s daughter), and had raised a child or two (like same), which child or children would be clear proof that one was not single because of one’s own far-too-protracted-childhood aka immature selfishness. Or: it would be all right if I were a workaholic small business owner like my friend’s daughter’s daughter—an aromatherapist who catered to Silicon Valley tech companies and their moguls, who was also writing an essential oils handbook whose glossy galleys she had brought to show and tell about, called Heal Your Soul, Rejuvenate Your Spirit, Replenish Your Supply (which of course was New Age argot for Get Rich If Not Quick Then Right When The Universe Wants You To Which Oh By The Way Since Everything Is Connected And We Are All One You Should Have Figured Out How To Achieve By Now And If You Haven’t It Means Your Powers Of Visualization And Manifestation And Affirmation Are WEAK And You Are Deficient But Here Is A Potential Thread Of Hope For Even You If You Can Just Cough Up 22.95 I’ll Show You What OTHER Products To Buy That Could—So Long As You Are Also Eating Clean And Practicing Meditation And Performing Some Kind Of Right-Brain Left-Brain Ultimately Functional Exercise Such As Tai Chi Or CrossFit As Well As Getting At Least Seven Hours Of Sleep Nightly Plus Running Two Charitable 5k’s Per Year Plus Volunteering Weekly Plus Cultivating Meaningful Healthy Relationships—Overcome Your (Don’t Let Anyone Tell Your They Are Incurable! Don’t Listen To Low-Vibration People! Surround Yourself With White Light! Or Mirrors! No I Mean Facing Out, Like You’re Inside A Disco-Ball!) Deficiencies Such That Even If You Can’t Get Rich Like Me (Neverminding Of Course That I Was Both Born To Money And Married The Guy Who Patented Drag-And-Drop Technology), Still, Perhaps Like All Good New Age Soldiers (Frequency-Holders, As Eckhart Calls You) You Will Be Better Able To Accept Your Seeming Inability To Make Six Figures Or More Ever As Your Personal Karma And Not Get Angsty About Things Like Wealth Inequality And Wage Stagnation Which As All The Higher Vibration Souls Know These Situations Really Are Just The Collective Desire Of The Current Age Because Of Course Obstacle Is Another Word For Opportunity And Your Higher Self Has In Its Infinite Wisdom Selected The Lifetime In Which To Be Born That Will Provide You With The Most Obstacular Opportunities To Grow and Evolve Spiritually (For Example I In This Lifetime Needed To Learn How To Feel No Guilt Over My Good Fortune) But Only If You Open Yourself Up To It And That’s What This Book Is All About; Have Your Ever Noticed How Energizing Peppermint Is?)—and simply forgot to have a romantic life, because I was constantly busy being wholly fulfilled as a small business owner. The bottom line is, my relationship with my friend, which I had always felt to be a positive, now appeared a negative. It was suspect. Although it had never bothered me before, the difference in our ages, as we had always shared so many interests in common—interests such as certain obscure works of fiction translated from the German; interests such as birds; interests such as the history of Gaslight-era San Francisco—interests which I had in common with few if any of my peers-in-age, and which therefore had flourished under my continued association with A., I was suddenly, at this Thanksgiving two years ago, able to understand my relationship with her (my friend) as others did: as strange. Not eclectic and unique strange, but disturbing and pathetic strange. Even the apple pie that I baked—which was a masterpiece of fruitbuttersugarflour deliciousness, a fourteen-pound masterpiece, I might add—was somehow suddenly pathetic, something only a quiet, boring, unbusy spinster with no prospects and no other more pressing let alone monetizable talents would make the time to execute entirely from organic scratch by the way, and especially pathetic because she was making it for persons she saw but once a year, as a tagalong stray, and persons who now seemed to hold her in low regard, besides.

XI.

I will admit, of course, that much of the disdain I felt from her (my friend’s daughter) and her daughter, and additionally also my friend’s daughter’s son, could simply have been a jealous defensiveness, for all three were in line to inherit this house, this original house on a spit of land in a gated community, which house that even at sixty years old somehow got estimated at over two-point-five million dollars on not one but three different real estate websites (I had checked) (while of course the surrounding humongousnesses were all appraised at over eight and ten and even twenty million dollars), and so of course to all of whom I dragged my baggage of prejudices against wealthy people, for certainly the ability to inherit part of a two-point-five million dollar property was enough to make me curl my own lip at them, not that I did, anyway, not visibly, I hope.

XII.

And so I had a new vision of myself, and I was further ashamed. I would remake my relationship with my friend A. in a more socially acceptable, positive, and appealing light—a hard one—and our visits—not just the family holiday gathering variety, but also the trips to bird-rich marshes and estuaries, the City Arts and Lectures talks, the sunny San Anselmo brunches—would grow fewer and further between, and begin, in fact, to resemble the grudging familial visits I had made to elderly relatives back when I still had relatively local elderly relatives to grudgingly visit—which visits were not grudging, by the way, because I had so many positive things going on and they (the visits) were difficult and inconvenient to schedule, but rather because I became internally quite anxious at the idea of not being able to pursue my potential positives, like the gambler who tallies his losses by bewailing the races he never bet on, but could have; I considered the inability to pursue potential positives as a clear increase in negatives, and so the few times I succumbed and paid visits to elderly aunts and/or uncles, losing hours of my time and gallons of gasoline and moments of, if not joy, purposefulness, or comfort, at lease simple neutrality, banished as they were in the squirming awkward silences of persons who have nothing in common struggling to discover anything other than blood relations in common; the couple times I visited Uncle Marcel or Great Aunt Aldine, I was plunged into a despair so debilitating that I lay in bed for days, calling in sick to my job, whatever job it was, until I could regain my equilibrium. It wasn’t just the lost alleged opportunities, of course. It was to witness the quiet, mote-filled ends of their lives, which struck me as isolated, and restricted, and irrelevant, which last may sound harsh or unkind but nonetheless: to whom did these elderly relatives matter, anymore? Who made them feel alive, and to whom did they impart this feeling? Every time I asked Uncle Marcel how he was doing he just sighed and shrugged, looking up at me from his one-hundred-and-two-year-old’s hunch, eyes still wide and clear, mustache hairs sparse and reminding me of a cat’s whiskers, and said, “I’m still here.” Their seeming loneliness—even if merely alone-ness—just destroyed me, even as I never exercised myself to remedy it, and was sure my grudging visits were understood as just such, no solution, let alone true companionship, at all. I still have this type of reaction when I speak with my own mother on the phone, and therefore my phone calls to her are scheduled very carefully, and often cancelled altogether, because of course to minimize the aftereffects my mood must be impervious when I speak with her, something which, I might add, was always wholly absent from my interactions with A., this need to be impervious. I could have interactions with her regardless of my mood, and even if my mood was dark or anxious or even hopeless, it would have somehow lightened by the conclusion of our interaction, and I would feel no need to lie in bed for days, and not—I hereby insist—because I dumped on or otherwise burdened my friend with my troubles.

XIII.

Although now that I think of it that is somewhat of a lie, for in the last few years, as I had been beset by troubles—end-of-love troubles, employment troubles, housing troubles, debt troubles, father-dying troubles, thwarted ambitions troubles—it is true: I had two or even three times let slip my difficulties, going so far as to express a degree of despair and self-pity that were doubtless unattractive and intrusive to even the best of friends. But this was recent; this was not, in fact, how our relationship began or even persisted for many years. Yet it is true: in the last few years, I perhaps revealed too much to my friend, did not keep it light and polite, as my friend—from another generation and another region of the country where keeping one’s troubles to oneself is not only well thought of if not outwardly praised, but expected—called it; I know that twice, I actually sobbed into the phone, or across the table, and my friend had said something—the same thing—each time (in her gentle way, of course). She had said: I am honored that you have chosen to share this with me, which of course meant that she thought less of me in my impositions; that she respected me less in my weakness (not the weakness of being beset by troubles, which is after all, a state into which every human must fall, at some point or other in life, but rather that of revealing my troubles to another person); and that the honor to which she referred was that in which she was able to recognize herself as stronger than this person across the table from her, her own emotional constitution being made of heartier stuff and, even if not, still: more disciplined. But of course, her meaning was clear: that she would really rather I not honor her this way ever again, please?

XIV.

I did wonder, as I listened to my friend tell me how panicked and disturbed the call had made her feel, just how the caller could have had my exact voice. And I did further wonder: had my friend been prey to some kind of scam? In which a caller had seemed to have my voice, and when prompted by my friend asking, “Is that you, Michele?” had then answered yes, and pretended to be me, to be my friend’s friend, as of course a good social engineer would? And I of course also wondered if my friend had made the entire situation up. My friend had always, previously, exhibited stalwart mental faculties, even into this, her eighty-fourth year, with the exception, I will admit, of our last visit. I had taken her to a French restaurant located near her home, and treated her to a ridiculously expensive—if delicious—four-course meal, for which she had little appetite, as she had little appetite for any meal now, the cancer having filled her stomach with its own, indigestible meal already. At this last meeting—which was, as it turned out, to be our last—she (my friend) had mentioned that she had just travelled to New Hampshire, to the town and in fact the house in which she had been born, and I said oh, really? I wondered how this visit could have been possible, as I had seen her some three weeks prior, and then spoken to her two weeks prior (on the day before the first of her Thanksgivings I would not attend, since my resolution), and at neither time had she mentioned a cross-country trip, which for an eighty-four-year-old woman, with cancer as well as tremors, circulation issues, and three dogs, must necessarily not be a simple event. Surely it would have been mentioned? But I told myself, sure such a trip was possible; my friend is never confused. Perhaps I am the confused one. Perhaps we had not visited three weeks ago but rather four, and my friend had travelled across country and back, and then by the time we spoke two weeks prior (to this meal at the French Restaurant), the trip had already receded in import, and therefore went unmentioned. I persuaded myself, over yet another triangle of house-made whole-grain bread and pate de foix gras with truffles—which appetizer of three pates and three kinds of bread we kept on the table for our entire meal, as really it was mostly me, eating it, and I was determined to eat every last bite, not sheerly out of my own gluttony (which is substantial) but because I was going to relish every bite for my friend, as well, who could now relish so few; certainly she would hate to see any of the meal left untouched—that I must be remembering incorrectly, and I asked her how the trip went (because if I wasn’t remembering incorrectly, and she was making up a story, what was I going to do, really? Impress upon her—somehow—the fact that she did not, in fact, travel across the country? Insist that she had not visited her childhood home? If a friend is dying, do you do this?). She said she was dismayed at how messy and dilapidated her childhood home was (the house, not the town), how the roof was in dire need of repairs, how the walls were infested with critters, the four-legged and furry kind, and I nodded, having heard these same statements from her before, after a trip I knew, for a fact, that she had taken some five years ago, in order to sell off her father’s collection of first editions, thinking she might make enough to repair the septic system at her beach house, which of course she did not.

XV.

On this last visit to my friend A., she invited me into her home. Not the shared, family-gatherings house at the beach, but her home: the home she had raised her daughter in, the home she had found and made after a divorce, a home deep in tall trees, up a steep Kentfield hill. I had never been inside, though I had known her for over a decade. Previous to this visit, we had hung out on her deck, while her dogs raced around the backyard, pooping on the rotting wood and pissing on the planters. She had three of those bob-tailed sheepdogs, the kind with different colored eyes in the same face, long-haired and large and largely uncontrollable except by treat, and she had formerly had five, until a neighbor, distressed by their incessant barking, called animal control and they had all been taken away.

I was disturbed by the fact that she had gotten three of her dogs back again, only to crate them for long periods of time. Usually when I visited I sat on the back deck and A. stood in the doorway, the sliding-glass open but her form clearly on guard, not about to let me in, or let me peer in, only ready to let the dogs back in, once they had done their business. They ran wild around her small backyard because, I assumed, they had pent-up energy galore, and at her age she had never seriously trained them. The crates, giant ones about four-feet tall, but nonetheless, cages, were all in what had once been an eating area, but which area had long ago, after her children had moved out, slowly been converted into what she called her “office,” which was where she wrote her stories—anecdotes from when she had taught English and Law in San Quentin; scenes from her time working on a commercial fishing boat; tales of robins who flew to the moon—but which area now reeked of dogs, of their food, of their piss, of their shit, of their fur. How had she had five? Three were clearly too many. Through the glass not obscured by curtain or friend, I could see papers piled high, books stacked precariously, boxes on top of boxes, listing, and the crates. Perhaps not quite as Hoarders as my uncle Marcel’s place, at his end, but clearly, organization had gotten away from her.

So on this last visit, she invited me in. Not just to hang out in her living room, which was as unsullied as it must have been in the seventies, all clean white carpet and grand piano and sateen-y striped sofa and chairs and Audubon first editions. It was obvious that the dogs were not allowed in this room. Now she showed me the rest of her house, which was as chaotic as the office/breakfast room. There was a bathroom filled entirely with boxes of books. There was a spare room given over to what looked like a trash heap, a hill of paper, but which my friend said was files she was going though. In the kitchen, I could not figure out if a cookie sheet with cookies on it had been baked, and left there, atop a leaning tower of manila folders, or had never been baked, and the dough had just spread into cookie-sized discs over the course of staying out at room temperature. Everything seemed forgotten and/or about to fall. So many jars, some clean looking, some that looked as though they must have once held cuttings from plants, full of cloudy brown water. A dirty cheese board. Wrinkled tomatoes. The counterspace covered by ancient tins, and more recent Costco blister packs of apples and oranges, the fruit gone moldy and soft; by more stacks of papers, and folders, and books, and tools—a hammer, a wrench; a framed picture of her granddaughter on her wedding day; shells from the beach; unopened reams of printer paper, although I knew her computer and printer had not worked in over a year.

Hanging on the pantry door was a large trash bag. We were talking, I trying not to be impatient as she looked for her things, things she needed to go to the bank and the grocery store, errands I was happy to help her with although I’m sorry to report, impatient to be helping her with, a little frustrated by the simple fact that she could not walk fast, that she got distracted by the many things besides shopping bag and checkbook that were on her counters. She found a white plastic bag of trash, Chinese food leftovers, and she gestured for me to take this larger trash bag and open it up so she could stuff this in. “I cancelled my garbage service because they wouldn’t come up the hill,” she said. Oh, I said, you have to roll the cans down to the street? My friend lived at the top of a hill, her driveway steep and probably not conducive to an eighty-plus-year-old woman rolling a heavy (or even an empty?) garbage can down it. I couldn’t picture it, anyway. She’d had polio as a child. She’d never played a sport. She was edemic, unsteady, and slow. “So now what I do,” she said, “is I just fill up these bags, and I throw them in my truck, and I drive to the dump!” She cackled with triumph. “Is there a fee?” I asked. And my friend grinned. “It’s twenty-five dollars, but I’m not above asking for help, ‘Oh, sir, would you mind tossing these in for me?’ and I make my voice go extra shaky, and I bat my baby blues, and more often than not they’ll just grab the bags and wave me on.” Nice, I said. I like it, I said, meaning: I liked her craftiness and ingenuity. Because what else could I say, this is horrible and weird? This is sad? I myself couldn’t offer to help her; I only got to visit her every four months or so. But it depressed me. She had a daughter not fifteen minutes away. I judged. Where was this daughter? Or: where was the Home Health Aide this daughter should have hired for her mother, what with her (the daughter’s) high-powered corporate job that would surely make such thing affordable?

But of course, I knew my friend. A Home Health Aide might well have been offered already, but look at how proud she is, I thought. A. accepted the most insignificant, or lateral, if not outright useless, help. On the previous visit, she had let me cart three boxes of books to the Goodwill. I’ve known her over twelve years and this is the first time she’d let me into her house. It nerved me out, in that lame way I have: was it not also sad that she didn’t care to hide it anymore? I mean I was flattered, but a part of me knew this had less to do with any esteem she had for me and more to do with some kind of age-induced letting go; some concerns had to be sacrificed, and if she wanted me to refill her bird feeders, she was going to have to let me into the kitchen, where the giant 50lb bag of bird-seed had been lugged by that nice young man who had installed the railings on her outside wall to help her with the stairs.

XVI.

And again, when we spoke on the phone a week after this meal, and my friend mentioned that her daughter had been quite surprised that I had chosen to make the three-hours-each-way drive, in order to pay a social call—were those the daughter’s words or my friend’s?—I worried that perhaps my action was excessive, the action of a desperate, middle-aged woman who was trying to worm her way into her elderly friend’s will. I urged her (my friend) to make sure that her daughter understood that I drove north frequently, that I had friends in both San Francisco and San Rafael and that I planned my visits such that I paid calls on all of them on the same day or over a couple of days. This was a wholesale lie, however, it could have been true, if my friends who had once lived in San Francisco and/or San Rafael still lived in San Francisco and/or San Rafael, and were still my friends, but my friend and her daughter did not need to know this. The important part was that the daughter understand I was not going to extraordinary lengths to visit my friend, lengths that would only be gone to by a lonely, isolated, middle-aged woman who’s only remaining potential positive lay in a poorly concealed and delusional hope of inheriting something—anything—from her friend, when her friend died.

XVII.

I myself had been in a strange mood that morning, and in fact for the preceding two days, before my friend called and related her strange phone call from the alleged me. I had, interestingly enough, had a conversation with my mother, who also—coincidently, and for reasons that belong in another story—lives in New Hampshire, and this conversation had left me feeling extremely internally anxious, as it involved her pressing need for money, and my inability to supply it, which inability, I believe, and I believe she also believed, reflected poorly on how I had conducted my entire adult life, for what forty-five year old woman’s financial situation is so precarious that she cannot spare some funds for her own mother, who lives in public housing and subsists on food stamps? What forty-five-year-old daughter treats a friend to an extravagant meal this friend cannot even eat, but refuses to send her own mother even a twenty? This conversation with my mother and the thoughts I subsequently thought about myself overset me so that I felt wholly outside of my own skin, as if I were watching myself walk along the coastal trail, instead of actually walking along the coastal trail. The weather reporters and channels and sites had all been talking up the coming storm, a Pineapple Express phenomenon predicted to deluge our area with more rain than had been enjoyed in over nineteen years. As I walked I (dimly) noted that the dark grey bay appeared calm, calmer than usual, in fact, though this was contrasted with a stiff wind from the west, which blew at the waves, not behind them, for our bay is a crescent, and I was looking east when I looked out over the water. Visitors are confused all the time. The seals lay flopped on the rocks, and the cormorants stretched their wings to dry, and in the distance I (absently) noted scoters floating and a loon diving. It took hours of walking before I began to feel as if I might again be residing within my own body, and therefore present enough to climb on some rocks, surely yet another activity suspect in a forty-five-year-old single woman. And as I clambered over a boulder and came upon one of our many rocky coves, I was treated to the sight of some hundreds, maybe even over a thousand, Heermann’s Gulls, all facing away from the waves, into the wind. The entire cove was their snowy white heads, their bright orange beaks, their sleek, natty, grey bodies. Occasionally, there broke out a chorus of cawing, and cackling, laughing, really, and it relayed from one group on one set of rocks to another group on another, but then they’d go silent. One preened, occasionally, and occasionally one alit to soar and then floatingly descend, again, amid a new group, on a new rock, but mainly they just stood there, faces into the wind. I stood there myself, watching them, and the odd egret stalking, or oystercatcher shrieking by. And after about an hour I turned around also, my back to the birds, and the waves. It was clear that the storm had a message it was sending ahead, and I wondered what it was, and if, as a mere human, I could hear it, and if, could I even, would I listen, and if I did, what then?

But I never heard a thing besides wind, and all I saw was the twisted crouch of one of our famous cypress trees, whose every atom of needle and bark had been arranged by that wind, whose entire warp existed at the pleasure of that wind.

XVIII.

I called her twice more, after that Sunday phone call. In our penultimate conversation she told me she had written relative after relative out of her will, most recently her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s Drag-and-Drop husband. She told me that she was giving most of her estate to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only persons who would come help her, she said, the only persons who would take her trash out to the bins, and roll them down her steep Kentfield driveway to the street (having reinstated the service), where they (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) would pick up her mail and trudge—for they were old, like her, if not quite as old as her—back up the hill. The JWs, as she called them, were the only ones who would take her shopping for groceries, the only ones who would walk her three dogs, and later, which was now, the JWs were the only ones who helped her to the bathroom, the only ones who wiped her and changed her soiled sheets. It’s disgusting, my friend said, and of course I am angry about it, I am not happy, my body betrays me afresh every day, no wonder M. (her daughter) won’t do it. She said all they (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) asked in return was to read the bible with her, and my friend, who had been raised Episcopalian and had always referred to dogs and birds as the best proof of God, did not think this was a bad tradeoff. She said that reading the Bible reminded her of her father, who had been a minister, but that it now gave her pause, as well, since her plan had always been to take pills when the time grew near. What time is that, I asked, unsure of how she was measuring time. How close did she think she was? Why, when I’m not in my right mind anymore. I asked, do you have a living will? Does your daughter know this? No, she said, and no, and I’ll thank you not to tell her. It’s a moot point anyways, now, she croaked, her voice weak. I always thought that death was the end, just—poof! A candle, snuffed. Nothing. Dark. Now, I wonder. They’ve sown doubt in my soul.

XIX.

The last time we spoke, she did not know who I was. She kept dropping the phone, as well, but a woman, a Jehovah’s Witness, I presumed, who told me her name was Betty and she was just visiting with A., kept picking it up, and apologizing to me, and handing it back to my friend.

XX.

I suppose here is where I should admit: I did want a bequest. I was dismayed when she said she was leaving everything to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wanted the house in New Hampshire, which she had, upon several occasions, suggested I might stay in for a season or two, possibly fixing up or overseeing workers fixing it up as a form of rent while I finished my Great American Story. This was a wildly inappropriate desire, both on the level of possibility, and on the level of intention, and I knew this, and yet knowing this did not prevent me from the desire, and is it for this, I wonder, that I am judged? I did not want to want this. I wanted my thoughts and feelings about A. to be, you know, the good ones: memories of walking the bay trails in Palo Alto and watching a marsh hawk glide low and silent over the grasses. A. used to tease me about how I called birds by their full names: I’d say Red-Shafted Flicker, whereas she’d just say Flicker; I’d say Hermit Thrush, whereas she would say Thrush. On this hawk, however, we had agreed, as the bird book whose pictures and names I had memorized was published before that bird’s rechristening: Northern Harrier. I wanted my unbidden thoughts to be the memory of a lunch at P.F. Chang’s at the mall in Corte Madera, where she had told me of the first house she lived in with her first husband, in the South, where there was a room no one would go into, because strange noises emanated from it, and her husband’s family’s legends had that it was occupied by a ghost, and how she was certain that entity was responsible for her miscarriage. Or, I wanted my memories to be of the legal cases she still took on, well into her seventies, pro-bono: she defended a janitor wrongly fired; sued a corporation using unfair tactics to force a family out of their home, just because they (the corporation) wanted the land, and the family could not speak English. I didn’t want to have greedy thoughts, but they arose, nonetheless. How do you not want what you want? I had imaginings of a call, or a letter from a lawyer, informing me I was now the owner of this property or, if not that, about to receive a check for one if not ten thousand dollars (anything, really, would be welcome, even one of the Audubon first editions). I am sorry to admit that I had these visions on a fairly regular basis, the way, I suppose, one has visions of how one’s life might look after some magically frictionless divorce, or, if the job at the hospital was quit in favor of one at an art gallery that catered to tourists. I suppose one has these visions frequently because one suspects one has absolutely zero power to effect positive change in one’s life, short of drastic, and dramatic, gestures, no power to earn (manipulate) the grace of a deus ex machina. So one conjures the idea of an inheritance—only natural, I suppose, when one spends time with an eighty-plus-year-old woman in failing health, but nonetheless: a want that will be judged; has maybe always been being judged, and punished. That Universe or Source or Higher Power knew what was in my heart, even before I did. Who is to say one’s misfortunes—and I’m not talking about poverty, or eviction; I mean: she didn’t even know me, at the end; twelve years of friendship and poof!—aren’t repayment for the wrong thoughts, or wants? Some Spirit or Force knew I even went so far as to picture the disapproval and resentment with which my friend’s son and daughter, and daughter’s daughter and son, would regard me. Would I give it back, the house, the check, the books? Would I put myself in their shoes, annoyed or even seething that my mother, my grandmother, had treated an outsider as well as or even better than she treated her own blood relations? Another stray? Or would I “allow them to have their feelings,” and do what “felt right” for me? Would I put my hand on my heart, and see which way I leaned?

XXI.

Today I received a text from my friend’s daughter, informing me of the memorial service, which is tomorrow. She gave the address, and added, we know it is short notice, and that it is a long drive for you, and will of course understand and appreciate if you cannot make it, and instead choose to remember A. in your own way, in your own time.

About the Author

Michele Suzann

Michele Suzann's fiction has been published in/at Fence, Bellevue Literary Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Always Crashing, and The Rupture. Her story collection, Fleece, was short-listed by Carmen Maria Machado for the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards.