Friday, April 10, 2015

The Unreachable Other

by Jean Roberta

Her name was Chris Weeks, and she lived with her mom and dad in a little blue concrete house next to our acre, on which the construction students at the state college had built a house for my family. That was when our country road had started becoming a fashionable suburb, a place for faculty families.

Chris and her parents were from the time before, when Johnny Creek Road, three miles outside the town limits, was as country as any dusty road along a dry creekbed in a country song. Chris’ dad worked for the railroad, her mom was a housewife, and the family kept sheep to supplement their income.

I’m not sure “friend” is the best word to describe what Chris and I were to each other. She was several years older than I was, with breasts that pushed out the bodice-fronts of the cotton gingham dresses her mom sewed for her. We saw each other every day because we waited for the school bus together.

Chris was beautiful enough to grace the cover of an album of country songs. Her hair was long, wavy and red, touched with gold when the sun was going down. Her eyes were large and blue. She loved animals, and always had a dog by her side when she wasn’t going to school. For a few years, her constant companion was an Irish setter whose fur was the exact color of her hair. He helped her herd the sheep. When he was run over by a car on the road, she was more distraught than I had ever seen her.

I was there when it happened, and the sight chilled me to the bones. Did I have a premonition? I’m not sure.

I knew that Chris and I were unlikely to be friends when we grew older. She told me that she wasn’t planning to go to college after high school, since she didn’t see the point of it. She seemed headed for an early marriage with a local boy, who might work for the railroad with Mr. Weeks. It went without saying that Chris’ husband would have to like animals and children.

“Write to me,” she said when I told her we were moving to Canada. I was fifteen. I said I would write, but I wondered how long the correspondence would last. Would she expect me to come to her wedding? Would she ever consider visiting me in my strange new home?

Moving to a bigger town in Saskatchewan and settling into a new school system took up all my energy for several months, but Chris was always in the back of my mind, where I pictured her tending a lamb, a dog, or some other animal. I intended to write to her, but I didn’t know what to say. Her dreams were not mine.

Less than six months after our move, my dad told me that a former colleague of his had sent my parents a letter saying that Mr. Weeks had died of a heart attack, then Chris and her mother were both killed in a car accident. So the little blue house was empty until it could be sold or completely torn down as an anachronism on “The Hill,” as Johnny Creek Road had come to be called.

I wondered what became of the sheep, and I hoped they weren’t all slaughtered for their meat. Chris would have hated that.

From time to time, I still imagine Chris bathed in the glow of sun from behind the mountains that formed a frame for the valley we loved in. In my dreams, she roams the sagebrush hills, unchanged since the 1960s, with her Irish setter, while every passing breeze flirts with the skirt of her cotton dress.

I probably sentimentalized Chris, even when she was alive. She seemed like the kind of uncomplicated natural woman I could never be. I sometimes wish we could discuss our mutual impressions of each other, but by now, she has been dead for much longer that she ever lived.
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On a parallel note, here is an excerpt from “Winter Break,” a story in my out-of-print collection, Secrets of the Invisible World (1988). It is loosely based on another doomed relationship, which included sex:
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Her expression was dangerous. “You think you’re smart, don’t you? Just because you know a few long words. You’ve always talked your way into what you want.” I felt sick. “If you’d grown up in my neighbourhood, you would have been creamed! Your education won’t help you in the real world, lady.” Seeing the look on my face, she softened. “Cup of coffee?” she asked, trying to sound cool. I nodded. “Look, babe,” she said, “I care for you too. I love you, really. But you have to learn one thing if you want to be with me. I decide what happens to me.” Her voice was steely. “Not you, not my mother, not even my boss. I’m not going to change, so don’t try it.”

I held the cup of coffee in both hands. I couldn’t look at her. “Babe—“ she started, then sighed. “Little woman.” She tried to put an arm around my shoulders, and I pushed her away. “You grew up in a rich family,” she said, as though stating the obvious.

“Rich?” I asked in disbelief. “Rich?”

“There’s a whole lot you don’t know about life,” she explained. “I know you know a lot about books. I respect that, I really do, but sometimes you don’t know what’s going down.” She had quietly poured herself a glass of rye.

“Don’t drink,” I said grimly.

“Don’t push me, girl.”

By now I knew the discussion was hopeless, but I kept on. “Shit, Maxine,” I said as roughly as I could. “I know an alcoholic when I see one.”

“Shut up,” she warned me. “If I need a drink now and then, you can’t stop me.” She paused. “You like me this way.” She hunched her shoulder, caricaturing her own posture. She waved her drink at me.

“I don’t –“ I started angrily.

“Yeah, you do,” she persisted. “I could fuck you in the road, and you’d love it.” I gasped. Then I grabbed the glass out of her hand and threw it against the wall, where it shattered in a satisfying burst of shards.

“Bitch!” I hissed furiously. “Stupid bitch!” I tried to stomp out of her kitchen. “You’re going nowhere!” I yelled, glaring her in the eyes. She grabbed my arm, and I almost hoped she would hit me. I would have found that easier to handle. She held me in a bear hug as I struggled in vain to tear myself away.

“Hey, don’t leave. Little One, I’m sorry,” she crooned into my ear. The look of pity on her face was unbearable.

“You’re going to be stuck,” I choked out, “in your stupid life until your liver rots! Who the hell is going to want you in ten years? Who in their right mind would put up with you?” I couldn’t stand to think what this question implied about me. “I tried to help you,” I insisted.

“Come here,” she said quietly, moving me into her front room without relaxing her hold on me. “Come sit here,” she said, pulling me onto her lap.

I could no longer hold back my tears. “We can’t stay together, can we?”

“No,” she said sadly. “Little One, maybe I’ll go to university someday, but I’ll decide when. Maybe I’ll give up smoking and drinking too, but not now. I’m not the one you need. I love holding you,” she chuckled, “but I hate the way you put me down with your education. And the fact you’re older than me. And whiter.”

I was shocked. “I never put you down,” I said vehemently.

“You probably don’t know you’re doing it,” she said calmly. I could see there was no point in disputing this further.
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I could say that I’ve been drawn to people who are obviously not my type (or vice versa) because of a shortage of better choices, but I’m not sure that would be true. I’ve been drawn to people who seem very different from me because I want to learn something from them, or I want to “help” them improve their lives (usually a very bad plan), or I want emotional support from them in exchange for whatever they might want from me.

I should know better by now, but I’m not sure I do.

10 comments:

  1. There are people I think of this way, and I notice that as time passes, I tend to begin to call them friends, perhaps as a way of recognizing that they still mean something to me. It's almost as if we became friends in memory, though, and at the time we were something else. I also think that in small, country towns, the definition of friend mingles with the definition of neighbor. At first I wondered why she asked you to write to her, and then I remembered that.

    Again, I'm sad for the tragedy. And I do wish you'd been able to discuss your mutual impressions. I'm curious, too!

    As for the excerpt, I need to hunt around for your out-of-print book. I love that you're not afraid to write stories that feel uncomfortable (as this one does to me), in addition to the rest of your range. (Also in that category in my mind is "Operetta", which I've always loved).

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  2. That alcohol bit struck home. It's a wonder Momma stuck with me.

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  3. Thank you, Annabeth and Daddy X.

    Annabeth, I think you nailed the nature of my relationship with Chris with your comment about small-town culture. I don't think Chris thought of friends as people you choose, sometimes by going out of your way to find a certain "type" (which might be called the urban definition of friendship). There was a community of kids of various ages on "the Hill" (Johnny Creek Road) who all rode the same school bus to the local elementary school (where it stopped first), the junior high school, and the high school. We couldn't avoid each other, so there seemed to be a general sense that we were all friends, more-or-less.

    Daddy X, alcohol should prob. be one of our topics here at the Grip. It deserves several books. (And a library could be filled with books on the subject that already exist.) Considering that booze is a social lubricant in most communities in Western culture, it's often hard to know if someone has "a drinking problem" or if the problem is in the eyes of the observer. For years, my bottom-line was that I could imagine becoming emotionally involved with a non-drinker (possibly someone who was raised Muslim), and in that case, I could and would give up alcohol altogether. I'm grateful that my long-term partner Mirtha (raised in a hard-drinking Latin American culture) is aware that alcohol changes people's thinking, so even though she can outdrink most of the men we know, she usually limits herself to 2 drinks on social occasions, and so do I. I think this is my only relationship (including that with my parents) in which alcohol isn't an issue because we're both have the same policy. As a lesbian couple, I think we're the exception that proves the rule.

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    1. I won't be a hypocrite here, because I had lots of wild, fun experiences the years I drank to excess. But the misery and mistrust my actions produced was inexcusable. My liver transplant convinced (read forced) me to stop.

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  4. My experience has been that the older I get, the less I drink. I still really enjoy drinking, but I can't drink red wine anymore due to stomach issues. I haven't had hard liquor for years, other than the occasional shot of dark rum in a soda. I choose beer these days, and usually fall asleep after 2.

    Alcoholism is in my family on both sides. One of my sons has self-identified as one, and eschews all alcohol. Good for him. My husband doesn't drink much...certainly not the way he used to, but then he never could keep up with me.

    It's funny that the "lubricant for social intercourse" can allow for such intimacy, yet destroy it with equal skill.

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  5. Unless we've had really brutal childhoods, I think we tend to look back on them with a nostalgic longing, and that can extend to friends we knew then but never knew as adults. Not necessarily in an idealistic way--the naughty escapades we got away with (or didn't) are the most memorable for me.

    Which reminds me of a loss I wish I'd mentioned in my post on this subject. When I was five and six, I had a neighbor a year older who would occasionally hang out with me and lead me into mildly dangerous folly. I particularly remember climbing onto the flat roof of their concrete garage. Then my family moved away. Many, many years later when my older son was in college he became friends with a girl from a nearby college (the same one I'd gone to) through a science fiction club, and they became such good friends (but just friends, she took pains to assure me) that I came to know her, too, and discovered that she came from the same street in the same town where I'd lived. And yes, her mother was my old friend. My friend and I met together once, briefly, promising to get together again soon--but she died very suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. My son was a rock of support for his friend, and they grew even closer, although she tried to make it clear to me one day when we hiked together that he'd make a wonderful husband for someone, but it wouldn't be her. I knew what she was trying to tell me.

    Fast forward a few more years. Yes, they got married, and even before that I visited her home (inherited from her mother) and saw the old garage, a roofless concrete shell by then, and told her about climbing on it with her mother--who, it turned out out, had scolded her for the very same thing.

    I'm not particularly spiritually oriented, but the night after my granddaughter was born, I went to my old friend's grave, and cried a bit, and told her about the wonderful thing that had happened, the beautiful child whose birth connected us, and who now bore her name. It makes me tear up even now.

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    1. I agree with Jean, Sacchi. This is a tremendously compelling tale - and would definitely keep its impact if transformed into "fiction".

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    2. Wow, what an amazing story, Sacchi. That's incredibly touching.

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  6. Sacchi, even though you didn't write about this uncanny experience (who could have guessed that you would someday share a grandchild with your friend?), you can always write about ti somewhere else. It could be the seed of a powerful story (i.e. fiction).

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  7. Sorry that it has taken me so long to read this, Jean. I love the juxtaposition of these two vignettes. And I don't think there's anything wrong or even very surprising in being drawn to people very different from the way we are. It's not just the lure of the exotic (though that's there, and yes, sheep could be exotic). It's the fact that these individuals are almost portals into new worlds. Like traveling to a country where you don't speak a word of the language, but where every artifact and custom seems fraught with strange beauty.

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