“I’ll start this little trip with a story about me. It’s the same one I’ve told on all of the trips. Of course it gets better each time I tell it.” Bob made his address to the group via a wireless headset as he drove towards the highway.
Fifty years ago I met my best friend. From our very first meeting we found a “twin-ness” that is hard to describe. You know a friendship so close you don’t even have to talk out loud; you just know what the other person is thinking. We were both fifteen at the time going to one of those idealistic Los Angeles public schools, ideal because of the beautiful almost year round sunny weather. We had apple machines and an outside lunchroom where we got homemade cinnamon rolls that from time to time a seagull would shit on the sweet syrupy frosting.
I was just standing in the hallway putting my first and second period books into my locker.
“Ouch, what the hell did you do that for?” Annie screamed as I accidently slammed her locker door hard on her fingers.
I was mortified and quickly apologized. “I’m so sorry, I’m always messing something up. I didn’t see you there.”
Annie sucked on her fingers, her books scattered on the green linoleum. “It’s alright, I’ll be OK. You look like you’re going to cry.”
I turned my head so she wouldn’t see my boyish tears, blinked my eyes and tried to hide my attempt to brush the tears away on my sleeve. As Annie knelt down to pick up her spilt books. I bent over to help her just as she rose to stand up. KLUNK! My chin smacked hard into the top of her head.
“Oh Shit!” we both yelled at the same time and then instead of crying we started laughing like crazy, me holding my chin and her holding her head, thereby cementing a friendship those many years ago.
People thought we were going steady and in a way we were. We tried kissing and making out but somehow all that romantic stuff didn’t really work. We liked hanging out together and while we stayed best friends until college, we cherished our “special” relationship.
We split up our senior year in high school. I went into the army and didn’t get killed. Annie went to Radcliff, protested the war and married her psychology professor. We kept in touch via yearly Christmas cards and occasional letter and expensive long distance calls.
One of the letters I remember said, “Dear Bob, I follow your experiences gladly. I’m happy to find out that you are having a fulfilling life. I didn’t know you liked to cook. That’s so cool. I’ve always wanted to live in Paris but being a wife and mother to two kids has really put that pipe dream on hold. Remember how we would pretend to be French beatniks? Do you still have that cheap beret we sent off for? I have mine…”
I saved all of her letters and cards, carried them with me all this time. Every few years we would actually meet, usually at Christmas time when both of us were visiting family. I got along fine with her husband and her kids called me uncle Bob. I would bring them souvenirs from my travels and bake special treats for them.
I never got married. I had girlfriends but never found anyone that made me want to settle down. I had a very busy life moving from place to place. The army was good to me. I was a respected chef after having studied all over Europe and Asia.
One day I got a call from Annie. “Bob, Bob, is that you?” She had been crying. I could tell right away from her shaking voice.
“Yeah, of course it’s me Annie, What’s wrong? Are you all right? The kids?”
“Oh Bob, I don’t know what to do. I thought he was just busy all the time. I never thought he would do this to me and the kids.”
“What the hell happened? Calm down and tell me.”
“He’s left us, all of us for an almost teenage girl, one of his students.” She started crying really hard.
“Now, now Annie. Tell me everything. We’ll figure something out.”
She confided in me the whole sordid story, of his late nights, of every Wednesday night when he said he was doing research on a big project. How he seemed distant and cold towards her. Oh yeah, how he would have sex with her but made her do things she had never done before.
She told me, “I never would have guessed until I read an article in The Ladies Home Journal about the five signs your spouse is cheating on you. Then it became clear as a bell. I finally confronted him after I waited for him one Wednesday night outside of his office. When he came out, his arms wrapped around this young girls waist, I knew for sure he was cheating.”
She moved back to her parent’s home for a while and we wrote or called each other every week. I was in China and couldn’t come back to console her although, another man did step in, swept her off her feet and into the rarified arena of politics.
Annie found her niche and through his political influences became a well-respected advocate for women’s reproductive rights. She shone in her newfound commitments. Her children grew up and our lives grew even further apart until one day about six years ago when I found a surprise email in my inbox. It was from Annie.
“Bob, remember your BFF Annie?”
I was shocked and seeing her name brought all of my memories to the surface. I got tears in my eyes just like the first time we met. She wanted to talk and sent me her cell number. I was scared to call her. So many years had passed and so much had happened to both of us. I had followed her career, proud to have her as a friend, as an old close friend.
My life had gone all right, almost married a couple of times but my job had gotten in the way or as I liked to say my career had saved me from expensive heartache. I was alone but not lonely.
I called the number she sent me after a couple of hours reminiscing and a couple of stiff drinks. It was late my time, West Coast time and even later East Coast, her time. By the time I got up enough nerve to dial her phone, at that particular moment, I was feeling very lonely.
She answered. She sounded sleepy and spaced out. “Bob, is that really you? Thanks for calling me, thanks so much for calling me.”
“Annie, are you OK? You sound tired, I know it’s late but..”
“I am tired Bob, but I had to get in touch before it’s too late.”
“Too late? What do you mean?”
“Bob, oh Bob, I’m dying.”
Her words struck me dumb. I couldn’t talk and finally I managed to blurt out, “How? Why?”
She explained in painful talk her short battle with cancer. She and I talked for an hour until her nurse came in to squeeze more morphine into her body. I stayed on the phone until she whispered, “Thanks Bob for being my friend.”
All I could manage to say was “Annie remember, I love you and throughout our lives I’ve always loved you from the moment we met so long ago.”
By the time Bob finished his story the afternoon was waning. “OK kids, we’re going to stop for the night. I hope my story wasn’t too sad. The moral of this story isn’t a moral but the reason why I go to The Gathering. Each year I burn a little something of hers, a letter a Christmas card, not everything but one memory at a time.