Roasting garlic from the cooked meat section irritated my nose. I’d stopped at Haggen after lunch. Grocery shopping on a full stomach was supposed to be a good idea. Even the blueberries and strawberries, gleaming like naked jewels, evoked a slight revulsion. How was I going to buy avocadoes and parmesan and pumpkin seeds and all the other rich indigestible foods on my list? My pants felt tight—no room for more. Why had I eaten so much? My mouth tasted foul. Why hadn’t I told the waiter to hold the onions?
I squinted at my list. Sliced chicken for my kids’ sandwiches. Better head to the deli.
That’s when I saw her, Julia, my friend, old friend, ex-friend, leaning on the deli counter conversing with the Hispanic woman serving her. Her curly red hair was short and stylishly cut, her hips lean in loose jeans. She’d lost weight.
I stepped closer. A year ago I would have called her name or simply approached and waited until she finished talking and turned to me. I would have felt no need to interrupt but would have stood beside her, admiring her warmth and energy, waiting my turn to be warmed by the sun of her smile and her voice. I remembered the hours we’d spent together over coffee, sharing a small burnt cream and sharing stories. Her sad tales about her husband moved me; my anecdotes about my sons’ antics made her laugh. We empathized—without envy, contempt, or pity. We argued but not in anger, just trying out ideas, trying to find the truth, expanding our minds.
Julia’s Brooklyn accent was raised in indignation—not at the dark-skinned woman serving her, but in solidarity against all the corrupt politicians running the country or threatening to run and ruin it with no real difference between the major parties and their leaders. The other woman listened and nodded, probably used to having things explained to her by men and bosses. After a few minutes she handed Julia a brown paper package, and then lifted her chin in my direction. I shook my head.
Julia said something warm and turned. I’d waited too long. I should have either walked up and greeted her as an old friend or moved away, getting on with my shopping.
When she saw me standing there, her blue eyes narrowed, her jaw tightened.
“Hello Julia,” I said and swallowed.
“Hi,” she said and added nothing.
“How are you?” I asked, attempting a smile that died on my lips when she didn’t return it.
“I’ve been better.”
I decided to go for it. “Can we talk?”
“I’m in a hurry. I need to get home to my husband.” Her husband was an invalid who couldn’t be left alone for more than an hour at a time.
“How is Roger?” I asked, reminding her that I knew his name, and reminding her of the dozens of conversation between us in which Roger had featured—his foibles, his passive aggression, his occasional sweetness.
“Fine,” she said, not giving anything away—except that intimacy between us was a thing of the past.
“And how are your boys?”
Her face softened. “Wilson just graduated from Pomona. He’s headed to Michigan to do a Ph.D.in the fall. Langston’s running wild at Oberlin.” She didn’t ask about my boys.
“Please, Julia. Just a couple of minutes,” I said.
A deep sigh and a small wave of her manicured hand encouraged me to continue.
I swallowed again, shifted to ease the pressure on my midriff, and tried out the line I’d been rehearsing. “Bernie endorsed Hillary on Tuesday.”
Her eyelids narrowed till they were slits in a medieval helmet.
“I only mention it because . . . well . . . our candidates have made up their differences. So I thought maybe you and I . . .”
I stopped, hoping that she would fill in the blanks, complete my sentence as she often had in the past—charming me with the sense that we could read each other’s minds.
“Well?” she said now, biting her lip. With a strong jaw, heavy eyebrows and lips a deep red that clashed with her hair, she looked the part of a woman who had little patience for voices that trailed off uncertainly.
“I’m sorry I called you spiteful,” I said.
“You already said that—in your email,” she pointed out.
“But we were both very emotionally engaged in the primary. A lot of harsh words got thrown around—on both sides.”
She clucked her tongue. “I don’t care much for apologies with buts in them,” she said and gathering herself like flustered hen, moved right past me.
I watched her go. Well, that went well, I thought. Leading with “Bernie endorsed Hillary” probably sounded triumphalist.As a Bernie-or-buster she must have been very disappointed to see him side with the enemy. And she would have felt betrayed to see him back down from his vow to take the fight to the convention or to side with the Green Party. I should have started differently. And then there was the moment when I’d apologized but hinted that she was guilty of the same sin and in no position to be casting stones.
All through the spring we’d sparred on Facebook about the virtues and vices of the Democratic candidates. And then it had become personal. I called her a conspiracy theorist for not trusting the media predictions. She compared me to a creationist for refusing to read yet another blog post about Hillary’s atrocities.The last straw came when she boiled over with rage when Clinton won California and made dark threats about an”October surprise”. I said her refusal to support Clinton and hence to promote Trump could only be motivated by spite. Then she’d unfriended me and blocked my access to her Facebook page.
I kept shopping, reaching for cans without checking prices or ingredients, buying fewer items than I would on a different day when I was hungrier and less rattled. Should I write to Julia, somehow try to glue together the broken shards of our friendship? The odds were that she’d ignore me—like she’d blocked me from her FB page—or repeat the words she’d written in response to my email: that she couldn’t accept being treated like a willful child. She had to step away. Only this time it would be forever. I knew from long conversations over coffee that she held grudges. I recalled the litany of friends, family members, and business associates who had injured her over the years. I had pitied her injuries but now I was one of the villains. I didn’t feel particularly villainous. Maybe none of her enemies did.
Maybe it was stupid even to try. Was there anything to be gained by the attempt?
A year ago, or two years ago, I would have said yes, absolutely—even if the chance was tiny, her friendship was worth the risk of pain and shame. But now I looked back on our relationship with a more dyspeptic eye. I had other friends. She could be pretty harsh, and even mean, at times.
But then again.Her caustic quality, her clarity, her willingness to state contrary opinions, had been refreshing. She could see through bullshit. I liked the way her mind challenged mine—understood me, made me think, opened me up to new ideas.
I wanted her back.
“Half a pound of bacon please,” I asked the butcher. “And three chicken breasts.”
Friends are necessary as food. But I did have other friends. I made a quick inventory. How many friends did you need? One was better than zero but a hundred wasn’t better than ninety nine. Was four better than three? Who could tell? Friendships are unlike marriages. You only have one husband and losing him is a big deal, especially with children to consider and the house and the joint retirement account. Nothing like that binds friends. Nothing except the mutual affection.
And there wasn’t much of that left from Julia, and some, but not much, from me.
I nodded to various people I knew by sight—a woman from the gym, a physics professor, a couple of former students. So many potential friends—if I needed more.
But you can’t throw people out like a shoe with a broken heel. Could I throw away dear Anna, who walked with me once a week and who was easy to confide in, who never judged and always had good advice and warmth? Could I throw away the brilliant Ranjit who argued and joked and pulsed with electricity and who had such a tender heart? How about my beloved colleague, Edward, who reasoned with me and changed my mind and let me change his and then teased me but always gently and never cruelly? Each of these people was dear to me, as dear as Julia had been. Could I toss them aside like a bagful of too-tight clothes? Could they toss me aside for some angry word or ill-considered joke? If friends are disposable and easily replaceable, then why not? I couldn’t bear that.
I took longer strides, glancing down each aisle to see if I could see her.
I found her in the check-out line chatting earnestly with a young clerk. No other tills were open and three carts separated me from her. Unable both to buy my groceries and catch her, I abandoned my basket and pushed through the line. “Sorry . . .”
She had hefted her canvas bags onto her hips and was heading for the door.
“Excuse me. Sorry. I have to get out,” I said, pushing past other customers.
I jogged to catch up and pulled in front of her, reaching her just as we stepped into the heavy July heat. I’d grabbed a peach from my basket, deep pinkish red with streaks of yellow, fragrant, just ripe enough that any but the most delicate touch would dent it. I held it out and mumbled, “Peace offering.”
Her look bruised me. “I don’t like peaches,” she said.
I attempted a laugh and tossed the fruit into a trash can. “OK. The peach is not the point. The point . . . Look I’m very sorry. Can you please forgive me? Our friendship was special.”
She thought about that for a while. I waited, thinking of all the hurtful ways she could respond.
After a longish pause, she said. “Yes.” Another pause. “It was.”
She swiveled and headed towards the blue-grey Prius with the Bernie sticker on the bumper.
I breathed hard, my pulse thundering. In my confusion, I thought of running after her and grabbing her arm. Inhale, I told myself. You’ll get arrested if you start tugging on her. And don’t call or email. That would be harassment.
I had thought I had a dilemma. Let her go or run after her. Watching the Bernie sticker back up and accelerate away, I realized that there was no decision to make. Not mine anyway.
I burped and tasted the sandwich again, this time with stomach acid, love mixed with vitriol and regret. Friendship was necessary as food, ephemeral as hunger.