Friday, June 24, 2011

Competing Conversations
original drafts 1999-2011

The window was splattered with mud; a thick, dusty, caked-on mixture of grime from the city streets and salt, signifying late winter.  Gwen stared at the glass anyway, alternately seeking patterns in the filth, the next moment looking through the dirt at the row houses as the bus rolled by them, and finally sometimes seeing nothing at all, not even the man sitting in the seat two inches in front of her, much less the splatter pattern or the street scape.  It will be O.K., she repeated silently, in her head.  Just a brief visit over a cup of coffee.  Nothing more.

I didn’t think you’d want to talk to me, suggested Sam.

Hearing was another matter.  There were sounds, but not the whining little child the woman up ahead was trying in vain to quiet, or the chatter of a couple of school girls, on their way to shopping at the mall. What she heard was in her head, and it was echoed by the drone of the bus engine and the din of the many passenger conversations.

I thought you hated me, accused Sam.

Gwen shook off the daze, tried to think of something else.  But her mind forced her back to Samantha, sullen Sam the little girl, silly Sam the teenager, stuck-up Sam the young woman, and then the S-words stopped.  Unless, she thought, she kept the alliteration but forgot about euphemisms and finished the sentence with Sam the souse.

You can’t save her, warned Father.

In her mind’s eye she saw the first day she’d become aware of Samantha.  Third grade.  Age eight.  The teacher, in one of those flashes of teacher ignorance, or maybe it was simply that in those days there were no blended families, no stepparents, no half-brothers, no life partners, or at least no acknowledgment of such politically correct modern creations, said, “go around the room and say what your father does for a living.”  They had been playing that game a lot in class; it was an exercise in math, one the teacher used to illustrate sets in probability theory.  Except that on the bus that day Gwen remembered in third grade it wasn’t called theory, or even probability.

It’s your cross to bear, observed Mother.

So the students would go around the room and say how many rooms there were in their houses, or how many pets they had, or the names of the towns where they were born.  That day most of the dads worked at IBM or were self-employed in some type of small business, Gwen being part of the latter group.  When they got to Sam, there was a pause, and then she blurted out, “I don’t have one.”

Nothing, said the teacher.

Thirty little heads turned to stare.  That day is probably not even a dim memory for most of her classmates now, but Gwen remembered.  She glanced at her watch, then recalled the batteries were dead and so her wrist was bare.  She rubbed the spot where it should be.  Wondered how different Sam looked now, after not seeing her for a few years.

They won’t let me eat until after they finish, confided Sam.

Probably still young, even after her years of hard living.  Gwen thought about the hours Sam spent fussing over her appearance in high school, ironing even her jeans, curling her hair.  Even when she only had two outfits to wear, in the days before she ran away from home and came to Gwen’s house.  Changing Gwen’s life forever.

Don’t make me go back, begged Sam.

It wasn’t until then that Gwen realized they really had nothing in common, and that Sam’s family situation and its results were more complicated than she could understand.  But how could Gwen hope to address that without seeming like an unfeeling bitch?  There was no easy way.

You’re a bad influence, screamed Sam’s sister.

They missed the bus nearly every day, Gwen because she slept until ten minutes before its arrival, Sam because of the hours she passed in front of the bathroom mirror.  But those were the good times, Gwen now realized.  Sam’s future was bright at that point, and her wonderful, irreverent sense of humor carried Gwen many times through what might otherwise have been a dull high school experience.

You’re so boring, sneered Sam.

What went wrong, Gwen wondered, but in her heart she knew the answer.  Years of bad living can’t be erased so easily.  There are reasons for trite cliches.  Apples really don’t fall far from trees.

It wasn’t my fault, Gwen told herself.

She remembered that awful episode, the night she cut Sam out of her life.  The night Sam demanded she choose between her friends. Why did she force the issue? How could she not know the choice Gwen would make?

If you were my friend you’d stay with me, pleaded Sam.

She remembered Sam drunk, crying, locked in the bathroom, screaming that Gwen should either stay and mind her own business or if she left, then they’d never been friends at all.  Remembered that she promised herself it was the last time she’d be there.  Remembered the feeling of freedom she felt as she ran down the stairs, away from Sam at last.

I’ve been sober for five months, announced Sam.

After seven years, Gwen knew it should have been a welcome phone call, but she had learned that alcoholism wasn’t Sam’s only problem. There was food.  And men.  She demanded constant assurances that she was pretty, smart, loyal, hard-working, loved.  Without the bottle to hide behind, Samantha would have to confront her problems.  She’d have to learn to cope.  She’d need support.  Lots of it.  Gwen knew relapses were common.  And it had been so many years since Gwen had been involved.  Too many years.  She recognized the splatter pattern on the window.  It was storm clouds starting to fill the sky.

We’re not in high school any more, whispered Gwen.

No comments: