Breaking Up: a Tale of Friendship

by Doug Wilson
Photo by Doug Wilson

I was done, done, done being there for her. Done playing her peculiar game, one she failed to grasp in its entirety although she set and enforced the rules.

Why do we even gravitate to what isn’t good for us? She was like an uneasy ally. We were two outsiders, she admittedly more than I, who happened to find the same cement bench in the shade after school. If she hadn’t talked to me, I might not have paid much attention to her. I sure wouldn’t have ended up in such a terrible position.

“Who are you waiting around for?” she asked that day, her vowels softened by a lazy lilt.

I immediately pegged her as south of the old Mason Dixon line or she was faking it. After a sideways look, I noticed she was the girl who had joined orchestra class the week before, head down, pretty flute gripped like a stick. I knew very few brass and woodwind players as I stuck with strings–I played cello.

“Nobody, only checking my phone for messages.” As if she couldn’t see that. But I gave her a semi-friendly smile.

“I’m waiting for my mother. She parks across the street, then acts like she’s just idling the time away. Like she’s not old enough for teenagers and actually doesn’t know me.” She let out a muffled cackle. “She looks away when I start toward the car.”

That should have been the first warning: this was one to avoid. Negative viewpoint. But I was sorry to hear her say it.

“Lynn.” She held out her hand.

I ignored it. I’m not that into hand shaking protocol with peers.

“Rona here. ”

I nodded at her and turned away a little so I could keep scrolling in private. The shade felt good but I considered moving to another spot, but it ws sixty-eight degress though it was only March. The main reason I sat there was because my ankle twisted during modern dance class. After four hours pretending it didn’t hurt, it was starting to throb. I was trying to get hold of Grant, my brother, which was like trying to catch a firefly. Not impossible but it took some effort. I had to anticipate where he was going to be in order to catch him in time.

“So, Rona, you play the cello, right? We both have orchestra.”

“Yes, and yes.”

“Good instrument. Classical flute music can be sort of drag; I prefer to jazz it up. And my arms hurt from sitting in class holding it up properly but at least I don’t have to build up callouses like you do. Do your fingers bleed, I mean get torn up so they really hurt?”

I swiveled around. She asked as if she thought it was cool. Was that even reasonable to ask when first meeting someone? But her small, greyish eyes were clear and her voice quiet; she seemed interested.

“Sometimes. Usually not. I practice a lot and avoid getting my hands wet to long so they stay hardened.”

Lynn was rising. “Impressive. Good for you. And there’s my mother, the new and valuable Craft Arts Museum Curator.”

I followed her finger and saw the white sports car, an old model, its cloth top down.

“Watch. She won’t look when I approach the car.” Lynn looked over her shoulder as she started off. “Nice to meet you, see you at our next thrilling symphony rehearsal.”

Symphony? I guessed she was referring to our high school orchestra, which happened to be one of the top five in the state the last eight years. She loped off, her long, somewhat knock-kneed legs carrying her to the car quickly. Lynn climbed into the passenger side without opening the door, and her mother, burgundy hair gleaming, took off too fast for a school zone as soon as Lynn got in.

Lynn was right; her mother hadn’t looked at her.

Grant returned my text. He would circle back to get me since I had hurt my ankle; he didn’t want me to suffer unnecessarily  nor did her want me to miss his football game in two days. He was the half-back and was very fast. As if he needed me there to cheer him on with legions of fans. But I was relieved he would pick me up. Mad that I would likely have to nurse the right ankle back to health for several days.

Bothered by Lynn’s conversation. And intrigued. Who was she?

It didn’t take long to find out. The following week after orchestra class–which met four times a week–our teacher, Mr. Lind, asked her to stay after to play for him so he could assign her to a temporary chair placement. I hoisted myself onto the deep window ledge outside the room as orchestra was my last class. A book report was due soon so I flipped through the novel I had to write a report for that night.

The flute’s first strains were weak and breathy and Lynn started over and had slightly more success. But I already had lost interest, re-reading a few pages of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, my report taking shape in my mind. I had become fascinated by Hesse, felt I had found an author that spoke to me better than many contemporary ones; I often liked older writers more, sometimes even obscure ones. Reading stirred up my mind, kept me company.

But the next measures of notes from Lynn’s flute interrupted me. What had seemed vapid took on rich feeling; what had sounded uncertain now filled the area with brazen confidence. I watched her play through a rectangular window on the door.

It was as if she was a different person than the one on the bench. Body leaned into the music, fingers flew over the instrument as if it was an extension of her hands. The notes were statements and invitations, drawing listeners to enjoy an array of surprises. I noticed a couple of students paused at their lockers to better hear her. Music in Lynn hands took on a life of its own and sailed away, taking her with it.

I waited a long time for her.

“Oh, Rona, you’re here, how nice!”

“I heard you playing. What chair?”

“Second for starters.” A small dimple became a crease as she sulked a  bit.

“Not surprising. Can’t just come in and displace everyone fast. This will be tough enough on them. Where did you come from?”

I meant: Where were you the other three years, who have you studied with, how come you’re so good?

“I was born in Louisiana but lived in Illinois the last five years. The duration of mother’s last marriage. We just moved here over a month ago.”

“I meant, how did you get so good?”

She shrugged. “I seem to have gotten the big musical gene from some obscure tendril on the family tree. Played piano as a preschooler. Then a few other instruments.” She said this as if bored, then detained me, grabbing my forearm. “You want to go to that nearby coffeehouse–what’s it called?”

“Drink.”

“Yes, to drink coffee. What’s it called?”

“Well, the owner named it ‘Wise Fool’s Drink’ but we just call it ‘Drink’. You know, let’s go to ‘Drink’. Silliness,” I laughed.

She rolled her eyes and we set off, me limping as little as possible so she wouldn’t ask me and then Id have to say I danced. I wanted to excel but didn’t, yet. She was so easy to talk with I had to hold myself back while she told her story. Lynn had read as many books as I had, certainly knew more about music and had lived in five places to my current one. And her mother had married three times, now was single and a successful textiles artist as well as curator.

“I’m the only kid but we don’t care for each other.”

I eyed her suspicously.”You’re just saying that. I mean, yes, parents are parents but you do love them in the end…unless she’s horrible to you.”

“I guess not all that abysmal. I don’t like her ideas or style or–well, she’s usually gone, anyway, so what’s the point. Feeling is mutual. I’m more like dad, husband number one. Don’t tell me you have the sort of family that’s cozy, full of hugs and well-meaning. I might have to exit your life right now.” She wrinkled her aristocratic nose.

“What’s the other thing?”

She blinked. “Oh. She’s too demanding. Overkill on my talent. I’m supposed to become famous since she failed to attain it. But is your family all that great? Every family has issues.”

I considered. My dad was a commercial real estate agent who did well; he worked odd, long hours, imbibed more than required. My mom was a legal secretary who wished she was a lawyer but never got around to it. Grant was too attractive to the girls, a good athlete so was my dad’s pride and joy. He overshadowed me. But I got kudos from them for top grades and playing cello well and knew they cared. But I tended to be a loner–it was easy to get lost in my head–though I liked people.

“Basically, they’re decent as family, yeah. Typical nuttiness. Stuff that we all have to deal with. But we definitely have each other’s back.”

I then was sorry for saying it but Lynn didn’t react. “Well, you’re smart, you know? And have a great attitude. Can I just ask to be your friend?”

I had already decided she was worth knowing, even though there was a wince deep down, confusion when I tried to figure out if this was good or not. But she even noticed my book.

Demian? Right, the schisms between the superficial world and the spiritual. Now that’s a problem worth addressing in our culture!”

I had only known one other person who had read the book and he thought it was rubbish. Hesse had made me feel less different and alone, among other writers. We talked an hour then left, walked to the corner and split up–me to home and Lynn to her mother’s museum.

It went on like that all spring. We met for coffee and scones or bagels with cream cheese and honey. We sometimes practiced music for concertos we were learning–her flute overtaking my cello (she was now first chair; I was just second chair). She came over for dinner often since her mother didn’t cook. Lynn made three things well so they ordered out most of the time. She appreciated my parent’s meals and there was always a place for her. We camped out for hours watching classic movies; reviewed books as if we were critics supreme; took good bike rides.

Grant found her irritating, “a mosquito, buzzing around, hungry all the time” but then amended it to being “alright, just not my type. As if I had brought her home for his approval!

“Grant is one of those regular guys everyone should marry at least once,” she said once and I lightly smacked her leg. “Hey!”

“He’s more than that. You just don’t know him.”

“How much more? Is he secretly a sparkling conversationalist? Can he dazzle girls with unbridled enthusiasm for their real talents? Does he have a deep secret that would shock me enough to get and hold my devoted attention? Are his abs just fab?”

“You’re mean, Lynn. Really…you can leave now.”

“I just meant–whatever, alright. See you.” She turned as she exited my room. “You’re not going to live your life like Hesse’s bourgeoisie, are you? No imagination!”

That was bigger than most of our conflicts. She was talking about my brother, who could be a jerk but who I defended without apology.

That night I was so sound asleep I didn’t hear the neighbor’s dogs barking at our new cat on the prowl. She called me twice before I woke up enough to answer.

“Rona, you have to believe me, I’d never be intentionally cruel to you and your family, please understand I was just talking, that’s all, just mouthing off as I can do without thinking!”

“Okay, sure.” I hung up.

On the way to school the next morning I told Grant she had called and dramatically apologized for something that made me mad. I didn’t say what. He had little sympathy.

“What do you expect? Don’t you see how she’s infiltrating our family after almost three months of dinners, weekend brunches and gabfests and last-minute sleep-overs? She’s a little too something, Lynn, and her mom isn’t even around. She’s got tentacles and you’re caught up already. Watch out, sister.”

But I also had spent time at her house and knew how things were, I protested. She needed me. Us. She was smart, had this musical gift and was in need of encouragement and kindness. He wished me luck.

I’d been at their condo a half-dozen times. Her mother was an offish but interesting woman, absorbed by work and her beautiful textiles which were displayed everywhere. Who looked a little theatrical for our neighborhood but it wasn’t a mark against her, to me. She entertained mostly male friends with drinks over long games of chess or take out meals we sometimes shared that were good. But the house was shadowy and spare, the temperature cool; she kept lights low, things arranged just so and had little interest in conversation with either of us. As Lynn had warned. She did keep strict tabs on her daughter’s flute practice and grades.

Time went by. I defended her when it ws appranet she had an annoying glibness and a sharpness that felt harsh despite the drawl that came and went. My two older, close friends come around less; Lynn resented their constant calls. I stuck it out even when my mother asked me where Annie and Elisa were. I felt necessary to Lynn despite feeling like less oxygen was reaching my brain after hours with her. I was captivated.

When school was out for the summer we hightailed it down to Harbor Park where we rented boats and swam and tanned. Ate ice cream and read. She didn’t like to share me, true, but she was shyer than I despite all her talk. Still new to the area.

Lynn was changeable, even volatile. But she was also honest and earnest, smart. We’d had a dozen little fights–a couple big ones–but we usually worked things out. She had such musical talent, but held back and refused to practice as much as expected. This infuriated her mother and frustrated Mr. Lind which gave Lynn great satisfaction. I found it odd but knew her issues with her mother went deep; the woman was way too busy for her, not even maternal enough to want indoor plants or a pet. I knew Lynn envied me my family. And that she had a grip on me–Grant had called it.

But I still didn’t see it coming. I had decided to talk to her on the lake one day about this friend situation, how I needed room to breathe and missed my old friends. It was balmy and blue-skyed and the lake was dotted with boats and happy people.

We floated about in an ancient rowboat. Lynn was playing her flute and I had lain back, arms tucked behind my head, feeling summer’s new heat reach in to my bones. I felt lazy, calm. The park was imbued with peace. Flute music rippled like a silvery wave across the water, melodies rode the breeze, then rested in bushes and trees.

It felt safe and good out there, green waves slapping the boat, that light all golden, music like a spell. It seemed the right time to talk.

“I wish you liked Elisa and Annie more. They’re wonderful people. I like to hang out with them. They’ve been my friends for years. But it seems at times like I have to choose between you or them and that’s just not right. I want to include them more–you’ll see how smart and funny they are.”

The music ceased. I kept my eyes closed; the boat’s rocking was too soothing, the day too beautiful.

“How dare you?” Her voice was pared way down but it was anything but soft. “I have given you all my trust. My time. Shared my life stories. My attention has been yours alone without fail.”

My eyelids flipped open. She was sitting up very straight; she held the expensive flute in her lap.

“Who else understands why you read Hesse and C.S. Lewis even if I don’t always agree they knew that much? Who else gets that you want to be a neurologist even though your mom wants you to be a software designer? Who else but Lynn was there when you almost fell face first into absurd love with Brad Stanislowski, that undeserving friend of your brother’s? Who brought you books and hand-blended mint tea when you had an awful cold?”

She put hands on hips, the left hand still grasping her flute, then stood up abruptly. The bow swayed in the lake and I sat up, held onto the sides. She spread her feet apart and started to rock the boat back and forth, back and forth.

“Stop it.”

She laughed. “Stop what? Upsetting your tidy little world?”

“Stop being ridiculous and mean again. You say too many things you can’t take back. You don’t think of the person who has to endure them.” I was letting it all out but couldn’t stop myself. “Until you see that you might lose something you want, then you’re sorry. You don’t get how to survive other ways, okay, I know. But this isn’t working for me, at all.”

The boat rocked harder and she sneered at me, narrow face reddening, mouth twisted. I hung on, ready to take the plunge into chilly water if she kept at it. I could swim. I wasn’t afraid, after all, of Lynn’s display of self-centeredness nor her attempt to control my feelings. Her frank jealousy. Anger rose up in my chest, then made me calm and steady, ready for a fight. I felt a hint of disgust for her and felt ashamed for it but no matter how much I wanted to care, I could not seem to care enough. My hope for her leaked away in seconds.

Lynn lifted up her shining flute in the honeyed glow of June and yelled, “Well, I’m sick of you and I’m more sick of music!”

As she threw her flute into the lake, my hand shot out in a vain attempt to catch it. We watched it sink with little more fanfare than if it was an ordinary rock. I felt an impulse to dive in but it passed. I was riveted by her act of misery, her outrage. Her failure to get what she felt was necessary was like a constant wound, so once more she had been impulsive. She seeemed forlorn and foolish.

Lynn looked at me with pleading, but her eyes were like two moons that had lost their light. I couldn’t see her well, anymore. Just her nightmarish demands on me. I suddenly couldn’t be the one to try to make things all right.

I stood up and jumped into the water but not to get her flute–that was up to her–and swam back to shore. When I reached it I had goose-flesh so ran the four blocks home.

My mom and dad were still on errands, to my relief, but Grant was snacking from a giant bag of popcorn in the family room, watching car racing on television.

“Hey, what’s up, Rona?”

I stopped, dampening the carpet, smudges of lake muck on legs and arms.

“I just broke things off with Lynn. You were right.”

“Man, glad to hear it. Sorry, but…say, you’re all wet–are you okay?”

“Yeah. Leave me some popcorn. I’m going to change.”

I called to see if Lynn was alright the next day–it had felt like a nervous breakdown was eminent–but when she heard my voice she just said in a deep drawl like she was on a stage, “I really cannot abide C.S. Lewis or you!” And hung up.

I didn’t see her around. Annie said she’d heard Lynn and her mother moved to the hills, away from town. I thought I’d feel terrible enough to cry. But the loss was overcome by relief. I did worry she would be messed up by that day. And never get a grip on her own negligence, that hard streak and where it all came from. That overload of hurt that struck out at others. That did scare me and I did cry a little. How awful for her to be trapped by it. Had she pondered what Hesse and C.S. Lewis were saying about embracing the spiritual life, being grounded in truth? Being brave and passionate enough to be a real seeker? About the importance of embracing one’s soul? Or would all her life be one huge, trying drama?

I saw the flute fall and vanish and wished I might have caught it, if not for her, for the sake of music. She was given such a gift.

It’s over, anyway, and summer is upon us. We each have to figure it out for ourselves. I had hoped to be a good friend. I don’t know if I was, in the end, so pray she finds what matters to her most. Then learns to love it (or someone) well. That’s what I have to do, even if it won’t be an easy road. But that’s just me. Someone living around the edges, looking for the good and true.

 

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