Norah was excited to go to Amy’s birthday dinner at their favorite haunt, The Bull, a tapas restaurant and bar that Norah and her friends used as home base. It had been a stressful day and Amy was fun to be around. She had no filter and one was likely to hear something about someone’s penis or stories about driving with no pants after a sordid Mardi Gras celebration when in Amy’s presence. Norah always got dressed up for Amy’s dinners. She knew Amy would be too. She donned her dressiest earrings and bracelet, a white brocade skirt with a black lace top and her highest heels and drove the three blocks to The Bull. She arrived just as Amy and her guests were moving from the bar to a table. Norah chose a prime spot, with the whole room in view.
Carol arrived wearing a strapless, floor length, summer dress, her amble breast accentuated. Her hair was pinned back and she had make-up on, somewhat unusual for Carol. She said hello to everyone and sat across from Norah. The mood of the table was jovial. “I’m going to spend a lot of money,” Norah said. Amy laughed out loud and they decided to split the duck. Carol wasn’t laughing much. She was talking about a new detox diet that she was on. It was giving her clarity, she said. Everything was improving. Her posture, her emotions and even her hearing and sight were heightened. “That’s great,” Norah said. She was happy for her. But she’s heard things like that from Carol for four years now.
Carol had a pattern. Maybe it was a book or a Ted Talk, sometimes it was a diet or a meditation schedule. Once it was cross fit, then it was running, then swimming. Carol tended to cyclically latch onto something and claim new insight. About every three months or so Carol would proclaim a new break through. Norah would listen to her say she was working better, or eating better or letting go of anger or being more energetic or even being more attractive to men because now she was “ready,” and Norah would congratulate her and wait for the next fix, a new book, a new friend or diet.
Norah and Carol were like soldiers who bonded on the battlefield. And the war was over and the bond was cracking under normalcy. Carol seemed chronically angry to Norah and it was beginning to wear on her desire to be around her best friend.
It was little things here and there. Aggressive quips Carol seemed to reserve for times when they were in front of others, or Norah was meeting a man for the first time. It happened again at dinner. The party of women were observing a local playboy as he moved from the bar to a table with a surprisingly age-appropriate woman, who was dressed peculiarly. She had a high-collared blouse with ruffles in front, a black vest and black skirt. She looked like she had just come from working at a bank. But somehow, she was pulling it off in an Audrey Hepburn-like style.
Of course the small group of women were analyzing the pair in whispers and nudges. One of Amy’s friends, Sarah told a story about someone she knew who had been on a date with said playboy. Allegedly when they got back to his or her place, he “requested anal.” Everyone laughed at this revelation. Except Carol. I said loudly, “Requested?!” Carol looked at me sharply and said, “You want to keep it down. He’s right behind us.” I looked at her and said in a whisper, “I just said the word, ‘requested.’ I don’t think he’s going to know I’m talking about his alleged sexual proclivities from hearing the word, ‘requested.'”
Norah tried to let it slide, but inside she was annoyed. She watched Carol throughout the dinner. Reserved. Quiet. Judging. Why wasn’t she having any fun? She doesn’t have fun anymore.
A week later Carol and Norah had lunch. Carol said she wasn’t feeling well. She was having stomach problems. Norah thought she still looked sad. The light was gone from her face. Norah’s mind was filled with the kind of ridiculous gossip she and Carol used to relish. The previous night she had engaged in an exchange with the latest in a long, tragic line of crushes. Norah had ended it triumphantly with a Jane Austen quote. “I’m sure that the feelings which, as you’ve told me have hindered your regard, will help you in overcoming it.” It was perfect. She had never had such a fantastic line to end a conversation. It was the kind of story she used to tell Carol over coffee or Sunday breakfast or wine and make her laugh. They would analyze and joke and make fun of themselves.
Norah looked across the table at a stranger. They made small talk and Carol drove Norah back to work.
The following afternoon Carol texted Norah and Amy. She was feeling much better, like herself again. She wanted to celebrate. She invited them out for drinks. Amy couldn’t make it but Norah was hoping to stay up late to drive to the country after midnight and see a meteor shower that was supposed to be prolific. Carol’s friend was playing at a joint downtown. They would meet there.
Norah got there just in time to catch the before-8pm, free admission. She walked in to find the place packed with some of the alpha-cool girls of the downtown-scene-clique. Carol was sitting at the bar, facing the stage, talking to someone. Norah said hi and ordered a beer. Work had been busy and stressful and she had spent the past 9 hours in front of a computer, so Norah excused herself to go sit outside for a while. She sat in a corner on the patio, put her feet up, nursed her beer and took in the fresh air and listened as a group of foreigners tried to order something without garlic in it.
When she returned she sat on a bar stool next to Carol and enjoyed the live music. In between sets, they talked and Norah even had Carol laughing as they imitated some observed gesture of one of the alpha girls. She tried to keep the levity going by telling Carol about her latest phone call with her old fling, Mohammed. He was in California now, but they still talked often and compared dating notes.
“He went on a date with a Persian,” Norah told Carol, “but she started talking about marriage and children on the first date so he decided not to see her again.” Norah had thought the Persian girl had been a bit foolish. “What woman doesn’t know not to bring up marriage and children on a first date?”
Instead of a jovial, “I know, right?” Carol came back with a counter argument. “I think you should put everything on the table on a first date…..” This began an exchange of opposing opinions. Norah thought it was better to get to know someone slowly, finding out their worst flaws or deepest held expectations when they can be placed in the context of all that is good and appealing about a person. Carol thought it was better to get everything out in the open immediately. No wasting time.
Then something weird happened. Just as Norah was saying something like, “I don’t know…….I like the process of finding out about a person. That’s part of the fun,” Carol turned towards her, her voiced raised and gruff, like a mother explaining the rules to a child for the 100th time, “Listen to me one more time! What I’m saying is…… Do you understand?!”
“Um, ok, I suppose so,” Norah said. She was taken aback. How did a friendly invitation to celebrate her happy mood turn into Carol fussing at Norah, insisting that she was right and that Norah acknowledge that fact? Norah felt a sad queasiness in her stomach. She might have gotten up and left except that an acquaintance was standing close to them and Norah wanted to tell her something.
Mary was much younger than Norah and Carol but she presented herself in this sort of, natural, hippy way that aged her. She was greying in what must have been her late 20s. She wore nerdy glasses, did not groom her eyebrows and never wore make up. Of course, Norah did not object to those choices but it just wasn’t Norah’s style. But on that night, Mary looked radiant. Norah had been watching her. She had a beautiful smile that lit up her face. She was wearing a strapless black dress that flattered her figure. She just looked lovely and Norah wanted to tell her so.
Just after Carol’s unexpected admonition, Norah tapped Mary on the arm and said, “Come see. I want to tell you something. You look especially beautiful tonight. You’re glowing.” When Mary demurred and gave no explanation Norah suggested, “Maybe you’re just happy.”
“No, not really, actually,” Mary said and the three women let out a laugh. Mary expounded a bit without giving details. Even in that exchange with Mary, Norah and Carol, Norah could sense that Carol needed to be more……authoritative, in the exchange. It seemed like Carol needed to assert herself as the wise woman.
Mary hinted at some doubt about her current relationship. “In my 40+ years of experience, what I’ve learned is….” Norah told her, “Trust your gut. Do what it says. Your heart and your mind can catch up later. Listen to your instincts.” Even Carol had to agree with that.
Carol decided to leave and Norah stayed with a book in the corner, on the patio, waiting for Perseus to rise. As she said a polite goodbye to Carol, she wondered if they had reached a turning point. They were once so close. Inseparable. Holding each other up through the worst parts of their lives. Norah wasn’t sure she knew who Carol was anymore. Perhaps she never had. But she did know that she wasn’t going to voluntarily be around someone so aggressive and unhappy.
Maybe this is the beginning of the end, Norah thought as she opened her book. But who will I tell my stories do?
That night, in a field at a co-workers house in the country, Norah caught a glimpse of a shooting star in the corner of her eye. She stared in the same direction for almost an hour, but didn’t see another. As she stared into the night all she thought about was the Mr. Darcy who inspired her Austen quote. It had not been the end for Austen’s Lizzy, but sadly, Norah knew there would be no wedding at Pemberley. Just another small tear on her heart muscle, waiting to scar over……… waiting for the next love to come around.