If you skipped dinner, you could use your meal card later that night and buy chocolate chip cookies. The big kind. You could get six.
A few times each semester, my pal Barb and I chose this nutritional option. We always felt skinny the next day, oddly.
“I can’t believe we did that,” she’d say from her dormitory phone.
“But I feel like a twig, do you?” I’d reply, twiggy already.
“I do!” Barb had legs like bamboo skewers.
We’d crack up, the way you do in college. We have been friends for the 26 years since graduating from Brown, sending birthday cards that tout our youth, catching up through the phone wires and in person, even, despite the miles. We did the news together on campus radio, sitting side by side at a desk. Rip and read, and now the weather. Once, something was funny and I couldn’t contain myself. Laughing came easily to us, though it was not desirable on air. I slid my half of the copy in front of Barb before she caught the wave, and escaped to the fire escape. It is cold in Providence in February, three flights up a steel ladder.
Early in our professional careers, we found ourselves at tiny television stations in Mississippi and Vermont, reporting the goings-on from shrimp boats and cow fields. Barb had to be her own photographer, too, setting up the camera, hitting the button and walking into the frame to speak. She slipped on the Burlington ice and wound up in a cast and crutches. Still, she had to haul the tri-pod and walk into the shot.
Barb never picked a boy to marry. I picked one, who turned out not to last. The other night, Saturday night, I put on my pajamas at 6:36 in Dallas, Texas. It was early, I knew, but it was the legitimate end of the day. The girls were with their father. I stay home when they go.
“If you’re home, call me,” read the email. “I’m not doing anything.” How could she not be doing anything? She is on 69th Street. If I did not have to live in Texas and were home in New York, I’d be doing a lot. Such a lot.
Anyway, we hit all the subjects. The guy, also from college, who she likes, loves, who just can’t muster an every day thing, though he likes, loves, her, too. Her Dad, who is 84 and ill, and mad about it. Her Mom, who does not tell Barb everything, Barb thinks, or know everything, because maybe she doesn’t want to.
“I’m afraid about the end,” she says.
“The end is bad,” I tell her. “Do you want to hear my end?”
One day, the oxygen tank sits in the corner, just in case. Then, maybe, it comes out at night. A short time after, it is pulled to the top of the stairs. At some point, and without acknowledgment, a longer tube gets attached to the nozzle, one that stretches to all corners of the house. Ultimately, the blood is dark when sugar levels are tested in the blue bathroom. A request is made to go to the city, the hospital. Morphine swirls to the ceiling above the bed, taking with it a life.
Barb wanted to hear. “Your dad was too young,” she says.
Then, she switched the topic. We talked about her dining chairs. She found them online, but was told by a midwestern salesperson that someone was testing them out. If the person rejected the chairs, they would be Barb’s. Turns out, crazily, that the tester was also a former classmate of ours. She and Barb were acquaintances, nothing deep. But after two and a half decades, when you both want the same mid-century modern seating in your grown-up apartments, you call.
“I left her a message thanking her for sending them back, but I never heard from her.”
We weren’t big fans of the coincidental chair shopper, thinking she was sort of snooty, at 18. So, Barb thought the lack of response made sense. Then, I told her that I heard she had breast cancer. Maybe the message was left at a bad time. Maybe she didn’t have whatever it would take to make the call back. Maybe she couldn’t tell the story again. Or, perhaps she counted time, and there were other people to phone instead.
I wonder what our classmate chose instead, for her dining table, if she chose, even, or if she used old chairs, or brought in desk chairs from her kids’ rooms or folding chairs from the back closet. Who were her guests, then, anyway. They would sit on the floor, to be sure.
I would think that Barb’s table has a different feel to it now, after our telephone call. It is almost too prosaic. Walk in my shoes. Sit in my seat. They are swank and sophisticated, no doubt, and entirely perfect for the gathering of friends or for just the eye. Clean lines. Simple. Now imbued with misfortune, question, and hope for the girl who passed us on the campus Green, well-appointed and maybe just shy.
“We are all the same in the end,” says Barb. Trite, but true, really. She used to think her ‘boyfriend’ was untouchable back then, before she knew him. And illness, the instant equalizer.
We said good night. It was a rich way to spend it. I walked into the kitchen and opened the pantry cabinet, finding the box of chocolate chip cookies. I took out two. They were the small kind, but they tasted extraordinary.