This afternoon, the letter from Maryann had come. Helen had never received one like it---a brief, formal message: "Don't write me anymore. I never want to hear from you again."
Why? Maryann had never been easy to understand. Even though Helen had known her since junior high, she'd never quite been able to figure out Maryann's moods. Or her reasons for them. But this letter appeared like a red flag. Maryann might be saying "don't call," but perhaps she meant just the opposite.
Time and again Helen had fought with herself about her addiction to the friendship her husband, George, called "sick, demented, and altogether foolish." The first time George and Maryann met, they'd faced off over some political issue like fighting roosters--Helen couldn't remember now exactly what it had been, but she did remember the embarrassment she felt being caught in the middle and the strange looks they'd gotten from other guests at the wedding. She'd watched them then, amazed at the instant dislike they had for each other, and made a mental note to keep them as far apart as possible. Through the years there'd been occasions when she'd slacked off and they'd gotten into their battling stances again. Whenever it happened, Helen stepped between them. Always trying to keep peace.
Moving to Vermont had been hard, but necessary, George said. Helen needed to get away from the city. The stress was too much, he said, but Helen knew it was just that he wanted her away from Maryann. She did what he asked--as always--made the move, just as everyone knew she would.
If he'd been here now, he'd be shaking his head and muttering, "Why don't you call it off? Tell the bitch to take a flying leap." But he wasn't here. He had fallen off a ladder while trying to shore up some weak beams above the hay loft a couple of weeks ago, and the doctor at the St. Albans hospital had put him immediately into traction. A wise move. George would never voluntarily stay off his feet.
Helen needed to know what was behind Maryann's cryptic message. She didn't like secrets. This was the first time Maryann had typed a letter. Usually, she rambled on and on for pages in her roundish writing. Sometimes she sneaked in a phone call from the office. But she'd never been a taciturn person. For her to write only two sentences in over a year told Helen this problem--whatever it was--was a big one. One that called for attention. Now. She sighed, partly with relief that her husband wasn't here now to put his two cents worth in. She could make the call to Maryann without hearing his reasons why she shouldn't.
Outside the cows bellowed, the air thick with their smell, their urgency. Helen bellowed back to them, "Goddamn it, shut up! Go away! Bother someone else for a change!"
Switching on the radio, she found Burlington's classical station, then glanced at the clock. Four-thirty, finally. She'd been waiting two long hours for the time when Maryann would be getting home from work. She wiped her chapped red hands on a dishtowel and reached for the phone, angry that she was shaking. She cursed herself for feeling intimidated, a feeling which had persisted throughout all the years of their friendship. And with George and her own mother. Sometimes she thought about going to a shrink to untangle it all, but that would only be admitting her own weaknesses, and she wasn't strong enough for that.
Lying on the table, the letter reflected the late afternoon sun. The letter's hostility somehow reflected everything else that had gone wrong in the past month--everything she had wanted to talk about with Maryann. George's accident. Having to take care of the whole farm alone. The lack of money, food, support. She wanted someone to lean on. Her days started long before dawn and ended when she crawled into bed before the late night news. One of George's sisters had actually commented after visiting the farm that she'd never seen a farmer work. "What is it you folks do, anyway?" George had answered with a smug smile. "Wanna see?" After two days of traipsing behind her brother while he did his chores, she went home knowing exactly how much back-breaking labor was involved in keeping the farm up and running. Especially the type of farm George and Helen had--where everything was done by hand. No milking machines on the Lavesque farm. Helen's back spasmed. She pressed against the pain as she wished for one of the tall stainless steel machines everyone else had.
As Maryann's phone rang and rang, Helen stared out the bedroom window into the meadow below the house. Half had been hayed. The other half swayed as if looking for the missing grass, the half that had already been taken. She leaned against the sill for support. Her back ached as if she were eighty instead of thirty-six. Her face felt bloated and sagging. The dirt under her nails and lining the little folds around her knuckles made her hands look like she hadn't washed them in a week. She thought about washing her hands in the little bathroom to her right; she could see the painting supplies she stored in there, but the telephone cord wouldn't reach.
What could she have done to make Maryann end their friendship? And why was it Maryann always managed to intuitively know when Helen was least able to defend herself?
Just as she was about to hang up, Maryann answered, out of breath and obviously irritated.
"Maryann? Just got your letter." Helen gripped the edges of the typewritten paper, wrinkling them, then smoothed them out. "I don't understand . . ."
"I knew you'd call even though I told you not to." Maryann's voice had a high-pitched edge to it. Helen could hear her wheeze a bit, then a thud, as if Maryann had just dropped her briefcase to the kitchen table. Helen imagined Maryann in her white-polished kitchen, standing in stocking feet, ("No shoes in my house"), still dressed in her tweed jacket and skirt, studying her chestnut-colored hair in the Chippendale mirror which hung above the phone. Never a dish in the sink or a dirty towel draped over the bathtub. Never a dirt-streaked window or a chair which needed to be dusted off before you sat down. For years, Helen felt obliged to clean her own house from top to bottom after every visit to Maryann's.
"Mare? What did you mean when you said--"
"Oh, God, can't you do anything right? I said don't call me. You do anyway. I suppose you want an explanation now. You're as dense as those goddamn cows of yours. Let a whole year go by before you notice I've been ignoring you. Couldn't you see I had a problem at Peg's wedding? No, of course not, you were too busy gabbing about yourself."
The torrent of words filled the silence between them. Perhaps a little too completely. Had it really been a year since they'd talked? Helen ran back through the months and remembered calling Maryann, leaving a couple of messages on her friend's answering machine. Why hadn't she called back?
"What problem? You never said anything about--" Helen took a step backward and thrust her hand through her short, coarse hair. All she remembered of Maryann's daughter's wedding was that Maryann had gotten a little drunk and had once again challenged George about his choice for President. And, as usual, Helen had nipped the discussion before it got out of hand. Nothing abnormal about that. Maryann had always been the angry one, always starting arguments, always the stronger one, the motivator.
"You never took the time to ask, that's why." Maryann's voice dropped to a condescending tone, the voice a mother uses when reprimanding a child. "Listen, I really don't think I want your friendship anymore. What good is a friend if they don't understand?"
"Understand what?" Sitting down on the bed where she'd slept alone for the past month, Helen twisted the telephone cord around her fist. Her eye caught the paintbrushes filling a Flintstones jelly glass on top of the bathroom sink and the stack of unfinished canvases on the floor, leaning like the tower of Pisa. Why was it that no matter what color paint she used, the water in the glass always turned the same color? Maybe it was a sign of her own lack of artistry. Her failings mirrored--or obliterated--by the paintbrushes' dirty water.
"Listen, don't go off the deep end, Mare," she said as her mind wildly searched for something stronger to say, but she decided to let it pass. She was good at that, proud of herself for not allowing her anger to boil over. Her anger simmered. Maryann was the volcano.
"Me? Off the deep end?" Maryann snorted. "Bullshit! You're the one who's never been able to control herself. I have to be the caretaker. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Cool your jets a minute," Helen said as she waved away the cat now trying to drink the paintbrush water. "You know what getting upset will do to your stomach. Let's just talk this out, okay? First of all, you know if you'd told me you had a problem, I'd have listened. Haven't I always?"
But Maryann wasn't listening. She hadn't stopped raving. "If you took the time to look at me, maybe you would've known. If you were around, you would've seen the change. The twenty extra pounds, the black circles under my eyes--I couldn't even wear the dress Peg picked out for me. Jesus, you know how I feel about my body! Those fifteen years of dance classes weren't just for fun. But, then again, why would you notice? You were so into rambling on about the bee-yoo-ti-ful state of Vermont, your mah-velous life, all your wonderful new friends, your art. . . Gag me." Maryann stopped for a moment and loudly blew her nose, as if she wanted Helen to know she was crying. "Well, you've never been there for me before, why should I expect you to be there for me now? I've always been the supportive one in this relationship. It's always been 'listen to me, Maryann. Listen to my problems.' I'm sick of listening."
Swallowing hard, Helen stared out the window. Scenes from the past twenty years whirled through her mind. Maryann delivering her illegitimate son, Adam--after twenty-two hours of labor with Helen as her coach. Two years of driving Maryann back and forth to therapy after her first marriage crumbled. How many times had Maryann called in the wee morning hours, threatening suicide? Then, the abortion. It had killed Helen to wait in the antiseptic white room where woman after woman left to walk down a narrow corridor and returned without their unborn children, children Helen could never have. But Maryann had wanted her to be there, to hold her hand as she had so many times in the past, so Helen was. That's what being a friend meant, wasn't it?
It wasn't that she wanted any credit for being a friend, but there'd been so many times she'd forgiven and forgotten Maryann's utter selfishness, how she used people, then discarded them. Maryann had made it clear the only reason she became friends with Judy Powers was to get a job at Digital. And what about that Kelly woman, the one Maryann had befriended in order to get invited into the Junior League? No one else would put up with a friend like Maryann. Helen wished she knew why she, herself, continued to be drawn into the relationship, but she had no answers. Maybe it was because Maryann had always barged through life as Helen wanted to yet couldn't. Maryann wasn't afraid to cruise to the Caribbean alone, returning with great stories about being invited to dinner at the captain's table, of snorkeling off a reef in St. Kitts, of meeting a Rastafarian in Jamaica, sharing a joint with him after the bus they'd been on had broken down. Maryann knew how to live. She gave her emotions free rein. Helen had to control herself. Constantly. She envied Maryann's freedom and lived vicariously through her.
Yes, that was it. She needed to live through Maryann. That's what had always tied them together. At one point, she'd thought that Maryann truly needed her, too. It had made her feel better. But only for a brief moment.
"You know that when I get nervous, I talk too much," Helen said. "I guess it's because I don't see you that often and I want . . . I want to tell you everything, you know? Besides, I just thought you might like to hear about something good for a change. If you didn't want to listen, you should've just told me to shut up." She remembered sitting at the table with Maryann while Peg and her new husband danced to their wedding song, "Always and Forever." Helen had been telling Maryann about the gift shop in Stowe that had been selling her paintings. "You'd love it, Maryann. I'll take you there when you get a chance to come up and visit." But Maryann's lacquered fingernails had drummed against the wineglass she held and her gaze was fixed on something across the room. She hadn't been listening, but Helen understood. Maryann's only daughter was married, leaving her with an empty feeling.
"It's pretty hard to tell you to shut up once you get started." Maryann's voice brought Helen back to the present. "You never listen anyway. You're always off the wall, like that time I really needed help with the Algebra test Prentice gave us. You knew I was flunking, but you put your hands over the paper like you didn't want me to see them. Why'd you do that? You didn't get any better grades than me. I don't know why I ever expected you, of all people, to understand now . . ."
Helen rubbed her temples. "Well, give me a chance. Tell me what's wrong."
"You're what's wrong."
"You told everyone at the reunion you're an artist. That's bullshit. You're a goddamn farmer's wife. You're up to your knees in bullshit--oh, excuse me: cowshit. Or is it patties? Is that what you call them? Patties?"
"I am an artist." Helen's voice shook, the doubt creeping in. "I sold two covers to Yankee last year, some shops have already ordered my T-shirts . . . " Her gaze rested on the tilted pile of canvases in the corner of the bathroom. Physical evidence of her work. She looked at the newest painting, still on the easel next to the window. She knew enough about art to know this room got the best light, so this was where she painted. In spite of George's objections that he felt cramped in his own bedroom, that there was always something on the floor for him to trip over, that he needed to move her canvases just to go to the bathroom, she'd held her ground. The bedroom was her studio. Her art studio. She sat up straighter, rubbing her moist palm against her thigh. "I'm proud of my art. You know how hard I've worked for it. You know, it's what we've always talked about . . . dreams. You had dreams too, Mare, just like me. Why can't you be happy for me? Besides, would you tell people you're just a mother and wife when you have a career as a computer programmer? C'mon, Maryann, tell the truth."
"Telling classmates at a reunion what you do is one thing; bragging is another. Anyway, that's not the point. You're not being honest with yourself."
God, what the hell was going on here? She couldn't be angry just because Helen had bragged a little. Didn't she have the right? And were they going to lose a friendship because she made one stupid mistake? What about what Maryann had done to her? Did Helen ever bring it up again?
Helen clenched her fists. "You know sometimes you might not understand me and sometimes I might not understand you, but friends are supposed to accept each other . . . faults and all. Right?"
"Not when one of us hurts the other."
"But, I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't even know I hurt you. Honest."
For a few long seconds, she let the silence build, unable to find any words to say, not wanting Maryann to know she was choking back angry tears. Finally, she pushed past the lump in her throat. "I don't know what you expect from me anymore."
Maryann took a deep breath and let it out shakily. "I lost the promotion to a woman who's only twenty-one."
Helen shook her head, confused. "What promotion?"
"To department vice president, remember I told you? God, don't tell me you've forgotten that, too. Shit. Five years of sixty-hour weeks and I get passed over for a younger woman just in off the street. A younger woman with the Master's degree I should have had ten years ago. But it's too late now."
"Oh." So that was it. The mystery of Maryann's anger dissolved. Helen relaxed against the pillows and stretched her legs out. "Is that why you've gained weight?"
Maryann sobbed now. "I'll never get any further. This isn't where I'm supposed to be at thirty-seven. It's supposed to be better than this. The job sucks. And I'm fat and divorced and Adam's going to college next fall and you're up in the middle of nowhere in Vermont totally oblivious to everything . . ."
Helen wanted to ignore the last comment. She'd been surprised at her own reaction to life on the farm. There had been a time that she, too, thought Vermont was the middle of nowhere. But the solitude of her farm in Greensboro had proved pleasant---a break from the stifling closeness Maryann and she had shared--though Helen would never have admitted that to anyone. Especially George. And Maryann. Helen shifted against the pillows, realizing this was the first time she'd admitted it to herself. The epiphany made her feel stronger, less anxious, back in control. Good.
"I'm sorry about your promotion," she told Maryann, "but there'll be others. Look on the bright side. Could have been a younger man, y'know. You've got to get some satisfaction out of that. You'll get another job. There'll be other promotions."
The cows' lowing finally grew loud enough to drown out Maryann's answer. Helen raised her voice to compete with them, automatically lifting herself off the chair bed and going to the window so the herd could see her. Maybe they'd calm down, give her a few more minutes. They quieted just enough for her to hear Maryann say, "No, that's it for me. My chances are gone. And how dare you come down to the wedding and not notice that I . . . that I . .."
The not-so-silent sobs went on far too long to be pitiable. Finally, Maryann composed herself long enough to ask, "When will you be coming down again?"
"Probably not for a long time." Here was Maryann's chance to ask Helen why and Helen's chance to give Maryann back some of the hurt she'd been dishing out for years.
"You have to come down! You can't stay up there and let me handle all this alone! It's not fair."
"You're capable of handling it by yourself. You're strong." Other people had lives too. Helen switched the phone to her other ear, suddenly tired of listening to a woman who'd taken up too much of her time and energy for too many years, and had never taken the time to apologize. "Maybe you need a therapist," she added, as an afterthought.
"You think I'm crazy?"
"No, maybe you just need somebody to talk to."
The barn door rattled with the force of ten full-grown cows pushing against it. Helen waved madly at the herd as if they were a group of disobedient children who would understand she was on the phone and couldn't be interrupted.
"I knew you'd react like this! I knew you wouldn't understand." Maryann screamed.
The phone clunked and the dial tone returned. Helen sat back on the bed for a moment, shaking her head. She wanted to grieve, to wail and bang her fists against the wall. She wanted to punch a hole through the door like George had once. But she couldn't. All the anger and pain she felt bottled up inside just churned and gurgled like a stew left too long on the stove. Though in her heart she knew the friendship was over, her rational side told her the argument never would be. It would echo in her mind for many years to come. She'd think about what had happened, play the scene over and over again, listen to the conversation and invent new versions of it. She swore at herself, more angry about her own lack of nerve than about Maryann's accusations.
The rhythmical thumping stopped, as if the cows sensed the end of her conversation, then, just as abruptly, they started again. They had come to the end of their patience.
The door snapped and Helen heard the sound of splintered wood.
"Shit!" she muttered as she flew out of the bedroom, through the back door, and jumped the porch stairs to get to the barn. Unable to reach the door, she pushed the cows aside, holding apart their thick, bony rumps so she could get between. Leaning against them, she slid open the broken barn door. Massive heads swung like tree trunks. Flies swarmed around them.
"Goddamn dirty animals! Jesus, you can't wait two seconds before you start pushing and shoving. Give me a break. Let me have a few minutes for myself. Do I always have to take care of someone else?" She pushed Daisy, her oldest, aside, and slapped the cow's bony hind end so hard her hand stung.
"Filthy, no-good, stinking cows. Always need to be fed or milked, let in or out. Do you give anything back? No!"
Daisy slid and one knife-sharp hoof caught Helen's right foot. It cracked and a searing pain burnt clear up to her knee. Screaming in agony, she leaned back up against the broken door as the rest of her small herd filed past. The door's jagged edges cut into her spine.
"Christ! All you ever do is hurt me. Son-of-a-bitch. Always pushing and shoving and moaning . . . ah, God . . ." Her foot throbbed. She righted herself and hobbled into the barn behind the last of the cows.
"Get in those damn stalls," she yelled, limping by, giving each and every cow the hardest punch she could muster. "You don't even feel that, do you? You don't feel any pain. Nothing. Stupid, you are. Stupid and fat and selfish. SELFISH!"
Her voice cracked. Everything became blurry. She felt her way along the barn wall, choking back tears which teetered against the inside of her eyelids. She grabbed the milking stool and, holding her right leg up, hopped on her left over to Daisy. Shakily, she put the milking stool down and sat on it, carefully placing her throbbing foot out of Daisy's way. The cow's side felt warm, yet unyielding, against Helen's forehead.
"You don't understand. How could you? You never take the time. Never listen. Who ever listens to me? Why do I always have to be the one, the caretaker?" She lifted her head and caught the cow staring back at her. "Turn around, you dumb thing. Don't look at me like that! You know I'm right. I haven't done anything wrong and I don't deserve to be hurt."
She wiped her running nose with the sleeve of her flannel shirt. "Frigging foot feels like it's broken. How the hell am I going to get to the hospital? What good are you? And where the hell is George when I need him? He's the one, goddamnit, he's the one who talked me into this. He's the one who started all this trouble. And where's he? Lying on his back in a comfy bed, getting his ass taken care of while I cover for him."
She squeezed Daisy's teats again and again. The cow mooed, low and plaintively, and turned her large angular head to look at Helen once again.
"Don't tell me you're dry now--shit!" Helen kicked the bucket with her good foot, wincing as she landed on the right one, then got off the stool and flung it across the floor. It clattered against the milk tank, startling two of the other cows who stood patiently in their stalls.
"Damn you all, hear? Damn you all! Damn every single one of you."
As she staggered past the broken door, Helen spotted the painting she'd finished this morning, a view of the lower pasture and her herd, leaning against the outside wall where she'd put it to dry. Her tubes of paint, neatly stacked in a plastic tray, reflected the dying rays of the sun as it set behind Burnt Mountain. Sienna. Fuschia. Robin's egg blue. She stared at the painting through a veil of tears, then picked it up, put her fist through it and, feeling vaguely satisfied, reached for the tray of paint.
She grabbed a fistful of tubes in one hand, unscrewed the tops one by one, then put three tubes in each fist. Laughing hysterically, she turned back into the barn and stood against the wall in Bunky's stall. The cow looked at her quizzically. Squeezing the tubes with all her might, Helen dropped the wormlike colors onto the cow's back, mixing cadmium red with goldenrod yellow. Hunter green with deepest black. Royal purple with peach.
The cow squirmed, but then stood still, and let Helen make multicolored stripes on its back until the paint ran out.
"An artist, huh? You think you're an artist? You're no artist. You're just a goddamn farmer's wife." Helen heard herself imitating Maryann's voice and put her paint-covered hands over her ears. "No! You're not getting away with this anymore. I won't let it happen again, damn you. From now on, I'll be the one controlling the friendship. Maybe even ending it."
But she knew as she struggled to walk out of the barn, ignoring the pain burning up her right leg, that she was wrong. She was good at ignoring pain.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Dawn Reno loves her life in Florida these days. The author of 13 books, over 600 articles, dozens of short stories, poems, and essays, she is currently working on a mainstream suspense novel and a young adult contemporary problem novel. She also teaches at the University of Central Florida.
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