Recently I ordered some Chinese to eat alone on a Friday night. I was supposed to have a dinner date with a girlfriend, but it didn’t work out. She cancelled via email only, no text or call. It was the third or fourth time in recent months that I’d been stood up at the last minute by an old friend. Her email to me said simply, “I’m sorry, I am just too depressed to go out. Please forgive me, and don’t hate me.” My fortune at the end of the meal read, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” It’s the best one I’ve gotten in years. So timely, so fresh. So poignant and precise. My friend was depressed. She has been for quite some time. I did forgive her, of course. And I appreciated that she was telling me the awkward, uncomfortable truth.
It seems lately that if I have plans to meet someone I need to check all avenues of communication before I get dressed to go out. Yeah, I have a smart phone, and yes, I check everything obsessively anyway. But email is the last thing I look at when I’m thinking of food and drink and not work. What I get, what I’ve gotten more and more lately, from the same few people, makes me feel sad and confused. And I don’t want that. I already fight those feelings too much, and our meeting was supposed to be a palliative, a shelter. We can’t have been friends for ten or more years and not be able to tell the truth to one another. Someone else cancels, this time a day after we were supposed to hang out, says she fell asleep. Why? I know why. I address her directly, in my mind, because obviously I’m not going to see her in person.
Because you were up all night. Your one-person party was the priority. Or maybe it wasn’t a party at all. Maybe it was a graveyard shift of despair. Either one is possible. A few weeks ago it seems a large piece of furniture was to be delivered at the very same time we were supposed to get together. “What can I do about it?” you ask. “It’s not my fault.” Nothing! There was no furniture delivery. Or, that other time when you didn’t “see” my four texts asking, “Are you there yet? Is it still the same meeting place?” I’m waiting for an hour like a fool in a crowded restaurant and bonding with the waiter before I even get any kind of answer. It’s raining, and I don’t want to walk home in the rain without having eaten. So I stay and wait. You show up almost two hours late, and order tea. Again, I know why. You don’t eat much, hardly at all. Your attention fades in and out as I wonder if you can hear a word I’m saying. Are you okay? I spend fifty bucks I don’t have. Next time, I tell myself, it will be the six buck Chuck and Netflix.
“Oh,” I can hear someone saying–this is bad, now there are other people chiming in–“Grow Up. We are adults now and are Very Busy All The Time. Hot and fast living, get used to it.” Okay, fine. We can’t meet our obligations, connect with those we love, even get through the fucking door sometimes because we are so fucking busy. Well, sorry. I want to be a pain in the ass and disagree. Let’s call it what it is, and get on with it. The time you fell asleep you were depressed and avoiding everyone. Or it could have been as simple as you choosing to make a two-hour trip to buy pot instead of meeting up, because this is what you want and need. I imagine your glazed eyes as you mock the stuffy concept of “having plans.” So bougie. Old. Or even worse, low class. Pick one. All of them imply a lack of taste on my part, the one who expected to do something with you. Meanwhile, I believe I am superior, because the times I’ve had my hand on a cold glass of wine and didn’t pick up the phone or go anywhere or do anything was because, well, I never cancel on people, so it doesn’t count. I omit the fact that sometimes–okay, for two years–I hardly bothered to make the plans at all. Instead, I revel in the details of the betrayal, how, because your head is clouded and sad, high or hungry, you have forgotten so much about our friendship and the details that make it what it is that I wonder who exactly is it is that I am friends with? You don’t remember the basket of fruit and booze I sent for your fortieth birthday. Or the dates of my children’s birthdays. Hell, you barely remember mine. Why are we friends, anyway? Oh. Because I care about you.
In my head I compose mock chastisement, dressings-down meant to set everything right and create balance. I think I’m going to tell you it’s time to change your ways. You are out of control. You stayed up all night drinking. Maybe you were smoking pot, too. Or was it the irresistible temptation to get the coke delivered by your longtime connection? Possibly you only smoked a bit of pot, drank a bottle of wine, and, mixed with your anti-depressants and Xanax, well, just try and walk down the street like that. Maybe it was only the wine and the Xanax. Maybe this concoction didn’t knock you out, but instead created the manic self who rants online, calls people late at night, or sends pathetic emails to former lovers. Sounds like something I did once. For a year. Or maybe it was just you and you alone, in the window, smoking and drinking until the sky turned a baby blue and the birds, black in the sky, began their shrill reminder that it was time to go to bed. I don’t want to have to go into the whole story about how I used to sit up with my mother and watch her doing a version this, minus the alcohol. It’s irrelevant.
I don’t know who I’m talking about, me or you. That too is irrelevant. It’s why we are friends. We don’t judge shit like this. But then I do. It happens when I get cut loose and drifting in the deep end of the pool. For weeks. The next time I hear from you and you tell me you’ve been doing any of the above it occurs to me that I care less and less. I’m not doing it anymore myself, but that’s not why I don’t care. It’s that there is no connection, the story got lost in the middle, I put the book of you down and don’t want to pick it up again.
I sometimes think about what you do when no one is looking. You get into bed as your husband awakens. He is about to go to work while you are in your nightgown, shades drawn, eye mask on tight. Because you have to go to sleep. You can’t stay up all day long and night again, though you’ve done that before. There isn’t enough wine or whatever in the house to keep the party going, and you certainly aren’t going to drag yourself down to the nearest shop. Nor can you ask him to do it. Not yet. He will pick up something on the way home. You will rise to make dinner. Barely up two hours, you’ll start drinking again. This time it is in a light, breezy manner, and you tell him–lord knows what you tell him, really, because he sees you, sees everything and still loves you–that you’re not feeling that great and so it’s gonna be a quiet night. Quiet as in one bottle of wine and not three. This is the envy in me speaking, even though I know you can often feel miserable as I sometimes do, just in different ways, but it doesn’t matter. The point is you have this safety net, and I do not. And you still find it impossible to meet your obligations. Because you don’t have to? Don’t want to? Can’t? And when I do the same thing when the kids aren’t around, is it all just the same bullshit? Perhaps so.
How do I know all these things about you? Because you’ve told me. How else do I know? Because I’ve done some of them myself. For one year I just cried. For one year. I had to quit drinking and screaming at everyone because my hormones were raging and my life was getting very, very stupid. My dog Jack can no longer stand the sound of any crying at all, ever. It’s cute. Now. And here is something I’ve told no one: that during that year I thought about something I hadn’t allowed myself to in a long, long time. At seventeen while on a bad trip I almost jumped out of the attic window of the house I was living in at Belmont and Wilton. Crazytown. A perfect place to be, until it wasn’t. I locked myself in the bathroom and stared at my greenish, melting face until I stopped having those thoughts. And I promised the rock and writing gods then and there that this would never, ever happen again. But sometimes you can’t predict how awful you are going to feel at a later point in life, how it will fill every part of you until there is no room for anything else. So I did wonder, not too long ago and more than once, is this subject really closed? It just kept popping into my head, as a way to make things stop. I think the answer is still yes, totally closed.
I want to be friends, to get together and enjoy, but I want more for us to tell the truth, to call it what it is when we are feeling anxious or depressed or manic or intoxicated or hung-over or druggy or horny or even suicidal. And I want us to get help if we can when we need it, and to help each other. Because it is dangerous not to. Because one day we might be alone somewhere and in need, and there won’t be anyone who knows the truth. They might not even know where we are, and we will be in grave danger. If we can’t do this for each other, I don’t know if I want to be friends anymore, I really don’t.
I try to take my reality in huge doses lately and sometimes that is too much. All of the critical thinking a person has to do to feel better is hard to turn off when trying to write or be creative or even just to live and laugh. I feel I’m being too critical of you, and I decide just to back off. But then I remember that every time I’ve let this sort of thing go it’s bitten me in the ass, big, big time. Each and every time. I feel like the whiny kid on the playground, who wonders why everyone is so mean and disrespectful. Why can’t everyone be nicer? I am the angel in this scenario, and they are the self-absorbed devils set on ruining my life with their inattention. No, they just want what they want and so do I. Didn’t I learn this already on the damn playground?
I get confused sometimes. I think to call you to help clear my head, knowing you are probably at home. But I do something I shouldn’t have to do: I text you to see if you can talk. I actually make an appointment with my friend just for a chat, and then wait for your text saying “Yes, in an hour,” not because you are at work, but because you haven’t gotten up yet, and it’s noon. So I wait the hour and get another text–not a call–saying you need to run an errand. By then I’m done with it but I say, “Yeah, sure.” Hours go by and you text again and say “Tomorrow! Okay?” And yeah, sure, okay. I take the few steps to my desk, but can’t get anything done. Then I do. And that’s it for the day. I am exhausted from putting one foot in front of the other, and I have to make dinner for my kids. And then I’m meeting someone who will actually show up. I forget that I wanted to talk to you. I talk to someone else instead.
Deborah Pintonelli is the author of Meat and Memory and Ego Monkey. She has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council, PEN Midwest, and the National Association of Arts and Letters. Her stories and essays have been published by Gargoyle Magazine, Conjunctions (website), Tribes, Autonomedia, Criminal Class Press, Vida, the “First Time I Heard” series, and Sensitive Skin (forthcoming), and included in anthologies by NYU Press, Autonomedia, Thin Ice Press, and Arbre a Cames Editions in France. She is currently working on a novel, To The Last Gay Man I Will Ever Love, represented by Curtis Brown, Ltd. She lives in Chicago with her two children.