an Essay by Johanna Stoberock
I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college living with a friend at her mother’s apartment in San Francisco. It was a horrible summer for a number of reasons. My friend hadn’t really checked with her mother to make sure it would be okay for me to stay with them. I would rather have been living with my boyfriend in D.C. I couldn’t find a job. As the months went by I gained twelve pounds. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I could control.
My friend had a great job, teaching exceptionally bright grade-school kids about media literacy. She left early every morning and returned home in the afternoon with the kind of exhausted energy that comes from meaningful work. I visited her at the school once, having unsuccessfully applied for a job at a café close by. She was wearing a flowered Betsy Johnson dress and a black velvet hat, and it looked like she had spent her day dancing with her students, that she spent every day dancing. They were all holding hands, grooving to music I’d never heard before. They loved her. Why wouldn’t they? She was tall and had black hair and blue eyes and it was impossible not to love her. I loved her. She was the best friend I’d ever had.
I was in love with my boyfriend, too, in a different way than I’d been in love before. It kind of drove me crazy, this new way of being in love. I wanted to have an affair. I wanted to break my boyfriend’s heart. I wanted to talk to him on the phone constantly, but resented it when he called. It wasn’t an unusual kind of love, but it was new for me. It was the first time I felt absolutely certain that if anyone left the relationship, it would be me—how could anyone love me as much as he seemed to love me and leave? How could anyone love me that much, in general?
It took a week of being in San Francisco to realize that something was happening to my friend’s mother. I’d never met her before. She was recently divorced, a transplant to San Francisco from the south, and pretty much all I knew before I flew out there with my large suitcase and my mood lipstick that was supposed to change from purple to bright red according to shifts in my emotional range, was that she’d once published a poem about childhood. She filled me in quickly, though, during the mornings that first week. I’d sit in the kitchen after my friend had left for work, looking through the newspaper for want ads, waiting for job calls that never came, and she’d drink coffee and talk. She talked about her divorce, about how her money was running out, about how she didn’t know what she’d do when it did, about the car she used to drive and the car she drove now, about how when she watched her daughter leave for work every morning how amazed she was at how good her daughter was at whatever she turned her mind to do. She’d talk and talk, and then she’d stand up abruptly and get ready: what was happening to her was walking.
She walked all day. She wore leggings and a white t-shirt and a black fanny pack and running shoes, and she walked. For hours. Very quickly. She was skinny and as the weeks went by she got skinnier.
The apartment was on the main floor of a townhouse. We could look out the living room windows into the garden below. There were a lot of flowers. One evening, the evening my friend’s mother told us she was moving and that we’d have to be out of the house within a week, she also told my friend she wanted to take pictures of her among the flowers. I watched from the living room while my friend posed in the garden. She was as beautiful as the flowers, and I could see why her mother was so proud of her: she was smart, she was kind, she was capable, she looked good in pictures. I wished I were down there among the flowers, making my mother proud, too.
My friend’s mother moved across the bay to a little rented house. She didn’t want us to come with her. She said she needed to be alone. She relented, though, and this is where that summer of long ago gets fuzzy: I don’t remember moving day. I don’t remember how we got from San Francisco to that little house, what the bridge was like that we crossed to get to it, or what we did once we got there, but the long and short of it was that we ended up living across the bay, too, in a house where the blinds were always shut, in a house where we had to be silent, always, in a house where we had to leave from time to time for days. It never occurred to me that I could change my plane ticket and just go home. Instead, I ate junk food and got bigger and worried.
Along with the walking, my friend’s mother had problems with insomnia. I had a hard time sleeping, too. I didn’t have any money. I still hadn’t found a job. My friend’s mother had no income that I could see, and didn’t seem to be looking for a job, and I couldn’t tell if my presence made her situation that much worse or if she was just someone who constantly worried. Until that summer it had never occurred to me that groceries cost money, or that there were parents out there who worried about the money they spent on food, or that, without a job, I had no access to any money, either, or that an adult might need help beyond emotional support.
She talked to me for hours while my friend was at work. She was very, very smart. She had a no-nonsense voice. She told me about her therapist. She told me about the orphanage she’d grown up in. She told me about the cruel people in her horrible small hometown. She mentioned once that she knew, absolutely knew, when she’d made love to her ex-husband for the last time that it was the last time, and though this was just a casual aside among the gothic horrors of the rest of her life, it stuck. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since—the knowledge of last times, the foreknowledge of doing something that you’ll never do again. Would that be better or worse than doing something for the last time without any idea that you’ll never do it again?
Over the years, I’ve continued to think about the question of what it means to recognize an ending when it appears. I’ve wondered if my grandfather knew, the last time he cupped my face in his hands, that it was the last time he’d ever pat my cheek. I’ve wondered if, when my mother held her sister’s hand for the last time, when her sister had lost all muscle control, all ability to speak, she knew it was the last time she would see her sister alive, and I’ve wondered if my aunt knew when she spoke the last word she would ever speak that, though life might continue for a little while, that word literally was the last word.
I spent that summer in San Francisco and then in that house across the bay thinking about last times, but even though the thought of knowing ahead of time that something was the last of its kind seemed profound, it didn’t hit me that last could really be last until the summer was over and I returned to college and my boyfriend broke up with me within a day of our reunion and I lay in bed next to him after we’d broken up and then had sex one last time and knew, just knew, that even though I wished so hard it hurt every bone in my body that I was wrong, this was the last time we’d huddle next to each other naked. I still can’t decide if knowing made it better. I spent the next few years trying to get my belief that he would wake up one morning and realize he was in love with me in line with my knowledge that it wasn’t ever going to happen. Those years didn’t work out happily for me.
I wrote a poem about that last time, in the way that college students do. In it, his naked back facing me was a door, and his shoulder was a doorknob that I couldn’t turn. Then I pretty much stopped writing poetry. I knew when we had sex in his stuffy room with the windows painted shut that I’d assumed would also be my stuffy room with the windows painted shut for the remainder of our college years, that we would never touch each other in this way again. I had no idea when I wrote the poem that featured his shoulder that I would stop writing poems, that the idea of the line would become so foreign that it would be years, decades even, before I could read poetry again, let alone make feeble attempts to write it, that I’d develop a love for sentences that was an easier love to understand, and that understanding things would become important. I dream about him still, twenty-five years or so after lying there on his mattress on the dusty hardwood floor, feeling empty and locked out, and sometimes I wonder whether this will be the last time I dream about him. Sometimes, in my dreams, I tell him about my husband. I tell him about my children. He doesn’t really tell me anything. Sometimes, in my dreams, we just hang out and laugh. It’s been a few years since the last time I had one of those dreams, and I wonder if that last dream was the last one I’ll ever have. If so, how could I not have recognized it for what it was? How could I have let something so important just slip by?
It would be hard to overestimate how awful that summer in San Francisco was. I’ve hated San Francisco since, with its pastel colors and beautiful people and secret spas in the backyards of painted houses and its neighborhoods that I just don’t understand and its endless restaurants and its ridiculous hills and the lives that people live there that I can’t believe are actually real lives at all. The last time I went to San Francisco was for my friend of that summer’s wedding. Her mother barely seemed to remember me. I spent a lot of the wedding thinking about her, about her insomnia and the stories of her awful, awful childhood that played in a constant loop in her mind and in a constant loop on her lips, and in a constant loop in my mind that summer, and the walking—I think a lot about her walking even now. Even on windless days she walked leaning forward, her body angled so tightly against the ground that she looked as though she needed to keep moving in order not to fall.
Towards the end of the summer, my own mother flew out to rescue me. We drove together down the California coast, to Santa Cruz, to the Monterey Aquarium, and to Carmel. I wish I could say that was the last time my mother rescued me. I wish I could say there will never be a last time that my mother rescues me. I wish I could say I will be someone’s child forever. Both of my husband’s parents have died, and I know that we all, if we’re lucky, end up as orphans. How is it that surviving our parents, ending up as orphans, can be counted as a stroke of luck?
My friendship with my friend from San Francisco has long since ended. The last I heard, she was trying to be made guardian for her mother, whose manic intensity of that summer had clarified itself as full blown mental illness. I can mark the last time that we saw each other, at an Indian restaurant in New York City shortly before New Year’s Eve, fifteen years ago, when I was twenty-nine. I knew then that it was probably the last time we’d lay eyes on each other. It was years after we’d spent that summer together between our sophomore and junior years of college, but we were never the same kind of friends afterwards, anyway. My theories about why don’t matter. I once had a dream where she sat next to my ex-boyfriend and told me about her life. She had five children. She lived in a house with a wraparound porch. She still wore flowered Betsy Johnson dresses. In my dream, we were still friends, and it was the kind of friendship we all dream about when we are children, the kind we believe will never end, and that sometimes really never does.
Johanna Stoberock’s novel, City of Ghosts, was published by W.W. Norton. Her work has appeared in the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology, Better: Culture & Lit, Copper Nickel, the Wilson Quarterly, and elsewhere. A 2012 Jack Straw Writing Fellow and a 2013 Artist Trust GAP award recipient, Johanna has received residencies at the Corporation of Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Millay Colony. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington.