Elizabeth limps through my living room, her terry cloth robe stained with tea and black mascara—dried remnants of yesterday's crying. Her ex-husband sticks out of her right foot like a thorn. She is going nowhere slow.
"It's painful," Elizabeth says, sliding her hand across the wall for balance.
"Then let's pull him out," I say, encouragingly. Her ex-husband looks at me, hopeful but irritated. "Let's get rid of him today."
"I can't," Elizabeth whispers as she lifts her leg onto the sofa.
"Because he's mine."
Elizabeth collapses on the sofa and shuts her eyes. I bring her an extra pillow.
"Always elevate the injured area," I say.
My tone is authoritative and confident. I should have been a doctor. When Elizabeth knocked on my door last week and showed me what had happened, I didn't panic and call 911. I just sat with her and her Dan-foot, and surveyed the damage. I even brought my fingers to my lips the way TV doctors do when they examine difficult cases. We stayed that way for some time, me in my philosophical pose, Elizabeth with her foot on the sofa, Dan waiting for something to happen. Finally, I told Elizabeth her first problem was falling in love. It cannot be medically treated; it is something to be avoided.
She laughed then and said, "You can't spend your whole life afraid of everything. That's its own kind of disease."
I looked it up—fear of love—it's called Philophobia. I studied the list of fears. Fear of chickens, Alektorophobia. And Neophobia, fear of anything new. Or Selenaphobia, fear of the moon. I had to put the list away. I was afraid of knowing everything else I could be afraid of, but fear of fear was not on the list.
Elizabeth takes the pillow from me and begins to put it behind her head but I move it beneath her foot.
"This injured area," I say.
She glares at Dan who gives me his helpless, not-my-fault grin.
"But if I don't have this pain," she says, "then I have nothing."
Elizabeth waits for the response she wants, the consoling-understanding-conspiratorial-hate-the-ex response a best friend is supposed to offer but I say, "You have yourself."
In fourth grade, I shimmied down the trunk of the crabapple tree and got a splinter in my hand. It felt like a whole tree in there, ready to grow out through my fingers. Elizabeth stopped swinging from the lower branch and we ran to my father. I held out my injured palm, showing him where it hurt. He stopped digging in his flower bed, walked purposefully into the house, and retrieved a needle from mother's sewing box. He snapped open his butane lighter and held the flame to the needle until it glowed red, then orange.
"Now look away," he told me.
Elizabeth covered her eyes and danced in small circles. But I watched as he dug around for the splinter. Half moons of perspiration emerged on Daddy's undershirt as the splinter disappeared beneath my reddened skin.
Mother ran through the yard with a giant pair of tweezers and a dish towel full of ice cubes.
"You need the ice!" she shouted. But Daddy continued digging, determined to conquer the splinter, defeat Mother.
I cried then. Loud wails of agony and suffering. And Mother cried too. She hit my father with the towel—what kind of man couldn't save his own daughter's life? That splinter needed to come out, she said, or else it would work its way into my bloodstream and travel straight to my brain, killing me before I went to prom or married a nice young man or made any kind of name for myself.
Daddy gave up. He returned to his petunias and zinnias while mother shepherded us into the house.
"Men," she groaned with a quiet desperation. I was still alive the next morning, which surprised me. Mother burst into my room, kicking the door open with her foot. She held the TV tray steady and moved quickly to my side of the bed. Elizabeth stirred under the sheets, her body warm with sleep, though Mother convinced her that she was suffering from a sympathy fever and that she should remain at our house for the rest of the day. When I opened my hand for inspection, Mother clucked her tongue and turned away momentarily to catch her breath. We were scared, wondering what she saw, what she knew that we didn't. My life curved then, veered off its innocent course.
"This is how it will be for you," Mother said. "This," she said pointing at my swollen hand, "is the unfairness."
She held out the juice glasses and instructed us to drink.
"Is this Pepto-Bismol?" Elizabeth asked, hesitating to take her glass.
"You are so practical, Lizzy dear," Mother said, offended. "I made this myself. Milk to protect your bones, orange juice for the vitamins, a tablespoon of castor oil for movement, two tablets of baby aspirin, crushed, and red food coloring."
Elizabeth marveled at the now-magical glass, a believer. "What's the food coloring do?" she asked as if she understood everything else.
"It makes it red. Like blood. So the blood understands."
When Mother told us to hold our noses and drink up, Elizabeth held her nose so tightly I thought it would break. We spent the rest of the day lounging in our pajamas and giggling under the covers. She loved being my friend, staying at my house where spoiled milk and day-old bread were cause for alarm. A scraped knee could easily mean a new pair of crutches. And the telephone ringing unexpectedly could be the untimely death of an aunt or uncle, or something worse.
At Elizabeth's house, her mother made grilled cheese without incident, asked us about our homeroom teacher and our math grades, and told us to go outside and play without any other instructions for safety.
For a week, Mother and I kept constant vigil on the splinter. She read to me everything she could find about the heart and circulatory system. The more she read, the more nervous she became.
"We ask too much of our hearts," she said, holding a magnifying glass over my hand, looking for signs of infection.
Thin sheaths of new white skin grew over the hole Daddy had carved. When I pressed on the spot where the splinter had entered, my hand tingled and I knew the splinter was still there. Then, one morning, there was no tingling, the splinter obviously en route to my brain.
"I would like it if I could wear my pink dress when I die," I said to Mother. "And maybe some daisies from Daddy's garden around my casket."
Mother phoned the doctor in a panic. "She will never be the same," she sobbed as I ate a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich with my non-deformed hand. "She will get cancer or worse."
The doctor said our imaginations were healthy and not to worry. We did anyway, while Daddy stayed out in his garden longer and longer, his flowers growing into smiling giants.
When Elizabeth came to visit me, we composed my eulogy and I made her promise not to change the part about my bravery when I faced the Evil Needle. She said she wouldn't change a word, she would remember me forever. And ever. Amen.
She placed a damp rag on her forehead and sprawled across my bed.
"Would you trade mothers with me?" she asked.
"Any time," I said.
And then I took it back. I wasn't that fond of her mother's grilled cheese.
I cook two hamburgers in a black iron skillet and garnish the paper plates with potato chips and cucumber slices. I offer a plate to Elizabeth with the fanfare of Vanna White turning over the winning Wheel of Fortune letter. She attempts a smile.
"It's not necessary," I say.
She lays her head back again and I place the cucumbers over her closed eyes. Now her face seems outrageously happy.
"You know what he told me once," she whispers. "He told me once that I completed him, that there had been something missing before me and I filled him right up. Like water or glue or sand."
"He compared you to sand?"
"You had to be there to understand the beauty."
I nod in an oh-I-get-it-now way. Because this is what real friends do. They nod in allegiance, the meaningful gesture seen on the soap operas. Only on television, I would have more money and my apartment would be a large California mansion with a marble foyer and a den with mahogany bookcases and a mini bar where I would make Elizabeth a scotch and soda, pulling ice out of my 24-karat gold ice bucket with the matching tongs that once doubled as a murder weapon. We would cry hysterically and break things, and plan clever, murderous revenge for which we would never be held accountable.
Elizabeth would shout at Dan and pound her fists into his chest until they fell into an exhausted heap to make love one final time on my designer silk sheets.
But we are from the Midwest. We don't have tantrums or wear our good pearls in the afternoon. Instead we drink diet soda from the can. We eat hamburgers and pull down the shades to hide our sorrow from the neighbors. We know about things like how to administer first aid, and what sort of pillows our husbands prefer. We know about splinters. We are that deep.
Dan watches TV, making wolf calls at a woman in a sitcom. She is nothing special but he wiggles his shoulders like he is dancing, like she can see him.
"Help me," Elizabeth says. She peels off her happy cucumber face and reaches to steady her foot.
I think. I have no remedies. The task of Dan is so enormous.
"Don't pressure me," I say.
"You said you could do it." Elizabeth's voice tightens. "You said you could help."
I think some more. It had been easy the first week. I cared for Elizabeth, I neglected Dan. The rules were clear. Now everything is clouding over. We are not working out. I pace the kitchen. I eat a pint of Rocky Road ice cream in front of the open freezer. I need more privacy. In the bathroom, I stare into the medicine cabinet, waiting for the remedy to present itself. There is an unmarked bottle of blue gel my mother gave me—something about sore muscles and the curative properties of emu oil collected by ancient Aboriginies. There is hair coloring that I am too scared to try, a thermometer that doesn't work, some expired One-A-Day multivitamins I never opened, a rusted bottle of shaving cream some lover had left—all these things I saved to keep me healthy, to change me, yet never used.
I sit on the toilet and review my life with Elizabeth and make sure there's nothing I've missed, because if I have, then it's my job to find it. I think about when Elizabeth was 16 and Ricky Mancuso broke up with her the day before the prom. We sat on the stump of the crabapple tree, the one that Daddy had finally chopped down, following Mother's directions to save the branch that had wrecked my childhood and their marriage.
Elizabeth wept while I plucked clovers and made a necklace of them. I told her I wouldn't go to prom either, even though Mother had been planning for the day since I was nine, on the off chance the splinter stayed put and never acted on its own whims and fancies.
I draped the clover necklace around Elizabeth's neck, and we got in my father's blue Thunderbird, the white vinyl seats sticking to the backs of our legs. We drove up and down Ricky's street, over and over.
"We should do more," I said. "We should be doing something more than driving."
"This is enough," Elizabeth whispered. "He will come out. He will come back."
Ricky appeared at the door, at least his head did, the most powerful 17-year-old head that ever stuck itself out a door.
Elizabeth stared back at Ricky for an hour, me wilting in the heat, dizzy from the smell of clover and broken love and the butane from my father's cigarette lighter, leftover from his last trip away from us.
I rubbed the scar on my palm, willing something to happen. Brain hemorrhage, reunion. Then, Ricky moved, his head retreating into the house.
Elizabeth showed signs of relief but I was terribly disappointed. Where was the struggle, the tender goodbye, who had first rights to the last words? I told her I would make a scene, that I was that kind of best friend. But she didn't want it. She told me to drive away, to say nothing, make it a quiet ending.
When I put the car in reverse, she didn't look behind her but I did. I saw Ricky—all of him—standing on the porch watching us drive away. I didn't tell her then, I haven't told her ever that he was there, that her life could have been different. This is what I have kept away from her.
I come back to the sofa with the only idea that comes to mind.
"How about a haircut and a highlight?" I offer.
"Too cliché," she says.
"Maybe that's why it's cliche," I protest. "Because it works. Take your pick. I have Da Blonde Bomb and She's a Screamer Red."
"Go with the red," Dan chimes in, so I pick the blonde for her instead.
I brush Elizabeth's hair. Some of it drifts to the floor like free-floating cobwebs. She is losing parts of herself. Her hair is so tangly and wampus. I don't know what that means, really, but that's exactly what it is. Wampus.
"Your hair is wampus," I tell her. "WAAAAMPUSSSS."
"Thank you," she says, smiling so big I am afraid her face will crack open. But it is good to see her smile so I keep at it.
"You are wampus. You are a wampus cat!" I do a little tap dance and jump over Dan's chest, chanting wampus, wampus, wampus until I'm saying it so fast and breathless that it sounds like SWAMP ASS. I feel silly. I am unable to get off the subject. Elizabeth sways to my song and Dan claps his hands. We are all friends again. Best friends. Dan wriggles out to his elbows, then his arms. He looks like a newborn calf struggling out of its mother's womb.
"Swamp ass, swamp ass," I sing, poking Elizabeth with my fingers but suddenly she turns away, holding her face in her hands.
"Dan didn't like my ass," she cries.
Dan doesn't offer any defense.
"Yes he did. He told me once," I lie.
"What was I not doing," she asks the ceiling. "What am I missing?"
Her questions linger in the space between us along with so many words we cannot say, like ex, affair, Donna, lavender, martini. But you could say "Dan." And "why." And "he didn't mean to." You could remind her of the Generous Dan who brings her bouquets of red tulips. How he shouts "I love you" in the middle of quiet restaurants just to show her how much he does, indeed, love her. You could remind her about those two weeks in Cabo San Lucas, how they dampened the sand with their gin and tonics and wrote each other love poems with their toes, the tide swallowing their words for what they thought was eternity. You could remind her of Dan as long as you didn't use past tense.
"Maybe I can rub Vaseline on him. Grease him out."
"Yes, yes!" Dan shouts. "Do it to me!"
I tell him to stay out of this. I tug at Dan's shoulders and he grunts. Elizabeth holds her ankle with both hands and I pull again. He grabs my hand, pleading. But Elizabeth stops helping.
"Relax your muscles," I say. "Go limp."
"You can't or you won't?"
Something snaps. Elizabeth is angry, her eyes blinking and electric. Dan squeezes my hand harder. I can see his knees now and the distinct outline of a solid calf muscle.
She is crossing over without me. I step away from her. I cannot bear to look at her and think she doesn't need me, that she has discovered something about me that I haven't . . . and that what she has found she doesn't like. For a second, I think I might split down the middle and reveal the big mess of me, the half of me that I've kept hidden.
I drop Dan's arms to the floor. Dan is annoyed by this, pain and suffering clearly not part of his master plan. And then he does the only thing he can make up on the spot. He laughs, an indifferent huh-huh-huh.
Elizabeth flattens her hands against her ears and says "Stop, please stop." With each huh-huh-huh, Elizabeth sinks into the cushions of the sofa. Her face is a blur, like bad reception on the television, like she can't control what channel she's on—Love Dan or Hate Dan, My Friend or Not My Friend.
She pulls a photo from the pocket of her robe. The picture is bent and worn.
"Don't do it," I say, but she ignores me.
I rub the scar on my palm over and over. I am so desperate. I cover my hands in She's a Screamer Red. The dye trickles down my arms like bloody ribbons as I lift my hands to my head and rub it into my hair. A whole new you, the box says. Whole or hole? I think.
Elizabeth studies the photo. There she is with her hand resting easily on Dan's right shoulder, the happy, safe, Elizabeth with the too-much-merlot glaze to her eyes. She traces her finger over the people in the background. They are drunk. The smooth jazz of laughter and gossip that would be remembered differently the next day fills her kitchen. The air holds the comforting perfume of baked sugar cookies, slightly burned around the edges. And there is that woman at Dan's left side. Her face is blurry. She has rushed into the photograph at the last minute, as the shutter opens and the light bends toward her, a shadowy premonition Elizabeth had dismissed. I saw it too, but I didn't tell her. I took the picture at their Christmas party, in their house, with their camera. But I didn't tell her.
She brings the photo closer to her face, waiting for the moment when it will all make sense. The moment when we are children again and nothing matters except how long the sun will stay in the sky before our mothers call us in for dinner. The instant when Ricky Mancuso sits in his recliner and thinks about how he should be mowing the lawn, and then thinks instead—suddenly and for no reason—of Elizabeth and what might have been.
Elizabeth rubs her thumb against her likeness in the photo. She rubs until the photo shreds into glossy slivers, her fingers covered in shiny flecks of nose, eyes, lips, neck.
I press my red palms against her hands. Something dark pushes at the back of my neck, the pleasure and the pain, the sickness and the health knocking against each other, my choice of which one to feel.
Dan pops from Elizabeth's foot. He shakes his legs as if they've gone numb. He walks to the door, tripping a little on the carpet. He looks back at Elizabeth to see if she has noticed, and she looks at him, fixing in her mind this final mistake he makes, this proof that he was imperfect.
Elizabeth breaks into a little smile. Outside, the morning is mostly quiet, all the neighbors tending to their secrets behind closed doors. But my door is wide open and my hair is cardinal red, a loud beating heart, and, for the first time, I am not afraid to feel hopeful.
Copyright©2008 Amy Purcell