I was expressing a desire for more meaningful friendships years ago when a therapist I was seeing suggested I meet another client of hers with a similar longing. She thought we might become friends.
The no-pressure way we would meet in this arranged marriage was in a small group working on mother issues. I actually didn’t think I had any of those but attended anyway to meet the potential friend.
We had all been told to bring a stuffed toy that somehow represented our personality. I’d made an aspirational choice, a guileless puppy for whom unconditional love is a dog specialty-of-the-house. As we gathered that first night, sitting in a circle on folding chairs in the therapist’s office, other participants were holding their avatars as well. Representatives included a stuffed kitten, one giraffe with big soulful eyes, a little raccoon… Everyone seemed to have selected a mammal of some kind, including the woman I’d identified as my potential new friend. Mary was lovely, but lovely isn’t necessarily friend material.
That’s when I glanced directly across the circle and locked eyes with a tall, stunningly beautiful woman who was staring specifically at me. Her expression was one of invitation—a look of intense hope and bossy possibility. It was the kind of stare that makes you glance over your shoulder to see who is standing behind you, for surely that’s the person for whom it is meant. If hope could be brash, if somehow an invitation could be a demand, that was the look.
Conservatively dressed in black slacks and a pale blue turtleneck, she sat clasping a green and brown frog with huge bulgy eyes. It was the only amphibian in the room. I thought, “That frog is the weirdest choice. That frog is hilarious!” And for me, both in friendship and romance, laughter is the love that binds. Two hours later, although I’d come to meet Mary, I left with plans to call Margaret.
Margaret was seriously yet invisibly ill, which trumped mother issues all to hell and back. And we became good friends though Margaret already had a small infantry of friends wanting to help her kick an insidious invader at least long enough to see her children grown. Which she did until she didn’t. No one can outrun a bullet forever. The point being I’m beginning to think it is true. There are people in your life whom you are destined to meet, even when you come to the party to meet someone else. Or you’re late. Or at the wrong party.
Whether you love them or leave them, stand by, or stand by them, may be the only choices you get to make. You only get to determine how that person is going to be in your life. Meeting, with a thousand potential outcomes, was a given from the day you were born.
It’s comforting to think I can’t miss the people bus. I can’t be on the wrong side of the street or late when the bus pulls away from the curb. I simply can’t miss running into the person who will alter the course of my life in a significant way because if I do, fate is going to make us board the same Delta flight a day later or wander down the same aisle at Wegman’s—even if it’s decades in the future in a distant town.
In my early twenties, I dreamed seven people were sitting around a large rectangular table discussing who was going to take what role in my life. “I’ll be the father,” “I’ll be boss,” “I’ll be the blind date she marries,” “I’ll be the elderly neighbor who leaves fresh camellias on her back steps every morning when she’s a lonely young bride whose husband has deployed to the Med.
I was watching this strategizing session without sound so I’m inventing the dialogue. But I knew they were divvying up relationships—passing around scripts as if in a play. Later I wondered, is it possible this is how it works?
The last time I saw Margaret, she was still gorgeous, sitting up in her family room while those who cared about her slipped in one at a time to say goodbye. Margaret was unable to speak by then but seemed to understand everything going on around her, and in typical Margaret fashion (universally and lovingly acknowledged to be opinionated and often critical), she had plenty to say; she just couldn’t say it.
I sat down next to her when it was my turn, leaning over the upholstered arm of her chair, and tried to speak for both of us, but I was in a foreign country without the language. As I recall, I opened with a comment about what I was wearing (gray sweater dress, suede boots) and what I guessed she’d have said about it! Margaret kept gesturing emphatically. Kept slinging her hands outward as if to say, “What? Wait! Do you believe what’s going on here? Say what I need you to say!” Be who you promised you would be to me before we were born.
And I could only think, But I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.
I think I said I will miss you. I will love you always. But I was so utterly lost I might have said, “See you Thursday.”
If I could talk to her now, I’d say, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be your friend. Thank you for aiming frog at puppy. I was adequate in my role, but if you give me another chance, I’ll be so much better. In the years since you left, I’ve learned a little more about what I might have given. Let’s go back to the table—let me pick a different script.” In reality, I feel that way about everyone, not just Margaret. About everyone.
I wonder if before you were born, there was a table and everyone you would come to know in this life was seated at it volunteering to play a role: “I’ll be the brother who teaches him to play acoustic guitar,” I’ll be the sister who becomes a dentist,” “I’ll be the daughter who demonstrates parents control nothing,” “I’ll be the therapist who finds her a new friend,” “I’ll be the young mother who dies too soon.”
It took us a long time to get here, didn’t it? But there was never any doubt we’d arrive.
Since you are reading this, I must have been at your table, yes? And you, beloved, must have been at mine.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.