I made a new friend, or rather remade one. A month ago, as I was opening the gym door in the condo, another woman came up behind me, and I turned. Something about her looked familiar. “Do we know each other?” I asked.
She peered at me. “I think so. Didn’t we meet before in the gym?”
I remembered. “Yes! You were on the treadmill and I was doing step-ups. You said something about what I was doing.
“Yes,” she said. “You were fantastic. So strong.”
I remembered more. “Thank you. Your name, something melodic—Leila?”
“Right,” she said. “And yours too.” She got it right. “I remember you and your husband. So dynamic. I admired you both. How is he?”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Oh no,” she said, and her eyes welled up.
We then went our separate ways to the treadmills.
After the workout, she came over. “How about getting together? I’ll give you my number.
“Good,” I said, glad of the offer.
Ever since Pete had passed, although priding myself on my independence and navigation of aloneness—not loneliness, I kept reminding myself—I slowly, reluctantly, weakly had to admit that I missed interaction, especially female.
In all the years we were married, I hadn’t had much. A few emails with old friends states away sufficed, but Pete was my major—only—friend. Never felt the need for others. In fact, anything like coffee or lunch with another woman felt like an intrusion.
Now, though . . .
The next day I called her. We laughed and joked immediately. “How about coffee on Sunday at Starbucks?” she said.
“Great,” I said.
“I’ll meet you outside the lobby at 3:00.”
* * * * * *
She was already in her car and waved as I came out. I got in and looked at her. Perfect black eyeliner and beautiful curled lashes. Glad I’d done my own. She wore a black t-shirt with a current rock-group logo and black jeggings, with canvas slip-on shoes. Her long black hair was pulled back in a casual pony tail, showing some surprising streaks of white at the part. Was she letting it grow out?
I noticed delicate fans of tiny diamond dots adorning her earlobes. Very trendy. Suddenly I felt stodgy in my regular jeans, conservative blouse, and hoop earrings.
But unlike my earlier memory of Leila in the gym, she was now fat. Hadn’t noticed it before, but her butt spread out in the driver’s seat like a worn sofa cushion. Through the t-shirt I could see her stomach touching the bottom of the steering wheel. What happened?
As if reading my mind, she said, “I’ve got to lose weight. Eating way too much. That’s why I’m in the gym all the time.”
I wondered at her sugar consumption. “You’ll do it,” I said in my best supportive tone. I reveled, especially since Pete died, in my slimness, which I‘d struggled for all my life. Always ten pounds away, and breath-holding to get into jeans. Now, the slimness had seemed to appear without effort as I pulled on pants and shorts that had long been too tight, despite full-fat cheese and occasional ice cream. I tightened my belt.
Leila was very pretty, with her dark eyes and peach skin, and I knew she’d be a knockout in better clothes and tinted styled hair. Why didn’t she do this? (I kept my hair resolutely blonde.)
She turned to me. “You look good. Very healthy.”
“Thanks,” I said.
* * * * * *
We settled in at a cozy table at Starbucks with our ultra-tall lattés (low-fat milk, no sugar, thank you).
“I’m glad we’re doing this,” she said. “I always liked you.”
“I liked you too,” I said.
And we talked. And talked. As the sky was getting gray, we looked up. I shifted my weight under the table and realized my legs were stiff. Two hours had gone by without our even noticing. We drained our cups, got up, cleared the table, and walked to her car. I was already looking forward to our next.
“Gotta do this again,” she said.
* * * * * *
Once home, I reflected. Such a lift! To talk like girlfriends. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it. Somehow, with Pete, although I‘d shared much, and even about my feelings, which he appreciated (contrary to the stereotype of the typical male), it wasn’t the same.
I wanted to find out more about her and had many questions, So, compulsively or obsessively, I started writing them down on a card. I tucked the card in a compartment of my purse to sneak a look when we went out.
When you meet someone, almost immediately you know that (a) you want only to nod and mouth the pleasantries, or (b) you want to explore, discover, learn, hear, tell, share, everything. Or something in between, either not so sterile or not so soul-bearing. You experience that mysterious connection that’s either an immediate, almost irresistible spark, or relief when the elevator stops at their floor.
Women know. Is it only women? I remembered Pete making “friends” with everyone, from his meetings in the elevator to the supermarket. He’d exchange emails and phone numbers and even get together with them. When I met them, there didn’t seem to be much. What did they talk about? From the few times I was present, it was the Yankees, property values, their businesses. And a lot of jokes back and forth, old, tired wince-making jokes like a beloved chorus they never tired of repeating. The jokes became like a contest—who could tell the most and evoke the most nostalgic era.
Maybe it’s different with men, but what I craved—and received with Leila that first time—was (another stereotype, probably) sharing not only of events but feelings.
We made plans for the next “date,” this time at a neighborhood shop, one of several I called “crap department stores,” whose knockoffs and perpetual sales I couldn’t resist. I was pleased to see Leila liked them too—snobbishness be damned. We promised each other a “reward” afterwards of another Starbucks.
We wheeled separate carts parallel down the aisles, exclaiming over this or that “cute” thing, always on the lookout for even better bargains. We showed each other items we thought would fit or shock our tastes—a neon t-shirt, a bejeweled belt, broad-striped workout pants, fanciful earrings. And we giggled at some of the horrors. We both knew how to scan rapidly with a highly discerning eye to spot the gems hidden among the monstrosities.
Out of the blue, as we both shuffled through hangers in the “Dressy Tops” aisle, she asked, “Where were you born?”
I told her. “And you?”
She told me.
No years, no further details. Enough for now.
We each found a couple of treasures, and of course for a fraction of the prices of the “better” stores. And then, prizes safely in their bags and cushioned in cheap tissue paper (imitating those better stores), we went to Starbucks.
While she was getting our lattés, I took a furtive glance at my card, making sure to shield it from view. I didn’t want her to see it. Although that might not have been so dire, I didn’t want her to think I was calculating or mining her background for the titillation of it.
We were in love. Not sexual, to be sure—both firmly hetero--but enamored of this new, heady, ever-discovering friendship and finding out as much as we could about each other. Another whisked-by two hours at Starbucks didn’t disappoint.
After this, every time we saw each other, she complimented me—my hair, eyes, skin, hands, clothes. “You’re beautiful!” she cried.
I don’t know what she saw that made her so effusive, but I liked hearing it. My skin was probably the result of my always (almost) healthy diet, some exercise, and the coconut oil I used on my face. I must admit I always chose my outfits with care, even though casual. But I liked to match and was pleased when she exclaimed and complimented my (matching) rings and bracelets.
But, and I was somewhat perplexed at this, she always wore almost the same thing: a t-shirt, either black or white, and black pants, tights, or those jeggings. And the same sparse jewelry—the tiny pierced earrings and a delicate short necklace with stars on it. Seemed like a gift, probably from her husband. Ungenerously, I felt my clothes topped hers. And I went out of my way to keep matching.
Much as I was ashamed at my pettiness, her praise was tonic. Her words helped mitigate my self-image when I looked in the mirror. Instead of a haggard aging, sagging, scrawny reflection, I thought of her words and saw an attractive woman. I smiled and the mirror smiled back.
I kept reminding myself to compliment Leila too. Despite her weight gain, her whitening at the crown was oddly sexy. She was very inventive with her long hair, an afficionado of the fashion magazines, and her hair lent itself to all kinds of styles. So I found things to admire.
After our latest outing, I had a dream. Somehow unable to move, I felt a woman watching over me. She was taking care of me, looking after me in a large room with others branching from it. More people, who were friends, looked on and commented. They didn’t criticize but seemed approving of the care.
After a while in the dream, I started laughing, got up, and started walking around. Maybe I hugged her. I awoke.
Was this Leila? Was it a better version of myself? It haunted me as we planned our next get-together. I’d just read a book by a psychiatrist on the power of dreams and what they tell us. Was this dream telling me I was finally waking from my long isolation without women friends? Was I admitting joy in the new friendship? Was it permissible to enjoy and even relish it, and look forward, maybe excessively, to our next visit?
But I must be clear again. There was nothing sexual about the attraction and my anticipation. I felt warm, comforted, somehow secure in the knowledge of a friend whom I could share anything with and who would support me. Pete had been given me these, but again, the feel was very different.
I watched my email and listened for the phone. Yes, I had work and writing. And she had a family to accommodate—a husband and two grown children, a young man and a young woman, both in their twenties and both living at home with their parents. Maybe, I thought, that’s why she wore the same almost monochronic clothes all the time. Didn’t have to impress anyone.
The daughter went to graduate school and the son was a curator in a downtown art gallery and incipient artist who used the spare bedroom in their very large apartment as his studio. I wondered about their dependency and the parents’ support and tolerance, but the more Leila told me about her home life, the more I realized that she liked the arrangement, even thrived on it.
She was a retired art teacher and, although she still had occasional clients for private lessons, as she said, “I put in my time.” She seemed a natural mother. Now she devoted herself to her children (maybe to make up for past career focus?)—ferrying them around (shades of grade school!) and cooking for them and her overworking husband, the CEO, at different and odd times whenever one or the other wanted to eat.
So, I was solicitous. After all, I had no such obligations now and was in total charge of my time. Of course, I had client promises to fulfill, and the writing always pulled, but I could work anytime without intrusions or responsibilities to anyone. I didn’t mind adjusting when we made a date, and happily we both favored afternoons.
The real test of friendship, though, comes after all the curiosity-burning questions have been explored to mutual satisfaction, and all or enough background has been filled in. Like a forest, where after a while you’ve surveyed, seen, and exclaimed at all the marvelous and variegated proliferation, you can go back on the path in front of you to wherever you were going.
With Leila now, we’re still exploring, and I still have a lot of points on my card list. New things keep popping up, and my desire hadn’t abated to share everything with her.
* * * * * *
We tacitly agreed that a certain Starbucks was our favorite, and the next time we went out without conferring she headed the car there. Lattés in front of us, we settled in and smiled at each other, and I thought how great to have this friend.
She took a deep breath. “You remind me of my mother.”
“She died a few years ago and was my best friend. There’s a similar sense about you—soft-spoken, classy.”
Did the “classy” refer to my carefully chosen outfits? I said, “I can be a fishwife too.”
She laughed and took a long sip.
Her mother? Sure, she was younger than I, maybe fifteen years, but so what?
No, I wasn’t a mother figure or substitute..
I started talking about how I was exercising in the gym. And doing yoga. And biking in the apartment. And stretching every hour. And serving clients and writing.
All to show her I’m active, vigorous, energetic.
She nodded appreciatively. “You’re remarkable,” she said.
That didn’t help—as if I was an exception, an aberration, for my age.
I fell silent, brooding into my latté. Couldn’t deny I was older, but did that sentence me to be a mother substitute? If so, what was I supposed to do? Advise her, comfort her, provide a wise perspective from living so many more years?
When I thought about our previous sharing of situations that arose, we’d done this for each other. Did my being older—or the bald acknowledgment of this—make me more obligated to be the Wise One? I didn’t want this role but a girlfriend, alternatively frivolous, giggling, joking and deep-sharing.
Leila broke into my thoughts. “You look so serious! What is it?”
I couldn’t admit what was bothering me. “Oh, nothing.” First time I lied to her. I took a long sip of the strong coffee. “Well, no, not true.” Felt better already. I hesitated and cleared my throat. “Being compared to your mother. I thought we were—are—girlfriends.”
She looked surprised. “We are, we are! And, you know, saying you remind me of my mother is the highest thing I can say. She really was my best friend. I loved her more than anyone, even my best friend from childhood.” She looked intently into my face and said with finality, “Age doesn’t matter.”
My eyes teared.
Whatever my roles, I will accept them. And give to her as she needs.
I smiled at Leila, reached across the table, and squeezed her hand.
© 2022 Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, and writing coach, Noelle Sterne, PhD, has published over 700 pieces in literary and academic venues. Her handbook addresses doctoral candidates’ nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation. Noelle helps readers reach their lifelong yearnings in Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Website: https://trustyourlifenow.com