Annabelle was fierce about what was right. Letters were right, and invitations were right, and confidences and emergencies shared. She was soldierly about friendship: It must be like this, it will be like this. She sat me on her settee and leafed through the gilded album of pictures from five months before, explaining the Southern traditions, the rituals of weddings, the habits of her family. She was the third Annabelle in four generations on her mother’s side. I went along, pleased to have instruction. She had a way of letting me know I had the right things coming to me.
Here’s how we met: my boyfriend Jason and I were fairly new tenants in a modest Boston apartment building, slightly run-down, affordable. We noticed the couple at the U-Haul. Usually, we heard arguments in front of our living-room window, which was eye level with the sidewalk. The neighborhood was like that, a bit rough, and scraps of yelling would drift in, the sounds of car brakes, mad kids, doors slammed, so at the sight of two healthy people standing close together and smiling, we paid attention. He towered over her, but—their hair the exact same brown and their telegraphed understanding so complete—at first we thought they were brother and sister. A few weeks later the woman and I said hello by the mailboxes. I was on my way out, but I’d been hoping to run into her and we stopped a minute. She said they were newlyweds. I must have mentioned my birthday. The next week, on the morning I turned twenty-one, I opened my front door to find on the floor a tin of muffins with a tiny pot of jam. The note on heavy cardstock read
For your Birthday.
The strawberry tastes wonderful while the muffins are still warm.
Love from Annabelle Upstairs.
I’d never been above the first level of our building. Their door was ajar, and as I approached Annabelle pulled it open, holding coffee, one hand clasping at her white robe. “Dear Susanna!” She urged the mug forward, pressed my hand around it, and I was awash in celebration. Sunlight spilled across her tiny living room, but we didn’t stop. She led the way. Her husband reclined in their bed, four spindled posters almost to the ceiling; mounds of white linens, tatted edges visible, and him in a white robe, too. She introduced us. “Peter, this is Susanna.” She climbed up, piled her body against his, a look of such infinite gratitude and satisfaction on her face, it made me love her and hate her.
She gestured to the end of the bed, patted the duvet. I stayed in the doorway, only inches from them. Downstairs, her tin was on my kitchen table, our daylight gray, and Jason preparing to leave for the law library. She’d baked this morning, for me. I hardly knew her. Seeing me uncertain, she was gentle and laughing, “Come on, sugarfoot!” I struggled with this warmth, all this cozy invitation, drawn in and cautious. Annabelle regarded me from her delirium of marriage, of beginnings, of a pronounced and beguiling heritage.
• • •
Our friendship exploded, rampant and promiscuous. I was in my last year of college, gearing up for larger academic responsibility, but Annabelle was thirty, had earned a doctorate, had had the wedding. She knew no one else, in Boston because of Peter’s medical residency. She had the bare knowledge she needed, her axis of home, hospital, work, where she was isolated with monotonous data entry. Daily, she urged me, “Come upstairs, come to our apartment,” and up I went, into the foreign reaches of my own building. I was happy to take a break from my senior thesis, and from Jason, month four of living together in our off-campus apartment (“Do you think you could make dinner tonight?”). Her stately furniture was antique, all the way from Charleston. Although the pieces were absurd in our cheap building, I was clouded by envy I had to beat back, how she belonged to these objects and through them understood her own belonging. The cherrywood pedestal table, chairs to match, art, a breakfront, and a sofa with curving lines all cramped the rooms. She had a framed photo of herself in a wedding dress with her mother beside her.
In our first weeks—no, days—we confessed to adoring Hemingway, although as women we’d been trained to resist him, object. But we knew he mattered more than a temporary feminist argument! We found masculinity delicious and essential! We handed each other outrageous secrets, told what we liked in bed, or hadn’t yet dared, raw details of Peter and Jason spilled freely at my kitchen table, frank sexual expression that I’d never shared with a friend so easily before. I loved her greedy whisper as she said “fuck” or “fucking,” her plain revelry. She’s like me, I thought. We explained the important women and sisters, described the scotched friendships, disrupted by rivalries, breaches, unmeant treacheries. Yes, yes. Our pure, driven intensity was too much for most people, we agreed. We were too much, we knew it—so we could be that way together. We shared our confusion about our powerful mothers, mutual permission to say the worst. Annabelle, intrepid topographer, had considered the daughter’s dilemma and seized the power of distance and geography, and I felt allowed in my inarticulate ambivalence. She left Faulkner outside my door, a vintage cloth edition with no jacket, and collections of Keats and Ashbery. Her serpentine inscriptions began, “O dear Susanna,” like proper letters, making the most of the endpapers.
We didn’t see much of Peter. Weekday evenings, Annabelle flew upstairs and cooked a real dinner, which she sealed in containers and took to the hospital. Her generosity was fueled, to my astonishment, by consideration. Jason and I competed, sought ways to score. We loved fucking, but out of bed we waited to see who would do something for whom. Sometimes, returning happy from her quick trip to the hospital, Annabelle tapped at our door. She whispered the day’s delights in my ear, her pride at Peter’s success, as she waved to Jason in the room beyond. I wondered that this smart woman carried on this way, but I began to see that the duty gave her meaningful solace, compensation for Peter’s daily absence, nightly absence. She went to sleep in that high bed, and he returned at three or four. They made love right away, she’d told me, or before she dressed for work. Once, from the stairwell, I heard them, a marvelous violence and oblivion from their apartment. I heard a rougher, more animal Annabelle, even more persuasive.
• • •
When we were together, Annabelle, Peter, and I, we were noisy, a heady unfurling of adventures, of tenor and soprano laughter. This movie, that book! Were you listening to the hearings? Isn’t Greece wonderful, the honey, the ouzo, the lamb? Jason had since moved out, our intermittent nastiness finally full-blown and unlivable, and often, often, I went upstairs for Sunday breakfast, tea at dusk, wine in their pretty goblets. Passing behind Peter’s chair as he talked, Annabelle would lean over and slide her arms down his chest until her chin rested on his shoulder. Her cheek pressed to his, both of them facing me, his long bangs fell into her hair, mixing chestnut and chestnut. I felt them, the force field and mutual possession, and her magnetic reach to gather me, although I wasn’t clear whether I was friend, sister, or charge.
Alone, Annabelle always wanted more of me. I’d finish an answer, but she’d bend to me, one bare foot tucked under her on the settee, and say, “Tell me the rest.” She made me think I had more, and in the beginning I was flattered. Then I felt I should have more when I truly didn’t, and this wearied me. My answers weren’t right. She’d chide me, pull nearer, her hand flattened at her chest. “I know what’s in here, dear Susanna. You can show me.” I groped for safety, reached for the edges. I wanted the ecstatic game and party, but also—Show me the invisible and the silences. Show me the complex task of belonging.
• • •
We walked together down Newbury Street. Peter had a rare day off, which Annabelle turned into festivity. Nobody but Peter made her laugh with freedom and mischief, and she was very giddy. Their divine flame lapped at me. We’d gone to a place they loved for a late breakfast of eggs Florentine. Now we walked in the sun, Annabelle in the middle, holding my arm while her rhapsodic gaze greeted her husband. Sexual franticness was always between them. We stopped into little shops, a makeup store, where I let the saleswoman dab shadow over my eyelids while Annabelle and Peter browsed with aimless pleasure, hand in hand. I owned hardly any makeup, and festive and expansive myself, I bought it.
Outside Annabelle said, “Well, sugarfoot. That’s not a good color on you.”
“No. You should wear more pinks. Don’t you think, Peter? Plums and pinks on our glorious Susanna?”
“The woman in the store liked it,” I said.
“Well, she’s paid to say that, isn’t she?” She pulled me closer by the sleeve, firm possession. “Never mind, we’ll find you the right color sometime.”
Once home I left the coppery pressed powder in the bag. Then the bag went into the cabinet under the bathroom sink. When I moved I packed the unopened shadow, and it traveled from one life to another until I tossed it, but only after it had become perplexing clutter in a drawer, had lost its burnish of Annabelle.
• • •
After college I moved to New York. My father was growing sicker. His doctor walked me to a corner of the apartment and hinted at impending change. At first I didn’t understand what he meant, and then I did. My plans would be altered. Instead of going to England for graduate school, I would stay, live nearby for his last year, be a comfort, learn him better. “Of course you will,” Annabelle said on the phone. She believed in family decrees, the historical solemnities that told you who you were. She revered the power of matriarchs, and she adored fathers, understood the exact sort of softness they wanted from daughters. She came for a weekend, and she flirted jovially with my father, let him flatter her. I knew just that excitement but was trying to outgrow it.
When I fell in love with a new man, I brought him up from New York to meet Peter and Annabelle, and we went out to dinner. Noah was definitely a serious boyfriend, and in the ladies’ room, Annabelle and I celebrated my efforts. On the return train I was sad, I told him, that I lived apart from her, my jubilant guide and champion, the one friend who fueled my burn and reveled in the feisty necessity of wanton spirit. He didn’t get it.
Then, age twenty-four and thinking I knew what I needed to know, I decided to marry Noah.
Annabelle called me up one night. I gave her reports of my wedding plans, remembering each detail of hers—how her mother and sisters were dressed, the sprays of corsage against the chocolate shimmer of their gowns, how her mother had almost stayed in the background, for once.
“December, we think,” I said.
She said, “Peter and I don’t like him.” Words died in my mouth. “Peter and I don’t trust him.” She told me I was headed into mistake, that I was acting out of fear about my father’s health. “Don’t confuse your men,” she said, her tone firm. I didn’t repeat this to Noah, but I went over it, growing angrier with her, a real wedge that threw me into distress. How could she? How dare she? Would I still call her my best friend? I didn’t want to be told that unconscious anxiety dictated my choices. Later, when I left Noah—invitations, band, dress, cases of champagne, all canceled—I wouldn’t have said it was Annabelle, because by then other problems had eclipsed that conversation, but I’ll admit she’d seen harm imminent, and seen it long before I had.
• • •
Annabelle was the first of my friends to have a baby, and when she delivered, I took the train up right away. I didn’t bring the baby a gift, wasn’t clear on the customs. I brought presents for Annabelle: a long Victorian novel for her empty hours, a pair of delicate drop earrings, and a black lace camisole, “for later,” I said. We’ll fix this, return order. Sex will prevail. Annabelle showed no interest, eyes trained on her newborn. Peter leaned against the bedpost and talked to me. The box with the tissue paper was pushed to one side of the bed, waiting to be taken away. I was confused and replayed the steps I’d followed, looking for some mistake: didn’t Annabelle want to be reminded that she wasn’t only mother, that she would recover from the distended belly and glory again in the mania of a passionate body? That’s what I’d want. I was offering her the recognition that a baby wouldn’t define her. It seemed, though, that that was not what she wanted at all.
In a matter of quick, troubling weeks, we had little left in common, the friendship knocked from prominence. I let her talk through every shift, sensing that’s what would secure our connection. I discarded content—ounces of weight gain and engraved silver cups sent by formal cousins—which I deemed irrelevant, and listened for Annabelle’s charms and vigor, her erotic growl. She was drowsing in the big new love, the outside world gone. All her generous attention left me, poured over the child. I wish I could say I learned something—how much sacrifice of self a baby demanded, for instance—but I was listening for what was left of me in her life.
• • •
One evening I called. Peter was mostly at the hospital, his hours stepped up, and Annabelle was isolated. Poor Annabelle, I thought, who needs so much brightness, and the bigness of sex, and poems with glorious, unexpected configurations, everything I’d need: stuck alone in her apartment with a baby.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Well, hi, you.” There was effort.
In a voice of awful stillness she said, “Something happened.” She told me: It was a beautiful morning. The baby was a dream, cooing, kicking. They lay on the bed. When the kettle whistled, Annabelle tucked pillows around him and went to brew tea. I knew that teapot, another pretty and precious thing, handed down by the many women. She returned to the bedroom, and her baby’s face lit up at the sight of her. She set teacup and saucer on the covers, leaned over, and smiled at her soft, new son. The baby gave a quick, regular spasm, which overturned the cup, and the liquid spilled out. “It burned him, Susanna.” Annabelle said this slowly, as if having memorized a great text but unsure I would see every detail. I saw. She told about the burn unit, the scarring and the grafting. All the vocabulary was terrible. We both knew Annabelle had made a mistake. We both kept seeing that teacup upright, before it became the story of the teacup. I wouldn’t have my first child for another seven years, but then the story would return to me. Then I properly felt its horror and grasped the passionate anguish of my old friend.
• • •
After her twins, Annabelle disappeared completely into the opaque realm of motherhood, to me a dusty replica of herself. We’d been friends about five or six years. I’d made the effort with the first child, celebrated the new birthdays, stuck the baby’s photograph on my fridge door—the sun spotlit his hairless head, his mother lying on the grass behind him, an arm around his waist to prop him up. That direct Annabelle look into the camera of rigor and right and satisfaction. But with the din and demand of three children, Annabelle could never return calls. Of course not; it was up to me to keep calling, and, of course, I called less.
I was visiting Boston one time, and I phoned last-minute, excited to surprise her, and she invited me over. Our reunions, especially as they’d grown rare, carried a necessary importance for me, benchmarks as I presented my major developments to someone who had been invested a long time in my happiness. It was pleasant in their new house, with the bright fabrics, and generous space for the distinguished heirlooms, and the framed wedding tableaux set out on a grand piano. We were on her settee, the twins asleep in another room, the boy at fierce play on the rug, humming a sweet babble that didn’t distract me.
Annabelle patted my leg. “Tell me, Susanna. What have you done with your Boston days?”
Friends, I said. Bookstores, movies, a walk along the Charles.
“And what else?” This comforted me, our old way retained.
“Well, what?” I said. “Oh, I know.” I’d run into a boss from an early job. We’d had coffee. “And then he walked me to my car. We were chatting about the usual, his kids, his wife, and then he said, ‘I really want to fuck you.’” I felt a queasy thrill reporting this, myself center-stage desirable and the boss weak with lechery.
Annabelle said slowly, “Why are you sitting here, Susanna, telling me this, this, this unattractive story?”
Easy: long ago you and I bonded over the blatant dreams in the faces of men. We knew we could assess their obvious longing as they eyed our breasts, our mouths, our loose hair, as they shifted on their feet to close the air between us. We knew the uncanny fever we inspired in empty classrooms, as our professors flattered our minds, thought they seduced us; the bosses made pliant and ours because of our unequivocal, unafraid eye contact.
“I cannot understand why you imagined I’d want to hear this,” she said. It happened to me, I thought, dismayed; you always wanted to know what happened to me. We were quiet, the child’s song bumping against my dim confusion. I kept hearing my voice say “I really want to fuck you,” hearing “fuck” as if it were made of glass and rag and kerosene, a little bomb in my possession. Without agreement, Annabelle had dismissed sex, disowned her wonderful “fucking,” and I didn’t know where that left me.
• • •
When my first son was born, I sent out the announcements, and soon Annabelle called. We lived a country apart, her Cape, my Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t remember how long it had been since we’d seen each other, years of her kids’ stages and dogs acquired and divergent tastes formed. Her eldest was in first grade, her twins out of babyhood. As before, she knew vastly more than I did.
“Peter and I were talking,” she said with determined pleasure. I could picture the engaged face, and with a tiny excitement I sensed I’d recaptured her interest. “We wondered if you would like a very big box of pears or a very little box of steaks.” I stuttered, could find no comment. “What would you like, dear Susanna?” She meant to celebrate, but my mind was stiff with distress at what I’d done by becoming someone’s mother. I knew Annabelle wouldn’t get this, her own right family habits secure enough to make her sure of her many roles. Pears, steaks; big, little. Annabelle’s choices, when I was feeble with exhaustion. I sought the answer she wanted, wanted to be what she wanted, and then didn’t give a shit.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Now, come on, sugarfoot, what do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well. You tell us when you do.” The warmth was gone, as if my not choosing was intended to wound her. I’ve failed her, I thought; my home, I felt, was already stuffed with failure. Suddenly formal, we said a strange good-bye.
• • •
A couple of years ago Annabelle called out of the blue and plunged us into our impressive conversation of novels, criticism, exhibits, her need to know, my compulsion to tell, our respective passions reinforced. We were guided by the terms of the youthful friendship.
“And your father,” she said. “Is he well?” He was well, had never succumbed to the possible emergencies of his health. “He must be terribly proud of your book? Is he?”
“Oh, Annabelle, ha. He told me I’d written The Magic Flute.” I was flat with this. My father hadn’t mentioned the contents of the memoir as he pointed out parallels of operatic structure. He congratulated himself devilishly on the genius of his interpretation.
Annabelle was ebullient. “How wonderful, Susanna. Don’t you see? He compared you to Mozart.”
I couldn’t argue with that.