one whole year, we worried about Kate. We worried to her face and worried behind her back, credited her with being tough, while judging her for being pathetic. Some days we thought she was suicidal; others she seemed homicidal, or as if she had the potential, anyway, not that any of us would blame her. We didn’t know how to help. Her sister, Angela, thought she needed therapy, antidepressants, and time to heal. She prescribed hard work and weekend hobbies, like kayaking or photography. Vicki thought she needed to quit wallowing; why not enjoy life as a single woman, celebrate her independence, go out and get laid? The guy who lived below her thought she should turn her music down and leave the apartment from time to time instead of stomping around over his head all day long. The lady at the liquor store suspected she drank too much. I didn’t know what to think. We all agreed she needed to get her ass off the couch and get a life. She needed to stop wearing sweatpants and put on a little mascara, for Christ’s sake. And would it kill her to go on a date? We were tired of the whole thing. Sure, life had thrown a huge piece of shit in her face, but . . .
Actually, there was no but. Life had thrown an enormous piece of shit in Kate’s face.
Whenever the topic of Kate came up, faces got twitchy; eyes got shifty. Our friends would glance at each other and look at me with a mixture of blame and embarrassment, making it clear what they all thought but couldn’t say, at least not around me. I could imagine them whispering, after I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room:
She must feel like it’s her fault.
It was her fault.
Well, she certainly is partly to blame.
Apart from him, it was all her fault.
I know! I mean, if only she had . . .
wonder if she feels responsible?
Yes, bitches. I feel responsible.
To me Kate was something like a figure skater, skilled and balanced one second and then, bam, she’s splayed out all over the ice the next. Music still playing, and she can’t even get up to finish the damn routine.
But before her fall, it was a different story. Skilled and balanced. I remember Kate sitting cross-legged on her bed in our dorm room, laptop open, wearing glasses and retainers, reading an assignment she’d written out loud to us:
Day 1. Sundown. I enter a community living structure after the tribe’s evening repast. I am in the midst of seven female natives, and while I believe them to be a peaceful people, I approach them cautiously, watching from a safe distance. I see them communicating with each other, using language and gestures, drinking an amber-colored beverage out of red, plastic cups, and listening to music that causes them to jerk their heads in unison. I come closer to observe their rituals and seat myself on a contraption that hosts a variety of food particles in its fibers. When I insert my hand under the cushion, I discover a handful of blackened popcorn kernels, a pair of unwashed male undergarments, and two small copper medallions. The women in the tribe see the items in my hand and begin shrieking, gesticulating, and backing away from me. I fear I have insulted these gentle humanoids by unearthing their relics from the sofa, but they are forgiving. One offers me a large vessel, into which I respectfully lower the clothing and kernels. When I start to put in the copper medallions, the female makes a gift of them to me. I will bring them home to share with my people.
Kate looked up, ready for our critique.
“I don’t get it,” Vicki said. She was sitting up in her bed with a Town & Country magazine open across her lap.
“If they’re pennies,” Vicki asked, “why can’t you just say pennies?”
“I like it,” I said.
“Thank you, Chloe,” Kate answered. She was hunched over, reading through her fictional field notes again.
“I didn’t say I don’t like it,” Vicki said. “I just don’t get the point.”
“Can you tell I’m from another planet?” Kate asked.
“Totally,” I assured her.
“It’s inconsistent, if you want me to be honest,” Vicki answered. “How would an alien know what popcorn is?”
“You’re absolutely right,” Kate said, holding down the delete button. “It’s so stupid.”
“You’re a freshman,” Vicki told her. “You’re supposed to be stupid.”
“She didn’t say she was stupid,” I corrected. “She didn’t mean to say that you’re stupid, Kate.”
“It’s no good; I’m starting over again,” Kate said, closing her laptop and getting ready to go. “I’ll work in the Student Center, so I don’t keep you up.”
“We’ll hear you anyway when you come in at two o’clock,” Vicki said.
“She’ll tiptoe,” I suggested.
We had only been roommates for two months, and we had already fallen into our roles. Kate was the bookiest of us. She spent more time in the library and less time in the shower than anyone I’d ever met. Not that she smelled bad or anything. She just couldn’t be bothered. She was a scholar in the making, bingeing on nineteenth-century novels whenever she had spare time, the more passion, suspense, and drama, the better.
“You know you’re wearing pajamas,” Vicki called after her, as Kate walked out of the room.
Vicki was smart and driven in a different way. She was
exceedingly practical, registered for classes only if she found them real-world applicable and down-the-road lucrative. “When would I ever use that?” she asked when I suggested we all take a history class on serfdom in the Middle Ages. She signed up for stats instead. I had to check a map when I first met her to wrap my head around where she came from: a flyover state that she had no intention of returning to. One time I walked into our dorm room to find Vicki looking through Kate’s dresser drawers. Without thinking, I apologized to her.
And who was I? Among other things, my role in our clique was keeper of the peace. I held us together. For four years I bridged the gap, and it wasn’t easy. I was the one who made sure we were always assigned to the same dorm, with rooms on the same hall. I was the one who made plans (Friday-night cocktails and weekend getaways) and posed us in pictures, dressed up or dressed down, with me almost always in the middle. I cleared up misunderstandings and found common ground: in our sophomore year, Kate and Vicki got into a fight about gun control (Vicki’s libertarian principles clashing with Kate’s progressive sensibilities), and I spent an anxiety-filled week negotiating a truce, apologizing to one on behalf of the other, failing a sociology test in the process.
After we graduated from Wellesley, we decided to move to New York as individuals—still as a trio in spirit, but not as roommates. I figured it was for the best, knowing that our friendships would be far less complicated without the petty problems that stem from too much togetherness. I was relieved to move forward into something simple and more adult.
And then Kate had her disastrous triple toe loop ass-on-ice wipeout and suddenly I found myself reentangled, back in the middle of a big mess.