when pictures fail me…
Darla and I have been friends since seventh grade—our last names both began with “W,” putting us together in the back of homeroom. My other friends at the time went all the way back to childhood, but now I was thirteen. Darla had come from a different elementary school, making her somewhat exotic to me. I felt an instant connection, and not just because we sat side by side. We clicked immediately over the Beatles and mod fashion that was blitzing American shores from England, and shared a wanderlust that would lead us out of our provincial backdrop to Destiny. Mine, New York City, and hers, England.
I don’t believe in looking over my shoulder at the road not taken. Therefore, it became more and more frustrating for me to talk to my childhood friend in the thrice-a-year phone conversations we were having in the new millennium. Cheerful greetings would soon segue into her recurring lament, issued with the slight British accent that had seeped into her “Pennsylvania Dutch” genes: I never should have moved back here. She meant that she never should have left England and return to the states after losing her husband.
Initially I commiserated, but years went by and this was getting a bit old. I felt like Cher in Moonstruck, ordering Nicholas Cage’s character to “Snap out of it!” In these past nearly two decades, Darla never did. I tried to understand, but felt that she was slowly sinking in that negative sentiment, heavy as cement. And I was the one with the rope, trying to yank her back out.
In a strange way, the self-reproach might have brought her comfort. It was an attitude automatically centering each day that passed since she had uprooted from the home once shared with her British soulmate and husband. Steve had died—suddenly, and too young—when they both were visiting her family over the holidays, stateside. Her whip-smart, funny, adoring partner had an unknown brain aneurysm that ruptured as he slept. She couldn’t do more than be at his side, and her heart broke right then and there. No amount of “acting as if” would snap her out of it.
I learned last evening that Darla has died. A massive heart attack a few days ago, which spared her a long and painful death from a recurrence of the cancer that was recently detected. I wonder if the regret she harbored from making the “wrong choice”—returning to a home that was not home—calcified any will to live a life without Steve, just as surely as those cancer cells took residence in her breast, her bones, and finally, her liver. If so, the speed of the coronary attack was a blessing. And I hope with every fiber in my mongrel spiritual being that she is blissfully reunited with the man she gave her heart to when they were college students in Durham, all those years ago.
That she continued to pay a mortgage on her house (albeit grudgingly) was technically due to the administrative positions she found at various universities near the nation’s capital. But the engine behind the effort was an unlikely friendship she developed with George, a neighbor who lived right across the street. The soft-spoken man with a vintage car collection and two impish dogs couldn’t help but notice that my friend hadn’t a clue nor care in the world about suburban property maintenance. Darla had not anticipated the unwieldiness of American yards, not after the compact walkways and classic English flower gardens back in Britain. She threw her arms up in dismissive exasperation, and George came to the rescue with his hedge trimmer. Nearly twenty years older, he had been happily married to his childhood sweetheart when Darla first arrived, and had no ulterior motives. He was just being a good neighbor to this attractive, dark-haired cosmopolitan stuck in a cul-de-sac.
After losing his wife, George discovered in Darla a true friendship and support system that was fully reciprocated. Over the years, I noticed the foothold of her mention of him gaining ground in our phone chats, balancing out her self-chastising mantra. His attentiveness and empathy while she slowly shared details of her previous life provided her with a steady comfort, a firmer footing on alien soil. His periodic health scares rallied her to create nutritious meals for him, and she reveled in fussing over him and paging through her British cookbooks for suitable fare. She also fell in love with his dogs. She had felt so guilty over dragging her three cats from a cozy, English life that she insisted she couldn’t move again until they passed. That was another reason for staying put in a place she felt was not right. Pest, Runt, and Rudi finally went to that big litter box in the sky at unheard of old ages, thwarting her as only cats can.
I never should have left England. But if she hadn’t, she would never have met George. Tentatively, I would point that out. I sensed that their friendship was as intricate and involved as any love affair, woven as it was with mutual threads of loss that blossomed into a distinct pattern—genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. All within the quilt of a daily routine that—for several hours, over the years—wrapped them together.
I witnessed this firsthand when I visited Darla for two weeks last summer, toting my two cats Tizzy and Mi-ro to a refuge from a personal relationship I was trying to navigate away from the rocks. She talked about selling her house and moving back to England. I helped her go through cartons of magazines and books, and we scrolled the Internet for home sales in Yorkshire. Along the way we butted heads just a bit, but mostly we fell into a pleasant, late summer domestic groove. I realize in hindsight that each of us was also assimilating and accepting the complexities of personality that etch themselves like fine wrinkles into any long friendship.
George came over nearly every day, and Darla and he sat on her deck, sipping wine, chatting and bantering as if they had all the time in the world. In a way, they did. They were truly living in the moment. I sometimes felt I was intruding, but I hope that notion was only in my head, not theirs. “Come sit and have a glass of wine with us,” Darla would insist, as they broke from a conversation that might have been as old as ancestral history or as timely as the day’s news. Silly or serious. Darla loved to talk.
Our own routine during those two weeks was to choose from her tall stacks of British DVDs. She had captured all her BBC memories (with the help of Amazon UK), and was eager to share them with me. We binge-watched detective series the Brits excel at, like Broadchurch, and she cherry-picked things that she thought I would like, interspersed with her own personal whims featuring obscure (to me) British personalities. Toward the end of my stay, we squeezed in the original Alfie, revisiting a time when Michael Caine was a young cad and we were young American girls easily enchanted by a Cockney accent.
It was a true vacation for me—two weeks in a home where my cats and I were utterly pampered. She chose vegetarian recipes (from British chefs, of course) with care and a sense of adventure, and I found myself writing them out in all their intricate detail, promising myself that I would make Spicy Tofu Salad next summer. (And I will.)
We didn’t go out much, but Darla always loved to shop. When she felt up to it, she insisted on getting behind the wheel and we inched into the horrific sprawl of suburban D.C. traffic at the height of road repair season. (I finally agreed with her. This was a truly awful place. She never should have moved here.) One of her joys was finding everything she needed for her pantry at Whole Foods. The other was poking around the sales racks of the nearby mall— we were two old clothes horses not quite ready to be put out to pasture.
Finally it was time for me to head home. I loaded my cats into the car, and Darla and I hugged each other good-bye. Both promising not to let the lines of communication dangle, we followed up with frequent phone calls and little gifts delivered by mail. Darla sent me Patti Smith’s new book, M Train, along with articles from her British magazines on our mutual heroine. I found forty-plus-year-old letters that she had written me after we had followed our trajectories—mine to art school in New York City, hers to university in northern England—and sent her a sampling. She returned mine in kind. We laughed and marveled at who we used to be. And here we were, still friends, fifty years after that prophetic first day of junior high school.
“Do you like the Beatles?” asked the tall, cute girl with the shiny black hair and gold poor boy sweater. “I like George best.”
I liked Paul. We agreed to disagree. Darla, I miss you already.
copyright Sharon Watts