One Friday night it was just Jean and myself in the house. Karen was out on a date. Meredith was gone. She and Adam had reconciled and she had moved back in with him. She had told us, in a quite unnecessarily scathing manner I felt, that no matter what their marital problems, it was better, it was on a more mature plane than the pettiness, the bickering, the turf squabbles that she had to put up with here. We made Adam look good. The last straw had been when Jean dropped an earring down the sink in the downstairs bathroom she shared with Meredith. After a time the drain got clogged, but neither one would take the responsibility or pay the money to have it fixed, so it became a battle of wills, a contest to see who could be the more stupidly stubborn that went on for weeks. Passing their bathroom on my way out the door in the morning, I often saw one of them leaning over the bathtub faucet, brushing her teeth. Either get a plumber or get a way out, and Meredith chose the latter. So she was gone.
Jean was flying to Washington the next day and would be gone for a week and a half. She was sitting on the couch eating her supper, watching the news when I came home. I grabbed a glass from the cupboard and joined her in the living room, my dinner in a paper bag—bagel, tub of whitefish salad, bottle of beer.
“There’s coffee out there; I just made it.” The java addict. It was the one indulgence she pushed.
“No thanks, I’m caffeined out.” I flopped down on the easy chair next to the couch. The governor of Massachusetts, his squinty image flashing across the screen, materialized in front of us touting his universal health care plan. “I sort of like him, you know; he’ll do well in New Hampshire,” I prophesied, using the hem of my skirt for protection as I twisted off the bottle cap. “I might vote for him if he runs.”
“He’s a jerk.”
Something in my face must have conveyed the sentiment that I was sick of her attitude. God, no wonder Meredith left. Get a life. Everything was not always so friggin’ black and white—there was room for, indeed a desperate need for humor, for complex understanding. But who the hell cared what she thought anymore? I knew now that I was okay in my own thinking, more than okay. My work with HRI and more so Ross himself were my validations in this respect. There wasn’t just Jean’s way to righteousness, but many religious paths, and I no longer felt the need to answer to her. I had grown stronger during the last few months and she had lost the power to bully me. (Hello, Jean—do you hear yourself? See what you’ve become?) That look must have gotten through her armor.
She put her plate down on the coffee table and said, “Sharon, the friend I’m staying with in DC?”
“She was seeing a therapist for a while after her divorce.”
“Did it help?”
“Nah. She said he was weirder than she’d ever be.”
“Haaammmmh!” I said, sinking my teeth into my bagel.
Jean went out into the kitchen and poured herself another cup of coffee. She came back and sat back down facing me, feet up under her, on the couch. “So you know what she does now?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“When she’s feeling anxious, like it’s all slipping away from her, she gets dressed up in her best power suit—the whole bit—pantyhose, heels—takes her briefcase and sits in the terminal at National pretending she’s about to take off or meet somebody coming in. When the plane lands or they’re ready to board, she just moves on to another gate.”
I was rather taken with this; it appealed to me on some level, but I didn’t care to admit it. “So she just hangs around the airport for, what, hours? Does she stand at the gate holding one of those little signs like a chauffeur? You know, something that says “EXXON” or something?”
“Whatever. It makes her feel in the thick of things. If she’s really down, she’ll get on the shuttle to New York and then come back again. It’s still cheaper than seeing the shrink. And if the plane crashes . . .” Here Jean shrugged her shoulders. “Cracks me up.”
She picked up her coffee and stared into it, turning serious again, as if her cup had become a priest waiting to hear her confession. “We sometimes joke we have a little competition going—who’s crazier, who can be more unhappy.” She looked up at me, expression uncertain. “She is crazy, you know . . . ” She paused for a moment, lost in thought while I silently poured the rest of my beer into my glass. “So . . .” she continued. “Would you rather be crazy or unhappy?”
“Oh, I’d rather be crazy,” I said without hesitation.
“I chose unhappy.”
Poor Jean. My heart at that moment filled with an overwhelming respect for her strength of will, her willingness to look unflinchingly into the void and not pretend there was anything there. A hard road to travel, not for the faint of heart or mind. I did not agree with her, but I had to admire her. She had a dignified grimness about her that I found compelling, but knew was repellent to many others. Her first husband, in fact, had left her for a less demanding woman, and after a series of half-baked relationships she married again, this time within the fold of Medicine Nonsectarian, only to find she lost the love first. Jean was a bird who couldn’t settle, who couldn’t build her nest, choosing to go on alone and do without if she couldn’t connect with what her heart truly wanted. What exactly that was I often wondered. She became a lonely guardian of the notion of not selling your hopes and dreams to a low bidder just because the buyer you want cannot be summoned, even though this might well mean you’ll be left holding the bag.
So now, some years over thirty, that was exactly what had happened to her—alighting for a time in this starter house, stuck in with a group of sliders, of false starters, dedicated to her work, spending a good part of her life on the road. Slumped in my chair, staring thoughtfully at Jean, it occurred to me that no one touched her anymore. And this terrible isolation was by choice, a frightful gamble not to waste herself on things not really wanted. She seemed to me as pathetic as her crazy friend up there in the air bound for nowhere. Troubled, battered, they managed to maintain a certain grace in a world that sneers at their kind.
“I’m with you, Jeannie—you know that,” I said going over to her, sitting on the arm of the couch, putting my arms around her shoulders, pressing my cheek against her hair. Jean’s defenses were down. Perhaps Meredith’s parting shots smote her, perhaps she was picking up the impending loneliness of losing her punching bag, realizing I was moving on enveloped in a growing aura of happiness to a place beyond her reach. She started to cry, her tears falling off her face, tickling my arms. I tightened my grip on her and we gently swayed together, side to side. Holding her was the kindest thing I could do.