I always felt relieved to see Claire because she inevitably had a lot on her mind. Talking with her gave me an opportunity to get out of my own head, which was also full but not of useful things, nothing I wanted to discuss with other people.
At 34, Claire was tall and striking, the woman everyone watched at a party. She was born in a sunny state to cardiologists who still paid for her phone plan and promised to help with a mortgage on a house, should she ever settle down. One thing I liked about Claire was that she didn't hide her luck. She could admit she was generally happy, even though her life always seemed like an entertaining mess: a series of girlfriends she wanted to marry until they proposed, a boring temp job to pay the rent while she wrote her danceable breakup songs, and a successful younger brother her parents always compared her to.
Whenever I drove into town—which wasn't often anymore—Claire and I met for coffee or lunch, and she would launch right into the latest dilemma. She was a captivating storyteller, with a gift for narrative structure and the perfect, telling detail. Even though another person might have come across as self-absorbed, Claire always managed to pull me right into her life the way my favorite books had as a child.
The last time we met, she was getting over a three-day visit from her parents. They stayed with her and her girlfriend in their tiny apartment and, in spite of Claire's initial fears, the visit began well, with everyone happy to see each other.
Her parents were physically vigorous and enjoyed the outdoors, so Claire and Elise took them canoeing. The bright day cast a general glow over most of the afternoon, during which they had a picnic on the riverbank, with a view of other boaters passing and waving.
As one particularly enthusiastic kayaker wished them well, Claire's mother remarked how friendly Midwesterners are, in comparison with most Americans. That's when Claire noticed her parents giving each other little eyebrow signals, and she immediately felt annoyed.
Her mother and father had always been snobs about the Midwest. When they visited, they came laden with oranges and ripe cheeses, as if Claire lived in a food desert and not a collegetown full of hipster organic-farmers. And of course there were her Midwestern girlfriends. Claire knew her parents were afraid she might marry one of them instead of the college boyfriend they had preferred (the tall engineer from Stanford) and never move back west.
But as she watched her mother and father, she noticed how warmly they smiled at Elise. And her opinion shifted again. How could they be upset about Elise—beautiful as a fluffy new sweater and responsible with her money?
Claire's next thought, and this was much worse, was that one of them was terminally ill and afraid to tell her in front of Elise, with whom she'd been living for just two months and could hardly be counted as part of the family.
So Claire made a space the next morning to be with her mother and father, while Elise was teaching a water aerobics class to senior citizens at the YMCA. She made breakfast and a huge pot of dark roast coffee for all of them to drink while they read the Times. When they all had their newspapers open in front of them, her chest pulsed with happiness at her life: a small but tidy home, a solid relationship, and a job she didn't like but would leave for in an hour like a grownup. In short, she felt the most together she'd ever been around her parents, and prepared for what was to come, even if it meant moving home to help take care of one of them, should that be what they needed.
But that wasn't it at all. When she asked if they were well, her father grimaced. Never been better, he said, his mouth full of oatmeal.
Her mother said, We're about to invest a lot of money in Patagonia, in fact.
For a minute no one spoke. Claire's parents were as attuned to the power of a good pause as she. Finally, she asked what the hell they were talking about.
It turned out that Claire's brother, the successful attorney, had fallen in love with an Argentinian woman while traveling with friends in South America. The woman owned the Patagonian hostel he'd stayed in. He was moving next month to be with her and help run the place.
And help raise her daughter, Claire's father added.
Yes, Claire's mother said, the woman has a child.
Now Claire felt torn. For years, her brother had told her she was wasting her Ivy League education on odd jobs. Yet now he was the one prepared to give up his practice and become part of the business sector he most abhorred, the hospitality industry. On the one hand, Claire was relieved that her parents were healthy and that it was her brother disappointing them for once. On the other hand, she envied him. She hadn't traveled abroad or used her Spanish in years. She had never loved anyone enough to give up everything to be with them. All she'd given up to move in with Elise was a cat she was allergic to anyway.
To make matters worse, her parents had agreed to pay for a lavish wedding in Argentina, a country they'd never visited, so that the woman's family could attend.
Couldn't they try living together first? Immediately, Claire knew it was the wrong question to ask.
Her parents became quiet, and she felt herself falling under the appraising gaze she was more accustomed to.
What about you, they asked. What do you want for your future?
Oh god, she said. Here goes.
This girlfriend, her father said, seems like a keeper to me.
It's too early to tell, Claire said. I just moved in!
And then they plagued her with a series of familiar questions: didn't she want to have a baby one day? A house with an actual guest room? A job she was proud of instead of one where she sat in front of a computer all day and answered phones for people with more influence than her?
It was at this point that Claire sighed and set her cup of coffee down. The clink of it brought me back into the life around me: the students' faces turned blue by their laptop screens, the grinding of beans behind the counter. My chair felt too solid, and a draft from the nearby door blew meanly at my ankles. Claire smiled her miraculous smile, roused by inhabiting the voices of her disapproving parents.
Anyway, she said, I've talked the whole time. Same old same old, right? She laughed. What about you?
I wanted her to keep talking. Whenever Claire became aware of me not just as an audience but a person with concerns and hungers, the air between us shifted and left me feeling unbalanced and hollow. But to appease her I provided a brief summary of my life that included fractious faculty meetings and of my sensitive child, burdened with hours of homework at the age of seven.
I skimmed over the impending separation from my husband, my insomnia, and the great surges of emotion that sometimes left me weeping stupidly in my office with the door closed and locked. Not because I didn't want Claire to know, but because it bored me to talk about.
Eventually I turned the conversation back to Claire. Would she bring Elise to her brother's wedding in Argentina?
Claire shook her head. She'd decided to take the opportunity to travel for a few months, be alone, and write new songs inspired by the people and landscape of South America. There's nothing keeping me here, when it comes down to it. She looked around the little café as if were suddenly provincial.
My drive home came as a relief—an hour between the mainland of my old friendship and the island of my home, which, in the ways of islands, left me feeling isolated from former versions of myself. Once upon a time, hadn't those selves wanted the things I currently possessed?
My husband never liked Claire. He found her flakey, and it was true she sometimes canceled plans at the last minute. What we couldn't agree about were Claire's stories, which my husband described as trivial. This slight bothered me as much as if I'd told the stories myself. How could I convey to him the power Claire had, the joy she provided? As I held her in my head, her voice rising and falling in imitation of her parents, her girlfriend, the new sister-in-law she could already imagine befriending, I felt the satisfaction of the child whose bedtime story is not yet complete, who will go on listening to the words until her eyes are closed, until she is asleep and dreaming peacefully.