The One Thing We Couldn’t Talk About

When the bad news finally arrived, neither one of us — dear friends for 60 years — knew what to say.,


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It was late at night when the phone rang. I lived alone with my dog and didn’t expect anyone to be calling. I rightly assumed that only bad news arrived at this hour. I had recently experienced a series of plagues. Flies. Rats. Bats. Divorce. And now Covid.

“It happened,” my oldest friend said when I picked up.

We had known each other for so long we could speak in shorthand.

“Tell me,” I said.

“I can’t talk. Not this time.”

It was that terrible dark spring when we were all first in quarantine, and if she couldn’t talk, then I knew what had happened. I knew, because for nearly our entire lives we had never stopped talking.

We had met when I was 5 and she was 4, so I had always been the older, but not necessarily wiser, one. In kindergarten we had gotten together on Saturdays to walk through our neighborhood, talking nonstop. Hers was a nice left-wing family who had regular dinners and whom I found to be comforting compared to my own household, where all hell frequently broke loose and there were never any rules.

She and I talked through grammar school and then high school. We talked through bad boyfriends, one of whom we shared and who was later arrested for murder. We cut school and took the subway to Murray the K’s all-day concerts at the Fox Theater in Brooklyn. We wore black eyeliner, listened to the radio day and night, were secret readers, fell in love with the wrong boys, wore short skirts and plotted.

What we wanted more than anything was to have a different life than the ones we were living in Franklin Square, N.Y., where nothing happened or ever would. It was a planned community, built after World War II for returning GIs and their families. Every house was the same, and it seemed to us that every family was, too, except for ours. In the other houses, the mothers stayed home, the fathers disappeared on the Long Island Railroad, boys played baseball, girls had to mind their manners.

Our families were different. Her mother worked and their family was involved in politics. My single mother was a social worker, a bohemian free spirit, who often left me and my brother alone when she went off to Florida with her boyfriend, assuming we would figure out how to do laundry and get dinner for ourselves — which we did.

My friend and I felt different too. She was a talented artist and a musician who went to summer camp with brainy, arty kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx. I was drawn to heroin addicts and guys who played the guitar, and I spent as much time as I could at the library with my own addiction, reading novels.

What she and I had in common, what truly bound us together, was that we were desperate for the future. We shared a deep hatred for our working-class suburban town just over the city line from Queens, and we planned to get out as soon as we could. The future was waiting for us in London or New York City or Boston. Someday soon we would meet our destiny.

Throughout this time, she always confided in me, and I told her everything. Well, almost everything. I never mentioned that one summer while she was off at camp, her boyfriend decided that he and I were meant for each other. He was a good-looking guitar player, and I was keeping an eye on him for her. We often got together to sing her praises, and then one beautiful day he told me that the plan had changed. It was going to be him and me. When he lurched forward to kiss me, I nearly laughed out loud. I said, “Are you crazy?”

We were alone in a field where mysterious and sometimes illegal things happened. We were stoned and young. Also, he was so handsome and sullen, just my type. But it didn’t matter. I truly thought he might be crazy. What on earth had led him to believe I would ever betray my close friend? My dear friend, who was probably protesting the war at a rally near her summer camp in upstate New York.

When I told him there was no “us” and never would be, he was furious. As much as I tried to explain the situation, he didn’t seem to grasp the concept of loyalty. He had no idea that there was such a thing as girl code. In layman’s language, the code was simple and never changed: Keep your hands off my boyfriend. I didn’t tell her about this encounter when she returned. I didn’t want to hurt her and what was the point?

Not surprisingly, they drifted apart without any input from me. After high school, she and I went in different directions. We still talked but not as often. She moved to Massachusetts for college. I left high school early, skipped college, then went to night school before heading to graduate school in California.

In time, we both wound up in Cambridge, Mass., and even though our separate, busy lives made it impossible for us to get together and walk, we kept talking, aware that our friendship would never include our husbands; it was a circle of two, just as it always had been.

When my husband abruptly left me seven years ago for a friend of mine, she helped me through the wreckage of my marriage with nightly phone calls for a year. And even when I recovered, with the help of hypnosis, therapy and strong doses of reality, we never stopped talking.

But now, on this night in the dark spring, for the first time, she had nothing to say. Words were too painful. Her beloved husband of 27 years had been ill for several weeks with a mysterious and painful illness that had spiraled out of control. Because of Covid, she was forced to drop off her terrified, disoriented husband at the emergency room entrance, until at last she was allowed to visit.

Finally, there was a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, horrible at the best of times, even more horrifying now. When it became clear that nothing more could be done, she took her husband home and saw him through his death, arranging every detail, from a hospital bed to a raised toilet to hospice to friends delivering food. When it finally happened, she was in the kitchen getting his painkillers — the first time she had left his side.

Knowing how deeply he had loved her, I wondered if he had waited for a moment when he could leave her with a memory not of agony but of peace, a last gift.

Afterward, because of Covid, there was no funeral and no way to share the grief other than a few visits when friends brought groceries or casseroles. I called every night, and after a while she started talking again; she talked so much that I knew all I needed to do was listen. But it soon became clear that in this lonely time, talking wasn’t enough.

That was when we began to walk, just as we had in kindergarten, only now we wore masks. We met every Saturday when the streets were deserted. It was just the two of us and my sheepdog, Shelby. During one of our walks, I finally told her what had happened that summer she was away.

“It’s fine,” she said, completely unruffled. “I know you’d never betray me.”

On another Saturday we learned that the boyfriend we had shared had been in an accident and died, and we talked about all of the impossible, ridiculous things we had done when we were young and searching for love.

I had never found it, but she had.

Even though she was in the throes of grief, I knew how grateful she was for her long marriage, just as I knew despite the difference in our fortunes there had been another love story, one we had shared for more than 60 years. For all that time we have been walking and talking, through a failed marriage, disastrous family matters, true love and betrayals, and now heartbreak and grief.

We have never cared if there’s wind or rain. We don’t care if it’s a burning hot August day. We’re not worried about bad weather and we’re certainly not worried that we’ll run out of things to say. We knew each other when we were girls sitting on the front steps of our houses, desperate to find a way out. Because of that, and because we will always trust each other no matter what, we’ll be meeting this Saturday.

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than 30 novels, the latest of which, “The Book of Magic,” will be published next week.

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