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Rowing the Pool

A friend of mine, a brilliant woman whom I knew for six years, was a natural at confrontation. Discussions could feel like they were being held in a room filled with eggshells and spun glass. We'd be speaking along, cruising at high speed through high and low subjects, and then I would say something. Along came the pursed lips; the eyes narrowed behind her expensive glasses. Or on the phone—I'd be chattering away until I noticed a clear silence. It would last for almost a full minute, and finally she would say: “hmm,” and now she and I stood on either side of a turbulent river and the bridge was out. Start rowing.

One summer a few years ago we were hanging out with many mutual friends at a house in Connecticut. She was very ill—this was the halfway point between the botched surgery that ruined her life and her death. She was sitting by the pool, and I was swimming. We were talking in a half-assed way. I forgot about the eggshells for a moment and said something that offended her, and she told me to go fuck myself. She'd been driving me crazy all weekend, so I said “okay!” and dove to the bottom of the pool, where I thought: I am done. And when I surfaced the friendship was over.

.  .  .  .  .  

“I don't talk about it as a rule,” she'd told me over the phone once. “But since you asked, yes. I am in terrible, constant pain. I am in pain when I wake up and pain keeps me from sleeping. Literally every moment of my life there is pain, except when I am on Vicodin, and if I stop taking that, my hands shake.”

I heard her drink from a bottle of soda, the omnipresent liter bottle of Diet Coke. “All that pain,” she said, “has made me a difficult person.”

She was tactile, likely to take your hands in hers as you were talking. This is a rare quality and implies a certain bravery. “Will you fix my back?” she'd ask. Of course. She'd lie down on her bed and I would put equal pressure on both the top left shoulder and the right of the spine. She was big and could take all the pressure I could give. Underneath the fabric of her shirt, I knew, was a huge scar where her spine had been exposed after the hospital screwed up, but I never saw it. I just fixed her back. Then she'd cook me dinner.

“You never knew the old me,” she'd say. “I was a force of nature. I think that the old me is coming back.”

After the poolside fight we didn't speak for a day, and then, right before she left, she asked me to fix her back. I went into a bedroom and she stretched out. I applied cold-handed pressure, feeling bored and annoyed. She thanked me, then showed me some old photos. “Here I am,” she said, “ten years ago. I was a dish.”

Once, she said: “I always feel that I fuck up the photos. My hipster friends are standing around thin and smiling and I'm just this huge bitch with a cane.” I loved her, but right then, looking at the old pictures, I saw only the bitch with a cane.

.  .  .  .  .  

Months passed. We sent short emails. Neither one of us was willing to be so disappointed again. Then, last March, something in my upper right thigh tore in two, and I was in a different world. There was no way to keep my chin up, no way to walk it off. Whether I moved or stayed still, it felt like railroad spikes were being driven into my body. I drank much of a bottle of whiskey with a dozen aspirin, but it didn't even damp the pain. The next day I half-crawled to the doctor's office, and spent the next six weeks in a prescription-painkiller haze.

As I popped Vicodin I began to think of her. When I could sit down again I wrote an email:

Lying on the floor with my hot water bottle helped put a lot of our weirdness in perspective. You went through this, but times 100. You were difficult to interact with back then because you were truly out of your mind in physicals agony.

I sent her that email and then I worried. Trying to say that I understood what she'd been through—she could read it as condescending and we'd be on separate shores again. A week passed, two. I called her, and she asked about my leg. It was better, I said. She told me she had read my email ten times, taking it in. I told her that I understood that she hadn't wronged me with the slights and criticism; that I had figured out how, through sheer bluster, she was able to portray herself as someone who could deliver the news straight. That was the last rowing I ever had to do. The friendship was repaired when my leg was torn up.

A lot of people were frustrated with her because she couldn't make reality match the person she wanted to be. She made promises she couldn't always keep. And she knew how difficult she was being, and she knew it would take her a long time to fix the broken aspects of her life, but she could not stop now; it was so much work just to get out the door. She was deep underwater, and she had to swim upwards, but she was determined to kick until she surfaced.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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