2577 words (10 minute read)

2. The Sister-Friend

Only I could break my ankle playing the piano. It’s a gift. A gift I say! A level of clumsiness previously undiscovered in this corner of the cosmos. And as if the sexy ankle boot and crutches weren’t enough, now I get to not work—and not get paid—for six weeks thanks to being less than delicate on the Steinway’s pedals in my orthopedic Lady Gaga shoe.

In all honesty, it was a hairline fracture that the doc said had probably been there for a good while, and the aerobic pedal action during last week’s Mussorgsky at rehearsal was just the wrong motion at the wrong angle at the wrong time. Double sheep shit. As an irksome sidebar to this whole situation, I now have scads of time to sit around my apartment in physical misery and ruminate on the fact that I’m now quasi-unattached. Well, maybe not even "quasi."

I look beyond my elevated right foot over to the bookshelf where a quaint collection of monthly good-boyfriend gifts stare back at me. There are three of them, one for each month we’ve been apart. The first is my name in Korean, elegantly hand painted and beautifully framed. Next is a Japanese fan with a picture of little geishas adorning the accordioned surface. The third is this month’s offering, a boxed set of Thai herbal balls. I think they’re for massage, but I can’t be sure—there was no note. They’re all mocking me. They know Esteban is happier in Nepal or Taiwan or wherever he is today, and probably also realize, as, somewhere, do I, that there is someone else right now offering him the warm coat of herself against the chill of solitude.

I got myself into this situation, so I can’t really blame him. We had a long conversation about "us" over several rum and Cokes the week before he left. He said he wanted to stay with it and give a long-distance relationship a try, but didn’t want to be unfair to me, since we were looking at a long period apart and it wasn’t likely I’d be hopping on a plane to Bangkok to pay him a visit. He said he’d understand if I wasn’t up for it, if I wanted to break things off. I said no, no, we could do it, we could handle it.

In the end we decided we’d stay together, but being the highly evolved twenty-first-century couple we were, said we’d loosen the ties of the relationship a little, though we never really defined what that meant. We were both just too busy being impressed with how complex and emotionally advanced we were. So, technically Esteban and I are still an item. But the truth is right in front of me, in calligraphy ink and lemongrass, and I can read the writing on the wall.

Mills says I should cut him free. That’s been her repeated proclamation over the last few months, as she’s brought me wine, made me sit through stupid movies, and done all those other things that best friends do to help one another through boyfriend drama. Like now, for example. She’s just tuned Spotify to Gett Off Radio and is dancing like a complete wingnut across the room, trying to make me laugh. It’s working.

Mills is the best version of a best friend ever imaginable. She and I have been a matched set since junior high school, when she came loping into my school district, homeroom and life with a package of Nature Valley bars, very odd shoes, and a wicked sense of humor. Back then she wanted to be an actress, and that completely fits, what with her utterly extroverted personality. She was the one to dance on the desk in study hall when someone brought in a radio, she’s the one to narrate her day because she just needs to bounce it off another human being, and she’s the one to love you just because you are. And for that, I love her uproariously. She’s my Laverne and I’m her Shirley, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We live together now not only because it’s fabulous, but because Mills is doing her residency at the Children’s Well-Being Center, a few blocks from Straythern. She works with kids trapped in the microcosm of autism, using those amazing communications skills to coax them into walking longer distances in the larger world. But at the moment, she’s shaking her butt like that’s her one and only job.

"Mills ... stoooppp."

"But Ells, ’twenty three positions in a one-night stand!’"

"Seriously, you’re gonna trip over my foot."

’"I’ll only call you later if you say I can!"’

"Miiiiiiills! I’m straight—this isn’t doing much for me!"

She stopped in mid-twerk to laugh at me. "It better not, Elma, or else we’ve got a whole other conversation to have! But I better damn well do something to lighten the atmosphere around here! So ’let a woman be a woman and a man be a man!’

She continued dancing around the room for a good two minutes more, shakin’ what her mama gave her as well as a white girl from Toledo could, and then, with one more elaborate spin, planted herself squarely on my lap with her legs stretched in front of her on the armrest.

"Ells—you need to go outside now. I love you, but you look miserable. Not in an ’I really need a bath’ kind of way, but in an ’I haven’t seen a tree in two weeks’ kind of way. And you’re lonely—don’t fib and say you’re not. As fabulous as I clearly am, there are certain things I am unequipped to provide in this scenario. So, I have two options for you. One, you can come with me to the Farmer’s Market this morning, and then come back here and pupate while I’m at work, or two, I shall force you to go get a full body wax."

"What! How the heck did you put those two together?"

"Well," she started as she (finally!) eased her tuckus off my thighs, "it’s really two means to the same end. If on one hand you go get some fresh air and blow the blahs away, you’ll look and feel better, you’ll meet a man and hopefully get laid. If, on the other hand, you get a full body wax, you’ll still be depressed but you’ll feel sexier, will go out with me somewhere where the spicy beasts congregate in large, pulsating throngs, and hopefully get laid. Either way, you’re getting some tribal chi and moving beyond Sheila E. all at the same time."

Easy for her to say. Mills was the textbook version of a hottie. Back in the eighth grade, she was the textbook version of scrawny, with toothpick legs, a giant mouth, and kneecaps that you could use for a bongos solo. But rather than making her self-conscious or shy, all that her gawkiness did was cause her to give not half a rat’s ass about what anyone thought—she focused on her brainpower and her personality. While she was engaged in that exercise, all her angles gained some pillow, she grew herself a butt, and turned into the woman you don’t want to stand next to in photos because she makes you look like a construction worker by comparison. Now, I was attractive, I could truthfully say that without being full of myself. But where I had a feature or a slope that was pretty, her version of the same had a quality that threw it right over the line into complex and stunning. And the best part was that she still didn’t give a damn.

And men came and went as she required, plain and simple. Mills was a confirmed bachelorette. She’d put her entire heart and guts into her work, and didn’t really have much left for a relationship. And she’d chosen that route consciously. Be that as it may, she was a beautiful, young, hormonally vibrant woman who had no problem getting what she wanted, and so she always managed to keep herself sated where men were concerned.

I, on the other hand, had always been shy when it came to sex. Other than Esteban, my only lover had been my college boyfriend, and though we had worked through the full primer of "normal sex stuff" and had even moved into some sincerely adventurous and fun experiments like outdoors lovemaking and quickies in a dark room, I was never the type to take the initiative just for the sake of sex. And since Esteban had left three months ago, there’d been nothing and no one. I was happy to concentrate on work, fueling my energy into those smooth black and white keys, and hadn’t given much thought to my libido. Plus, I was kind of an "old soul," content to wait for the pomp, circumstance and the whole enchilada of love, even if that equated to innumerable nights in front of the TV with a bowl of corn chips as I awaited the arrival of my dashing matador of romance.

Mills’ cell phone interrupted my train of thought. After a few "uh-huhs" and a "certainly" or three, I knew from her tone that I had been sprung.

"I’m meeting Dr. Davids for coffee, but that does not—and I do say does not—remove you from your requirement to shop or wax with me. Bye."

With that pronouncement successfully communicated, she grabbed her tote and swept out the door, leaving me to return my gaze to my Korean name. Ah so.

Left alone again to contemplate my navel, I thought about whether or not I was actually depressed. That would be helpful, and open the door to a means of getting rid of the negative emotions in question. However, after further internal inspection, I decided I wasn’t—it was more like I was . . . unfinished. I had the ensemble, I had Mills, and I sort of had Esteban, but was there something else I was missing? I felt a little bit like there was another dimension that I didn’t know was there, so didn’t really feel the lack of, but was vaguely aware of all the same. Moving forward, then, to ask the question "What is it?" really would open a Pandora’s box of questions I not only didn’t have answers to, but didn’t even know how to approach. I mean, who the hell knows? Broadcasting? Archaeology? Zumba?

So, let’s narrow it down. I was a cerebral person for sure. I’d rather curl up with a good book than go wall climbing or play volleyball. In fact, in high school gym class I used to get positively nerve-addled at the prospect of playing any of the team sports they decided to torment us with on a weekly basis. I can run, and I can stretch, so that’s what I do. And, not unimportantly, neither of those activities has any real chance of causing me to break a finger.

I was in the middle of playing when Mills burst back through the door with a maniacal grin on her face. Not unusual. Just as I raised my fingers from the keys, she slammed the door so hard that a huge flock of starlings—which had apparently been having a bird conference on the lawn in front of my window—suddenly took wing as a unit, one gorgeous shadow of movement across the sky. I’d seen them do this before, but the beauty of their silent but complete harmony always left me a little breathless.

"Ells, how much do you love me?"

"I love you a ton, Mills, but right now you’re freaking me out a little, I’ve gotta be honest. You look like Jack Nicholson in The Shining."
She wouldn’t move away from the door, and had this bizarre stance going on. I was clueless what she was up to, but she was definitely up to something. She giggled, bounced up and down a couple of times like she had to pee, and started raving again.

"What do you need right now more than anything?"

"A tranquilizer for you."

"Besides that."

"A side job, so I can afford to buy said tranquilizers for you until I can go back to work."

"Very cute—you kill me, really. No Elma, what you need, and I say this in all honesty from a professional perspective, is a change. You need something new, a challenge, a hobby. And, other than me, you need . . . a companion."

With that last word, she opened the door and shifted her position. In her hand, which she’d been hiding behind her back, she held a leash. On that leash on the other side of the door, and now barreling toward me with joyful abandon, was a Labrador Retriever puppy.

He was completely black, with big paws and a fabulous, wet nose, and he greeted me like we’d known each other for a decade. Who doesn’t love a puppy, but the glee and the relief that coursed through me at that moment were real, palpable, and undeniable.

Mills was as excited as I was, and together I think we petted that poor dog within an inch of his life.

"But where—?"

"Therapy dog in training. Cataract in one eye, just removed, but he was released from the program due to the regulations. Just happened yesterday. Dr. Davids called, hooked me up with the training team, and here we are!"

"But Mills--"

"I know," she interjected, hands in front of her in a peacemaking posture. "Unilaterally saddling you with a responsibility like this would be lame and unreasonable. So, he’ll be mine, technically speaking."

"But Mills," I repeated in my ’let’s-be-grownups-about-this’ voice, "your schedule is ten times worse than--"

"I know." Again with the hands. "I’m going to find us a dog-walker. I’ll tell my mom I need a therapy dog to cope with the mountains of stress at work, yada, yada, and she’ll shell out, no problem."

"But--"

"No."

"But Mills--"

"Shhh. Look at him, Ells. Just look at him. We could both use this, you know? Isn’t he just fabulous?"

He was fabulous, there was no way around it. He sat right in front of me on the carpet, staring and wagging and just full of absolute glee, and damnit, I felt myself being sucked directly into the chasm, with no way out. I was in love.

"What’s his name?" I cooed while caressing his impossibly soft ears.

"Willie. It’s a little "To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before," but it fits, I think. What’s your vote?"
"Willie—it’s perfect." It honestly was perfect, I marveled to myself as Willie nipped joyfully at my toes. We had a dog. Mills had figured out how to disengage me from my romance-related doldrums, require me to get off my butt and take my booted ankle outside a few times every day, and give me a rewarding new purpose as well as a daily partner in crime. She was brilliant, and I loved her.

"I love you too, Ells," she replied, even though I hadn’t uttered a word out loud.


Next Chapter: 3. Creatures of the Wood