We leave St Cloud via 9th Avenue, past our old house. The kids crane their necks, as if looking harder at it will enable them to see more, see through the walls, see the past. I slow the car down enough to note plastic shopping bags, several, snagged amongst the Dogwood hedge in the front. How can I help but sigh? It was a beautiful house. It was another life.
I moved to St Cloud six months pregnant, after I quit my job at the bookstore and threw my lot in with a stand-up guy named Dave. He bought us a neat little rambler on a cul de sac and I spent the remainder of my pregnancy painting the house, sewing curtains and swimming. I burned up minutes on a long distance card with my old friends in the cities. I knew no one, and with no job, had no means of meeting anyone new.
Veronica was born in spring, and I walked her in the stroller all over our deserted neighborhood. Every other house I passed had a swing-set in back, and every one was eerily empty. As were the parks. As were the streets. I returned to our empty house and fretted over baby. We made daily errands of dubious necessity. My house was very clean. I baked bread for goddsakes. When Dave came home I lunged at him and talked without stopping until he invented some yardwork or errand to escape my cloying presence.
I am not a joiner, but I arrived at the Le Leche League meeting early and sat, sweating, with Veronica in my lap. I checked out every new mom and baby couple with the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist. I participated enthusiastically and quite possibly cried more than once. In gratitude. I sensed a slight evangelical undertone in the attitudes towards breastfeeding, but didn’t really care. I had found women, and at least a few seemed like they might be friendly. They told me about a play group at a local park next week. I couldn’t wait.
The play group was utter chaos. Toddlers and infants all knocking around while seven mothers with too much to say fought for the conversation. I sat at the picnic table across from Peggy while she nursed Wren. She too had moved from the cities, when her son Tennessee was born, three years ago. I didn’t track many details, but I knew two things: she knew who Lifter Puller was, and she had hung out on the West Bank. She was literally probably the only person in Saint Cloud who could claim this. Over the course of the next months, we lingered late after play-group, and talked until we were hoarse and our kids were screaming.
I picked up Artemis a bit later. She would bring over Wyatt, who was four months younger than Veronica. He began chasing her at birth and will, I predict, until she either marries him or someone else. Artemis confided she wasn’t married to Wyatt’s father, and I confessed that Dave and I weren’t married. We admitted we smoked. We admitted to many things. We met in the afternoons at parks, or in our living rooms, or walking around the mall where people mistook the babies for twins, and we assumed that meant they took us for lesbian partners.
Dave and I moved out of the cul de sac and across the street from Artemis and Jeff. Peggy bought a house near the hospital. I got a job. We met other moms. We formed and broke circles of friends. I had another baby, my father died. We fought with our husbands. Artemis and Peggy finished school. We drank too much. Our kids went to the same Montessorri School together, where we volunteered cleaning the classroom and gossiping about the teachers and fellow students. They were my emergency contacts on all my paperwork. We watched each other’s kids. We watched them grow. We grew.
The night I told David I was leaving him, I left the kids with Peggy. After that dread talk, I walked across the street to Artemis’ house. Peggy left the kids with Steve and drove over. We sat on the back patio, mostly quiet, with me uncharacteristically dry-eyed and shell shocked. I had a duffel-bag of toiletries inside, and I would be staying up-stairs in the extra apartment for the time being. From there I would move three more times before leaving town for good. Artemis was in Brooklyn Park within the year. Peggy was teaching full-time and pregnant when I left.
We keep in touch. Peggy’s voice is like a balm to me, she validates my feelings and behavior with such skill I will believe anything she tells me about myself. Once I called her, hung over and groaning, “Ohhh, I had too much to drink last night… ” She interrupted me before I could go any further to say, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were fine. you were fun. You were just drunk.” A friend that can sense and dispel self-loathing that fast is truly indispensable.
Artemis and I talk often. She has a way of distracting me away from my narcissism, where in I will talk on and on about some imaginary crisis at length and after a long pause she says, “I need a good cheese cake recipe. What have you got?” It’s really quite effective.
As for why they keep in touch with me, I can only assume they like to feel needed.
Now, our St Cloud visits make me melancholy. As soon as we get there, the kids evaporate. They fall in with the gaggle of kids they know like cousins. The adults take their place around the familiar kitchen at Peg and Steve’s. There will be soup, Peg will do the dishes every fifteen minutes or so. We circulate, we catch up, we pass the baby Cedar around. We used to drink wine, but now it’s coffee. We fall into conversation easily, we are still friends, but it all makes me homesick for the time when we were inseparable.
Later, alone at the glass patio table in back, I will remember a summer of Friday nights spent in that very chair. The kids ran wild until twilight while we drank wine. Neighbors and husbands would come and go, but we moms held court until long after the kids went down. We spilled our guts those nights. We ranted about politics, we confessed our regrets, we compared our marriages. Shit went down. It was the summer before everything changed. Like the summer between high-school and college, we were in limbo. Setting the stage for the next chapter, only we didn’t know it then. We just let it pass in the manner of teenagers, high on the ease of friendship and smell of the garden at night.