A View from the Bridge

While other more practical women linger at cosmetic counters or gyms when they turn forty, I find myself exploring a strange graveyard of the mind. Idling at stop lights or running by the lake, I return to the old bones of past relationships -- lost lovers, childhood friends, college buddies. The headstones stretch back into the distance in crooked rows, like baby teeth I lost in order to grow these permanent ones. It's not that my present life is missing something, I think, it's just that as I cross the arching bridge from what I hope is the first half of my time to the second, I can see from this higher vantage point the mounting loss. 

So many of the people who helped carve who I am are no longer part of my life: Neal (college boyfriend whom I last ran into five years ago when my son was a newborn), Lisa (best friend on and off from 3rd-6th grade until she became a cheerleader and I a geek), Francesco (grad student from Italy, cooker of great home-made tomato sauce, fall semester 1984), and so many other boys, girls, men, women. All our old dealings lie there now in the dark, moist earth, decaying like my ability to remember them.

Sometimes my old buddies visit me as ghosts, disguised as strangers I pass in stores or on the sidewalk. Like real dead people or movie stars, they are still so young, trapped by my imagination and the last vision I have of them when we were still intimate. Sometimes I go searching for them-like at Christmas when my mother sends me to the store and I test every forty-something face for the eyes of a long-lost seventh-grade confidante. Alas, I've not yet found one. So many once tender intimacies have fallen like mown grass to the unpredictable blade of distance (emotional as well as geographical) or time (passing or the lack of it) or the accident of sudden growth or difference.

When I think of the men, with whom I shared my body not just my life, there are only a couple whom I'd even want to have coffee with. The rest have already taken up enough time in my life and brain, thank you ever so very much. But the women . . . no matter how long it's been, when I suddenly think of her, or her, or her, my longing is as strong as if she were a lost part of me, a lock of honey-colored hair tucked in an envelope and left behind in a house I haven't lived in for years.

Julie Richardson, where are you? If you read this in Ponca City, Oklahoma, or wherever you are, write and tell me everything that has happened since you moved away, since the last summer we went to Campfire Girls camp, since we were ten. Don't leave anything out.

Sara Crawford from Henrietta, Texas, who left college after freshman year to marry Joe, how are things? Are you the journalist you studied to be? A mother of how many? Do you still talk with a soft drawl that sounds like an angel? I'm sorry I couldn't understand marriage back then and I let that come between us. I was so wrong.

Mona Desai, who fifteen years ago shared with me this dream of weaving words into sturdy rope. How can I fashion a rope swing over this green water without thinking of you? We talked night into morning with our dreaming. I wish we knew the right language to use now.

When I think of this chain of past best friends, women friends, I am reminded of the charm bracelet my grandmother bought me when we visited Philadelphia when I was 12. There was a tiny pewter shape hanging from my wrist for each historical site we visited: Betsy Ross's house, the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin's grave. The only thing missing was the high-rise where my newborn cousin slept. The shape for Julie would be a galloping pony for the horse games we played, I always the Appaloosa to her chestnut; Sara would be a tiny woman's hand to remind me of the night before her wedding when we slept in the same bed and she reached for my hand, calling me "Joe"; Mona would be an elephant for her Indian roots and the many different women I, like a blind man, knew her to be. For each part of my life there is at least one jingling charm. One person to shine back at me a part of myself and say: Here you are!

For many women who follow the primrose path of heterosexual love and marriage, our husbands are the main course of emotional intimacy (meat or tofu loaf) but our friendships with other women are the sweet Christmas clementines, the dark red Merlot and of course the warm double fudge brownies. When I married, I was lucky enough to have not one but two "best women" stand with me. Mona represented my deep passion for literature and things artful and worldly and even snobbish. In Angie, who shared my Oklahoma roots, I saw a truer, plainer self who valued family, honest conversation, saving the world and goofiness.

Yet friendship is not marriage -- we take no vows, have no witnesses. We really can just throw in the towel.

Recently, Angie, my best friend for twelve years now (two children, one divorce, one marriage, one college degree, one mental illness, and two unpublished books later), and I had a brutal misunderstanding. After a month of silence, we talked long-distance for more than two hours, sifting through hurt feelings. We wept together for how horribly we had unintentionally hurt one another. And then we began rebuilding. The work is hard, sometimes too hard, and two weeks pass without a peep of email in either direction. We are busy. We are scared to hurt each other again. We are just plain tired of trying. At a certain moment, I'm ready to give up when she says, "I have enough faith for both of us."

So we go on. In the aftermath of our disagreement, I realize that it will take much more than silence or miscommunication for us to leave each other behind. Much more than marriage or children or distance or time or even a colossal disagreement. We're not willing to dig another hole and lose such precious parts of ourselves forever. Maybe this is what middle-age is really all about -- knowing what you need and being brave enough to hold on to it.

About the author:

Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West and Boston Review, among many other places. Born in Japan and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she lived in Delaware and Rhode Island before settling in Austin in 1988. She works as communications and development director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. Bradford lives with her husband, their son, three cats and a dog. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three—is the best thing that has ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net