Best Friends Are Better Kept Long Distance
"Quantum Voicemail" by Kristen Iskandrian, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
I have a friend whose voice mailbox is always full. In fact, her outgoing voice message says that “it’s full on purpose,” and you should text her instead. She doesn’t like to talk on the phone, but she’ll send you flowers when you’ve had a historically good or bad week, an actual mix CD on Valentine’s Day, and is one of the most generous and fun people you can be around in person.
Then, in the first months of lockdown, we downloaded Marco Polo, and left each other long, rambling video messages recorded during our little mental health walks or while we tried new elaborate recipes. The friend who couldn’t find time to listen to a voicemail now watched recordings of my most mundane moments (albeit on 2x speed).
Communication not only defines friendship, it defines the eras of your life. What you say, how you say it, and how often. A childhood friendship that was once about knocking on each other’s doors after school now survives on Instagram likes; a new friend requires months of small talk at school pickup before the first text message is exchanged; a college pal you used to IM from your dorm room gets a phone call once a year, a boozy reunion every five.
In Kristen Iskandrian’s “Quantum Voicemail,” the central friendship has relied—for decades!—on an unspoken rule that they don’t pick up the phone when the other calls. The narrator laments: “I felt bad for anyone who didn’t have a best friend they never saw. I felt bad for anyone who thought voicemail was an outdated, annoying technology.” Through this widely reviled medium, we learn about these women’s lives. College is long behind them. They have families, jobs, responsibilities; their locations and their priorities and their looks have changed, but their voices are the same.
For these best friends, a voicemail is a work of art. In leaving one, they achieve an intimate flow state: “That was the whole magic of the voicemail: like a photograph, it captured a moment of attention, of bringing to light, out of infinite subjects and emotions that could be illuminated, the one or three that deserved preservation, an audience; the ones that merited the ear of your best friend.”
But then, the best friend wants to visit, and the delicate balance is upended. Leaving a voicemail is less interactive, more isolated than talking on the phone, but it’s also equitable, an exchange of gifts. Too often in conversations, one person dominates while the other waits for their turn. Until the visit, the narrator has represented herself how she chooses; what happens when her best friend is in her house, able to observe her directly and in real time?
Iskandrian is interested in the bonds of friendship—what holds two people together in a relationship devoid of institution. What they think holds it together, and what actually holds it together. This might sound heavy, but as “Quantum Voicemail” shows, friendship, more than any other relationship, is about being yourself and having a good time—however you can manage to do it.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
Best Friends Are Better Kept Long Distance
Quantum Voicemail by Kristen Iskandrian
The visit was proposed during a period in which I was suffering from the tyranny of time. Which isn’t to say I was suffering because I was getting older—I didn’t care about that. I was consistently underestimating how long it took to do a thing, to do anything, consistently believing that I could accomplish, say, five things in a given span of time when really, I could do just a single thing, maybe two. This disconnect began to emerge in my understanding as a failure, and through repetition—that is, over time—the failure became a pattern of failure, until the pattern, a thick, intricate brocade, became indistinguishable from me, from my life.
There were books, I knew, to combat this. Books and podcasts, TED talks and seminars, all of which sought to solve the time problem. I didn’t want to solve it. I didn’t want to “manage my expectations” or “be realistic.” I simply wanted to believe that I could accomplish a certain number of goals in an arbitrarily delineated period of time, and then, one day, accomplish them. And the next day, do it again, until a new pattern could be created, one of success and satisfaction, that would with no effort eradicate the previous pattern, unspool it until it was just a pile of thread that could blow away on a stiff breeze.
The issue, or at least a big part of the issue, was that I did not want to give anything up in order to meet my goals. I wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do, for as long as I wanted to do it, and also do the things I needed to do, either for work or for my own personal prosperity. I was a bookseller, and a large part of my job was to read. Not every bookseller, believe it or not, reads. But I was a serious bookseller, and I wanted to be able to talk about the books on the shelves, in order to better sell them. I would never run out of things to read, and while this fact may have agitated or overwhelmed certain kinds of readers, it brought me a lot of solace. There was so much, I would never read it all, but for as long as I lived, there would be new things to read. Books were a kind of eternity, to me. The fullest extent of time, or the complete absence of it. In the end, it amounted to the same thing.
What I liked to do, every morning without exception, was to sit in my big chair with a cup of coffee and my phone, and do several word games. It was one of those rare practices that was both luxurious and practical, the way many people felt—not me—about having their hair done. I’d sit and sip and punch in letters and feel my brain slowly come awake, the fog of whatever weird dreams had decamped during the night starting to lift, the first birds airing their first grievances outside the window. Sometimes, the cat would sit on my lap, which would necessitate a pause, a recalibrating of coffee mug and blanket, an obligation to set my phone down in order to dispense the required pets (ear, ear, neck, base of tail, never belly).
After my daughter got up and off to school, or to wherever she was going if it was summertime, I’d finish the coffee, the word games, the tidying up. I’d review my list, which was rarely written down, but always contained items like “finish x book,” “start y book,” “submit edits for z.” I was a freelance editor and consultant and worked for different companies and the occasional writer hoping to land an agent with their novel or memoir. The only reason I was qualified to do this was because I had read so many books, and knew grammar better than most. I made a website advertising my services and for seven months nothing happened. Then, someone asked to work with me, and agreed to my rates, and after that, it was steady going. That was twelve years ago, and I’ve rarely had less than three projects happening at once since.
So I triangulated my life among the bookstore, my family, and my freelance work, not necessarily in that order, because a triangle has no order. I started each morning in my chair, and also, before either going to the store if it was a store day or staying home to do freelance work if it was a home day, took a long walk, during which I’d alternate between listening to an audiobook and leaving voicemails for my best friend. My best friend and I had a decades-long arrangement: we would never pick up when the other called. We hadn’t seen or spoken directly to one another since we’d lived together in those punitively disorienting years after college. We moved to separate sides of the country, so it was easy to never see one another. Not infrequently we’d email, and over time, there were enough emails between us to fill a book twice as long as Infinite Jest and three times as long as Ulysses, more or less.
I felt bad for anyone who didn’t have a best friend they never saw. I felt bad for anyone who thought voicemail was an outdated, annoying technology. The perfectly left voicemail could take up the cellular phone standard of three minutes, or it could span nine minutes, fifteen minutes, each voicemail a discrete chapter that tantalizingly flowed into the next with the hasty tap of your person’s name. More than fifteen minutes was a lot to ask, six was the sweet spot, but when you were on a roll, describing, for example, the way your fourteen-year-old daughter still wrapped herself in a towel when she got out of the shower in the exact way she used to when she was five and had just climbed out of the public pool—Superman-cape style, with the same far-flung look she got back then from the cold, the abject stillness, the slightly pushed out bottom lip, the inability to do the precise thing that would make her warmer faster: dry herself, vigorously rub the towel up and down and all over. I didn’t routinely spy on my daughter during her showers or anything, but we had a stubborn bathroom door that wouldn’t close all the way, and once in a while, if I was walking down the hallway at the precise moment she was pushing aside the shower curtain, I could see her, stark still, towel around her shoulders, that middle-distance stare.
These were the moments worth transmitting to my best friend, the precise snapshots that would tell her both who my daughter was and who I was for taking notice. A friendship isn’t based on shared interests or sheer enjoyment of one another’s company. It’s based on time, pressure, and voicemails.
. . . he thought he felt better, but then he started feeling worse. So I took him off of it completely, and the doctor got mad at me. But what was I supposed to do? What are you supposed to do when your child is beside himself with rage one moment, and then the next hysterically crying, saying that he wants to die? Wait til Monday? Anyway, I hope you all are doing better than we are over here. It just feels like it has been one disaster after the next. I want to hear how it went with the volunteer thing.
I never saved her voicemails, even though there were more than a few, over the years, that deserved their place in the voicemail hall of fame. You could never plan them, but you knew when they were happening—just the right flow of language, zero stumbling or “umm-ing” into the next topic, a bit of spontaneous humor that you laughed at, right then, while leaving the message, knowing that she, listening on the other end, would be laughing too, that the past and present would be winnowed into the same instant, marked by your shared laughter. That was the whole magic of the voicemail: like a photograph, it captured a moment of attention, of bringing to light, out of infinite subjects and emotions that could be illuminated, the one or three that deserved preservation, an audience; the ones that merited the ear of your best friend.
Nothing was off-limits to the voicemail but there were matters that rarely came up—our jobs, for example. I wasn’t entirely sure what she did, something with numbers, in an office, but that’s about all I knew. Our spouses didn’t get much voicemail time. Parenting, however, was a big one. The loneliness of disliking it sometimes, sometimes more than sometimes. The decision-making fatigue. The constant worry about the encroachments of the internet, social media and predatory accounts and the loathsomeness of the phrase “screen time.” We weren’t made for the digital age, we’d complain, we weren’t made for this country, for this earth. Why did other parents seem tougher than us, less fazed than us, happier than us? What would be the reward for our vigilance and hypersensitivity? Early death? A heart attack? [Laughter.]
We also volleyed a fair amount about books we’d read, movies or TV we’d seen, articles we’d come across. We’d talk about our other friends, friends that the other would never know—good ones and bad ones, school friends and work friends, appalling behaviors at the neighborhood potluck.
She didn’t bring anything, which was fine, but then she took home someone else’s casserole dish? Like the dish was empty, and she’d come empty-handed, so what the hell happened there? Was it brazen stealing, or did she somehow convince herself she’d brought the seven-layer dip herself? Oh crap this is work calling, I have to go.
The arcane idea of the voicemail, its original purpose via the answering machine, was to simply let someone know that they’d missed a call from you, and to leave the barest information necessary to get a call back: name, time of day, phone number. Once in a while, a doctor’s office or other such service-related entity might confirm an appointment, such that no call back was necessary. Static data, as a note scrawled on a “while you were out” pad.
The new voicemail was a conversation, an art form. In all the years of perfecting our craft, we never mentioned it, never alluded to the fact that it was not merely holding our friendship together—it was our friendship. The body and blood of it. The currency and the sale. Without our five-day-a-week—weekends were for, it would seem, our lived lives, our families, our shifted routines—dialogue, we would not know one another at all, to say nothing of our most intimate details.
If I was honest, and why wouldn’t I be, I adored the arrangement because I found conversations in real time to be, more often than not, dreadful. The way I had to make sure my face was doing something neutral or appropriately reactive. The way I had to wait for my turn to speak, meanwhile enduring someone’s half-baked wisdom or boring anecdote or, god forbid, dream. The voicemail dispensed with all that. It was a monologue—no, a sterling, three-minute soliloquy. It floated between communication and rumination, letter and diary. A podcast for one. A very short play. A stand-up routine, a confession. We were so good at it, and it was ours.
You can maybe imagine where this was going.
I had my big chair, my word games, my voicemail and audiobook walks, my job and my other job. I was chronically late for nearly everything I needed to show up for, though I never missed a deadline. I punished myself by going to bed too late and waking up too early and being, always, more exhausted than I needed to be. And I talked about this a lot, on my voicemails to my best friend, this issue I had with time, something between denial and rebellion.
Every single day I imagine that I will get faster, that I’ll solve my puzzles faster and drink my coffee faster and take my walk faster and create, with my own efficiency, additional hours in the day, hours during which I could finish the two books I’m reading, as well as the manuscript I’ve been editing for weeks now. I just keep believing that there is a state of “being finished” that will last longer than it lasts, that can be permanent. That I can somehow fit all of my tasks and goals into a single day, and then be done forever? It makes no sense. I love what I do, but I seem to be striving for an endless nothing, the other side of whatever this side is, where time no longer exists and I can be in my chair or take a walk for as long as I want to, with no regard for whatever comes next. An eternal present, maybe? Do you ever feel this way?
Early one morning in February, after my word games and coffee but before my walk, I sat down to send an email that I’d meant to send the night before. I didn’t like opening my email before going for my walk; I didn’t like the reminders that awaited me there, crowding my thinking before the day was adequately underway. With some trepidation, I opened an email from my best friend with the subject line: April? For over a year, we’d used the same thread to write back and forth, whose subject line was, for reasons I eventually forgot, I give up lol. This was a fresh, standalone email, and its subject was the name of a specific month, a little over a month away.
J__ has a billion frequent flier miles and, as I keep rambling about, I really need to get away. What do you think? I could take a Friday and a Monday off, say, the 29th? I suppose I should be here for Passover, not that we do much, but J__’s family would be disappointed. I don’t think this conflicts with Easter? Let me know! Gah so excited to maybe see you for real. Would the universe even be able to handle it, or would we burst into flame?
My bowels churned; I felt as if I’d just read about a death. In a way, I had. I read the email three more times before starring it, my fingers on the trackpad of my laptop shaking, and slamming the machine shut. I used the bathroom like someone in the throes of food poisoning, the coffee and water I’d had earlier coursing out of me along with what felt like the past three days’ worth of nourishment. I was sweating, I was cold; my body seemed to be in possession of a knowledge that my brain felt too slow and curdled to grasp.
Hurriedly, I put my sneakers on and my AirPods in and left for my walk. Ordinarily, I would have immediately listened to my best friend’s voicemail from the day before, and proceeded to leave her a voicemail in reply. But my finger hovered over her name for a full two blocks while I listened to silence. Why would she do this to me, to our perfect friendship? A visit? The disappointment I felt was catastrophic; the panic, annihilating. Would she stay in my house? Amongst my things? The dream of being in the school hallway in your underwear—this was worse. The phone had always been our medium, our chaperone, our interlocutor. Without it, we’d be as gross to one another as everyone else was to us.
Finally, I pressed play.
Hey, I just sent you an email about this but I’m so excited I had to call. Let me know! It’s the first non-work trip in ages and I feel zero guilt! I want to think of some fun stuff that we could do together—a spa day? A hike? I know you’ve talked about how there are some trails close by. And I can’t wait to meet all your people. Ahh ok I’m spinning out. Call me soon, I’ll actually pick up for the first time maybe ever?! Or send me an email or text or whatever.
I remembered with shocking clarity my mother’s cancer diagnosis from twenty years ago, the way my father told me that even with the most aggressive treatment, recovery was not possible, that she would die soon, within the year maybe, and how for weeks afterward, and really until her death, her death sling-shotting me into some other less chaotic realm of grief, I walked around feeling like a new person, because the news had changed me, had sliced my life across a perforation that I hadn’t known existed. Now, I leapt over a puddle and cursed myself for comparing a friend’s would-be visit to my mother’s illness, what’s wrong with you, what, truly, is wrong with you, but undeniably, I felt a similar level of disbelief and horror, a sort of suctioning out of my good, functioning self, and a taxidermizing of whatever was left.
I looked at my watch and noted where I was on my route and realized that I was, for the first time ever, perhaps, ahead of schedule, that walking while listening or leaving voicemails had for years, without my fully knowing it, slowed my gait. It’s hard to leave a voicemail of the caliber I was used to while walking quickly; one is much more likely to amble. I arrived home and took a shower and sat at my desk with the morning’s editing tasks and somehow completed all of them with enough time to wash the breakfast dishes and still be at work ten minutes early. Alongside my deep dread over the visit voicemail and email I felt a triumph akin to a scientific breakthrough, as though I had, by knocking over beakers and mixing forbidden agents, stumbled into the very solution I’d been seeking. I had discovered Time itself.
From work, I Googled “getting a new cell phone number.” Reddit boards teemed with stalkees, as well as regular folk who simply wanted to feel like they belonged in their new city by adopting their new area code. One person was hellbent on getting “69” and “420” in their new number, and Sprint apparently had made it happen. I could do this. It would be a pain but it wouldn’t kill me.
Driving home, I imagined calling my best friend and talking to her in real time. I imagined first telling her, I’m sorry, no, a visit just isn’t possible right now, we have far too much going on—and tried to imagine her accepting this, just this, with no further explanation. I couldn’t see it. We explained everything to one another, the most minuscule decisions of our lives, and the big decisions, too—anything I’d ever done, with few exceptions, had been sussed out via voicemail, or a volley of voicemails. Becoming a vegetarian, creating my website, changing my children’s schools, investing in crypto—my best friend was privy to all manners of decisions. How could I get away with, just simply, “no”? I imagined saying yes and then calling her two days before she was due to arrive and inventing an emergency—child in the ER, flooding in the basement—but I was far too superstitious.
So I imagined the conversation during which I said, I can’t wait to see you, this is too good to be true, please come whenever it works for you, and stay as long as you like. And my stupid eyes filled with tears at a red light because of course this was the right, true, correct thing. This was the “spirit of yes” we were always mooning about: opening ourselves, grabbing the conch from the Hecatoncheires of No that lived in our hearts and placing it in the hands of our better angels, that slim margin of self that desperately wanted more playing time.
Then I imagined her showing up at my door with her doubtless fashionable suitcase and traveling outfit, and my stomach lurched as it had earlier that day. In the months after my mother died, all I’d wanted was to call my mother to talk to her about how my mother had died. Turning onto my street, I was seized with the desire to leave a message for my best friend, detailing the acute anxiety brought on by the prospect of my best friend’s visit. Now I needed another best friend that I could leave voicemails about this best friend to. I pulled into my driveway and pressed my forehead gently against the top of the steering wheel. I’d hand-sold two copies of Moby Dick that day—a book about someone who got what they thought they wanted and died. Life was rife with contradiction.
When the doorbell rang, the house was pristine. I’d hired someone to come and clean, not just the regular parts of the house but the ceiling fans and baseboards and air vents. I’d taken the day, Friday, off of work, and cleared the weekend. The store was closed on Mondays, the day she would be leaving. She’d insisted on taking an Uber from the airport to my house, even though we lived less than fifteen minutes away. It’s fine! It’ll give me a little time to calm down from the flight, flying makes me so nervous.
We still hadn’t spoken in real time.
I’d set out a carafe of ice water with lemon, and a modest cheese board, and a bottle of rosé. I put a kettle on in case she wanted coffee or tea. The bunch of ranunculus I’d bought the day before was drooping prettily in its vase, the cat asleep in a shaft of sunlight on the rug. For a moment I allowed myself to enjoy the tidiness of my home, which too often felt threadbare and hodgepodge, stuck in the thrift store sensibility we kept meaning to leave behind us, periodically sizing up matching end tables and lamps online before abandoning our cart and using the money for something else we apparently cared about more. But today, the house shone, cozy and inviting, more ready for company than I felt myself to be.
I opened the door and my brain surged, ad hoc, into problem-solving mode. Nimbly leaping from my retinas to my photoreceptors to my optic nerve, the signals translated thusly: WHO IS THIS, THIS IS NOT MY FRIEND, WHERE IS MY FRIEND.
We spoke at the same time:
“Can I help you?”
“Ahhh!!!! I’m here!”
I don’t have the words to describe how not my friend this person was. My friend was petite; the woman before me was close to six feet. My friend was a brunette; this person was a redhead. She wore a long dress and a denim jacket and her sneakers were nondescript, nothing like the designer clothes my friend wore and had worn since I knew her, her outfits on social media regularly garnering comments like “you are so stylish” with six to ten heart-eye emojis.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“I’m sorry–you just–I’m–you look so different than I remember,” I stammered. My stupid stomach started hurting. Nothing kept more reliable time than my oversensitive gut.
She laughed. “It has been so long. You look exactly the same! Are you going to invite me in, or—”
With clumsy words and gestures, I let her in, this stranger who was my best friend.
“Your house! I love it. It’s so you. Can I use your bathroom?”
I showed her to the bathroom where I’d put out fresh hand towels and placed a single ranunculus in a bud vase on the sink. My heart raced. I worried about my brain, convinced something had happened to it. The onset of the rotating possibility I had always feared, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or schizophrenia or something not yet named.
At the kitchen table, my friend ate hungrily, pouring water, pouring wine. “I almost took a Xanax before I boarded the flight, but I didn’t want to be spaced out when I got here. I downloaded this meditation app for nervous flyers and I think it worked. A soothing British male voice repeatedly telling me to pluck a ‘blowball’ and blow the seeds, which I did, over and over,” she laughs. “It took me a minute to figure out that he was talking about dandelions. My seatmate must’ve thought I was nuts.”
I nodded. Even her voice was different than the one I knew so intimately from twenty years of voicemails, its pitch higher and more spirited.
“I just learned this year, from my son, that the yellow dandelion and the wishy puff thing are the same flower–did you know this?” She smeared goat cheese on a cracker and shoved it in her mouth.
“Yes,” I said distractedly. “They’re both dandelions, just at different stages. First they’re yellow, and then they turn into the puffs. My daughter told me that, too.”
“It’s weird that we never learned it in school,” she said. “I think this generation is going to be so much smarter.”
I thought of the many voicemails we’d left each other about how worried we were about our children, technology, climate change. About how burdened young people often seemed. The woman at my table seemed to have a rosier view.
“How is it going for Alex, being off the meds?” I ventured.
She frowned. “Who’s Alex? Oh, do you mean Adam? He was never on meds.”
I felt dizzy, not figuratively. The floor seemed to be moving.
“I swear, on the voicemails–”
“Here, do you want some water? You just got super pale.” She handed me a glass.
I took a sip, the slightest bit relieved that the water was water, tasted like water.
“You were saying? About a voicemail?” Her intensely blue eyes focused on me, the eyes of a stranger, but a stranger filled with concern for me, who was not a stranger to her.
I felt terrified of trying to explain, and being told that she’d never left anything other than a perfunctory voicemail in her life, if she’d ever left me one at all.
“I just was remembering a voicemail you’d left, about Adam, whose name I thought was Alex, and ADD medication,” I mumbled.
“Weird! You must be thinking of someone else.”
I am thinking of someone else, I wanted to say.
My daughter arrived home a short while later, pink-cheeked from her walk from the bus stop, and accepted a big hug from my friend, along with a set of fancy soap and lotion.
“My boys don’t get excited about stuff like this,” she said conspiratorially, and my daughter laughed and thanked her, giving me a look as if to say she’s great.
When my husband got home, I relaxed a little. Maybe, in his infinite reasonableness, he could make this make sense. He was so likable, so good with people. After a round of warm hellos, he grabbed a beer and began prepping hamburgers for the grill. I left my friend playing rummy with our daughter at the table and joined him in the backyard.
“I mean, what the hell is going on, right?” I asked him. It was a beautiful evening.
He looked at me quizzically. “With what?”
“With–are you kidding? That’s not her! It doesn’t look anything like her! I can’t figure it out!”
“What do you mean, that’s not her? Of course it’s her!” He started scrubbing the grill grate with the steel brush. “I mean, she looks a little different, but we all do. It’s called aging.”
I felt my insides collapsing, like icicles in a thaw. I hadn’t eaten much all day. It was the familiar burn of exhaustion that always plagued me when we hosted anyone at the house, the odious part of my personality that turned every fun, low-key hang into a strenuous big deal.
“What’s wrong with me,” I managed to say, before the tears came.
“Hey, it’s OK! It’s probably overwhelming to see her after all of these years! Of course you’re emotional,” he stopped scrubbing and hugged me, and I felt more angry than soothed, but I did feel slightly soothed.
“It’s not her,” I muttered into his good-smelling shirt.
“Well, her, you, it doesn’t matter. Reunions can be a lot,” he said gently.
“No, I mean, it’s literally not her,” I said, pulling away.
My husband turned his attention back to the grill, a disturbed look on his face.
I felt the claustrophobia of having nowhere to go, a terrible fate in one’s own home. I remembered the feeling from childhood, laying on the ugly rug in my parents’ den, concentrating on the individual fibers, believing, on some level, that I could hypnotize myself out of it, disappear from my own prying brain. The ability, the will, to cope with my current situation seemed to slough from my body like dead skin, all at once, dramatically, all the cells that make a person calm and reasonable, just gone. The weekend stretched before me as an endless, odious task, and I wanted my chair, my privacy, my swathes of time to use and misuse as I wished; I wanted, now, nothing more than to throw a tantrum, stiff-backed on the grass wailing a single syllable: no.
Instead, somehow, I set the table. To an outsider I may have looked like someone who’d never set a table before, so slow and pronounced were my movements. Tiny mental calisthenics: by the time I finish folding this napkin, something will make sense. From the kitchen, I heard easy laughter, my daughter’s voice free from the strain she often bore in adult company. She wasn’t accustomed to visitors; we didn’t get a lot of them. Our families of origin, my husband’s and mine, were small and far away, real see-you-when-we-see-you types, a trait we’d both perhaps inherited. It felt ridiculous to me to get on an airplane to stay in someone else’s house, when we had technology to keep us both in touch, whatever that meant, and comfortable. To keep us, crucially, apart. My problem, I realized, as I carried condiments out to the table, was that I didn’t consider missing a person a problem to be solved.
The burgers were good but I had to keep reminding myself to pick mine up, take a bite, keep my face from going slack, participate in the conversation. During my husband’s story about the time a tree fell on our house, I excused myself. My friend’s purse was on a chair in the living room, her phone nearby on the coffee table. I touched her name on the Favorites list of my phone. After three seconds, her phone lit up and started buzzing. I let it ring until it went to voicemail. A recorded voice said “the voice mailbox you have called is full. Goodbye.”
“I missed a call from you,” she said later, when I was making sure she had what she needed for bed. She was scrolling through her phone, and her face looked happy.
“Weird,” I said. “Must’ve been by accident.”
In bed with my husband I feigned sleep because I did not want to talk about my friend. I was relieved that she hadn’t wanted to stay up late—she had, in fact, after we’d cleared the dessert dishes, asked if it would be rude for her to retire early. My husband squeezed my hand gently before rolling over and I was left with a solitude that felt precarious, surveilled. I calculated the number of hours left in the weekend. I interrogated my memory as if it were on trial.
The simple truth, though, was that everyone loved my friend. In the history of houseguests, a better one did not exist. My daughter asked repeatedly when we could go visit her, when she would be coming back. The irresistible charm that my husband emanated whenever he was around people he genuinely liked was emanating full force. At some point late on the second day, I felt myself giving over to the allure of this person, this new old friend. It was a loosening of some central scaffolding within myself that seemed to happen without me and without any warning. Suddenly I wanted her here. I wanted the now that she was in. I felt like she had become the familiar, and I had become a stranger in the best possible way.
We went out to dinner that night, just the two of us, and laughed until people turned around to stare.
“Should we order dessert,” she giggled, dividing the remainder of the bottle of wine between our two glasses.
“I’m so full,” I said, wiping tears from my eyes, “but yes.”
We did all the things my friend had hoped to do. Visited the Helen Frankenthalers at the museum, hiked along the river, went to the bookstore, where I showed her around and she bought all six books I recommended. We spent a half-day at the fancy spa that I’d never been to, sipping herbal tea before and after our hour-long facials in a heavily bambooed room redolent with mint and sandalwood, sighing in our plush robes. We loafed in the living room and backyard, drinking coffee and paging through magazines. We took my daughter to the record store and out for ice cream. The weather was a triumph, like no spring before or since. An incandescent ease had settled over my home, and I started to feel that I’d been given more than companionship, more than fun. Rather I was in a revised relationship with time, a romance with the present moment. For the first time, perhaps in my whole life, I wasn’t concerned about what came next, or how long anything took. We did more in one weekend than seemed strictly possible, as though the rules of time had changed, as though we were changing them with our very togetherness. Like being restored to health when I hadn’t known I was sick, like being given new lungs or better eyes, a completely different personality.
“You seem so happy,” my husband said, as we were getting ready for bed on her last night with us.
“I am happy,” I said. “She’s better than—” and I wanted to say my other friend, but I didn’t want to go back there, back to the self that refused weird, good, minor miracles—“than I remember.”
Still, I was me, and I knew I was me, and that I’d eventually return to myself, my baseline of trenchant narrowness, knowing exactly how I got in my own way and yet refusing to go around, to clear a path. Before long I’d be back in my chair, convinced I could get it right, knowing I would get it wrong, my life and how to order it, how much to exert on what, and when. On the morning of my friend’s departure, I woke up before the sun and went for a walk. I needed some way to say goodbye to her that would take into account my own experience of her having been here, having been real despite everything I knew, understood, remembered. I had to tell her about her time here, and about me. I said a prayer that her phone was on silent and pressed her name.