The voice on the other end of the phone had been unexpected, but very welcome.
Mary, Mary on the other end of the phone. So far away and yet sounding so near to her. A welcome distraction from her disordered week of making costumes for a local production of Lady Macbeth. She was up to her ears in ruffles and petticoats and thick, velvety material. Jack was not liking the expense she was not sparing for the whole project so there was a running argument about the cost involved.
But Mary. Oh, now Rhoda was pulled away from her current life drama and down the rabbit hole to her past life in Minneapolis.
“…but I’m coming to New York!”
“Wait?” Rhoda felt her heart clamor there in her chest. Mary would be coming here? Here to the city? “What did you say?”
“Are you not paying attention at all?” Mary sighed.
“I’m paying attention, kid. You just caught me off guard.” Rhoda twirled the phone cord in her hand.
“I said I have an interview in New York and I’ll be there next week.”
An interview! But that would mean Mary moving to the city, Mary coming here, here to where Mary most certainly was not. “An interview! Oh, Mary. What for? I hope you haven’t made hotel arrangements. You will stay with me. I have plenty of room.”
“No,” Mary insisted. “No, I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“I insist! Com’on, Mare! It’ll be like old times. We’ll have a great time. Come stay with me.”
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Yeah, okay. If you feel like there’s enough room for me.”
“There’s always enough room for you, kid.”
And now here they were. Face-to-face for the first time in nearly three years. It had not been since Rhoda’s wedding – the thought irked her – that they should find themselves together as they were. Mary was standing, framed by her apartment door in all her slender glory. She was as thin as Rhoda remembered her, perhaps skinnier if possible.
“Oh, Rhoda!” Mary was grinning from ear to ear. “Look at you! You’re impossibly skinny. Just look at you!” Mary held out her arms, pulling Rhoda into a tight hug, their bodies pressed together. “I can practically wrap my arms back around myself you’re so tiny.”
And Rhoda felt self-conscious then because she’d lost some weight, but she hadn’t realized she’d really lost so much weight, for Mary’s body very nearly enveloped her. “Well you’re not any fatter than the last time I saw you, kid. So I don’t see what you’re going on about.”
“Because, Rhoda, you look so beautiful.” Mary released her tight embrace to look Rhoda over again. Rhoda felt her cheeks flaring with warmth. These were all rather foreign reactions she was having. She didn’t remember having ever paid much attention to Mary being close to her. Perhaps it was the spans of all their years apart from one another. For it had been entirely too long. There was a certain comfort wrapped up in seeing Mary before her, as if she were in her care-free early thirties again and she hadn’t gone through such a horrible, senseless divorce and they could just pick up and resume their friendship again. For Mary was interviewing for a production job in the city. If she were to move here…perhaps if an apartment were to open up in Rhoda’s building…oh, but wouldn’t that just all be too perfect?
“It’s so good to see you, Mare.” Rhoda smiled, realizing they had come to a halt there before one another, just looking at the other with reverential awe and admiration, a half-disbelief that the other could have changed at all, that time had somehow soldiered on between the time that Rhoda had left Minneapolis and the current moment they found themselves in. “Well, what are we doing. Come in! Come in! Let me help you with your things.” Rhoda reached down for Mary’s suitcase and very nearly ripped her arm off trying to pick it up. “My God, what did you bring?” She asked heaving the bag off the ground.
Mary was laughing, “oh, you don’t have to carry that! You know how I always over pack. I just couldn’t decide which suit to wear tomorrow. Oh, let me.” Mary was practically fighting her for the suitcase as they danced an undignified dance towards Rhoda’s room.
“I’m giving you my bedroom. I figured you’d like to be comfortable.” Rhoda pushed her off, insistent that she take the suitcase.
“Rhoda, you’ve already put yourself out to let me stay here, you don’t need to give me your…oh, it’s rather nice. Isn’t it?” Mary was distracted then by the calm, tranquil room. The plants in the window, the patchwork quilt, the whimsical art work Rhoda had amassed about her. “It’s really very…grown up.”
Rhoda dropped the suitcase and glanced to Mary. “Yes, I suppose it’s not the bright pink of my Weatherly Avenue apartment. A little roomier, too, perhaps.” She laughed a little.
Mary turned to her then, looked her up and down again as if checking that she were real. “You’ve really…well you’re…different.”
Rhoda glanced down at herself, glanced about the room as if seeing it all anew. Had she really changed so much from who she was back in Minneapolis? She felt no different…and yet…
“Not in a bad way, Rho. It’s just…it’s nice.” Mary patted her arm like a patronizing older sister.
Rhoda frowned at her. “And just what are you trying to say? That I was an immature little kid back in Minneapolis because I had an eccentric apartment and colorful wardrobe?”
“No,” Mary laughed uncomfortably. “No, I’m not saying that at all.”
Rhoda ran a hand through her hair, pulling her head to the side. She looked at Mary, really looked at her and suddenly the perfect image of returning to her friend, to their fun-filled friendship felt a little stilted, a little less appealing. Had Mary always looked down on her so? Had she secretly said “poor Rhoda” behind her back? Of course, she’d always criticized the men she dated, some of the actions she took, but that had been then…certainly Mary wouldn’t think that Rhoda was still making such terrible life decisions. She supposed she could understand since she’d hastily married and just as hastily divorced again. But…that was one little fluke, a minor blip on her otherwise spotless record in New York. She was embracing herself, loving herself now, taking care of herself. And who was Mary to come in here and make her question herself again?
Mary looked a little uneasy, a bit like she knew she’d done something wrong. Rhoda hadn’t intended for that. “Oh, hey, kid. I’m sorry. It’s just been awhile, you know, since we’ve seen one another.”
Mary shrugged, “maybe we’ve both changed. A little.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure we have.” Rhoda nodded, waving it off. “Hey, I bet you’re starving. Why don’t we order in some food and you can tell me about this interview you have.”
Food smoothed things over, at least enough to cover up any unease that had arisen at the beginning of their reunion. It was almost as if they could pretend, to go on as they always had. Mary telling Rhoda about the men she’d been seeing, Rhoda telling Mary about Brenda, about her mother and father. They graduated from the table to the couch after Mary helped wash and dry and put things away. Rhoda made a pot of herbal tea and sat out some cookies. They settled there atop the couch, Rhoda’s legs tucked up underneath herself, Mary angled to face her.
“You’re not seeing anyone?” Mary glanced then at Rhoda over the rim of her teacup.
Rhoda hadn’t really been expecting the question. Felt a little unsettled, perhaps embarrassed that since Joe there had only been one or two guys, at least that she had dated for any length of time. And now they had all but petered out so that Rhoda spent more and more time alone, or with Brenda and Benny or dealing with her mother’s latest drama. Had she grown so low that she didn’t have anyone to care about?
“No.” Rhoda shook her head.
Mary frowned at her. “But why not? I’m sure there are plenty of eligible bachelors in New York City. At least, I hope so.” Here she spoke for herself, for Rhoda could sense the fear and urgency dripping from her own comment. For here they both were, unmarried and practically spinsters.
“I guess I’ve been kind of gun shy, you know since Joe. I don’t want to rush into anything again.” Rhoda calmly spoke, running a hand through her hair.
“Hey, that was…uh, that was pretty rough for you?” Mary patted her knee.
Rhoda nodded, “I still couldn’t explain it today if I had to. It was just one day he wanted to be married and the next…I was his platonic cellmate. He wanted nothing to do with me and I…” Rhoda looked down at her lap. “It made no sense.”
Mary’s brow knit in sympathy. “It’s awful he made you feel that way. Anyone would be lucky to share a cell with you.”
Rhoda laughed, recognizing Mary’s attempt at humor. “Yeah, you’d go to jail with me?” Rhoda playfully nudged at Mary’s thigh.
Mary grinned and nodded, “I would be honored.” But her eyes didn’t meet Rhoda’s as she spoke those words.
Rhoda stared at Mary then, watched as she sipped her tea in quiet contemplation. How had they grown to not know how to read one another? Why did everything feel so stilted and strange between them? At least Mary could understand her dating hesitancy, her marriage foibles and be compassionate about them. For this Rhoda was grateful, but what was this strangeness resting between them?
“I guess, if I were completely honest,” Mary ran a hand over her trouser-clad thigh, “I haven’t been too gung-ho about commitments either.”
“Yeah?” Rhoda rested her elbow on the back of the couch, leaning her head against her hand.
Mary nodded, “yeah. It just feels like….something is missing. You know? Something’s never quite right with any of these men. I’ll date one and he seems really excellent, very kind and giving and caring, you know someone I could see having children with. And then I get this feeling, this really strong gut reaction and I can’t quite…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it’s not right.”
Rhoda knew this feeling all too well. “Trust me, I know.”
“You do?” Mary looked hopefully up at her then.
“I do.” Rhoda half-grinned. “I’ve never admitted this to anyone, but I…well I felt that way with Joe, but I kept telling myself that it was just the nerves, you know? The anxiety wrapped up in committing yourself to one person. It’s kind of daunting to think about.”
“See, I agree. I can’t…I just don’t know how…but,” Mary caught her eyes, “but you. You were brave enough to try.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I was brave…”
“No, you were. You moved here and you met Joe and you went for it. And I’m too much of a chicken.” Mary sighed.
“Mare, I’ve never, ever, thought of you as a chicken. I think it takes someone who is really strong to not need a man. I was always envious of you, I’m envious of you now. Just think, if you’d married that doctor of yours in your twenties! Do you remember him? Can you imagine it?”
“No, I can’t!”
“You could also have been divorced by now.” Rhoda held her teacup up in a sad salute to her situation.
“Oh, Rhoda. It’s nothing to be ashamed about.” Mary’s hand came to rest atop her thigh then.
Rhoda shrugged, capturing Mary’s hand there atop her leg, shifting so that her legs came to rest on the ground, thighs parallel with Mary’s thighs. “Oh, kid. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” Mary smiled, leaning in towards Rhoda. That old familiar scent of hers suddenly registered in Rhoda’s mind, bringing with it a certain sort of comfort.
Rhoda leaned her head on Mary’s shoulder, their fingers threading together in her lap.
“Why’d you leave Minneapolis?” Mary’s voice was small there in the silence of Rhoda’s living room. There was only the sound of traffic coming from down below, the whirl of a far-off fan, and silence. Yet, in that silence Rhoda could hear Mary’s heart beating, rapid now, quick there beneath her ear. And in the silence she could also hear her own heart pounding directly opposite Mary’s. Du-du-dum. Du-du-dum. The two hearts playing off of one another, nearly in tandem.
Why? Why had she left?
Oh, there were a thousand reasons why. Thousands of stupid, inconsequential reasons. She didn’t like the Minnesota winters. She didn’t like her job. She didn’t like her boss, more specifically. She wanted more room. She sometimes missed Brenda – for the girl was growing up before her eyes now and she’d missed nearly five years of her late teens. She missed being near her family, having them around her now meant more than she was willing to admit.
But the real reason she’d left Minneapolis? Well, could she really say? Did she really know?
Minneapolis was Mary. Minneapolis was living near to this woman, spending evenings, weekends, vacations together. Minneapolis was delving deep with her, not shying away, not running as Rhoda was so apt to do.
And what had she done? After her longest commitment, after four years of Mary she’d left because she’d gotten…what? Scared? Had she been scared? Of what?
Oh, why did Mary have to drudge up all these old feelings and thoughts? She’d thought marrying Joe had somehow made them go away but here they were.
Rhoda lifted her head from Mary’s shoulder, still acutely aware of the thump of the other woman’s heartbeat. She turned to look into Mary’s inquisitively dark eyes. It was then she saw her friend, the one she remembered from four years ago, from a lifetime ago. Mary with her big, compassionate, caring eyes. Her kind demeanor, her kind, gentle spirit that always washed over Rhoda, calmed her to be so near to her.
She felt comfortable again, Mary’s hand still in her own.
Mary inhaled, sharply, her eyes searched Rhoda’s face. A fear had grasped at her, though she did not move away. Nor did Rhoda.
Mary lifted her hand cautiously, curiously towards Rhoda’s face, her fingers coming to rest on her cheek. “Oh, Rho…” she whispered. “I thought, but…”
“Yeah, kid.” Rhoda turned into Mary fully, realization dawning, illuminating all that had been rather confusing those past few years in Minneapolis.
Rhoda watched Mary’s eyes as they tracked her finger down Rhoda’s cheek, coming to rest at her chin before her thumb ghosted over Rhoda’s lips. Rhoda kissed at the digit, did not back away. “Oh.” Mary gulped, eyes on Rhoda’s lips. “You know what?”
“Mmm?” Rhoda put her hand on Mary’s waist, holding onto her, grounding her there for Rhoda wasn’t yet certain that Mary wouldn’t run from this. Yet she stayed, every muscle released, relaxed there beneath Rhoda’s touch.
“I don’t have that feeling. In my gut.” A look of amazement, wonderment crossed her features. She was so damn pleased and Rhoda was pleased for her, for herself even for neither did she.
“Mary,” Rhoda whispered against Mary’s curious fingers.
“Uh huh?” Mary asked, looking so angelic there on the couch, enraptured by this new discovery they had happened upon.
“Would you kiss me already?” Rhoda impatiently lifted her eyebrow. And Mary obeyed.
Their lips met, opened to one another in a sacred dance that somehow felt as natural as if they had always been doing this, been meant to kiss one another.
In Mary’s embrace, as she kissed her reverently, Rhoda knew there would be no other Joes. There would only be Marys.
Mary, Mary, Mary.