An old friend died last winter, and I phoned a mutual acquaintance — I’ll call her Sally — to tell her. Sally and I had been very close friends, but we had kind of lost touch when I moved out of state for six years. But now I’m back, and an old friends had passed away, as old friends will.
Sally and I chatted and reminisced about the recently departed. I was enjoying talking with her, so I invited her up to my place in the country for a weekend, and over the next few days we agreed on a date in February. I had no inkling of what a nightmare this would turn out to be.
Things off to a bit of a bad start. Sally got lost on the main road about two miles from my house. Now, I live in a very rural area, but it’s not terribly remote. No one — and I mean, literally, no one, in many, many years of weekends and guests from all over creation — no one has ever gotten lost on the way to my house. Sally had been there at least twice before, but it was several years ago, so I made sure to give her good directions. She phoned me from the road, upset and confused, couldn’t find the turnoff into the village. I tried to talk her through it, but she became increasingly perturbed and distressed. “No problem,” I finally said. I directed her to the parking lot by the local grocery store and told her to wait there for me, I would drive down and she could follow me home.
When I got to the parking lot, she wasn’t there. I couldn’t understand it. It’s the only grocery store for several miles in either direction. I finally found her at a gas station at least two miles up the road from the grocery store, arguing with the guys in the office. Sally is a very pretty woman, and I got the impression that the fellas — and Sally herself — were rather enjoying the whole business.
Anyway, we hugged, as old friends will. But Sally immediately pushed me away, and cringed back against her the wall, with an expression of disgust. “Oh, ugh, ick, you’re wearing scent!” she cried. I was a little taken aback. I’ve known Sally for probably 20 years. I usually wear perfume or cologne, and she had never mentioned being bothered by it. But I guess you can develop allergies, so I shrugged and told her, “No problem,” that I would shower when we got to my place.
Then she started berating me for my driving directions, laughing, not at her own confusion, but at my inability to communicate. I didn’t really want to get into it — disagreeing with her would have meant getting into an argument, and we were still in the service-station office. So I told her I was sorry she’d had trouble, and we set off for home.
In preparation for Sally’s visit, I had given the house a good cleaning, changed all the bed linens and towels, spruced up the bathrooms, etc. I have two dogs and two cats, and the wall-to-wall carpet can get a little funky, so I had sprinkled some dry carpet freshener around the spare bedroom before I vacuumed. Sally said she couldn’t possibly sleep in that room, she was allergic to scent of any kind.
I have to say, I saw no signs of an allergic reaction in Sally — no sneezing or coughing or watery eyes, no rash or frantic scratching. But, “No problem,” I said, “You sleep in my room, and I’ll sleep in here.” No, no, no, she said, she couldn’t possibly take my bed away from me, she would sleep on the couch in the living room. I didn’t want her sleeping on the couch, and after a protracted discussion I was finally able to convince her that I was fine with sleeping in the spare bedroom for a night.
My sense that this was turning out not to be a good weekend was bolstered when Sally asked me if the sheets on my bed were clean. I told her I had changed all the linens that morning, but she asked me to change them again. “No problem,” I said, and did it. After I had changed all the sheets, she asked what kind of detergent I used. Apparently satisfied with my answer, that I used fragrance-free liquid, she asked if I had a fan or something for the room. A fan? It’s February! “I need to have some kind of white noise,” she explained. “You must have a fan?” Of course, I have several fans, but they’re stowed away in the garage (which is really more of a barn, about 40 feet away from the house), waiting for the warm weather. I told her I would fetch one for her before we went to bed.
During all of this Sally had left on her hat, coat, scarf, and sunglasses. We retired to the living room for afternoon tea, but she still didn’t remove her outer garments. I offered to take her coat and hat, but she said she was chilled from the long drive and would leave them on. “No problem,” I said, wondering if her car didn’t have a heater. I turned up the thermostat a bit.
Sally didn’t remove her outerwear or sunglasses all afternoon. I found it surprisingly uncomfortable, visiting and chatting with someone whose eyes I couldn’t see and who was dressed as if she expected to leave any minute. We spent the afternoon discussing the various deficiencies Sally has discovered in her friends and family over the years, how badly she’s treated at work, how inadequate her salary is, etc. Unasked, she told me how much she makes, and it’s about half again as much as I earn.
We went out for dinner to a restaurant in the little town near where I live. Sally took off her hat but retained her coat and scarf, and made a great deal of trouble over ordering from the menu, requesting substitutions and sauces on the side and that the green vegetables not be allowed to touch the potatoes and could they please leave out the carrots? “No problem,” said the waitress. Sally sent back the water because there was too much ice in it. I was kind of embarrassed. I asked her if the salt was okay. “Not too salty?” I picked up the bill after our meal and we went home.
It was a chilly, rainy evening, and I had to take the dogs for a last walk. When I got back, all of us soaked through, Sally had finally taken off her coat. She asked if I had gotten the fan for her as I had promised. I had, of course, forgotten. This time I didn’t say, “No problem,” but I headed back out into the dark and the mud and the wet to get the *&!%($@#* fan from the garage. When I brought it into the house Sally was laughing at me. Laughing hard. “Oh, god, you should have seen the look on your face when I asked you about the fan!” she shrieked, as if this was the funniest thing since the Clinton administration. I made a discovery right then and there: I really don’t like being laughed at. Really, really don’t like it. I don’t think I’ve ever been laughed at that way, with that unpleasant undertone of sly triumph. What was going on, here, anyway? Did she derive a kind of perverse pleasure from uncover my failures as a thoughtful hostess? I handed over the fan and went to bed.
Sally wasn’t quite done with me for the evening, though, and tapped on my door asking for help. She couldn’t find an electric outlet and and couldn’t figure out how to operate the fan. This is a very basic fan with four settings: low, medium, high, and off. I didn’t say, “No problem,” but I set up the fan for her.
The next afternoon we went to a concert at a nearby college. Another old friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for many years, plays in the orchestra there, and we went backstage after the concert. I introduced Sally to him, and he invited us out for a drink. Sally said she couldn’t possibly, she was simply exhausted. On the way back to my house, she asked me how long I had known him. “He’s very good looking, that’s the only reason you’re still friends with him,” Sally said. If he was ugly, she went on, I wouldn’t still be friends with him after all these years. “Excuse me?” I said. “How shallow do you think I am?”
Sally was supposed to stay for another night, and I had prepared, a the day before, a big pot of chicken stew for our supper. She decided she needed to leave right away. “No problem,” I said, and had a nice quiet dinner of chicken and dumplings.
Sally never called or sent me a note or email thanking me for the weekend. And I didn’t call her. About a month and a half later she left a message on my voice mail, upbraiding me for not calling her, telling me not to phone her if anyone else of our acquaintance passed away. “I don’t need friends like you who never call!” she said.
So I guess I’ve lost a friend. “No problem,” I thought to myself. 0408-12
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