Drunk, again and still, you were sitting in the papasan chair that always tipped over, about to hear about the three weeks Tanya had spent in the psych ward of the University’s medical center. The chair was the same one you had stuffed into the back of your mother’s old blue Volvo 240SL and driven up the California coastline two years before–a piece of bona fide grown-up furniture for your first apartment, cheap but real, though it had never really worked out the way you had envisioned. You had rarely been home that year, and no matter how comfortable the chair, the fact that it tipped over made it marginally useless. So when you left the apartment for the last time as Tanya’s roommate, you had abandoned it, leaving it as a pound of flesh of sorts for Tanya, an atonement, however feeble, for the betrayals you had committed against her in recent months. But like everything you offered then, it was a gift of dubious value, and the act of leaving it was more remarkable its negligence than for its generosity.
“So, how are you?” you asked, despising yourself more even as you said it. “I mean, how have you been?”
“Well, you know.”
You considered the second-hand, communications-by-proxy you had had with Tanya since her institutionalization. The long messages she had left on your answering machine in that apartment, in those days before people used voicemail regularly. You had never picked up the phone, but you listened to her messages, which had seemed simple and normal at first. She wanted something to be brought to her, and she did not sound angry. But you couldn’t face the thought of direct contact. Instead, you had packed up a Banana Republic bag with her mirror, tweezers, several packs of cigarettes, and some clothes, and driven over to the medical center. Cate, the fearless New Yorker, had been the one to walk them up to the psych ward, where she left the bag with the reception desk. The nurses could pass the things she requested on to Tanya. It was impersonal, but at least you had done what she asked.
It occurred to you then that you hadn’t even bothered to buy Tanya’s brand of cigarettes. You had just dropped a stack of your own Marlboro 100s into the bag, even if you knew (of course you knew) that Tanya smoked Camel Lights. You didn’t have any Camel Lights, and you would have had to go to the store. And there wasn’t time, or money, and it wasn’t your fault anyway. You hadn’t been the one to do this to her–not really. She had done it to herself!
“I’m sorry I didn’t send Camel Lights, by the way,” you told her. Because the selfishness and laziness of this act seemed cruel now. Now that it had a human face again.
“Oh, that’s no big deal. I just wanted any kind of cigarettes.”
“But why didn’t you visit me? Or call? That’s what I wondered.”
You didn’t know what to say. Maybe she didn’t remember how angry she had been that day.
“I know–I don’t know, I thought you were angry.”
“I was upset that nobody came to visit.”
Tanya was playing the part of an abandoned, aggrieved friend-in-need, a victim left out to dry by her selfish friends on the outside. And it was an apt casting, but it ignored the backstory that you knew was there–a coldness that you could sense just beneath the surface, and you knew better than to believe it would go away on its own. She might profess to be angry about the lack of visits and calls, or bemoan the lack of humanity extended to her whilst institutionalized, but what was behind this act was unadulterated anger about the original betrayal. You knew that, and you feared it. Because it had always been hypothetical before, but now that things had changed the truth was that you did fear what Tanya would do to people who had crossed her, and there was a part of you that believed all of her stories were true. And that, therefore, you were a dead woman.
“I would have come–” What was it that you thought you would say? You would have come if you could have been guaranteed that nobody would have been angry or upset? If there hadn’t been confrontation involved? If you had been sure that everything would have been pleasant between the two of you?
“When I was in there, I would ask for a mirror, and they would say, ‘You’re in here for amphetamine abuse. You are not allowed to have mirrors.’”
“But I packed your mirror in that bag!”
“Yes, but they never gave it to me.”
“I don’t understand the connection between amphetamines and mirrors.”
“They just wouldn’t let me do anything.”
“Suicide? Or violence? Or what?”
Because you could be crass without realizing it.
“So I played a lot of chess.”
“Who did you play it with, though?” Picturing her finding a new way of playing chess, without an opponent.
“I made friends with this big black dude, Bertrand. He was really good at chess, actually. But it’s kind of hard to play chess with someone that might haul off and smack you on the head–Bertrand was always having to be put in four point restraints.”
“Wow.” You weren’t convinced that Bertrand was real.
“But I only beat him twice. Can you believe that? The guy was brilliant. Crazy, though.”
Indeed. “How come it took so long for you to get out?”
“They just kept extending the hold. I would ask why, but they wouldn’t tell me. They don’t tell you anything. Eventually, I had to call my parents.”
“Were they mad?”
“Of course not. They are just concerned about me and what’s going on out here.”
Out here? “Oh.”
“But they’re glad you moved out, they think it’s a good thing. They would have been happier if it had been this way from the start, I think.”
And there it was: the Masons, of all people, were glad that you were moving out of the apartment you shared with their daughter. Because clearly you had been the bad influence. There was a part of you that rebelled against this accusation, the same part that once felt validated by collecting awards and getting a 4.38 (weighted) G.P.A. It was a bizarre comment, absolutely meant to sting, and you could see that Tanya savored the telling of it to you. Her parents’ opinion meant little to you–it was just the misconception that you smarted at–but to Tanya, they were the moon, the sun, and the stars. They may have been crazy, but they were all hers. And you had crossed her. You had crossed them.
“I’m sorry I had my Dad call you–”
“That was weird.”
“–about the moving out of the apartment.”
“I was like, ‘Wow. She cannot even tell me herself?’”
“I just didn’t know how you’d react–”
“And then he said something about not wanting you to live with a drug addict, and . . .”
“Thanks for not saying anything.”
“I could have told him lots of stories.”
“But that’s not who I am.”
Another cut. Tanya had reached for the bottle of Night Train, which sat on the bookshelves in front of you, next to her Mac PowerBook, on which you had written your take home finals for English 167: The Importance of Childhood in Victorian Literature, the Fall before. As she drank, you noticed the cassettes in the organizer on the wall, with titles from bands like Whitesnake and Poison, Def Leppard and Ratt. It was a collection to which a friend of yours had once referred as “So bad that I cannot really believe it’s not ironic.” You had said, at the time, “You just don’t know Tanya.”
The conversation was over. And this was how it felt on the outside.