It is a horrible thing to be afraid, and William was afraid most of the time. Mostly, he was afraid of words, of using the wrong words at the wrong time, which generally meant saying the wrong things to the wrong people. There were so many things to say and so many people who wanted to speak, though many were taught that saying so was envious and rude, even hurtful. Were Kathy and Cathy fighting again, or did they make up? William wanted to be a good friend. He wanted his friends to trust him and to know his understanding. He enjoyed the safe ache of a bruise pressed in the presence of another. In a space of shared sympathy and when William was with one friend and one friend only, he could receive and repeat his friend's words, and in this way, he felt easier.
Alone with his youngest friend, William listened to the words of her confession. "My father ignored me," she sighed, "and became a certain kind of Republican. He believed the best girls grow up to become wives who serve their husbands, and while my husband does support me, I am the one who sets the tone. My horrible father created this great need for attention. He did not want me to become the person I am still becoming. William," she whispered, "you are older and wiser. I can sense within you a dangerous intuition. You know countless people with important connections. Will you be my friar? Will you be the salted earth I can always rely on? With some of your history and part of your name, I will speak louder for so many women." William loved the way his youngest friend filled her words with conviction. She never spewed but enunciated clearly; other times she crooned as virile young men and stylish women gathered like flies to paper. "Someone," she hummed, "must be the center of this, for as much as I want the world to change, centers still exist. I know what it's like to be the girl who needs permission." William believed in his young friend; when he listened to her, he felt a wish to sing.
William's friend, Maryana, knew the power of a beautiful bruise. She liked to make marionettes from newspaper, wire, and masking tape, staging small productions in her living room where she also kept a small, red-curtained stage. She glued her dyed-red hair to the head of one puppet and her sister's grey hair to the head of another. She dressed her William puppet in a crème-colored Ken-doll sweater and invited friends for a dinner party and play. "I have discovered a hidden method," she said. "And when I pull these puppets' strings, I expose the social order. Here are the faceless puppets! They too want to be heard." She showed the guests one puppet draft after another. She said, "Here is my sister and here is me. Poverty and patriarchy makes us do horrible things." The sister puppets looked out the windows and screamed compliments at passers-by. When the guests were gone, Maryana spoke an elaborate story starring William and Maryana as big-hearted smarties who spoke out against daily manipulations. "But William," said Maryana, "I too want to be loved and accepted." "But William," mouthed Maryana's puppet, "when my sister and I came home from school, we often found our saint-like mother and babyish father sitting, butt-bare, on the white leather couch." William's puppet turned its head, leaning his ear toward Maryana. "Oh William," Maryana wept. "We really are so brilliant!"
William's three older mother friends trusted him as a man of understanding. Their daughters called him Uncle William, and William, an only child, was happy in their claiming. The older mother friends were also friends with each other, and while none of the mothers had planned on having a daughter, they loved their daughters dearly. The older mothers told William about their difficulties raising children. "Now that we have daughters," lamented the mothers, "we can no longer sleep in or cry when we want to. We can't concentrate on making art or writing scholarly essays. The daughters' fathers don't help us; they say we imagine our problems to be bigger than they are. One father moved away and never sends money; another father thinks mothering is being enough; the final father feels sad about the way our daughter treats him. He writes a blog about feminist fathering; he has many followers and responding to their comments takes so much time. In the face of daily difficulties and absences, we focus on making better daughters." William loved the soft cadence of the mothers' complaints. He encouraged the mothers by helping the daughters, thoughtful girls who learned how to chop root vegetables when William and any one of the mothers made beef stew. When the daughters spoke, their soft words fell like sweet-smelling flowers at the feet of influential people, and William was happy to have arranged such meetings. The mothers told William he was a hero. "William," they sniffed, "our daughters might be redeemed."
To be a good friend to Delta was an especially delicate matter, for Delta was easily ruffled and often took offense. It wasn't that Delta did not care about the feelings of others; rather, she experienced her own feelings so magnificently, she often forgot they were her feelings alone. When she visited William, she felt soothed by his petting and stroking. He made gluten-free meals while she told him her news. "Well, William," she cooed, "I've heard that Alice is angry and Marcus feels he hasn't received his due. I'm not worried about Marcus; he's so sensitive and emotive. But I don't want Alice upset, you know, she travels quite a bit and talks to very many people. Somebody said that somebody told her I said something nasty. If I did, I truly don't remember." William nodded and served Delta some egg-drop soup sans soy-sauce. He loved the way she spoke so easily about so many subjects. With her, he became a frog held in the talons of a powerful eagle. "William," she wondered, "what's the difference between a friend and no friend? The one you love and the one you make love with? Can pleasure be measured, bounded, triangulated, or not? The female sex has its own specificity. When a woman knows her body, she sets loose a revolutionary force."
Kathy and Cathy were fighting again, and William hated to be in the middle. Kathy called and said William must come over immediately. When he arrived, he found her wearing an burnt orange and crimson-colored veil. She sat solemnly by the window, gazing at the street below or maybe at nothing. William sat with her and they remained silent until the sun began to set, the sky filling orange and red and pink, and still, Kathy was silent. William began to worry. It wasn't like Kathy to sit so long, so unspeaking. Normally, Kathy told stories; she had many tales about her adventures in real life and in literature. In her tellings, Kathy never provided a realist perspective as background for social and historical facts. She told fairy tales about young women who were raped by their brothers only to find true womanhood and healing in the arms of a loving other man. She wrote fables about courageous abortion-seekers who learn not to cry wolf when the pasture was filled with sheep and lambs only. William loved Kathy for her many stories, the way she spoke so methodically, so purposefully, so knowingly. So relaxed. He waited and waited for Kathy to speak, and when the sun was fully set and the darkness all about them, Kathy stood and told William to go home.
There were so many things to say, but William hadn't said them. Normally, William greeted every day as a new beginning, and when he was with one friend, he did not consider—he barely remembered!—the others. But when he was having a problem, like his worry over Kathy, he called his editor friend because she knew how to listen. On that day, however, she answered the phone crying, "William! There is a giant spider here and I'm afraid she wants to get me. I have spoken to many therapists about my great fear of spiders, and I've read that in the world of animal medicine, Spider gave us the first picture of the alphabet. Intellectually, I know she is my friend! But I am afraid! This mammoth brown spider has built its yellow web across the middle of my main doorway. William, I do not know what to do!" William was confused by his editor friend's language. Normally, this friend only repeated other people's words; this was something she and William had in common. They could mirror the language of others, shifting letters so words became a sword with so much meaning. His editor friend howled and dropped the phone, and William, at a loss for speech, which would have been an action, quietly pushed the red button and ended the call.
Using the wrong words at the wrong time was exactly what had happened. William was angry at his editor friend and angry, too, at Kathy. His anger made him sleepy, and as he sat in a large and leather reclining chair, he began listening to soft music. In his dream, a woman looked into his palm and saw a prisoner, sitting remorsefully, clad in brown. The prisoner's palms were red and a single light hung low above his head. The woman who looked into his palm was very small, with long dark hair and big black eyes. She said, "William, you have been too long waiting. I see a red squirrel, nature's furry little hoarder. The squirrel is lying in the park—its sad corpse separated from the piles of piñones hidden in the hollows of trees."
It is a horrible thing to be afraid, wrote William one day later. If you know you are afraid, does that change the fear?