Part 1. Departure
The first time Marie went home after graduation, her friend Carol Krusen, who was her best friend in high school and her neighbor since birth, told her she was pregnant and asked Marie to help plan the wedding. Of course, said Marie—because she loved being needed more than love itself! And nothing, she told Carol, would stop her from helping her absolute best friend through this big life change. The adventure begins, she cried, which is when Carol Krusen clarified that actually, she and Brad had already eloped. But Carol had only agreed to drive down to Columbus, Ohio—where witnesses aren't required and there isn't a waiting period between applying for and receiving your marriage license—after Brad promised a proper wedding ceremony when Marie was in town. Because Carol Krusen said she couldn't imagine getting married if Marie wasn't there, never mind the fact that technically she already had.
Not that Marie necessarily cared about being present for the actual legal event. Plus, Marie secretly knew that if Carol Krusen hadn't already married, she would've tried to talk Carol out of this particular one, and wondered whether Carol suspected as much. Refuse him, Marie imagined herself saying, before launching into her reasons. Marie had made a list: (1) Twenty-three is too young to know what or who you want to be for the rest of your life, and (2) Brad's pretty aggressive, a bit of a bully even. (3) He likes to start arguments on socially explosive topics, especially politics and religion, as if offending others makes him more masculine, which (4) suggests an insecurity that will only lead to more of (2) and (3). And look, Marie would have continued, I get that he's intelligent but grew up so fucking poor that no one saw him that way, so there's over-compensation. But now he's a grown, thirty-two-year-old man who forces others to concede his point, which seems pathetic and certainly not wise or well-advised. Plus, he has an ex-wife, three children from that marriage, and a diagnosed mental illness that he self-medicates with alcohol. Carol Krusen, she would have said several times, this is not a good choice. But Carol already knew this and more. Details! she would have laughed. Besides, Carold Krusen was in love. Some things in life you simply will choose—because it's right even if it looks wrong, horrible even, when compared to a looks-good-on-paper kind of list, such as a steady income, mindful listening, a college degree.
Marie began to assist Carol Krusen with her wedding preparations, and the biggest challenge, aside from the rush (they only had six weeks before Marie would return to the West Coast) was finding Carol's dress. Not because Carol Krusen was a fussy woman—no one could accuse her of that—nor because of her tall full-bodied figure and enormous breasts, which would, by the time of little Emily's birth, reach a nursing size G, larger, as Carol Krusen would then point out, than little Emily's little head. Rather, the challenge revolved around the way Carol's whole body pulsed with her pregnancy, transformative and truly supernatural, so that a perfectly-fitting dress on Tuesday would be lousy by Thursday, becoming too big, too small, too short, ridiculously long or tight in the arms and strangely too loose in the chest. Something odd was happening, observed Marie, and Carol Krusen smiled a knowing smile and mentioned that her sense of smell was also greatly heightened, as is frequently reported but rarely believed. That's it, cried Marie, we'll use your body as our guide. If we find a dress that fits perfectly enough on three separate visits, that is the dress for you. Carol Krusen agreed, and on the day of her wedding, she wore this magically selected dress, found on week thirty-one of forty, for nearly eight hours. It was layered and full, beaded and gauzed, tucked, gathered, laced, and fastened with buttons that looked like real pearls. Brad was pleasant that day, close to agreeable, and Carol Krusen's father kissed his daughter on her cheek and said she looked like a puffy white present. Carol Krusen felt her own dead mother smiling down, just like in the pictures.
In the months and years after their wedding, Brad and Carol Krusen cycled through a series of beater cars and food stamp applications, even as they maintained their steady delight in each other, their willingness to disregard certain social norms. Brad quit drinking and Carol Krusen became a La Leche breastfeeding activist. Brad went back to school and Carol Krusen began researching homeschooling for little Emily: they didn't want their child to pledge allegiance to such a militaristic flag. Brad was "father" and "husband" and Carol was "mother" and "wife." Meanwhile, Marie wandered and worried about what to make of herself, now that she was the first in her family with a college degree. She didn't want to follow Carol Krusen into the woods of motherwife, but neither did she have a specific career goal or occupation in mind. She felt herself lingering before a threshold to the great unknown, and too afraid to cross over, she made herself small and manageable, first, by moving in with a socially-ambitious and reasonably-attractive guy who refused to introduce her as his "girlfriend," and who insisted that she not change anything in the apartment, except if she was laundering the towels or sheets. Which is not to say that he expected her to do his laundry; he said he'd continue to do it himself, once a month, as was his current schedule. He would also continue his daily habit of eating dinner at restaurants and Marie was welcome to join him, he emphasized "her choice," and if she couldn't afford the cost, he would pay, no problem. Marie was bothered by some of his behavior, but she also admired his refusal to play "partner," and believed their relationship to be better than those who compulsively-followed usual gender roles. Basically, Marie found a certain amount of freedom in this domestic situation, and given her own authoritarian father, she was used to working around a man's rules. She also convinced her boyfriend, whom she affectionately called Muggins, to let her build a five-foot-tall platform for his—now their—futon mattress, underneath which she would store her belongings undetected.
So Marie built the platform and began eating dinner out every night, for which Muggins mostly paid. She applied for jobs and read several novels about people, mostly women, trying to find their way. She took guitar lessons, pottery lessons, voice lessons, and tap. She waited for something to happen, all the while feeling as if she were hanging out in the belly of a whale, not necessarily Biblical.
Part Two: Initiation
The second time Marie went home after having an abortion, her eldest sister, Marsha, who knew little of Marie's actual life, asked to hear about Marie's new job. They were eating beef patties and Carol Krusen was there, along with little Emily but no husband Brad. When Marie hesitated, Carol Krusen chimed in, practically singing, yes please tell them about working at WIC. Most of the women at the table already knew that WIC stood for Women, Infants, and Children, because most of them—Marie's older sisters and Carol Krusen—relied on WIC food vouchers as part of their monthly household budget. Marie also knew this and was embarrassed. Not because she believed there was anything wrong with receiving WIC; two of her co-workers were also income qualified, and the program did a lot of good, even if it indirectly subsidized agri-business by not allowing organic milk, which Marie also knew. But Marie, still uncertain about life's larger mission, was certainly determined to not need WIC herself, which she recognized as a bit of judgment, though she didn't want to position herself as an "expert" either, just because she sat on the other side of the WIC desk. Thus consumed with her own feelings, Marie didn't recognize this moment as one turn on a road of more trials to come, and instead of answering honestly about what it was like to work there, which would have involved describing things and people not always with approval or understanding, she laughed off her sister's question, saying they (at the table) probably knew more about WIC than she. This made everyone vaguely uncomfortable, including Marie's sister, Linda, who muttered about what can and should not be discussed, before the family turned their attention elsewhere, to never again ask Marie about her professional life.
Marie didn't care about not talking with them. She had Carol Krusen, and Carol Krusen was learning the Wise Woman's Way, a guide for alternative healing. She told Marie all about it as they sat in her kitchen, little Emily playing on the cracked yellow linoleum floor. We aren't the only beings with intelligence and higher consciousness, said Carol Krusen in a confidential tone. If you listen to plants, you will learn. Marie nodded and asked how to do that, and as Carol Krusen began telling a story about walking in the wooded park with little Emily, Marie flashed on an afternoon when, much younger, she and her friend happily feasted on raspberries growing in Carol's mother's back garden. When Carol's mother saw their red mouths and sticky hands, she spanked both girls and sent Marie home. The berry eating had been Marie's idea, because there were so many and because they were so good, but later she learned that Carol Krusen's family had less freezer jam that winter and that Carol's father often blamed the girls, in a teasing tone, for his dry and tasteless toast. The raspberry leaf, said Carol Krusen, is a pregnancy goddess. She tones your uterus and birth canal, while keeping your man at home. Marie smiled and said it was also probably less expensive than a gym membership. Marie was looking at the chipped paint and uneven cabinets, and remembering how when Carol Krusen and Brad had rented this latest small house, they said that it was likely so inexpensive because it wasn't up to code. Marie, said Carol Krusen, I think you should make yourself a motherwort tincture. It will help heal your anxious heart and mind.
Marie liked the idea but knew she wouldn't do it. Listen, she said instead, did you receive my last letter? Carol Krusen had every single letter anyone had ever sent her, starting from when she was four years old and kept in a black filing cabinet, sorted by date, then bundled in yearly stacks held together with repurposed rubber bands. The first time Marie had seen Carol Krusen's letter collection, she practically fell over with envy at the organization and thought of it all. How did Carol Krusen know at such a young age that her letters were important and deserving? Marie's own system was to move piles of papers from the kitchen to the bedroom, before throwing the whole mess into a box she purposefully kept thereafter closed. That letter, said Carol Krusen with a pause. I know you told me it was private, but Brad was there when I opened it and grabbed it from my hand. Carol Krusen laughed as Marie blushed. Brad says you're too easily tempted, your perspective thoroughly skewed. But Carol, cried Marie, I wrote that letter only for you! I know, sighed Carol Krusen, and he knows he shouldn't have read it. But you have to understand that we share everything, and anything you say to me, you're also telling him. I won't have marriage with secrets.
Over the next few days, Marie thought quite a bit about this. She was angry at Carol Krusen but didn't know exactly why. On the one hand, she understood she had been battling Brad for Carol Krusen's loyalty and affection, and that Brad had clearly won. And in the abstract she agreed with her friend's desire for a "share-all" marriage, but then again, Marie's secrets were not Carol's to share, just as Marie didn't share Carol's, except with people who were very unlikely to ever meet or know her. When Marie saw Brad a few days later, he said you're not going to like my unsolicited advice, but you need to marry and settle down. Marie shook her head and said no, she didn't, and when Brad asked, why, what's wrong with the man you're living with, Marie didn't reply. They were standing in the backyard, cooking chicken thighs on a portable grill, while little Emily sat in an old stroller pointing and saying bird. Carol Krusen called for Marie to help in the kitchen, and as Marie stood to go, she didn't mean to give Brad such a dirty look. Hey lady, don't take your man-issues out on me, he said. And Marie, who was yet unwilling to claim her own authority as a means of atonement, though for what, she later wondered, glanced at little Emily and smirked.
So when Marie told Carol Krusen about her abortion, she knew Brad would also soon know. And while she figured that Brad was the kind of man who believed women should have the right to choose even as he would never support his own wife or girlfriend with that particular choice—because life is beautiful, especially babies' lives—Marie was not prepared for Carol Krusen's response. Which was silence. A long silence. Followed by: having Little Emily helps me see things differently, and I'm sad you won't have that and she won't have your daughter as her best friend. Marie scowled and replied that she wouldn't have moved back anyway, meaning their daughters, if that's what she would have had, wouldn't have been neighbors and maybe not even friends. Carol Krusen only smiled and said of course they would have, no question, and maybe Marie would have moved back. Who knows? The thought instantly repulsed Marie to the point of genuine nausea. No, she said, and that was that. What was the use, she later thought, of telling Carol Krusen how I am. Carol Krusen, who saw "mother" as the apotheosis of "female," and "me" as always "we." Resigned to forgo an ultimate boon, Marie prepared to return to boyfriend Muggins and to her life on the West Coast. She went grocery shopping with her mother and made spinach lasagna for one more family meal. She babysat her numerous nieces and nephews and took a last walk in the woods, where she stopped beneath a large oak tree and listened to the wind. What, she wondered, but couldn't think of an end to that sentence that wasn't sappy or sad. When she was last at Carol Krusen's house, Marie took several photographs of little Emily, promising to send copies of the prints. And Carol Krusen put an orris root in Marie's hand. To help you uproot that which is hidden, she said.
Part 3: Return
The third time Marie went home after coming out to her family, her mother, who had decided to love her daughter by avoiding any mention of what she believed a sin, asked Marie to help with a number of projects around the house. Marie, who still loved being needed no matter who she loved, suggested they make a list, which she also still loved to do. Her mother wrote on the back of a used envelope, as if these were only two things:
1) trim trees near barn
2) clean the garage
I want to get rid of stuff, just get rid of it, said Marie's mother. OK, said Marie. Do you want to have a garage sale? Her mother said maybe, maybe she should have a garage sale. Should she have a garage sale? Marie said she didn't have an opinion either way. If her mother wanted to have a garage sale, she would help. If not, they wouldn't. Oh, I should probably have a garage sale, said her mother, in a despondent tone. Mom, you don't need to have a garage sale, replied Marie. I don't have to have a garage sale? said her mother. Marie sighed. I don't want to, said her mother, defensively. I don't want to have a garage sale. Then don't, said Marie, suddenly hating the "garage" part of the sale. Why not just call it a sale? Her mother continued, I'll have your brother come over with the truck and haul this stuff to the dump, that's what I'm going to do. Her mother straightened a pile of unopened mail, which Marie could see were mostly solicitations from Christian organizations. The dump? said Marie. That's not good enough for you, said her mother. Mom! cried Marie, in a tone that meant stop. Is this why you quit visiting, said her mother, why you refused to come home? While they were talking, Marie's mother had filled the rest of the gas bill envelope with doodles of flower pots and blooming plants, and a couple of what looked like lightning bolts.
Marie's second eldest sister walked in the front door. Hello, said Linda. Do you want to go garage-sale-ing? Marie's mother laughed. We were just talking about garage sales, Marie said. Mom doesn't want to have one. Oh, they're a pain, said her sister, who sat down and began to talk about her new neighbors. They were horrible people, she said, who tore down her iron fence because they thought it was ugly. But it was my iron fence, said Marie's sister, and now their dog runs into my yard. This morning, I told them to fix it or I'd let the kids use their dog as a BB gun target. Not Magic! they cried. What kind of people call their dog Magic? Come, Magic—Stay, Magic—It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. But the worst thing, explained Linda, was that her husband, Steve, had helped them with a plumbing emergency and now they refused to pay.
Marie's sister left shortly thereafter and Marie and her mother began to clean the very large garage. Marie's mother's garden tools were hanging in an organized pattern spray-painted on one of the walls, which reminded Marie of Carol Krusen's mother, who always kept everything so neat, so tidy, and Marie and her mother began to talk about the Krusens. Mr. Krusen had passed away a few years ago, Marie's mother reminded her, and Marie said, really? Because she hadn't spoken to Carol Krusen since the last time she was home. Will you see her this time? asked her mother. Marie shrugged. And what about Muggins? though Marie's mother used his real name, which Marie never liked. Too ordinary, thought Marie, for me. Marie said that he had married someone who loved to make pies and they were living in Portland. They didn't talk about Marie's wife or her wedding. Like Carol Krusen, Marie had crossed a border (in this case, national) to marry in a place (Canada) that had different legal rules. Marie's family did not approve of any of it and when Marie told her mother about the marriage, her mother only said that she had been worried Marie might do something like that. Carol Krusen, on the other hand, had been pleased that Marie had finally settled down. It's better to be married, isn't it? said Carol Krusen. For everyone? said Marie, and Carol Krusen laughed deep and long. Marie realized that Carol Krusen viewed marriage as rescue from without, a way to return to the everyday childhood life of family, but with new knowledge, new choices. New skills. And Carol Krusen wasn't totally wrong about that, Marie now realized.
I think I will call Carol Krusen, said Marie to her mother, and later, on the phone, Carol Krusen told Marie that she was welcome to come visit, but Carol, herself, couldn't leave home. Carol Krusen's voice sounded as sure and as warm as it always had, and she was happy to tell Marie her news. Little Emily was strong and healthy, and Brad was working on a second degree. They were growing vegetables, raising chickens, making their own homespun clothes. And I'm pregnant, she said. Or rather, I'm carrying Baby Z. She explained that her cousin's wife couldn't conceive, and that as she, Carol Krusen, so enjoyed being pregnant, she agreed to carry the baby as a surrogacy. It's making me somewhat nauseous, she said, but nothing too terrible. Also, I'm studying to be a midwife and doula, so my life feels very integrated, like I've crossed a threshold back to where I always wanted to be.
Marie enjoyed Carol Krusen's updates, and didn't ask if, like other surrogates, Carol Krusen was being paid, or how much she could get if she decided to do it again, especially back East. Neither did Marie talk much about her own life, except to share newsy information about her wife and step-children, and as she spoke, her accent and pauses became increasingly pronounced, so that Marie realized she was trying to make herself sound more like the people she had grown up with, like Carol Krusen, who had stayed put. Why would that be, Marie later wondered, and is it possible to occupy two worlds simultaneously—home and away? And what if Marie's idea of these places differed from what they actually were. And are. Marie decided she was onto something. Yes, she cried. We never truly know another, none of us, and maybe especially when she's your best friend and neighbor. I can't imagine wanting Carol Krusen's life, just like I never thought that the Carol Krusen I knew would become the Carol Krusen she knows herself to be. Similarly, my mother can't imagine my desire to be simply desire. And Marie smiled then, knowing that her mother's imagination had nothing to do with her. Or she, for that matter, with her mother's desire.
It's strange how friends can help. Marie felt easier in life in general, and when she thought about Carol Krusen, she thought she understood Carol's gratefulness and freedom to be. And while Marie still returned home with less frequency, she continued to receive updates about Carol Krusen, this time, however, from her sister, Linda. For as these things happen, her sister's horrible neighbor, who had become, as these things also happen, her new best friend, was a midwife who had taken Carol Krusen on as an apprentice—a job for which she refused to be paid, but was terrifically well-suited.