all the advice we give goes unheeded

My friend is angry at a friend of hers and so she paces my kitchen, fuming. Her friend has been living abroad for four years, not making much money, dabbling in illicit substances, and crying all the time. “She’s got to move back here, get a job, stop taking money from her parents and get her shit together.”

I have never seen her so upset. She goes on, “I mean, she’s not twenty-five any more. She’s too old for this shit. She’s stopped writing her book, she gets involved with these awful men and then she’s sad all the time. I talk to her on the phone and she’s crying. She’s smoking too much. I mean, it’s time for her to grow up. Don’t you think she should just grow up?”

I’m putting a salad together, slicing cucumbers. She’s waiting for my response. “I guess,” I say, “but I don’t think you can make her do that. She’s got to find her own way.”

She picks up the lid from the pan on the stove, puts it back down. I go on: “I mean, we all have our paths, you know?”

She is quiet. She reaches for the open bottle of wine on the counter, pours a bit into her glass. “She’s just ruining her life,” she says, as she lifts the glass, “she’s totally throwing her life away.”

She is constantly turning questions around on me, so I take this opportunity to ask: “Why are you so upset about this? Is there something this is stirring up for you?”

She laughs. “Oh, I see what you are doing.” I hand her the salad bowl, she walks it over to the dining table.

“I think I’m just mad because I feel like I am losing her. Like she’s just going to stay there and throw her life away and I’ll have lost my friend.”

“Should I get the kids?” she asks. I nod. She walks into the living room to call them. I put a tiny bowl of salt on the table. The pepper mill. The dressing for the salad. Take the rolls out of the oven, put them on a plate. She comes back, wraps her shawl around her shoulders. “I’m just so mad that there’s nothing I can do. I can’t do anything but watch her make this mess of everything.”

All through the night, fierce winds. I wake to the sound of the old windows shuddering in their frames.

We go to breakfast, plot out the day, make our lists. There are menus to plan. There is the shopping and the cleaning and the caretaking to do. As we leave the restaurant, a flurry of text messages sent and answered. I have friends in various stages of decision-making. We check in with each other, lift each other up. K. says the week was a difficult one, and I say yes, for me too. The planets in an unfortunate alignment, she suggests. Sure. I’ll take it.

I drive my car out to the service center and watch as big clusters of clouds drift across the sky. A sudden illumination as through a hole in the cloud cover, a rush of sunlight and I feel something in my chest lift, expand. It is hard not to want to read signs into everything. Rather: it is hard for me not to read signs into everything.

M. comes home late last night, but he has brought gifts and I fuss over them. We share a late meal alone, in the quiet. We recount our days to each other – the big, wearying things. On the table, there are roses from our recent dinner party. Tulips by the windows. The china dishes from my mother fill the shelves of a heavy dark-wood sideboard that we were given by a friend when he moved. I think about our first house – the tiny purple one on the west side where we ate from the mismatched plates we bought at the Salvation Army store. How much we are the same but we are not the same.

Outside our bedroom window, there was a black walnut tree and in the late summer and early autumn, we would wake to the cacophony of the walnuts hitting the roof and rolling down to the ground. How we were always taken by surprise. The soundtrack of our mornings there: walnuts falling and the man in the neighboring house who rose early to do his stretching on his porch. The soft whooshing sounds he made, the puffing sounds of his breathing, exaggerated and rhythmic.

A couple we knew bought the house after us. Lived there together for several years. I learned recently from a friend in common that they since have parted ways. She remains in the house. He has moved on. I drove past last fall on my way back from one meeting or another. Black walnuts scattered on the sidewalk. 

I invite my friend to eat with us but she says she is considering making the four-hour drive to see her on-again, off-again man. He refuses to come here, she says. I tell her unequivocally that she is crazy to do it, that she should stay here with the people who want her in our lives. She says but he does want me, he just wants to control the terms. I don’t respond to this, tell her just to let me know. Who am I, really, to pretend to know what is right.

Many years ago, when I was still in my twenties, still with B., we had poet friends who shared a house, but had decided not to marry. She asked me about it once, whether I thought they should. I told her yes, yes, and I waxed poetic about it, I am sure, although I can no longer recall what I would have said.

Later, when B. and I divorced, I spoke to her once on the phone. It was clear I had already lost them both to him, and in this final conversation between us, she hissed: “How could you ever have encouraged us to get married? How did you dare?” as if our divorce alone shed doubt on the whole institution. As if I had already known what was to come.

I ask M. again what he thinks I should do about the television show. The one where I would appear and say that I am looking for my family. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t,” he says, and I sit with it, the idea of it, for just a few minutes.

“There is something so unseemly about asking so publicly,” I say and even as I hear myself uttering these words, I recognize the absurdity and the irony of them. Me – this open book, this constant stream of self-reports. Ask me anything, I say, and I will tell you. And yet, this. This seems like it might just be too much.

We are driving home from breakfast. It’s a short drive, but we have to take the highway. The landscape so familiar it is like driving in a dream. The light intensifying then dimming as the clouds move across the sky. The wind, subsiding now - quiet, as if drawing up strength for an approaching storm.