On Picking Up The Phone.

Kelly and me in our twenties.

I pick up the phone nearly every time my friend Kelly M. calls. If I don’t pick up the phone when she calls, it’s only because I’m doing something that can’t be put off. I pick up the phone when Kelly M. calls because, every time I talk to Kelly M., even eighteen years after we first became friends, I feel like the girl in this photo. I feel as though the world has so much to offer, and I’ve only tasted a fraction of it.

Lately, Kelly M. calls a lot after ten p.m. We live in different time zones, and she has a toddler, so that’s her first peace of the day. Still, she very often uses that moment of peace to call me, so much so, that sometimes she tells me, “Okay, I promised Brendan (her partner) that I would only talk for fifteen minutes.” Then, we inevitably talk for forty-five minutes. 

Last night, Kelly M. called me. I was working on a paper, but I answered the phone anyway. “How did you know that I needed a break?” I asked. Kelly M. laughed. She said, “Well, I saw that you called me twice today.” It was true. I had called twice, both times over silly little things that I had wanted to share with her. 

Later, in the conversation, Kelly M. confided in me that she had been writing, and it was her only day of the week with childcare, so she had opted not to answer the phone when I called.

Still, Kelly M. said that she was happy to see that I had called twice. Kelly M. said that she knew that meant I was celebrating something.

Kelly M. said that, a few years ago, she wouldn’t have turned down those calls.

Kelly M. said that, a few years ago, she had made a commitment to herself to answer the phone no matter when I called. She answered the phone in the supermarket. She answered the phone in coffee shops. She answered the phone in cabs and made everyone in the car uncomfortable. 

She answered the phone because I wasn’t celebrating: I was struggling. I was grieving. I was angry. In many ways, I was fighting for my life.

Still, Kelly M. answered the phone. 

When I needed her to, she answered the phone, and that is the best gift that anyone has ever given to me.

People often comment on my strength and my bravery in getting out of my marriage, but it wasn’t like that. I didn’t just summon up some vast reserve of strength and bravery. I didn’t have a vast reserve of strength and bravery. I was completely broken. Do you hear me? I was completely broken. What he did to me broke me. I cannot understate that, and I could not have put myself back together. I know that other women have done it on their own, but I am not one of those women.

All I did was walk out the door. I walked out the door, and then, as I was falling apart, as everything in my life was being destroyed, my girlfriends like Kelly M., and my friend Megan (who deserves her own post someday), and my friend, Rebecca, and so many others, stepped in, and each of them tenderly put a broken part back into place. And every time that someone diminished me, or disbelieved me, those broken parts would fall out again, and one of my friends would patiently reach out and put the part back where it belonged.

And over time, the broken parts healed, and that’s when I became strong and brave, but it didn’t happen straight out of the box. It was a long and difficult period. It is an ongoing period.

But, now, at least, Kelly M. can answer the phone because I’m celebrating, and not because I’m falling apart.

It is very hard for friendships to survive abuse. Things weren’t always easy between Kelly M. and me. There was an argument in the months after I had left Caleb. We didn’t talk for three weeks. It was a long three weeks. When I finally broke down and called her, she told me, “Kelly, I am not Caleb. I love you unconditionally.” 

I had never known how it felt to be loved unconditionally, you see?

Kelly M. and I met in a dorm at Boise State University. She was eighteen and I was twenty. I was returning to college after an absence. Kelly M. told me that she admired me because I wore a satin robe and made coffee out of a French Press. It all sounds so ridiculously pretentious now. I admired Kelly because, even though she was younger than me, she was whip-smart, funny, and already, completely feminist. 

When we laughed, the sound could fill an entire room and still can. 

When we were in our early twenties, we roomed together for a year. It was a difficult year. I had recently gone through one of my first significant break-ups, and I had entered a period of loneliness and discipline. At night, I walked through the cold snow-covered alley way to the Rec Center and ran on the treadmill. I stared out into the snowy darkness. I measured my progress in minutes and miles. In the glass window, I could see my reflection, but I looked past it. Instead, I looked into the darkness. There was a globe lamp by the sidewalk below me, and if I ran hard enough, the light from that lamp expanded, took on rings. 

If I hit a point where I felt that I could run forever, I knew that I had gone too far. Then, I would go back to the apartment and write. It was the first time I had begun to write in earnest. 

Kelly M., in contrast, was already in a graduate-level poetry workshop with a charismatic and handsome visiting writer who flirted with me in the copy room when I was making copies as a work-study for the English department, asked my other friend at the YMCA about me, and then slept with at least one other undergraduate that I know of. Kelly M.’s life seemed so exciting, and mine felt very void in comparison, but I wrote my first published piece, an essay about my high school mascot that Kelly M, helped me revise. I titled that essay, “I Am Not a Savage,” and it was published in a textbook. It is probably the one piece I’ve written that has been read the most. Sometimes, I think of how young I was when I wrote that essay, and I don’t ever want to read it again. I don’t want to have access to that young woman’s voice. That young woman is gone.

While we lived together, things beyond Kelly M.’s control happened, and she, too, grew sad. Then, I made friends and grew un-sad. 

Our sadnesses were mismatched, but our friendship survived.

A few years later, Kelly M. sat on the couch of my studio apartment with me. She told me that she didn’t think I should marry Caleb. She told me that a professor of his had told her Caleb was not what he pretended to be. I can’t fathom how much strength it must have taken for Kelly M. to do that, but I didn’t listen to her advice. Still, I always appreciated it. Even then, I knew that she was coming from a place of love.

She was in my wedding.

Once, Kelly M. and I went to a palm reader at the state fair who told us many things that would never turn out to be true, but that palm reader told us that we were sisters in a past life, and I like to believe in that.

When Kelly M. got married, her wedding was in Vietnam, and her mother paid for my plane ticket as her wedding gift to Kelly. I was hollow at that time. People who know me now would not have recognized me, had they seen me. I was younger than I am now, but I probably looked a decade older than I do now. Kelly M.’s sister and Brendan’s best friend performed the ceremony. I read a Bell Hooks quote. No one else was a part of the ceremony itself; Kelly M. truly valued me as a sister. 

It was a wedding that was completely invested in feminism and gender equity. We were surrounded by the deepest, most beautiful, dark lake on one side, and rice paddy fields on another. Lush, green mountains stretched up around us. It was one of the most stunning places I have ever visited, but I could not appreciate it. I felt, more acutely than ever, that my own marriage was in shambles. I wanted my own marriage to be over.

Kelly M. was the person I called in the middle of the night and cried to about wanting to end my marriage. I told Kelly M. rather than someone else because I knew that Kelly M. would tell me to leave. I knew that she would tell me that without judgment. I knew that Kelly M. would never encourage me to fight for a marriage that was breaking me.

No one should ever encourage another person to fight for a marriage that is breaking them. Abuse or not, divorce is not the worst option; misery is the worst option.

A few months later, I met up with Kelly M. in Boston. It was the darkest period of my life. She took me to China Town. I hadn’t been eating well, but she took me to her favorite dim sum place. I don’t remember everything we ate, but I remember the pickled cucumbers, how they slid into my hunger so easily, how my hunger felt so diminished. 

I remember how she showed me how to eat the soup dumplings. She showed me to poke a hole in the dumpling with a chop stick, then quickly slurp the steamy broth from the spoon. I remember how, as I poked the hole and slurped the broth, I felt that I, too, had experienced a release: I was eating. I was laughing. I was okay.

I have spent the last two Thanksgivings with Kelly M., her partner Brendan, and their beautiful toddler. I have spent these Thanksgivings with them because they live a relatively short flight away, and while I’m there, they do everything in their power to nourish me. 

This may sound grumbly, but no one feeds me anymore. I only feed myself, and I miss being nourished in that way. When I’m at Kelly M. and Brendan’s, they feed me so well. They nourish me in the way that I typically nourish others. 

And Brendan has become to me, an extension of Kelly M. in a way that may be annoying to him, but only means that I value and treasure him too. He, too, gets to listen to my chatter, my silly jokes, my trivial concerns, and also, my darkest secrets. 

The night after Thanksgiving, we all went out to dinner. We ate brick-oven pizza, and Brendan and I split a bottle of wine. then pregnant Kelly drove us home. Later, Brendan, Kelly M, and I all crammed on to a loveseat and watched the movie Trainwreck on a laptop computer propped up on crates. It was crowded, possibly overly familiar, and perfectly wonderful.  

And their daughter? Well, she is magical in the way that only a child born of two such loving parents could be.

And, when I visit, Brendan always watches the baby for a period so that Kelly and I can go write. This year, we went to write at a coffee shop on the bay of Lake Superior, and I felt such happiness.

Blue Wave on the Bay, Ashland Wisconsin

I had set up my computer in one place, but when I returned, Kelly had moved it. She said, “I want you to have a view of the lighthouse.” 

What Kelly didn’t understand is that she has been my lighthouse. Through all of this, Kelly has been the one guiding me safely to shore, and I don’t even care if that’s a cliche.

Later, we took a self-portrait in front of the lake. We couldn’t get the lighthouse in the background, but we didn’t need to.