About seven years ago, a guy I was dating took me to A.’s birthday party. From the minute I saw her, vivacious and warm, I knew she had to be my friend. I did what I could to make that happen, and I am so lucky to say we’re very close today.
When I met A., she was in a serious relationship with S. As is the case in many couples, S. seemed to be the complete opposite of his partner: quiet and calm. As I got to know them better, I found out that, like me, S. was an art fan, though he never really talked much about that. Together we went to the amazing Dada exhibit at the Centre Pompidou, and often discussed our other shared passions, hip-hop and American food.
S. and A. were like gifts I brought from my own life into my relationship with my current boyfriend. The four of us saw each other frequently. There are so many photos of us together and with other friends, laughing, hugging, celebrating.
Almost a year ago, A. called and told me that she and S. had broken up. It came as a shock for many reasons. For one, they’d been together so long, and seemingly without any major arguments or issues, that it was difficult to picture them apart. Of course, there were their basic personality differences, and I took that to maybe be the reason: as someone who likes to stay home and relax, myself, I could imagine that being with a person who always wants to go somewhere or invite friends over, could get difficult, and vice-versa.
But as time went on, secrets began to come out. Though A. seems so open – and often is – there are many things she’d kept hidden from us. S., it turned out, wasn’t just a quiet, low-key person. The reason he’d gone to a psychiatric hospital a few years before wasn’t, as we’d assumed, due to something like a nervous breakdown, something that could happen to anyone – but because he was, A. revealed to me one night over a teary dinner, a paranoid schizophrenic.
It seemed that with this admission, things just fell apart. A. told me about a few times where, due to this illness, she or passing strangers could have been seriously hurt. And then, a disastrous and unlikely series of circumstances proved that again on a grand scale.
It was hard to know what to do regarding S. He’d been a friend for many years, and we’d shared so much. Being a victim of mental illness myself, though of a different degree and type (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, IBS, generalized anxiety), I understood that S. didn’t want to harm anyone, that it was just because he was sick. And I knew that with medication and psychiatric care, he could even live a pretty normal life.
Then we got the call from my boyfriend’s parents. They’d both worked at mental health facilities in the past, and they didn’t mince words: “You have to cut this man out of your lives, and A. should, too. Even if he’s on medication now, he may not always be, and he could come after you if he’s having a delusion. You have to keep yourselves out of his mind.”
It sounded so extreme to me, so unbelievable. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was convinced from the moment his parents’ statement had ended. Then, A. herself expressed some of the same thinking. Out of respect for my boyfriend and for the safety of our future family, I had to do the unmerciful thing, and cut all ties. It hasn’t been as hard as it might have; true to form, S. has kept silent and has apparently not wanted to contact any of his old friends and acquaintances.
A., on the other hand, is just as good to the center of her being as I’d always thought: though this man could be highly dangerous, to put it mildly, she watches over him, talks to him when he calls her, and makes sure things are all right. She’s no longer in love with him – that I know for certain. She’s moved on. But this is a man she shared years of her life with, who she planned, despite what she knew, to have a family with one day. And S. himself has no family; orphaned at an early age, his only remaining relative is a sister who is very kind, but too young and just not able to take on the unexpected responsibility of a mentally ill brother. She does visit with him, but it’s A. who deals (often from afar) with all of S's major problems and needs. It’s a burden that her fierce loyalty forces her to bear.
Tonight, A. will take S. to dinner to celebrate his upcoming birthday. She told me about it when I saw her last week. I asked if she would be alone with him, and she said “Yes, but in a public place, so it’s all right.” She sounded weary of always having to plan for things to be this way, of always having to wonder if it was safe. I told her that if my boyfriend agreed, we’d accompany her and S. to dinner. She seemed grateful, but grim: “I can’t ask anyone to do this,” she said, “but thank you. If you can’t, I understand.”
The boyfriend is a kind man, but he’s still afraid, maybe reasonably so. And so, we won’t be going to dinner with A. and S. tonight. I’m letting one of my best friends suffer, yet again, and yet again abandoning another.
The other day, at the grocery store. I’m waiting in the check-out aisle when the person in front of me turns around and says, “Oh no! I forgot the milk! Do you mind if I go get it?”
I give a start and then smile, “Actually, it’s good you said that – I forgot to get milk, too!”
I feel an amicable connection with this woman, as I often do with people in situations like this. We laugh and hurry towards the milk together. She’s probably in her 60’s, with hair dyed a bright orange, but not so recently that the white roots aren’t peeking through. Her lips are full and mauve-colored, she’s wearing a black tee-shirt and black leggings. There are various touches of gold to her ensemble, including her gold lamé loafers.
“Are you from England?” she asks, noticing my accent.
“America!” Her already-big eyes grow even wider. “New York?”
“Yes,” I nod, deciding as I often do to keep it simple.
She goes one way and I go another.
Suddenly, she runs over to me. “Oh, I forgot the milk was over here,” she laughs.
She takes a breath and starts to ask me my thoughts on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. For a few minutes, we stand there, chatting. Then, we head back to the check-out counter – having taken far too long. She’s left her groceries on the conveyor belt and now a frustrated line of people has appeared behind them.
She goes to the front of the line, adds the milk to her groceries, and apologizes to the people waiting. Then, she gestures to me. “She’s only got one or two things, and she was here with me. Will you let her pass?”
I shake my head to tell her it’s unnecessary, but I’m grudgingly allowed to pass just the same. I get in line, bemused. This woman is a real character – I love her attitude, and she seems kind and intelligent.
“I lived in Los Angeles for two years, back in the ‘80’s,” she tells me, in a mix of French and broken English. “But now my English is gone.”
“Los Angeles in the ‘80’s! That’s so interesting!” I can’t imagine the stories she must have…. “And it’s too bad about your English - languages are hard to keep up. But you still have some of it, and you can probably get a lot of it back with practice,” I say encouragingly and sincerely.
As we pay for our groceries, she turns to me again. “I’m Mitsou. What’s your name?”
“Alysa,” I say.
“I’d love to have your phone number,” she goes on. “I’d love to talk to you more.”
And there, for me, the pleasant encounter comes to a halt with a sound like a scratched record. I like Mitsou. I think she’d be a fascinating person to talk to. But I think of my life, with work, writing, the boyfriend, the in-laws, his friends, my friends, our friends, travel plans, remodeling plans. I think of Mme., the woman I stayed with here in Paris for three years, whom I consider a sort of great aunt. I can’t remember the last time I’ve talked to her. I think of how I haven’t spoken to my own father in at least a week.
Somehow, I say, “I’d love to talk to you, but I don’t know if I have the time. I live with my boyfriend and we’re always busy – especially with his family,” I tack on.
“Oh, all right, well maybe I’ll see you around.” We both live in the neighborhood. I nod, somewhat hopefully even, and leave.
Walking back to my apartment, I shake my head at what’s just happened. I’m disappointed in myself, in what I really am – an egotist who won’t give a potentially lonely person the time of day. I wonder what Jesus would have done, or a nun, or Linda Seccaspina.
Then again, in a way, I’m proud of how I handled the situation: Under normal circumstances, I would have given her my number and then felt awful as Mitsou’s calls went unanswered – or as I forced myself to get on the phone with her all the time, even if we had nothing to say to each other. No, I think I did the right thing: a polite, half-honest refusal that would nip any further problems in the bud. “Good fences make good neighbors.” And my life really is full enough already. I’ve reached my quota for friends.
I return home to absolute silence. The boyfriend’s busy with a sewing project. Our cat Ali is sleeping on his lap. No phone calls from family or friends await me, no prospects of doing anything for the rest of the day. Often, I greet a moment like this with joy. But just as often, I feel an emptiness in the pit of my stomach.