Have you ever been so mad, so violently angry, that your upper and lower teeth started biting each other and you had to put a stick in your mouth to keep them separated? I have.
It's Spring Break, 1984, and I'm on a road trip with Ellen and our friends Pam, Christina and Holly. Holly and I are opposites in nearly every way. In the animal kingdom, she'd be a cat – moody and haughty, and I'd be a dog – upbeat and affable. Or, since this story is from my viewpoint, she'd be a rattlesnake and I'd be a Disney fawn.
Within the context of our hometown we'd negotiated an truce that at times approximated friendship. Seven hours in a Buick Regal with a busted air conditioner and five overheated bodies in a negative-star hotel put an end to that right quick. Tempers were already simmering when we were turned away from a disco after the doorman laughed aloud at our fake ID's. We returned to Hotel Black Hole woefully sober, boyless, pent-up, flammable.
Someone lit a match. All these years later I can't recall the insults hurled, the grievances uttered, loudly and ridiculously, but I do remember Ellen coming between Holly and me, and how I wanted, more than anything I've every wanted, to wrap a fist around Holly's brittle Sun-In wrecked tresses and yank out a handful.
After high school, Holly moved away. I followed her movements through friends. She's in Portland teaching belly dancing! She's in Costa Rica running a Buddhist yoga retreat! Her exploits served as contrast to my regressive path, husband and children, and highlighted the mendacity of my life. My mundane despair (a nail in my tire) and mundane happiness (the fabulousness of new shoes).
Last summer, Holly's father passed away. I brought a pie to her mama's house (mixed berry almond crumb.) Holly's marriage collapsed soon after and she came home for good. If I had hoped her worldly travels would improve her disposition or soften her enmity toward me, I was soon set straight by the expressions that cross her face when I talk. Her face says, "When you speak I hear Ice Ice Baby on a loop and that's still less vacuous, less annoying than whatever it is you're saying." She keeps it real. Too real.
Holly is as Southern as I am, but her mother was apparently remiss in comportment. Some emotions are kept behind a locked door, usually the bathroom with the shower running to hide any unseemly sounds. Boastful pride. Crushing disappointment and the ensuing ugly meltdown. Jealous rage. Bald dislike. You don't serve tea with those. My mother, upon encountering a mutinous scowl or a rolled-out lip on public display, would grasp my chin, lean in close and whisper, "You had better fix your face, Little Miss!"
So, last week when the woman behind me in the grocery store line, who drove a motorized cart and had one leg bandaged to the thigh, began telling me about her infections, for a split second I was slightly uncomfortable. Until I fixed my face. It was the least I could do for a lonely elderly lady with a foot the shape and color of an eggplant. I know one day I might have my own diseased eggplant appendage I need to talk about. You absolutely cannot depend upon the kindness of strangers, but it is a lovely thing. You can't count on the justness of karma, either, but when something bad happens to me I like believing I didn't have it coming. Holly's unrestrained features are no more or less self-satisfying or authentic than the ones I carefully present.
Ellen says I have it all wrong about Holly. "It's just hard for her to trust people. We've talked some, about her experiences and her beliefs. She's deeply spiritual."
I say she's deep enough to drown a toddler. You know the warning on a five gallon paint pail, the graphic of a heavy-headed baby tipping in? That's Holly. She's a bucket you could fall into. "All I'm saying is that she has a dark side."
"So do you," Ellen replies. (Sometimes I forget I've known Ellen a long time. That I've been other people, and she's met them all.)
"She's darker," I say.
Shamefully, I admit none of Holly's character flaws would matter if she liked me. My regard is that cheap. Dime store prices. A buck will buy you ten.
My last encounter with Holly was in late January, a Girl's luncheon. When I turned to engage Holly in conversation, I heard the distinctive bass line from the Vanilla Ice classic, and I realized it wasn't just dislike she felt for me. It was anger. She was still angry about something that happened almost thirty years ago, something neither of us can remember with absolute clarity. I'm probably still angry about that same thing, and if she could take the stick out of her mouth, and if I could remove the one from my butt, we might enjoy a measure of fondness for our shared history. Right then, though, I wished I had grabbed a hank of her hair when I had the chance.
Thank goodness I fixed my face before I poured her a glass of tea.