Friendship, Guest Posts

Confidentially

May 2, 2024
Jill

At the checkout counter of the produce store near campus, Jill slipped a copy of The Star into her basket along with the apples, oranges and blueberries she’d picked out.  I was right behind her with three containers of flavored yogurt in hand.  A professor who taught logic, ethics and women’s studies, Jill relaxed by reading celebrity gossip, horoscopes and outlandish tales of alien visitations.  She took a moment to tuck The Star’s screaming headlines underneath the fruit in her brown paper bag, out of sight so no other colleague might glimpse her clandestine vice.

*  *  *

I was fantastically lucky to be paired with Jill for team teaching my first year as a college instructor.  She demonstrated how to lecture in a competent, unflappable tone while leaving space for students to express doubts, incomprehension or challenges.  Whenever I asked her how to resolve a problem with a student, she offered sympathy and common sense.  Despite the age gap, our rapport quickly ripened into a friendship closer than sisters.

Slightly taller than me, with fluffy white-blond hair and a trim figure, she dropped the professional air outside of the classroom.  Over lunch at the Faculty Club or out to dinner downtown, she would primp her hair while her eyes roved around the room, trying to pick out men who might represent prospects.  Jill was divorcing her husband, whom I never met because he ran a particle physics lab halfway across the country.  “It wasn’t the commuting that doomed the marriage,” she confided.  “He didn’t want kids but wouldn’t say so, and now I’m almost over the hill to have a baby.”

*  *  *

Jill often started conversations with me with “Don’t you dare ever tell anyone, but…”  Yet she loved to dish about colleagues – both those she’d known for years and those who started at the college when I did.  “What do you think Mona’s secret is?” she asked me, for instance. “I’m studying her.”  Mona, a new sociology instructor, had two princely professors plus an old boyfriend vying for her affections.  Intensely friendly, Mona had green eyes, springy yellow hair, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and an eight-year-old daughter from a failed marriage.

“It’s not a matter of technique, Jill,” I told her.  “And remember, if you’re looking for someone willing to be a father…”  She nodded before I finished the sentence, but she kept preening and interviewing with her eyes any single or divorced man in the vicinity.

*  *  *

That Thanksgiving and Christmas, I celebrated with Jill’s family.  My own parents had just moved abroad.  Her father, who taught at a nearby university, said grace at a festive table with Jill’s fairy-tale-sweet mother and her three brothers and their wives – all highbrow professionals whose crosstalk, kidding and in-jokes never stopped.

The following Thanksgiving, when I went into her parents’ room to add my coat to a pile on their bed, a framed photo on their dresser caught my eye.  Lined up from Brian, the youngest brother, at about eight, to Jill, the oldest at seventeen or so, were Matt, Michael and a girl I didn’t recognize.  Matt walked in then with jackets in his arms, and I pointed at the photo.  “Who’s the other girl?” He set the jackets down, replied simply “Oh, that’s Sandra” and left.

*  *  *

Jill didn’t find attractive any of the barely employed, artsy men I dated.  So we could natter like teen pals of different sexual orientations about our romances, flops and crushes.  I confessed that I’d had fantasies about a professor I met with weekly for an independent study course back when I was a sophomore.  This mustached guy with dirty blond hair that often seemed literally dirty had been in her graduate student cohort.  “Dan?” she hooted.  “Did you ever notice his crooked teeth?”

“Listen, if I tell you something about Rob’s sexuality,” she said one day – Rob being her physicist ex-husband, “do you promise never to put it in any of your books?”  Jill knew my writing ambitions backwards and forwards and brought them up this way a lot.  I wouldn’t promise, and though she seemed bursting to spill this revelation, she held it back.

*  *  *

On a snowy night when Jill and I were relaxing at my apartment, I finally broached the mystery of the photo in her parents’ bedroom.  “Who’s Sandra?”  I asked.  Jill paused for many moments before answering.  “My sister,” she said, as quiet as a prayer.  “She killed herself when I was in graduate school.”  In the moment, I didn’t know what to say, realizing that the boisterous family that had warmly taken me in actually held an aching gap.  I never learned much more than that, though I got the impression that Sandra was why Jill had been in therapy for years.

Another winter, Jill called to let me know she was on her way home early from a conference because her mother was desperately ill with pneumonia.  Looking for her mom in the hospital, I bumped into a classmate from college who’d become a lung specialist.  When I told him who I was there to see, he looked down at the floor.  Despite the savvy signified by his white coat and stethoscope, he couldn’t save her.  Another secret surfaced when I asked Jill where the funeral would take place.  “The Mormon church near the university,” she told me.  I blinked.  She’d never mentioned that she, her brothers and sister had grown up Mormon.

*  *  *

Apart from academics, we peered into the window of Eastern spirituality together.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki gave us catch phrases that we sprinkled into our gabfests.  “Keep don’t-know mind,” I would intone when Jill bemoaned again not having a baby.  “Don’t serve your thoughts tea,” she would quote me when I was wrestling with a housemate problem.  When Korean Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi visited the college, his riffs of snappy, ironic paradoxes left me awestruck.  Jill gravitated more to a hushed Tibetan tulku, the scholarly sweetie of a friend of hers.

I introduced Jill to Est, an Americanized version of Zen that engineered a two-weekend enlightenment in a packed hotel ballroom.  Though we went through the Est training separately, we jointly attended follow-up seminars.  We furiously scribbled in stapled lined notebooks lists of issues we’d never resolved and goals for the next one, five, ten and twenty years.  For me the golden orb was my novel published to critical acclaim, while for Jill a “little bitty baby” was the fervent dream.

*  *  *

Through an improbable series of events, my new husband’s sister, a doctor, delivered a baby that the mother left in the hospital and that Jill adopted and adored.  Jasmine grew from a picture-cute baby and toddler to a reticent schoolgirl to a defiant teen while Jill juggled single motherhood and teaching.  Over the years, junk piles multiplied in their apartment, consisting of stockpiled cans and toilet paper, knick-knacks purchased on a whim, every draft of papers Jill struggled to finish writing and every book Jill ever bought.

My husband and I now lived 100 miles apart from Jill and Jasmine, but we got together often.  Since their place had too much clutter to host guests, we met at a nearby home-style Chinese restaurant, with high-spirited chatter and fun distributing shrimp, broccoli and scallion pancakes to everyone’s plates with chopsticks.  At our house in the country, Jill would duck out to a meditation center for the afternoon while Jasmine complained about mosquitoes persecuting her when I took her out for a hike.

*  *  *

By the time lung cancer made Jill weak and almost housebound, her hoarding left just skinny paths in their hallway.  Only Jasmine, when she flew home from college, Jill’s brother Matt and I were allowed in the apartment.  My husband wanted to visit Jill with me, but she refused.  “He’s too critical,” she explained, meaning critical of the mess she’d never managed to tame.  I gave her a skeptical look.  “He never said so,” Jill returned fiercely, “but I could see it clearly in his eyes.”  I’d kept to myself my worry that her home was a fire trap, as well as a burden for Jasmine.

Jill and I had once talked about the physiology of dying.  My father died while my mother, my siblings and me were cocooning his bed, and afterwards I gave Jill an hour-by-hour description.  “There really is a death rattle, and I swear I saw his soul leave his body,” I told her as she listened, intent, to each detail.  “One moment he looked like my dad, and whoosh, the next moment whatever made him him was gone.”  Though I never learned whether her wishes were followed, Jill left instructions for passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead she wanted read aloud just after she died to help her detach from this world and enter the next.

*  *  *

Early in her career, Jill wrote about a logical puzzle posed by Bertrand Russell.  Is the present King of France bald?  Since 1789, of course, there has been no King of France.  According to the sacrosanct Law of the Excluded Middle, for every statement, either it or its negation had to be true.  Yet neither “The present King of France is bald” nor “The present King of France is not bald” seemed correct.  Jill critiqued the complicated theory of descriptions that Russell invented to smooth away this intellectual crinkle.

Now that Jill has been gone for almost fifteen years, I wrestle with a similarly knotty dilemma.  Considering her secrecy and her touchiness about criticism, I wonder: Do I hurt her by writing about her?  She’s a character not just here but also in a memoir I’m laboring over.  Alive, she would detest having her confidences and secrets disclosed, despite my having changed names.  The whole time I knew her I wasn’t even sure of her age – a fact she staunchly kept locked up.

As with the present King of France, though, there’s no “her” now that I can hurt.  I don’t believe Jill exists now in a spiritual realm or is waiting someplace to be reborn.  In my mind, I’m clear of betrayal.  But as Jill’s idiosyncrasies showed, not everything in life is rational.  It comes down to this: I loved her and I knew her quirks.  And I miss my friend.

The author of 17 nonfiction books as well as essays in the New York Times Magazine, Ms., Next Avenue and NPR, Marcia Yudkin advocates for introverts through her newsletter, Introvert UpThink (https://www.introvertupthink.com/). She lives in Goshen, Massachusetts (population 960).

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