Tricia Leaf lives in Durham, NC with her two boys, two dogs, and one husband. “The Buddy System” is a part of a larger memoir, Mercy of the Fallen: A Memoir in Shards. She has recently published a short-short, “Three Minutes,” in Word Riot and a photograph, “Exultation” in an anthology, The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory.

The Buddy System

Tricia Leaf

It’s the first meeting of a writing group, summer 2004. I pull up to Elizabeth Young’s Ball State University townhouse and consider leaving. Someone waves from the doorway. I exhale and slide the gear shift to park. For the last three years—since my brother’s murder—I’ve remained cloistered. Just me, my husband John, and five-year-old son Nathaniel. I’m weary from the loneliness, but I don't have the strength for casual conversation. So this foray into the social is a huge step. I'm scared I'll be a drag, scared I can't force small talk.

It’s stormy and humid: hot rain, steamed windows, heavy air. I push myself out of the car and enter. An Indian-style tapestry covers a card table teeming with spicy lentil and chickpea curries, Basmati rice, pappadums, cheeses, tabouli, hummus, warmed pita bread. There’s a glass pitcher of purified water with purified ice cubes, a huge pickle jar filled with Constant Comment iced tea, bottles and bottles of red wine. I don’t know Elizabeth well, but I know she struggles to make ends meet. Yet, she’s gone to a lot of trouble to create an atmosphere of intimacy and comfort. Every detail feels like a gesture of love.

 

Clear plastic storage carts covered in tapestries double as end tables, a slightly-angled drafting table acts as another serving table, art supplies are centerpieces. Unframed artwork, mostly pastels, stick to the concrete-block walls with masking tape that forms thick yellowish borders: Bodies and bodies, distorted and curvy, clothed and naked, haunting and sensuous. Deformity in bright splashes and sexuality in earth tones. And cats, cats as accoutrement and love and death. In my head, I named some of the pictures: Eskimo Girl with Oversized Blue Shoe, Vagina Rhapsody, Ravaged Boy-Man with Frankenstein Zipper Skin.

I perch on the university-issued, circa-1985 orange swivel office chair and breathe in the damp vegetable air and fidget with my wine glass. The functionality of the castoff office and classroom chairs seems ironic in the face of Elizabeth’s passion, disarray, and patchouli. Something about the apartment fills me with longing and nostalgia. I’m swept back in time to many of my college and Boston apartments. But it’s more than the recall of energetic clutter and makeshift furniture—it’s a feeling. The sensation of possibility, exciting stuff yet to happen. A feeling long overgrown. It takes my breath away in jags. 

 

***

Workshop ends and the others leave, but Elizabeth offers me another glass of wine. One glass turns into several bottles. During a pause in our conversation, she asks me about my brother’s killing and how I’m coping. I give my standard answers. She pauses and sizes up my face, "I mean, really, how are you doing?" I am silent for a few minutes, eyes darting around, struggling to reach down to where the "I" still lives. To my sadness, I've learned that people who ask tend to want the palatable and polite

answer. It's one of the first times, with time and space, that someone has asked, really asked how I'm doing. The wine-lubricated gates open and everything begins to tumble out. 

I tell her…I’m scared to death something will happen to Nathaniel, that I worry in ways that stop my heart every day. “I…just don’t know how to keep him safe in this world. I couldn’t go on if something, you know, if something… happened.” I tell her my fears about him going to kindergarten in the fall. I tell her how I wouldn’t let him go on his preschool fieldtrip to the petting zoo, and how my nightmare about their school bus getting into a wreck still snaps me awake with deeps sobs. His little, beautiful face, blond hair pressed to the window begging me to save him, but I can’t; the bus is on its side and people frantically try to pry open the back door. And then the flames. “His face, the tears and fear… And I’m just watching my beautiful baby.”

Oh no, I’m doing exactly what I don’t want to…spilling dark shit. Ok, stop now. I should gather my things and go home.

I look up. Elizabeth, her long dark hair in a loose bun fastened with either paintbrushes or chopsticks, fills my glass again, and nods to me. “I just can’t imagine…go on.”

I tell her…I feel estranged from life. I see myself doing things—teaching, grocery-shopping, folding laundry, talking with other moms at school pick-up—but can’t feel them. I tell her about a day when I had to leave work, rush to buy lunch for Nathaniel, pick him up from school, and drop him off at childcare before running back to teach another class. Every second counted and every stop took five to ten minutes longer than planned. I was going to be late to my class. It was an unexpectedly warm day in the midst of a cold and dreary stretch, the kind with patches of dirty snow piled up on street corners and parking lots. Teenage girls were in a car in front of me at the Wendy’s drive-thru, windows down and music blaring. Some pop song was on, and they were bouncing and waving their arms, screaming the lyrics, laughing. They weren’t paying attention, didn’t pull forward when other cars moved. They held up the ordering. How dare they act so casual, not a care in the world? I honked hard, so they would pay fucking attention and move up. I was…so jealous. “I hated them and hated myself and hated the world for being so…fucked-up.” 

“I get it,” Elizabeth whispers, shaking her head. “I so get it...”

My tongue is thick and my body and mind heavy, but I keep talking and talking. I feel years of junk dislodge from the back of my head. 

I tell her…I’m wound so tight that I worry I’m coming apart; I picture my flesh stretching so taut that my skin rips open and my insides fling all over the The Robert Bell Building. “Just blood and Jell-O and pieces of skin flying and sticking everywhere.” 

Elizabeth is never going to have me over again. Talk about being a drag.

Elizabeth says, “You know, really, people think you’re amazing. They wonder how you can manage so much and keep it so…together. Do so many things.”

 

Heat runs up my face. “Really? Together? People think I keep it together?”

“Truly, they do.”

We’re suddenly quiet and I stare. “Elizabeth, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to unload all of this heavy crap…”

“No apologies.” Elizabeth says with a wink, “No Judeo-Catholic guilt allowed.” We laugh, remembering a joke we made in class that week about how Jewish and Catholic upbringings are underwritten by guilt. She inches closer, her round body teetering on Brownie, the scratchy brown office chair.

I tell her…I can no longer relax or sleep. I get a few hours each night and startle awake from nightmares. Then I lie awake seeing flashing images of guns, badges, flashlights, my brother crumpled on his bedroom floor bleeding. I tell her that I struggle to breathe and, some nights, I hyperventilate waking John who gets me a paper bag and rubs my back while whispering rhythmically in his sleepy voice, “breathe, honey, just breathe slowly, take it easy.”

Shut up. Stop talking. This is why you shouldn’t go out. You’ve totally lost it.  

Elizabeth smiles with garnet-rimmed lips and squeezes my hand. Her olive eyes are wet.

And I tell her…I can’t bear to look at my parents—their sagging faces and shoulders, their sunken eyes. Smiles are forced and quick. Television words like guns, excessive force, lawyers, and police are part of our everyday conversation. I hate the new words. I tell her that I can't fix this. I try. "I try to listen and show- up and organize and cook. I don't know what to do...I just keep on like some kind of demented Martha Stewart..."

Elizabeth bursts out laughing. She throws her head back and squeals, her face and body shimmy. Her Roman goddess sandals slap the floor. 

I’m taken aback. Is she making fun of me? What’s funny about this?

Elizabeth sputters in gasps, “Oh, Trish, I’m sorry… a demented Martha Stewart…that just kills me. Such an image.”

After a minute, I crack-up too. “And, well, fuck Martha Stewart anyway,” I screech.

The rest of the night remains fuzzy, but I know we are howling by the end; it’s the first body and soul hilarity I’ve had in three years. And though it’s a dark, tragi-laughter, it is real and big and deep.