(This is an alternative version of the shorter “Friendship” post above)
The restaurant bar is buzzing with post-conference networking overflowing from the large hotel nearby. French windows open up to the bustling street and the business suits on their way home from work. A cool breeze wafts in. Wrought iron tables and chairs fill the rectangular concrete patio that, for the moment, separates the restaurant patrons from the reality of the world outside.
Two old friends enjoy a sundowner and update each other on their lives.
Deborah raises her glass. “Cheers to making it to 50!”
“…in one piece!” Helen adds.
Their glasses clink. With eyes squarely on her friend, Deborah slowly moves her martini to her lips and swallows. Helen takes a polite sip from her cocktail. She carefully sets the glass on the table.
Deborah is visiting from Seattle to give the latest installment of her ongoing self-empowerment seminar. As she does each time work brings her to the East Coast, she has scheduled time to meet with Helen, her best friend from college.
The two women face one another, each with their very age appropriate haircut to showcase their very age improbable blonde hair.
Deborah looks fresh, accomplished in her starched, pink button down shirt, designer jeans, and the post-chic eyeglasses she purchased last week, just for this occasion.
Helen, on the other hand, is draped in a cashmere poncho, her grandmother’s gold earrings, and jet black Louboutins. Moneyed, yet understated, as has always been Helen’s way.
Their relationship has ebbed and flowed, as if with the seasons, or the phases of the moon. Neither woman is quite sure where things stand at the moment. They search each other’s face for clues.
“It’s great to see that after so many years,” Deborah offers, “both of us finally have the life that we’ve longed for. Me with my speaking engagements and book deals. And you with your very successful and loving husband and three wonderful children… Your youngest is starting at Dartmouth this fall, correct”
“Brown” Helen counters.
“Right. Brown. Simply Wonderful. You must be so proud.”
“Yes, who would have thought all of those years ago that life would have turned out so well for both us” Helen replies with a smile, hollow yet convincing.
After years jumping from job to job, Deborah has spent the last two decades building a name for herself on the self-help circuit. She has travelled around the country and spoken to crowds big and small. Her name has been atop bestsellers lists. She counts Dr. Phil among her mobile phone contacts. She rode high on the self-help wave of the 90s and was the go-to guru on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
But that was then.
Book sales have faltered over the years, as have her speaking fees. Her audience has become increasingly older, as Deborah struggles to remain relevant in the world of microblogging and instant digital gratification. She feels too young to retire, but too old to start all over. Again.
When a small, non-profit asked her to give a talk to their Washington DC staff, she jumped at the opportunity, despite the fact that they could afford only a small honorarium. It had been such a long time since her agent had had any good news for her.
“I’d be happy to reduce my fees,” she told them, “because of all of the great work that your organization does!”
Knowing, deep down, that it was herself that she was trying to convince.
“We must do this more often,” Helen proposes. “Once or twice a year is hardly enough.”
Helen has been dreading this day ever since their last meeting nearly one year ago. When she first met Deborah as a freshman at Vassar, she was full of hopes and dreams. She was to become a human rights lawyer fighting against inhumanity and injustices around the world. She imagined one day working for the United Nations or perhaps being appointed as Ambassador to a faraway country that could benefit from her experience and expertise.
Then, one day, nearing graduation, she met Luke.
It was immediately evident to anyone who met Luke that he was going places. Tall, bright, and handsome, Luke had always had his choice of women, and he chose Helen. She became swept up in the momentum of his life. Always along for the ride, but never in the driver’s seat.
By age 23, they were married.
By 24, she was pregnant.
Luke lived in a whirlwind of real estate developments in Dubai and energy deals in Eastern Europe. He spent long nights at the office and often called her to say good night from the airport lounge. Helen resolved to be the stability, the counterweight that she felt that their three children needed. While she had never intended to be a stay-at-home mother, she never found the task to be entirely disagreeable. And she always felt that she was reasonably good at it.
A part of her had always known about the other women.
She had never had any proof, but she didn’t need proof for what she knew in heart to be true. So when Luke told her a year ago, on the eve of her last meeting with Deborah, that he was leaving, she wasn’t surprised. She knew that in the end, Luke was a decent man and would make sure that she was taken care of financially. She wouldn’t live the life that she had known with him, but she would be comfortable.
Nevertheless, she cried. But they weren’t tears lamenting the demise of her marriage. Rather, they were tears to mourn the life that she had never had the opportunity to live. Of course, it would be easy to blame Luke (and she did), but in the end it was she who had put herself in the passenger seat and settled in.
“So should we ask the bartender for another round?” Deborah asks.
“No,” Helen says earnestly. “I think it’s best if we just settle up.”