Foreign Excellent

By Michelle Herman

Featured Art: The Last Dance by Mackenzie Siler

It wasn’t that I didn’t like her. I liked her fine—that’s what I would have said if anyone had asked me. But I knew better than to get too attached to the women who dated my next-door neighbor, John. Women cycled through his life pretty quickly, and so far all the ones I’d met had been crazy, anyway—too crazy for me, if not for him. John pursued crazy; he thought crazy was charming. And while she didn’t necessarily seem crazy, I’d learned that you couldn’t always tell at first (that actually you could hardly ever tell at first).

Did she like me? It was impossible to judge. She was friendly enough, always polite if not warm. Certainly she was more guarded than I (but then just about everyone I have ever met is more guarded than I). I could not have read her even if I’d tried. But I didn’t try, because we weren’t friends.

And then she cracked her skull—she almost died—and suddenly we were.

Her name was Ellen Holahan, but I didn’t know that in the beginning and I can’t remember how long it was before I found out. Houlihan was how John introduced her to me. It was how he referred to her before I ever laid eyes on her; it was what he always called her. It was what, as far as I could tell, she called herself—as if she didn’t even have a first name (and never mind that the one name she did have turned out not to be her real last name anyway, so that even her nickname, Hula—which John and I gave her while she was in the hospital after her accident, the name by which I still think of her, more than thirty years later—is a couple of steps removed from who she really was, or is).

I thought she was a tough girl—Houlihan. It was a tough girl’s name, but it wasn’t just the name, or the fact that she went by just the one name. It was everything else I knew about her, too, even before I ever saw her. John had come home so smitten after meeting her at the Irish Arts Center that for days, weeks, she was all he could talk about. Houlihan was involved in union organizing. Houlihan was a member of the Communist Party USA. Houlihan played guitar in a band (and not just a band, but a band of fellow travelers— they might even have been called The Fellow Travelers).

After they started dating, I’d pass her on the stairs, or hear her—muffled laughter, words I couldn’t make out from next door. We didn’t talk except to say hello, but John reported to me, regularly, all the bits and pieces of her life that she offered up to him. She didn’t cook. She hadn’t finished college—she’d hardly started before she quit. She had no girlfriends. She lived with a roommate in a barely furnished apartment and kept her clothes in cardboard boxes. Her father, long estranged, was a drunk. What could such a person be like? Tough was the best I could do, but it suggests a certain failure of imagination (and explains why the stories I was writing in those days weren’t any good). What did I know? I was twenty-two; I’d been out of college, and out of my par- ents’ house, for a year and a half, trying to write short stories, eking out a living as a freelance copy editor, thrilled to be living the life of a starving artist.

John assumed that Houlihan and I would hit it off because we had “so much in common.” We were almost exactly the same age—she was six months older—and we were both from Brooklyn: that was what he meant. And I could have used a girlfriend, he knew that. He and I were close—close enough by then to have taken to amusing ourselves by telling people we were brother and sister (daring them to challenge it, though I was so obviously a Jewish girl from Brooklyn and he a WASP from elsewhere); still, there were all manner of things we didn’t understand about each other. He was from Darien, Connecticut and had gone to prep school and then to Chapel Hill. To him there was no meaningful distinction (there was no distinction) between East Flatbush, where Hula’s family lived, and Homecrest, where mine did. What difference did it make to him if she’d gone to Erasmus Hall High and I’d gone to Madison? Or if, before Erasmus (which I knew as tough), she’d gone to a Catholic school? It would never have occurred to John—and I would never in a million years have told him—that when I was a kid the only Irish-Catholic girls I had ever encountered had beaten me up (just once, and they didn’t get very far, because I ran into the candy store and straight to the back, into the phone booth, which they pounded on for a few minutes before giving up and wandering off in their short plaid pleated skirts, which might have been Cossacks’ boots for the impression they made on me). I was much more comfortable with the black girls—whom I knew, if not by name then at the very least by sight, who had been bused in to my junior high and high school from other Brooklyn neighborhoods for years, and didn’t wear uniforms and stare at me when I walked by—and the Italian-Catholic girls, their eyes rimmed with black liner and just barely peeking out from under their bangs, who kept to themselves at school but lived on our block.

Houlihan and I had nothing in common. But we got along all right. As she and John settled into a relationship, one without the usual (for him) angst, drama, fury, fireworks, the three of us began to settle into a routine. We would sometimes walk down to the Lion’s Head together for the cheap chili that was on the menu there once a week, or head over to Party Cake for a breakfast of croissants and coffee after she had spent the night. This was new: all of John’s previous girlfriends had treated me with suspicion, sometimes even frank hostility. And I? It had been hard not to roll my eyes when they linked arms with him, or called him “honey.” I wondered why he couldn’t tell, right from the start, that they weren’t long for his world.

John was delighted by this turn of events, and I was relieved—both for his sake and for mine. I had a boyfriend then who hated being around other people and was always bowing out of invitations because he was working—like me, he was trying to write short stories, but he seemed to work harder at it than I did; certainly he worked longer hours—and it was nice to be able to go next door and knock and know I’d be welcome.

I didn’t overdo it, though. Houlihan and I managed to be friendly without being friends. It was when she wasn’t there that John and I had our heart-to-hearts. But I went to hear her band play once or twice at CPUSA functions, and I remember one lunch—just the two of us—at a restaurant on Seventh Avenue, during an afternoon of shopping (probably just looking, neither of us buying, because neither of us ever had any money) at a clothes store called Emotional Outlet.

I kept waiting for John to get bored and quit—because she liked him and she didn’t lie to him, she didn’t scream at him, she wasn’t cheating on anybody to be with him or “experimenting” with him to see if, as she suspected, she was really a lesbian—or else for her to reveal herself as crazy after all in some un- foreseen, entirely new way, but neither one of these things happened. Instead, the months passed, her birthday came around, and she and John celebrated it together. Her gift from him was exactly what she’d asked for—a skateboard, something she said she’d always wanted. I laughed. “How old did you say you were?” I said. I was comfortable enough with her by then to tease her.

She was twenty-four. Her birthday fell on a Monday; it was not until the following Sunday that she had a chance to try out the skateboard, and had her accident.

Accident is what we called it—what she and I call it still—but to this day we don’t know if it was. We don’t know if she fell—if she’d been going so fast that the impact when she fell knocked her helmet off and slammed her head to the cement with such force that it cracked her skull and swelled her brain—or if someone purposely knocked her down, or smacked her head with a baseball bat hard enough to send her helmet flying across the park, where the police would find it later. She doesn’t remember anything between gliding along in Central Park, after arranging a meeting place with John, who was on foot—waving goodbye to him as she picked up speed, grinning, laughing—and waking up days later in the hospital.

When she didn’t show up and didn’t show up, John was annoyed, then worried. She had no money or keys with her—she’d left everything with him—so if she’d forgotten where she was supposed to meet him, she’d be wandering around the park, trying various spots; she wouldn’t have gone home, either to her place or his. Could she have gotten lost—gone too far uptown, or all the way across the park? He called me from a pay phone, on the off chance that she’d somehow gotten herself downtown and shown up at my apartment. He paced. Then he hailed a passing police car, asked if they’d seen a girl on a skate-board. “My girlfriend,” he began, and the policeman cut him off. Get in.

It was September 3, 1978. John called me from the hospital, and I went uptown to wait with him. We waited all the rest of that day, into the night. Day after day, we went uptown together to sit with her. When John had to go to work, I went by myself. We waited for her to wake up, and then we waited for her to speak, and then we waited for her to make sense. We sat by her side and made jokes, and brought her little presents—crayons and a sketch pad so she could practice writing her name, Play-Doh to squeeze, treats from the bakery—and gave her an affectionate nickname, because we wanted something softer and sweeter to call her than Houlihan, and tried to help her remember words. She’d ask for something by the wrong name and weep in frustration when we didn’t know what she was asking for. Then the light would dawn: Oh! we’d say. Okay—you want an apple. This is called an apple, Hula, not an atland.

Hula, listen now: you work for the Daily—not the DaisyWorld. The football team your brother Michael roots for is the Dallas—not the Daily—Cowboys. The white stuff that sinks are made of (she asked; she wanted to know; she cried because she couldn’t remember) is called porcelain.

No one else came every day.

This seemed strange and awful to me—and perhaps this was partly why we became friends. Not because I felt sorry for her—although I did—but because it made me want to try to understand her, to measure the distance between us and try to see what lay between those distant points, instead of only noticing that there was space between them.

I was angry with my parents then, and for a time before and after, too. I’d lived with them all my life, often unhappily—or mostly unhappily—until my Brooklyn College graduation. I was determined to make my way without them now. My father and I argued whenever we talked; my mother and I could hardly manage to talk at all. It didn’t help matters that almost the instant I’d moved out, my parents had redone my room, turning it into a “den,” scrubbing it so thoroughly of my presence it was as if I’d never lived with them at all.

And yet I knew that if I’d been in the hospital—if my brain had been damaged, if I’d nearly died—my parents would have moved into the hospital room with me. They would have dropped whatever they were doing and hovered around me every minute of every single day. Just as—and I didn’t even have to think about this; I knew it—I would have done for them.

Hula’s mother came, sometimes. But the visits were difficult, not comforting, and afterwards Hula was both drained and agitated—and when the doctors talked about sending her home, about how once they were able to do that she’d need constant attention and care, she wouldn’t be able to do very much for herself or even be left alone “for the foreseeable future,” I could see the effect it had on her. I could tell that she couldn’t go “home” the way I would have gone home—that for me it would have been difficult; for her it would be a disaster.

I found myself trying to put together a picture of her life. It was as if I were writing a story: a character had begun to emerge, but I didn’t know nearly enough about her—nowhere near enough to understand what might happen to her next. It’s at that moment, I suppose, that friendship begins to take hold: the moment when you want to see a person full, and you begin to feel you can. I saw—I felt I saw—the practically empty apartment with the roommate who hadn’t even visited her in the hospital—whom it seemed, in fact, she hardly knew. The mother whose visits so upset her. The missing father. The brothers—there were only two I ever met. (There were two others, I discovered later. One would die of a head injury, after an accident of his own: drunk, he left a bar on Christmas eve and slipped and crashed to the ground. And there had been a fourth brother, who had killed himself, in prison, years before.)

My memory of this period is hazy, and Hula’s is nonexistent, but I think that the two brothers I would get to know over the years—Michael, the one who liked the Dallas Cowboys, and Johnny, the youngest, who was barely in his teens then—came to see her once or twice. But mostly, day after day, it was just John and me, sitting with her as she struggled to relearn how to talk, how to write, how to think—that’s what I remember. As if it were just us, the three of us, all alone in the world. I know I saw her as all alone, and although I was lonely, too, her loneliness—because of the veneer of toughness, because of the family that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, gather her to them, comfort her, take care of her—seemed epic. My impulse was to make her know that she belonged to us, that she could belong. That she was not alone.

There was just one other person who came—just one I can remember. His name was Kevin. He was a union organizer, more mentor than friend, a good bit older than we were. John knew him, too: he was the one who’d introduced Hula to John at the Irish Arts Center—and not only introduced them, but also arranged to get them properly together after listening to John carry on about her after that first meeting, the same way he’d carried on to me. Hula thinks she might have talked to Kevin about John, too; she can’t remember for sure. What she does remember is that she was pleased when he invited both her and John to his apartment to work on a project together. And she remembers what he was wearing—and what she was wearing—that night. And that the two of them left Kevin’s together, that John asked her if she’d like to get a drink somewhere. And that although it was a frigid January night, they walked all the way from Hell’s Kitchen down to the Village, to the small, crumbling brownstone on Christopher Street, where John and I lived on the top floor. Hula in her fire-engine red leg warmers, John in his cream-colored Irish fisherman’s sweater.

What I remember is that I stuck my head out my door, the way John and I each always did when we heard the other coming up the groaning stairs to our landing on the third floor—there were only the two apartments up there—and that she was tall and slim, with a halo of light brown hair, as frizzy and wavy as mine, and a square jaw. Good-looking rather than pretty, with big, dramatic features. I didn’t know the phrase “a face like a map of Ireland,” but if I had, I would have thought it.

Her nose and cheeks were red—that forty-block walk in the cold. John winked at me. This is her, this is the one. I told her I was glad to meet her. She was glad to meet me, too.

Seven months later, they were living together. It wasn’t something they had ever talked about; it was something they might never have done, either, if not for the “accident.” They liked each other well enough, but what they had was neither a grand romance nor a straightforward “good match.” If they’d had the chance to let things play out naturally, they might have gone on dating for a year or more—that’s my guess now—before things wound down between them.

But what does “play out naturally” mean, anyway? Without interference from anything outside the relationship itself? Does anyone’s life play out in that way?

And it doesn’t matter, because when it came time for Hula to be released from the hospital, it was to John’s apartment. And to me, next door.

They were matter-of-fact about it. John bustled around, finding places for her things, making sure she was comfortable. Hula, with two black eyes—still!—and skinnier than ever, her hair wilder than ever, walking uncertainly, still missing whole chunks of her vocabulary, sank into John’s apartment, into our lives.

There were only a few strides of floor space in the hall between John’s apartment and mine. For two years he and I had talked to each other from our respective bathrooms without even having to raise our voices. If I had a date I’d brought home and then found myself not entirely certain of, I’d knock softly on the bathroom wall, and within seconds John would be at my door in his dhoti and a flannel shirt, his socks full of holes, and he would sit talking happily to the two of us in the armchair I’d brought with me from Brooklyn—the armchair I’d spent my childhood curled up in, reading—until the guy I wasn’t sure about would finally give up and leave. It was the closest I would ever come to having a roommate.

Now there were three of us. And I think by then I was ready, more than ready, for a female friend. John had fallen into my lap—sheer luck—but I missed my old friends, my girlfriends. I missed them even when I was talking to them, even when they came back to New York for visits: we all seemed to have changed so much. But unlike the dogged search for the right boyfriend, which had me pinging here and there, running up blind alleys, acting as if I knew what I was looking for, this search, this longing, was inchoate. I had no idea what I was looking for—I didn’t know I was looking—so I would not have recognized it if it turned up right outside my door. As, in fact, Hula did.

She didn’t know that she needed a friend, either.

It took a jolt, a literal kick in the head, for us to make our way toward each other.

It was understood that when John wasn’t home, I would keep an eye on her. I was glad to do it. I was at home all the time in any case, either writing or slogging away at freelance copyediting jobs. John, who was a photographer, had a part-time day job at Newsweek, answering Letters to the Editor, and he was also spending a lot of time at Gleason’s Gym, a spectacularly seedy midtown boxing gym with which he’d become a little bit obsessed, which he and I both took to be a good sign (an artist needed to be obsessed with something, didn’t he?). He took hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures there, mostly of amateurs, or of boxers long past their prime—skinny old men in boxing gloves—but he was also following around a young Syrian boxer named Mustafa Hamsho, who had just turned professional. Hula and I listened patiently when he came home talking about him. I remember that he once brought him home, up those wobbly creaking stairs, for a visit.

Even when he was at home, John was busy. He didn’t have a separate darkroom in those days, so he used the bathroom. He’d put a board across the tub, which stood on legs (we didn’t have showers, just rubber shower hoses we attached to the tub faucet so we could “shower” sitting down), and set the three trays—developer, stop, and fix—on it; he’d put the enlarger on the toilet seat. When he finished a darkroom session, his back was always sore—there was a lot of bending down involved, given the setup—and he’d join Hula and me in my apartment, where he’d sit down with a groan in my armchair and we would ignore him. We would have been talking—or, more often, singing—for hours. She had begun to play the guitar again, and we’d discovered that not only did we both love to sing, but we sounded very nice singing together. Hula could improvise a harmony on the instant—a gift I admired and envied. I loved to sing, and I hadn’t had anyone to sing with since high school. We played and sang together every day: Beatles, Stones, “Kansas City,” fifties songs like “Tear Drops” (Oh if only we could start over again) and songs much older than that that it turned out we both loved, like “I Can’t Get Started” and “Since I Fell for You.” And we talked—we talked and talked. We talked about men. I was trying to break up with my writer-boyfriend, since being with him, I confessed to her, only made me lonelier; she told me about the boyfriend she’d had before John; we recited to each other the litany of former loves and crushes and failed romances. We talked about music and books and politics and sometimes, it seems to me now, about nothing at all. We talked long after John got home from Newsweek or from Gleason’s or just wandering the streets with his camera; we kept talking after he emerged from the darkroom. We talked and we sang and we drank my grandfather’s homemade mission fig schnapps, and I made us spaghetti or rice and beans, and slowly—bit by bit, day by day—we traded our life stories, or at least the versions of them that we understood well enough or felt able to tell in those days. I formed a picture in my mind of her family; she formed one of mine. The actual family members made their appearances from time to time, too—as did John’s mother and brother—and when later Hula came to a rapprochement with her father, John and I grew fond of him, too.

It strikes me now that what we had was something like an arranged marriage. Not only for John and Hula, suddenly living together—but for all three of us. We had agreed to be thrown together, and we had to figure out how to make it work.

We became a little family of our own. For my part, I was amazed, and moved, by what she and John were doing. That she had needed to be looked after, and he’d offered to do it; that she had said yes. That both of them could be so open-hearted—that John could be so kind, and that Hula could accept this kindness, with humility and gratitude, without resentment or suspicion. I’d never seen anything like it. I think I wanted to be part of it. That is—besides wanting to understand her, wanting to know her, discovering that we could be friends, being friends—I wanted to be part of this generosity and kindness and humility: this basic humanity. I don’t think I was aware of any of this at the time—but looking back, I can remember thinking, Really, this isn’t the way things usually happen, is it? I didn’t know.

By the end of the following year, John and Hula had split up. It had always been inevitable—I suppose we all felt that—but that didn’t keep it from being sad. By then they were living in Hell’s Kitchen, in a slightly bigger apartment, more suitable for a couple. John had handpicked a new neighbor for me when he left Christopher Street, but although George and I did our best, it wasn’t the same—it wasn’t even close—and after a short time we gave up all pretense of friendship and settled down to the business of being simply amicable. The building in Hell’s Kitchen was part of a complex of four small buildings, with a courtyard in the center, and when John and Hula broke up, they passed their apartment along to another couple and moved into separate ones in two of the other buildings. All of the occupants of all four buildings—with the exception of a few old timers who’d been in their apartments since the thirties or forties—were “people like us”: actors, musicians, writers, political do-gooders. Everyone seemed to be in and out of everyone else’s apartment all the time. We called the four buildings “the dorm.”

I thought of “the dorm” as my home away from home. It wasn’t exactly the same as when John and Hula lived next door, but just as in my childhood I had started out right down the hall from my grandparents, and then, when we moved away and my grandmother had to take the bus up Coney Island Avenue to see me every day, the path between my neighborhood and theirs quickly came to seem like nothing more than a long hallway.

Six years later, Gleason’s Gym would move to the Brooklyn waterfront; Marvin Hagler would beat Mustafa for the second time (this time in just three rounds, during which he knocked him down twice, and Mustafa’s trainer had to jump into the ring to stop the fight); I would leave New York for Iowa, for graduate school and, as it turned out—though I didn’t know it then—for good). I’d left the Village myself by then—forced out by a new landlord who wanted to renovate and raise the rent—and hadn’t felt at home since. Hula had gone back to school and had taken an office job at Columbia University; she had drifted away from the Party. We were still singing together—we had even started writing our own songs and performing them at parties; I wrote one, a novelty song about baseball (as a comical metaphor for love, of course: Baseball love/you fit me like a glove/you were pitching your sweet love/right from the start), that a friend of John’s, who worked for Major League Baseball, arranged for us to make a demo of.

Those last few years I spent in New York were hard ones for both Hula and me. I kept falling wildly, pointlessly in love—making a fool of myself, crying my eyes out—and Hula developed a ferocious crush on a man who had no interest in her (and didn’t deserve her, I kept telling her, to no avail). We spent countless hours plotting—how could she get him to be interested?—and trying to understand him—why wasn’t he interested?—and fretting together over my pointless love affairs. Once, when a man I was enthralled with abruptly stopped calling me, she called him and demanded that he tell me myself if he had changed his mind about me, instead of “slinking off.” Instead of being such a coward. “Be a man,” she told him.

“She said that?” I asked, when he told me. He had done exactly as directed: he’d called me, and we sat down together for a cup of coffee while he apologized and told me that he had another girlfriend, it was serious, he couldn’t get involved with me.

It was the first I’d heard of what she did.

She did all kinds of things for me, in the service of my hopeless romances. Once, when a man I’d been seeing vanished for a while (this, it should be noted, was a theme of the relationships of my twenties), she took the stairs up to the floor he lived on—he lived in the dorm too, in the building right across from hers—carrying a small bottle of patchouli oil. It was the scent I always wore in those days (a scent so potent, and so closely associated with me then, that if I’d visited someone on a Friday night, a new guest arriving on Sunday or Monday would ask, upon entering the apartment, “When was Michelle here?”). On this occasion Hula sprinkled it here and there along the hallway and directly in front of his door, “to make him think of you.” And it worked, too, because he called me the next morning. (I preferred this method, it must be said, to the more direct one she had used before.)

We began to refer to ourselves, to our considerable amusement, as the “Foreign Excellent Trench Coat Company.” Hula’s old friend Kevin, the union organizer and matchmaker, had given her a book, The Red Orchestra, which told the story of a real-life group of Communist spies that had operated during World War II right under the nose of the Gestapo; the real Foreign Excellent Trench Coat Company was the fundraising arm of the Red Orchestra, a series of radio transmission stations (“orchestras”) that successfully intercepted Nazi communications for two and a half years. Hula, in her actual trench coat—an elegant, expensive one she had just splurged on—looking glamorously like a spy, would call me from a pay phone to let me know that she was on her way to see me, and when I picked up the phone and said “Hello?” she would answer, sotto voce, “Foreign Excellent.”

We were a little bit like spies together, watching out for each other, operating under the radar of everyone and everything else, keeping each other’s secrets, and poring over the “intelligence” we’d collected or surmised about the men we’d fallen for (who seemed quite like the enemy, though we couldn’t seem to convince ourselves to manage without them). Like the real Foreign Excellent—not a real business at all, of course, but a front; a “real, fake thing,” as Hula explained it to me—we went about our business, such as it was, while our true purpose was hidden. Only we had no idea what our true purpose was, what all of this activity was in the service of.

It was in the service of each other. It was in the service of our friendship.

When I’d lost the apartment on Christopher Street, I had distributed my furniture among my friends (Hula got the armchair from my childhood, and my bed—which replaced the mattress on the floor she had been sleeping on since splitting up with John; John got my table, which dated back to my parents’ first apartment, from before I was born). I felt then as if I were exploding into fragments—my whole life, which I had imagined was solid, bursting open, with bits of it scattered everywhere. With my IBM Selectric and two cats and many boxes full of books and clothes and manuscripts, I moved in—feeling grimly defeated, ruined—with my parents. They had left Brooklyn themselves by then and were living on the Upper East Side—and my brother had just moved out, so that his room, like mine in Brooklyn before it, had been turned quickly into a “den.” That was where my cats and towers of boxes and I took up residence for the next eight months.

When I finally found a new place of my own, it was way uptown and way east, and the rent was almost three times what I’d been paying in the Village, but it was cheaper than anything else I’d seen that was even remotely livable. Even if it didn’t feel like home, it was a sort of haven; it felt like a hideaway. It was so far from everything else (with the single, unwanted exception of my parents’ apartment)—even the nearest subway station was almost a mile away—hardly anyone but Hula ever came to see me there. Hula, on the other hand, spent a lot of time there with me. She got into the habit of walking the three miles between her place and mine, her guitar case slung over her shoulder. I’d make us plates of spaghetti, which we’d eat sitting cross legged on the kitchen floor—the kitchen was my biggest room, where I had my desk, but even so there wasn’t room for a table anywhere in the apartment, so John held on to it for me still—and we’d talk for a while and then move into my “living room,” where the previous tenant had left a loveseat and a plastic bookcase, and squeeze in together and sing.

By then we had lots of original songs. I’d written lyrics for her (“Quel est Votre Problème?”: Are you involved/or are you celibate/Are you asexual/or playing hard to get?/Do you hate women/or is it just that you hate me?) and for myself (“Boy Crazy”: I like ’em southern, northern, from the Bronx or Queens/I like ’em middle aged or when they’re in their teens/I like ’em sane, like ’em nuts, I like ’em rich or poor/I like ’em smart, I like ’em dumb, I like ’em all/of that I’m sure), and Hula wrote the melodies.

I’d finally managed to publish a few stories in little magazines, and an anthology of “women’s writing” had come out in hardcover with something of mine in it (which inspired my father to give me his blessing at last, to tell me that my “writing should come first” as if I’d never thought of that myself). I began to flirt with the idea of graduate school—of leaving New York, trying out living somewhere else for the first time, putting all the heartless boyfriends behind me.

I think now that everything about that year and the year that followed—perhaps that whole decade—was about our efforts to make our lives mean something, to find our way towards what we felt (but couldn’t—as articulate as we both were about so many other things—say, even to ourselves) must be what mattered most: work, and love. Nearly ten years after we had first met, Hula—she was Ellen by then—graduated from law school; I had finished writing my first novel and accepted a teaching position. And still neither one of us had figured out the role “love”—romantic love—had in our lives. We were still spinning our wheels—two different sets of wheels, in two different directions. I careened from one love affair to the next; she charted a steady path from a relationship of convenience to a life reluctantly alone. But all the while we had each other: stars we could navigate by, whenever it was dark enough to see the stars. We talked and talked—we analyzed and sighed and judged and worried. We leaned hard on each other. We leaned lightly on each other, too.

We had both made peace with our families. Different kinds of necessary peace. By then, Hula and her father had been close for some time, and when he got sick, he started spending the night at her place occasionally—and then more and more often. By early 1984, he had moved in altogether, and for the last months of his life, while he needed to be looked after, the two of them lived together in one small room, just as she and John once had. He died that March. I left for graduate school five months later.

The hardest part of leaving New York was leaving her, my best friend.

Hardly anybody calls her Hula anymore. John does, when he writes to me and mentions her. He and I have been in sporadic e-mail contact since he moved to England with his first wife, an Englishwoman, in August 1985—a year after I’d left New York for Iowa. He’s made a living there as a photographer, and is married now to his second wife, also English. They have a daughter, adopted from India. He and Hula see each other from time to time—occasionally she visits London, and they’ll meet for a drink—although it’s been years now since the last time she made the trip. Her mother isn’t well, and while it’s her youngest brother who lives with her and takes care of things, day to day, it’s she who is in charge, who keeps things together for them. Or just barely manages to. They live in disarray, in squalor. The last time she went down to Brooklyn to see them, she tells me, the knobs that turn the burners on the stove had been replaced by knives jammed into the holes where the knobs had been. Nothing works; everything is broken. She prefers to see her mother at her own place—and she insists on spelling Johnny, too, giving him days off from their mother, who requires constant care, and the house, which requires cares it doesn’t get. Hula lives in a slightly larger studio apartment these days—still in Hell’s Kitchen, still in “the dorm,” but in yet another apartment, the third one since she moved up there from the Village (and the very one, in fact, she had once anointed with patchouli oil in my honor)—but it’s still too small for more than one person. Nevertheless, her mother stays with her. Frequently. And Hula has no time for trips overseas, not now, not anymore.

Ellen, I mean. She’s an attorney; her old nickname is no name for an attorney, an adult, a woman who takes care of things, takes care of her own mother, copes. She calls herself Ellen. When she picks up her phone, she answers it, “This is Ellen.” She says it musically: This is Ellen.

By the time Hula—Ellen—graduated from law school, passed the board, and began to practice law in New York, I had bought a house in Columbus, Ohio, where I had a tenure-track teaching job. The house seemed huge at first: I was living all alone in it (the realtor had asked, again and again, “Are you sure you want this much space?”). But soon I met the man who would become my husband, and the father of my daughter, Grace, and by the summer Grace turned fourteen, the house had become too small for us. My husband set aside his own work—he is a painter—to spend four months building a two-story addition. Now we have three bathrooms instead of one, and one of them is downstairs, a “guest bathroom,” I like to call it, although we rarely have guests. My parents visit once a year or so. And this fall Hula came.

It was a rare chance for her to get away, and it wasn’t easy, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. My graduate students were throwing a benefit for the local food pantry, and they had asked me to sing. In my middle age I have taken up singing in a semi-serious way—a serious amateur, I call myself: I study with a voice teacher; I practice regularly. I thought about my student’s offer, and for a moment I considered finding an accompanist, singing the jazz standards that I work on with my teacher, that I love most now. But then I thought about Hula, and how long it’s been, and on an impulse I called her and asked if she wanted to fly out, sing the old songs with me in public, spend the weekend.

“Hell, yes,” she said. “Let me work something out with Johnny.”

She came. We sang “Boy Crazy” and “Quel Est Votre Problème?” and “Suburbia” and “Baseball Love” and all the others, and my students cheered. And then we went home—to my great big house, with its guest bathroom—and Grace and I opened up the convertible sofa and made up a bed for Hula in the room that we don’t call a den but certainly could: it’s the room where we keep the family computer, the TV, the board games. It’s the room our guests, the few guests we ever have, sleep in. Grace and I call it the “family room.” I was in the kitchen fixing us a snack when I heard peals of laughter from the family room, and I peeked in. Grace and Hula were lying down side by side in the bed. They were talking about the boy Grace likes and why he doesn’t seem to notice that she does, what she might be able to do about it.

We don’t see each other often—perhaps once a year. And plenty of years have gone by when we haven’t seen each other at all, when I’ve come to New York with Grace and we’ve spent the whole weekend going to the theater, and eating dinner with my parents. Or when I’ve overbooked myself and run out of time before I have a chance to see her. And yet, still, I think of her as one of the people I’m closest to. As part of my family. I think about how this can be—how it started, and how it is that it endures, despite the changes over the years, and the differences in the way our lives have unfolded. She still lives alone; she practices law out of her apartment (and Grace adores her apartment: it’s the model for the apartment she wants to live in someday, in New York). We have less “in common” now than we ever did. Except for our shared history. Except for the sheer weight of the years we’ve chalked up. In some way that goes beyond “shared interests” or ordinary experience or even sympathy, we know each other. We claimed each other long ago.

Hula has lots of women friends now, and they do all kinds of things together. I envy her that. I have just one friend, really, here in Columbus. It gets harder and harder to make new friends, it seems to me, as one gets older—or perhaps it’s just hard for me. It seems particularly hard for a New Yorker marooned in the Midwest, particularly hard to fit friends into a life that’s so packed with other things. But it’s not just a matter of geography, or of back-ground—or of free time—or of age. It’s hard to start over, from scratch. It’s hard to take that leap again, with someone new.

I think about the beginning, for Hula and me—the accident of our meeting, the accident that brought us together. If John had never met her, I never would have met her; if she hadn’t nearly died, we might never have turned into friends. If she had not moved in with John, surely we would not have become so close.

But even if the circumstances had been the same, things might not have worked out as they did for us. That is, I might have visited her in the hospital, and she might have been grateful, and then pleased—and still we might have remained friendly acquaintances. Even after she moved in with John, we might not have become as close as sisters; we might have kept our distance even as we lived right up alongside each other, just as George and I did later. Simple proximity isn’t any kind of explanation. Proximity alone would not have tied us together so tightly.

But then who knows what makes two people take the leap into real friendship—the kind of deep, abiding friendship that makes life more bearable than it would be otherwise? It’s even more mysterious than love. The mysteries of physical attraction (“chemistry,” we call it, as if it were a branch of science) are legion—desire sometimes descending so suddenly (between one blink of an eye and the next) or coming and going so unpredictably, unreasonably—in retrospect, if not in medias res—it can seem positively arbitrary. But desire at least marks a clear difference between one kind of relationship and another. True love, we say, about the romances that matter most to us. I fell in love. About true friendship—that tug, that falling in, falling together, snapping-into-place—no one says I fell.

But I did. We did. We both fell.

As I sat with her in the hospital, as the doctors and the nurses came and went, Who are you? was what I asked, silently, That’s the question that begins a friendship. One person asks, and if the other asks it too, after a while, that’s how it starts. It’s how it goes on.

And on. Just as we have.

And so here we are—still. After all.


Michelle Herman’s latest book, the novel Close-Up, is due out in autumn 2021. Her most recent essay collection, Like A Song, includes the essay “Foreign Excellent.” She has long taught in the MFA program at Ohio State, which she co-founded, and she also founded and directs an interdisciplinary program for artists at OSU. She dispenses advice in the Care and Feeding column at Slate.

Originally published in NOR 6

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s