I met Sandy as usual at the Golden Pump, and we ordered our usual, two burgers and one order of fries after our usual scan of the menu, our usual consideration and rejection of salads and items with little hearts next to them.
"I really wanted to lose fifteen pounds before the PTA Halloween dinner dance," Sandy sighed, handing her menu to the waitress. "But I'm sure not going to lose them by next month no matter what I eat tonight. Which I realize is the kind of thinking that leads to needing to lose fifteen pounds in the first place. Are you and Len going?"
"Of course we are," I answered. "Would Len miss an opportunity to see all the people he works with all week for five extra hours on a Friday night? Would Amy allow me to stay home in peace with my feet up and a slice of pizza when she knows I'm supposed to be mingling with the parents of all her little friends?"
"Oh, you'll have fun once you get there," Sandy laughed. "You always do."
"I'm always very happy right around 11:30 if the thing ends at midnight," I agreed. "How's my little buddy?"
That was all it took to distract Sandy away from my antisocial tendencies and launch her on twenty minutes about her ten-year-old son Jeremy, who is also my godson. Sandy, the former cheerleader, the former prom queen, the most popular girl in school who was also oddly enough the nicest, just couldn't understand a child who was happy spending all his time in his room with his action figures and his comic books. She waged an incessant campaign to get him out of the house and into organized group activities.
He was polite and well-behaved at Boy Scouts and earned badges as required. He went to soccer practice and played competently if unenthusiastically on the team that his father coached, while Sandy had a ball running the concession stand that was the team's main fund raiser. But given the choice, he made it clear he'd rather be home alone, letting his imagination run wild.
"But he finally met a kid he seems to genuinely like," Sandy concluded. "I made him go to Jimmy Blake's sleepover and he met this kid named Kevin Davis who lives down the street from the Blakes. He's homeschooled, apparently, which is why we didn't know the family from school. I was a little concerned because some of those homeschoolers are kind of strange, but the mother called for a playdate and she seemed perfectly nice and normal on the phone, so Jeremy's been going home with Jimmy almost every day on the bus, and then the two of them go over to Kevin's to play. I think some computer game from Japan is a big part of the attraction, but at least it's better than brooding in his room all by himself."
I just smiled. It was impossible to explain to Sandy, or Len, or Amy, or any of the perfectly nice and normal people I know in this town that a person who is reading or dreaming alone in his or her room is not necessarily "brooding". I turned the conversation to my own little joiner, Amy, and we talked about Brownie troops and T-ball and parent-teacher conferences until the check came.
Driving home, I thought for the thousandth time about Sandy and how, even though I liked her, I always felt that we were not as good friends as she seemed to think we were. We had been in the same class all through school and she had been perfectly nice whenever she happened to notice me, the way she was to everyone.
But we had never been friends then, in my opinion, although that was not how Sandy seemed to remember it. In high school, she hung around with the cheerleaders and the football players, like in some fifties movie, and I had a couple of likeminded friends that I worked with on the newspaper and the school literary magazine.
It was only later, after everyone else had escaped to the big city and I had come back, that the legend of our lifelong friendship seemed to have grown up in Sandy's mind. After graduation, Sandy took a part- time job in an office downtown to keep her in nail polish and cigarettes, until a cousin brought Bob home for a college vacation and they got engaged.
I made it only to the state university after my father's death made my planned escape to New York impossible. And the first time I brought Len home to meet my mother, he fell in love with the town, more than he did with me, I think now.
"It's so Norman Rockwell," he kept saying, and it took me several looks at his astonished grin to understand he meant this as praise. He took a job in town right after college, and resisted any and all attempts on the company's part to transfer him. He was happy with his weekly poker games and his bowling league, selling Christmas trees for the Jaycees, going away with "the guys" on the kind of fishing trips that produce a lot more empty beer cans than fish.
Len adored Amy, but sometimes he still spoke wistfully of a son, always in terms of Little League, Boy Scouts, soccer teams, all the activities he was locked out of because he didn't possess that crucial boy- child passport. Some of those teams had girls on them now, but Amy was more the ballet lesson type. She was even lobbying hard to sign up for junior beauty pageants, despite my repeated assurances that she had a far better chance of walking on the moon.
I was wistful too, but I didn't ever talk about that old vision of myself, wearing black, writing poetry, walking through the streets of Greenwich Village, staying up all night with cheap wine and fascinating friends.
This was a good place to live and raise children, a friendly place where a neighbor would come over and offer to help out if your grass grew more than three inches long, where everyone knew everyone and any mother would stop your kid from diving in the shallow end of the community pool, a place where at Halloween it was still safe to send your kids out trick or treating in the quiet tree-lined streets.
And Sandy made sure we were included in everything. Bob invited Len to the Thursday night poker game. Sandy made sure I got on the PTA committees with the least drudgery, and never forgot to call me the night before a bake sale.
Every month or so the two of us left our kids with the people Sandy insisted on referring to as "the boys" and went to the Golden Pump to catch up and laugh and swear our kids must have been switched at birth, that geeky Jeremy must be mine and that my aggressive little social-climbing Amy must be hers.
And afterwards I would drive home and reflect that after so many years, Sandy's myth of our friendship was becoming true, because while she wasn't the soulmate that in my younger days was meant by the phrase "best friend", she was in fact the best friend I had.
It was only a week later when Sandy called and invited me over for lunch. "We need to talk while the kids are in school", she said. The house was as neat as usual when I got there, but Sandy herself seemed awkward, disheveled, almost embarrassed.
It took a while for her to get around to the reason why she had called, but it came out finally. She had called Kevin's mother to invite him to stay over Saturday night, and his mother had declined, saying politely but firmly that Kevin never spent the night at anyone's house, that he hardly ever could go to anyone's house.
"But why?" Sandy asked, a little hurt and remembering that Jeremy had met Kevin, after all, at Jimmy Blake's sleepover.
"Kevin has a rare blood disorder," his mother answered finally, and hung up.
Sandy could understand that, she could understand how hard it must be to talk about a child's illness, especially to a total stranger. And questioning Jeremy revealed that Kevin had only come to the games and presents and cake part of Jimmy's party, and had gone home right before everyone else changed into their pajamas. It also turned out that Kevin always had to rest during the day, so Jeremy was in fact going home with Jimmy on the bus, having supper with Jimmy's family and then going over to Kevin's to play.
"And I go and pick him up, or Bob does, but we just pull up and he always comes right out, we've never even gone to the door for him, so we've still never really met the parents in person, although Kevin's mother always waves from the doorway as we pull away. I'm so embarrassed to think Jeremy's been eating at the Blakes almost every night for a month and I've never even invited Jimmy back, what must Missy Blake think of our manners..."
Sandy gulped miserably and I knew this social faux pas wasn't what she had invited me over to discuss. Resolving awkward social situations was Sandy's forte, she certainly didn't need my advice and assistance for that.
"Jen", she whispered, looking down at the kitchen table. "Jeremy's been over there with Kevin almost every day for a month and he's...he's sick, she said, and what if he has...what if..."
Her voice trailed off, and she still wouldn't look at me. And I realized that my insincere, half- hearted friendship had led me here, to this kitchen table where another mother was showing me the raw seam where being a good mother and being a good person meet raggedly. Sandy was trusting me with her ugliest and most fearful moment. I gave that realization the moment of respect it deserved before I took a deep breath and started to say the right things.
An hour and a half later when Jeremy came home from school, we had a plan. Sandy would make a point of meeting Kevin's mother, and hopefully getting some more information about his condition. After all, I pointed out reasonably, there might be reasons for Kevin's sake that Jeremy should be warned about how he played with his new friend.
"You wouldn't want Jeremy to play too roughly with him and maybe cut him if he's a hemophiliac, would you?" I asked. "Maybe his mother will open up to you if she gets to know you and the two of you can make things as safe as possible for Kevin and Jeremy both."
The second part of the plan was that Sandy would be taking Jeremy for a checkup.
"Dr. Ford only spent about ten minutes with Jeremy when he filled out his form for camp, and he is growing awfully fast," she said. "He could probably use a good going-over."
This part of the plan sounded good to me when I got a look at my godson as he sped through the kitchen on the way to his room. He was growing very fast, changing very rapidly from a solid small boy into a pre- adolescent string bean. Perfectly natural, I told myself, but he seemed pale and thin, somehow feral, probably because the gaps his baby teeth had left were being filled in crookedly by pointy adult teeth that seemed too big for his mouth.
Well, a checkup from Dr. Ford would put the hyperactive maternal and godmaternal imaginations to rest, and Sandy would enjoy bonding with Kevin's mother. I left her planning a dinner invitation for the Blakes and went off to pick up Amy.
A call a few days later revealed that the dinner was scheduled, Sandy had gone to the Davis' door with Jeremy and been invited in, Kevin's mother's name was Judith and she was very nice. Dr. Ford had checked out Jeremy and found nothing worse than a weird bug bite on the side of his neck, which Dr. Ford was sure wasn't Lyme's disease but he was doing a blood test just to be on the safe side.
Judith had, of course, opened right up to Sandy's sympathetic interest.
"Judith told me Kevin's condition is hereditary and debilitating but not terminal. He has symptoms like leukemia, so he mostly has to get a lot of rest during the day and that's why she teaches him at home. She has a teaching certificate, and she says Jeremy is highly verbal and imaginative."
I was glad everything was working out so well, and I didn't bother mentioning all the times I'd said that Jeremy was verbal and imaginative. Sandy was off my list of worries for a week or two. Amy's ballet recital required two costumes, a butterfly and a daisy, and of course neither costume would do for Halloween.
"I want to be a witch, Mommy." she said firmly. "A witch is more scarier."
"Just 'scarier'," I corrected, glad that for once she didn't want to be a fairy, a princess, a fairy princess, or a cheerleader. It seemed like a good sign that this year she was willing to give up glamour and ruffles in the spirit of the season. And a witch costume could be picked up at the five and ten, I didn't have to make it. "Sure you can be a witch, honey. Now just stand still a minute and let's see if your petals are stuck on right this time."
Of course they weren't and of course the house was covered with tulle and gauze and wire hangers bent into shapes that were woefully unlike butterflies' wings and daisy petals right up to the day of the recital. It wasn't until then that I realized I hadn't seen much of Sandy lately, just a wave across the Safeway parking lot one night where I'd glimpsed her with a tall dark-eyed woman I assumed was Judith Davis.
I called one afternoon but it seemed like I'd woken Sandy from a nap. The conversation was short, but she managed to work Judith Davis into just about every sentence: their evening trips to the mall (I hate to shop); the diet Judith found that they were on together (I'd laughed at Sandy's grapefruit and vinegar enthusiasms). This one sounded like some version of a high protein diet, but Sandy was vague about the details, not pressing me to join in like she always had before.
For the first time since I came back to town, Sandy didn't seem to want to talk to me. She sounded bored with our usual chitchat about games and school projects. We asked after each other's kids and husbands and said goodbye without making any plans to get together.
Serves me right, I told myself firmly. Sandy has a friend who shares her tastes and interests now, instead of one who's always reluctant and recalcitrant. Quit moping around like an eighth grader who hasn't been invited to a slumber party. But over the next few weeks I was surprised how often I reached for the phone to call my hitherto unappreciated friend. Sandy seemed increasingly elusive, always groggy if I called during the day, always out if I called in the evening.
I saw her in the Safeway again, one night when I ran out to pick up a box of cake mix because I'd forgotten that Amy’s class had a bake sale the next day. Sandy was with Judith and the two boys, and all four seemed pale and unhealthy in the fluorescent supermarket lights. Jeremy shivered a little despite his turtleneck, but he moved away from me when I went to hug him and check his neck to see if his bite was gone.
Sandy introduced me to Judith, although neither of us seemed to have very much to say. I congratulated them because the diet seemed to be working great, they both looked thin and elegant in their dark clothes. Sandy smiled but Judith just stared at me.
I realized for the first time that Sandy had the same crooked, pointy-looking teeth that Jeremy did, more prominent now in her narrower face. Well, thank God for orthodonture, I remember thinking. There wasn't an orthodontist in the county when Sandy and I were growing up, but now our little town was full of eager practitioners who would be able to straighten out Jeremy's fangs and the underbite that made Amy look just like pictures of Len's Aunt Martha when the time came.
The conversation never really got going. I felt inane, trying to make small talk. Judith seemed to have no social skills but continued to stare at me almost hungrily as I talked, no doubt longing for me to shut up and go away. I’m not really like this, a voice inside my head insisted. I’m not boring, or trivial, or obsessed with the mundane. This is not the real me.
Feeling that I was babbling, I said good-bye. When I moved off to the express checkout I had an uncomfortable feeling that the two of them were still standing there, discussing me. I glanced back quickly as I left, and they were in the same spot, not talking at all, but Judith was still watching me, her dark eyes hooded under the fluorescent lights.
From that night on I was strangely restless, opening and closing books, sleeping little at night and taking afternoon naps whose darkly adventurous dreams left me all the more wakeful that evening. I longed for intimacy, for secrets and revelations, for the feel of the dark blood that pulses under the clear skin of daily life.
My own life was repulsively bland and bright and boring. Maybe I had been home long enough, maybe it was time to get a job, but nothing in the paper caught my eye. No openings for romantic poets in town, no advertisements for women willing to stay up all night, sipping wine and talking about mysteries by candlelight.
At night I slept little, wandering through the house at all hours, lighting candles and peering out through the windows, oppressed by a sense of waiting, a sense of watching for the approach of the source of my longing.
When I finally slept, I dreamed of driving endlessly down dark, unfamiliar streets where disturbingly crooked houses loomed from behind tall hedges, and a hooded figure was always just ahead, beckoning me onward. All through my broken dreams Sandy's voice was calling me, but when the hooded figure in my dreams finally turned around, it was Judith's dark eyes that I saw.
I told myself I needed to be around someone cheerful and normal, someone like Sandy. I found myself driving by Sandy’s several times a day, hoping for a glimpse of her or of Judith, but the house was quiet, windows dark and empty, the yard bereft of even the usual cheerful jack o’ lantern decorations of the season.
It seemed like I had waited and yearned for an eternity by the Friday of the PTA Halloween dinner dance, which was also the day of the Halloween party and parade at Amy's school. I woke with a much-needed jolt of energy that enabled me to get through the day’s tasks. I delivered Amy and her cake safely in the morning, picked up my black dress from the cleaners, called Len to remind him to come home on time, picked up ten small pumpkins and carved them into jack-o'-lanterns for door prizes at the dance all with a growing sense of suppressed excitement, like a call from far away.
I picked up my little witch from school, still in her costume, but instead of going home I found myself driving away from the center of town in the twilight, turning down strange streets, pulling up in front of a strange, crooked house with the orange glow of candle light flickering deep inside its rooms. I parked far from the nearest streetlight and got out.
"Why are we here, Mommy?" Amy asked. I straightened her witch's hat and grasped her hand firmly.
"It's a special club we're going to join, sweetie," I said as we walked up the path to where the two women waited for me in the doorway. They had on their black dresses too, and even from the curb I could see the light reflecting off their long, sharp teeth.
Maria Casale has short stories forthcoming in PMS and Online Journal. Two of her stories received honorable mention in the Explorations 2001 contest. She is currently working on her first novel.
Maria has been writing with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, led by Alison Hicks, since 1998. She is certified to lead writing workshops using the Amherst Writers and Artists method pioneered by Pat Schneider and leads weekend writing retreats in eastern Pennsylvania.
“Joiners,” was previously published on-line in the Halloween 2001 edition of Nocturne Horizons. Re-printed by permission of the author.