Noe Valley Voice July-August 2003

The Last Page:
Heart of Glass

Fiction by Kirsten Bickford

NORMALLY, my eyes are brown. Today they are vivid green. Denise and I sit in a pool of weak sunlight at my kitchen table sorting pebbles of colored glass.

"I feel as if I'm right back in junior high," I say. That's what we called middle school back in the sixties. Denise and I make little piles of the stones--one for green, one for clear, a red pile, a blue pile. I've been explaining the latest chapter in my friendship with Miriam, someone I've counted as one of my closest friends since moving to St. Helena several years ago.

As we speak, we arrange combinations of different colored glass, admiring the collective effect. I hold out my palm, showing an array of greens and ambers and one lovely heart-shaped piece of milky celadon. I brought back bags of the glittering booty from Glass Beach up the coast, a former bottle dump where the broken shards had been smoothed and sanded into tiny jewels over the years. Now we're preparing a mosaic project for my daughter's school, decorating votive candleholders with the stones, each one a little work of art.

Denise makes an arrangement of deep reds, opaque whites, and a pale pink piece like the shell of a baby's ear.

"Why do you think this bothers you so much?" she asks. I shrug.

"If I could put a word to it, I guess I would call it betrayal," I say. "Or just disappointment." It sounds so much bigger than I intended. It's such a small thing, really.

MIRIAM AND I found each other soon after my arrival in town, chatting by the swings while our kids played at the park. Soon there were weekly coffee dates before the girls' ballet classes, rendezvous at the library while researching science-fair projects, e-mail jokes exchanged, books traded and discussed in the snippets of time between the constant interruptions of our children. The prospect of friendship between two such different temperaments was highly unlikely: Miriam is spontaneous, disorganized, doesn't wear a watch or make a grocery list. I, on the other hand, am compulsive in my need for order and planning ahead. Miriam is a winemaker, acclaimed for her Cabernets and Sauvignon Blancs, while I'm a full-time mom trained as an illustrator. Combined, we average out to be the ideal person--punctual but flexible, madcap but reliable. Besides, we've always made each other laugh. A lot.

"Here's a handy tip for warding off unwanted thefts," I offered the day after Miriam's purse was stolen. "Don't leave it lying unattended on your front porch for three hours in broad daylight."

"Let me put that into my Palm Pilot," Miriam would mock me, scrawling a note with a pen onto her open hand.

We learned to honor our differences by speaking of them openly, laughing at them. It was a bumpy road, this friendship, but it seemed to be a long one.

Then, in the past year, a larger bump. A new couple moved to St. Helena, bringing with them a welcome sense of novelty and urban panache. Lizette and Martin came from New York--a fact that was obvious in their vintage clothes and tiny, über-hip eyeglasses. He had his own architecture firm, she worked in graphic design. No kids--at least not yet. I was introduced to them at a Montessori fundraiser in April, and invited Lizette to join me in working with Artist Tree, the after-school arts program. With Lizette's sharp eye and finely honed sense of cool, we soon transformed Artist Tree into a well-supported program with a long waiting list. Martin was designing several new houses in town--spare, post-modernist structures that seemed to thumb their noses at the array of Victorian gingerbread so typical of St. Helena's neighborhoods.

Almost overnight, Lizette and Martin became a hot property, sought after for dinners and events, admired for their SoHo pedigrees. They were like carrier pigeons from the trenches of the cutting edge, and we eagerly awaited news from the front. Plus, they were witty, in a deadpan, glib sort of way. Parties instantly gained a measure of sophistication when they arrived, bearing a platter of some new and exotic appetizer.

In June, Lizette and Martin bought a fixer-upper on Lincoln Street, two doors down from Miriam and Frank's, and they set about designing a Greek Revival house as might be envisioned by Metropolitan Home magazine. Somehow, Miriam had missed all previous opportunities to meet the golden couple, so I made a point of introducing them. "You'll be neighbors soon," I told her. "You'll absolutely love each other." My husband, Mike, and I hosted the two couples for cassoulet, and Miriam brought one of her Cabernets. We drank and laughed on our back patio until after midnight, playing charades and Botticelli. It was immediately apparent that Miriam--whose feelings about her marriage and her job were what I would call dissatisfied, if not unhappy--was clearly besotted with both of her new friends. Her face became animated and her laugh was breathy in a way I hadn't seen before.

For a moment that evening, I thought back to my adolescent days, when I sorted my friends according to the person I was in their company. The athletic crowd I went skiing with, the doper friends I hung out with after school, the more bohemian group I knew through the youth theater workshop. I went to great lengths to keep each group separate, afraid to mingle the different sides of myself that had somehow developed so distinctly. Now, nearly thirty years later, I realized with some pride that I had grown into a whole person who was comfortable with all of her sides. I felt secure sharing my sparkly new chums with my old familiars. We were grownups, right? We could all be friends.

Within a couple of weeks, though, I began to feel differently. Miriam and Frank had extended a warm hand of friendship to Lizette and Martin, and the two couples were having dinner, coffee, and cocktails together on a regular basis. Miriam was so infatuated with her new friends that she effused to me in the school parking lot every morning and recounted with delight the details of their get-togethers the night before. Martin was designing a new kitchen for her and Frank. She was advising Lizette on the planting of an organic vegetable garden. I had never seen Miriam so happy, so girlish, so eager. Wasn't there some unwritten rule, I wondered, by which you weren't supposed to become closer to the new friend than to the old one who introduced you? Weren't you supposed to invite her to the fun little dinner (grilled oysters and portabello mushrooms) or cocktail thing (mojitos and ceviché) at least once in a while? Or, if you didn't, surely you were supposed to be more discreet about it?

NOW DENISE sits back from her piles of glass and takes a sip of tea. "You're entitled to feel hurt," she says. "She definitely should have shown a little more discretion, if you ask me."

We sort some more for a while in silence.

"I guess the upsetting thing for me isn't just how Miriam behaved," I say. "It's that I thought I had outgrown these feelings of jealousy, of being left out. She's just a friend, after all. It's not as if Mike took up with another woman."

I see myself back at Wilbur Lyman Junior High--the low, green postwar buildings, the rows of brown lockers in the dark breezeways. The hole in my chest when I learn I've been excluded from something to which everyone else has been invited. The slow, sickening shift in the earth's tectonic plates as I realize that the world is not exactly as I have imagined, the tides do not ebb and flow according to my feelings. Now, here I am, mid-forties, and I haven't moved beyond such puerile emotions at all. I had thought they had been smoothed and dulled over the years, evened out. But they've remained as sharp as ever. They have merely been lying dormant, waiting to be rediscovered.

Denise begins to finish up her work, getting ready to go. I remain at the table, looking at my little piles of color. "I've gotta run," she says, then remembers something else. "Before I forget, Tom and I are looking for a new part-time consultant for the winery. You know of anybody?"

I think for a minute, no more than that. She has just described Miriam. Miriam, who is looking for a new job, part-time if possible. I think of how much I enjoy Denise, how our friendship has deepened over the past year. I picture her and Miriam, heads together, laughing over some small thing as they discuss the new release of Sauvignon Blanc.

I sweep the last of the colored pebbles together into a little pile and cup them close with my hands. Then I shake my head. "Can't think of anyone offhand, Denise. But I'll ask around." Absent of light, the glass stones lie dark and dull under my touch.

A former resident of Lake Street in the Outer Richmond, Kirsten Bickford now lives in the Napa Valley with her husband and two young children. Her nonfiction has appeared in publications such as Travel & Leisure, L.A. Style, and the Saturday Evening Post. She is currently at work on a novel about reincarnation.

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