FAMILIES Old Friends

Friendship can stand up to almost anything - except pity and tact.

If I had known that Fran was to be my last best friend, that day we stood arguing in front of Neiman’s, I’d have tried harder. It was a cold wet day in late November of 1973. For three or four hours we’d tramped around the heated mall at North Park in boots and heavy coats. We’d skipped lunch. We were hungry and tired. Now, at 3:30, we had to leave to beat our kids home from school, and we stood in front of Neiman’s arguing. We were arguing, pointlessly, over a backless, strapless, black lace bra, a bra that didn’t even exist except as a symbol of decorum for her and of repression for me.

If I’d known what I was losing, I’d have tried harder. I’d have helped her find her silly bra. As if I cared, really.

Fran and I first met in 1954 when she transferred into my college as a junior. I liked her right away. Tall and willowy, with a marvelous sweep of gold-brown hair, she had terrific style, I thought. While the rest of us wore skirts and sweaters with Peter Pan collars, basically “appropriate” dresses our mothers chose, and boy pajamas, Fran wore a pair of perfectly faded jeans and a black jersey, a very good black wool dress, and an old rose Chinese silk robe split to the knee of her long elegant legs. When I got $25 for my birthday, I bought a padded bra, a matching sweater set, and a slave bracelet. When she got $25, she bought a white silk shirt, period.

She had wit and imagination. One dateless Saturday night, barefoot, wearing gym shorts and t-shirts, hair uncombed and faces unmade, we were ig-nominiously watching the Lucky Strike Hit Parade in the dorm lounge when a boy we knew slightly dropped by.

“I look awful,” I moaned to Fran and started to sidle upstairs.

Fran’s eyes lit up with delight, her mouth opened in a big smile, and she ran up to him and threw her arms around him.

“Ralph, how wonderful,” she trilled. “Now if you’ll just wait a minute we’ll be right down.” And she glided after me.

“Franny, you hypocrite, you hardly know him. Why did you do that?” I hissed.

“If you hug them,” she said matter-of-factly, “they can’t see you.”

Fran loved books and writers, as I did, but here too she was practical. My passion was for dead Shelley, whose heart wouldn’t burn. Fran very sensibly sat down and wrote a letter she addressed to “Mr. William Faulkner, Oxford, Mississippi.” I don’t know what it said because she wouldn’t let me see it, but every word of his reply, written by hand, is etched on my brain:

My dear Miss Harriman,

When I first read your letter I thought you were a girl of 13. Then I decided you were a clever woman of about 30. My last guess is that you are 19 going on 20. Thank you for your kind words.

William Faulkner

He was, of course, exactly right.

How I envied her that letter, so personal, so seductive. If it hadn’t greeted her by name, I would have stolen it. In a way, I did anyway, because for years I told the story as if it had been sent to me. I really felt in all justice it should have been – to me, the serious scholar and poet, not to Fran, that creature all nerve and dash.

Actually, she wasn’t all nerve and dash. Fran’s father had killed himself when she was 10, had shot himself through the mouth with his hunting gun. He was the weak branch of a good family tree. Fran’s mother, a silly woman in fox tails and spike heels, sent Fran nylon negligees we called “honeymoon on a budget.”

Fran was worn out with all this. She craved the decent and secure as I longed for the bohe-mian and bizarre. She dated fraternity men. She attended Methodist Youth Fellowship regularly and every night she did her Daily Bible Readings. In her old school, she told me, she had been a cheerleader, and I could imagine those long legs kicking in a row of synchronized legs. It bothered me.

We came out to Texas together in the fall of 1956. The going rate for beginning teachers in Houston was $3600 a year, big money. We blew our getting-settled funds, $300, on a six-year-old Dodge with a gear shift held together by a coat hanger and we set out to find an apartment. I drove, she navigated.

“Turn left, turn left, right now!” Fran screamed.

I turned, hysterically racing across two lanes of oncoming traffic, horns blowing, people shouting out of car windows, and came quietly to rest in a field of daisies.

“I just forgot whether we were going east or west,” she explained apologetically.

We rented a two-bedroom studio with a charming grillwork stair and a window seat in the living room. Fran walked into the living room, set her suitcases down, and left them. And left them. For a month, with clothes spilling out every which way. Just as she left the dirty dishes in the sink and on the table and on the counter.

I complained about her slovenliness, she complained about my complaining. “I thought you were a bohemian artist,” she sneered disdainfully. “You’re bourgeois, hopelessly bourgeois.”

“And I thought you were an elegant lady,” I snapped. “But you’re a pig.”

Our friendship on the rocks, we set out to find separate quarters. But why? By this time we had made some friends and Fran insisted that we have a story for them.

“I know,” she said. “You’re moving out on your own to write. You’re working on a novel and you need privacy. What you need is a garret.”

What we found was an efficiency behind a Venetian blind factory, a walk-up with an outside staircase and an overstuffed sofa-bed in the ugliest green I had ever seen. But in front on the concrete drive sat the downstairs tenant, a young man wearing a grey sweater and reading Ulysses.

“Did you see that?” Fran asked. “This is it, Jo. Have you ever seen a man reading Ulysses before?”

She ignored my protests. “Don’t be silly. You can throw a quilt over it. And pretend to everybody that that closet door leads to your bedroom. It’s trashy to sleep on your couch.” We were already in league again.

By 1958 we were both married, I to a disorderly, free-thinking newspaperman who worked night police, she to the track coach in the high school where she taught, a shiny young man with a magazine ad face and no brains.

She said, “As picky as you are he’ll drive you crazy. You just want the glamor of the newspaper life.”

“He listens to me.”

“He’ll never come home on time.”

“He says I have a Mozartian can.”

“That’s crude.”

“I know.”

I said, “What can you talk to him about? You say he’s stable, I say he’s stupid.”

“He has beautiful feet.”

“You don’t marry feet.”

“I do. Anyway, he loves me because he says I don’t have a muscle in my body.”

“So what happens if you get some?”

“I won’t.”

The winter of 1960 we had our babies. Like royalty Fran had wanted a child immediately, had insisted on a two-bedroom apartment from her wedding day, had already bought Winnie the Pooh prints and a rocking chair. I wanted to wait a while, maybe forever, to drink salty dogs and play gin rummy in the police press room, to stay out all night and eat scrambled eggs at the One’s-A-Meal at dawn. Of course, my daughter was born in August and Fran’s little girl not until five months later, in January. For a half-year I reveled in the pleasure of Fran’s undivided admiration and envy, as she used my baby to practice mothering on.

Our friendship deepened. Now we both stayed home while our husbands worked. Once or twice a week one of us moved baby food, bottles, diapers, baby clothes, diaper bag, portacrib, pacifier, stuffed toys, and baby all the way across town for a long day with the other, companions in a world of motherhood. We exercised together, giggling and groaning over our flabby soft stomachs. We let out dress seams and measured hems, painted nursery furniture, put up ruffled curtains, hung the Pooh prints.

“They’ll grow up like sisters or double-first cousins,” Fran would say, beaming at the fat babies, fed, bathed, diapered, sleeping on an old blanket in the shade of my one tiny backyard tree, while she and I sat in the spring sun, tanning our legs and sipping lemonade. She was, I teased her, as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.

We still argued. Fran did not believe in baby sitters and became snippy when she thought my husband and I went out too much at night. Rebelliously I bought pizzas, baked cookies, and overpaid extravagantly to keep a teenager on call. But these minor flurries hardly troubled the even tenor of our time together.

I’m not sure when that time ended. The last vivid memory I have of a day with Fran and the babies was Monday, November 25, 1963, President Kennedy’s funeral. Sitting side by side on the red shag rug in front of the big television set in her family room, while the little girls played quietly in a corner, Fran and I watched the procession: the Catholic clergymen, the dark-suited dignitaries, the spirited riderless black stallion, the double row of white horses pulling the funeral wagon with its flag-covered coffin. On the White House steps Jackie, in black, the mantilla draped forlornly over her head, waited with John and Caroline in their short coats with velveteen collars, their little legs looking bare and cold.

I remember glancing worriedly across at Fran staring dry-eyed and distant into the screen, staring at the death of a father, at the children left alone, at scenes from her own past.

Sometime soon after that, Fran’s husband went into the Army as a career officer, thinking ahead to early retirement and lots of golf, and shortly afterward our small family set out for Detroit and a big-time newspaper. I didn’t see Fran again for nearly 10 years.

In June of 1973, in Dallas, Fran came back into my life just as my husband was going out. For 12 years I’d been at home, cooking, cleaning, sewing, doing all the things that Fran so approved. Now that life was splitting apart. When Fran looked me up right after she and her family moved to Dallas, she was obviously surprised at what she found.

Our daughters were now 13, and we both had little boys. But otherwise our lives were very different.

Her husband had done well in the Army. Now a major, he was tall, erect, well-tailored, a good soldier, and, dear God, duller than ever. Her children had the easy friendliness of accustomed travelers. They’d lived everywhere, Japan, England, France, always in the secure pocket of Uncle Sam and family. Fran looked beautiful, trim, lightly tanned, with the gold brown hair cleverly cut, her clothes understated but just right. A couple of mornings a week, she told me, while the children were in summer day camp, she played tennis in the women’s league at the officers’ club, driving over from their very nice house in Lake Highlands in her own white Firebird, which now sat outside my duplex just west of the university.

“Jim wants me to drive a station wagon,” she said, as I poured her a cup of coffee. “He says it’s what I need to haul the children around in. But I just couldn’t. Station wagons are so suburban, aren’t they?”

I agreed. I was glad I could agree as I saw Fran look about her with something like dismay at the small, shabby apartment where the children and I were living. In my eyes it was my own place, a refuge, casual and comfortable; in hers it was downright seedy, not much better than the walk-up behind the Venetian blind factory years before in Houston.

Maybe she was right, I thought, but to my mind that was part of its charm. On the verge of divorce, teaching, supporting myself, harassed but exhilarated, I was starting over. Everything was open, up for grabs. It didn’t bother me to live here, to buy clothes at Margie’s, to drive a beat-up old Bug. Some things bothered me, but not those.

We had other differences. In a quiet way she disapproved of Big Lula, six feet tall and 200 pounds, with a heart to size, who rode the bus up from Washington Avenue once a week to clean my house. Lula’s former employer had ditched her for stealing spoons and she was to make off with three men’s suits from the friend I later bequeathed her to, but she treated me well.

“It’s just that I like to do it all myself, Jo,” Fran said. “That way I know it’s done right. But of course I know you need help, with all you have to do.”

The church issue was rougher. Fran’s family attended Highland Park Methodist Church, just around the corner from me. They especially enjoyed the guitar service in the basement, she told me, and I found myself suppressing an automatic response: Guitar service? For God’s sake, Fran, if you want church, at least take it straight.”

Then Fran’s daughter began to drop by several times a month to ask my daughter to walk up to Methodist Youth Fellowship on Sunday nights while Fran and I talked.

“I won’t go, Mom. It’s icky, and I hate it,” my child would groan when we saw their car drive up, but, trapped, she went. We couldn’t figure a way out.

Worst of all were the parties at Fran’s house, too much drinking with people I didn’t know, who talked Army politics. I handled it by arriving and leaving alone, but one night when my car wouldn’t start, Fran’s husband took me home and let me know in his simple, manly way that he understood the problems of women without men. That ended the parties for me. Of course I didn’t say a word to Fran.

Looking back, I see that pity killed us, pity and tact. She pitied me for my hard life, for my fatherless children, for being alone. And I pitied her for her burdensome house, for her dull roving husband, for her dependence.

Always before we’d had it out, had fought vigorously about everything from dirty dishes to our choice of husbands. Now we didn’t fight.

When the fight finally came, it was too late. Trivial as the argument was, it was the first time we’d leveled with each other in the six months or so she’d been in Dallas.

A new commanding officer, Colonel Blight or something, was coming to take charge of the camp. Fran was all excited. Sometime before Christmas they were going to a big dinner dance to welcome the colonel, and she wanted to make a splash. Money was no problem, she told me. We had to find her the perfect dress, the best dress of her life.

We found it, third stop, at Lester Melnick. It was a knockout, the kind of dress Fran could always carry off – long, black, heavy silk satin with a high neck and no back to the waist. Undoubtedly the best dress of her life.

The bra was another matter. We tried everywhere – Titche’s, Sanger’s, Neiman’s, you name it. In all of Dallas, a backless, strapless, black lace bra apparently didn’t exist.

At last, outside Neiman’s in North-Park, I exclaimed, “Fran, what’s the matter with us? We act like we’re back in 1954, for Pete’s sake. Next thing you know we’ll be getting out your old Merry Widow with the push-up pads and hooking you in. Lawsy, lawsy, Miss Scarlett!”

Her smile flickered. “What do you mean?”

“With a dress like this,” I said, “just go without a bra. I wouldn’t even bother with one, not anymore. You’ll look great. I mean, natural is sexy, and all that. What do you think?”

She drew herself up sharply and looked at me, realized I was serious. For a moment I saw uncertainty in her eyes.

Then, sighing, she turned away.

“You always had silly ideas,” she said, “and you’re worse than ever. To the men I know, that wouldn’t be sexy and natural. That’d be plain trashy.”

We saw each other a couple of times after that, went to a movie, had lunch, and so on. But neither of us could really get into it. When she called me in February and told me they’d been sent to Germany for three years, I felt oddly relieved.

We said we’d write, but we haven’t.

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