Friends drift in and out during school years but after high school most are passing ships, temporary acquaintances who travel a short distance with you to a common port, then embark. Fate’s fickle turns rarely leave us with a lifelong friend.
I was blessed with a life-long friend, Julie. We met in grade school. She left me after I became a great grandmother.
What first attracted us? I can’t remember. Perhaps, it was loneliness. We didn’t fit in with the others, me a rural Asian who snuck on a public-school bus, she a wane, freckled girl with almost translucent skin, driven to school from afar by her mom. We were the ugly ducks but so different. She was blond, blue eyed, wealthy and in a stable family. Unintended loners, we drew together, outsider moon orbiting outside gravity’s popularity center.
Then the bonding came, shared sarcastic humor, questioning of church orthodoxy, secrets told and our assumed superiority over others. On eight grade graduation, we were among the select, those accepted to Notre Dame. There, we molted our ugly duck feathers into swans. From her puberty cocoon she fluttered out trim, statuesque, the faded freckles an added attraction, beautiful. Our friendship in high school grew into the friends forever depth, one for two, two for one.
We trusted each other with our secrets. In our senior year, I alone knew when she got pregnant. Only I knew it was by the bad boy she had a crush on. I even knew it occurred in the back seat of his hotrod Camaro, with tuck and roll upholstery, at the Moonlight Drive-in. I knew when she left for the secret abortion and knew it left her sterile when she returned.
I confided to her my driving lessons, my first kiss, my sudden engagement, even my Alviso kiss. She was my maid of honor, knew I was still a virgin and the details of my honeymoon from highway musing, the Motel 6, my virginity surrender, Disneyland and my panic on seeing the Titanic. She knew my marriage experiences, my giving birth, even my parent’s secrets.
I knew about her University of California, Berkeley acceptance, her dates and experiences there, her engagement there and was her married maid of honor. I learned of her marriage experiences, her husband’s infidelities, the messy details of their divorce and who the woman was he ran off with, one met on their country club tennis court. After her divorce, she introduced me to a series of potential replacements for my approval. The one I chose refused to sign her financial prenuptial agreement, the second signed.
He was divorced, broken by an ex-wife and had a daughter. He was a good husband, was kind to her and most importantly, was socially compatible with hubby and me. Every year we visited and often took trips together, as a foursome.
She was bitter about the nuns and priests, the terror tales of hell which, caused her fear, confusion and guilt into adulthood. I explain she needed to sympathize with the nuns and priests. They, unlike us, were trapped in their habits and left in the Middle Ages. We’d escaped.
Instead of bitterness, I told her to feel empathy for the clergy who became enmeshed for life in vows taken when young. I confided there was a priest never known who helped Mom. I told her to dwell on the spiritual experience of knowing God in a way few others enjoy and avoid God’s reprobation, even if we get stepped on by God's strange ways. My hypocritical pontification was the only irritant in our relationship.
Our friendship survived our marriages, her divorce and my relocation to the Pacific Northwest. Mail, phone and later email kept us in contact. Distance, however, does not make the heart grow fonder. The time spans between contacts creeped longer. The adolescent, friends forever, two for one, one for two, faded.
It didn’t matter. Like with my husband, I cheated her friendship. She never knew of my secret puppet shadow. Edward replaced her, then Enrico, then one affair after another. She knew nothing about any of them. Like my husband, she knew me but she didn’t. I lied again and again about who I was. the faithful married woman with two children and a successful husband.
That’s what my betrayal was. I failed to be honest with her. My secrets became lies, rationalized excuses. After I confessed to Gabriel, I told her I’d been unfaithful in marriage but gave no details and didn’t blame it on hubby’s swinging agenda. I was trying to take a tiny step back into honesty with her.
My revelation hurt her. No, she was devastated. It was a second divorce for her. It wasn’t just my lack of honesty. She had experienced the pain of infidelity, the raw hurt of marriage betrayal. She saw me for the first time as a betrayer, like who her first husband was. My hypocrisy was exposed, she sympathized with my husband, not me.
She’d never revealed a secret I’d told her but I couldn’t take the risk, even if remote. If she told her husband and he told mine, I could say he already knew from the swinging fiasco. It would rip the scab off an old wound but would heal again.
The infidelity topic never came up again and we reconnected, our friendship re-established but it wasn’t the same. In appearances it was on an even keel but we both had to work on patching holes and operate the bilge pumps to keep our friendship afloat.
Trust of a sort was re-established by her without foundation. I remained unrepentant. My error was telling her, I told myself, like when Mom told me her past. Julie, like me, couldn’t unhear what I’d said. I was sorry I’d revealed my betrayal, not my betrayal.
Exposure of my confidence betrayal, however, was not the shock of self-perception I experienced which changed me. It was worse, much worse but hidden from me until her death, a death by suicide.
Hubby and I drove down to Los Angles for a mini vacation, a get out of the rain trip. Like usual, I emailed to say we were stopping by on the way down. Her husband emailed back. They were looking forward to see us but she had “issues”. We needed to limit our visit to two hours instead of our usual overnight stop. I assumed she remained upset over my confession and set about how I was going to re-establish what once was but was now broken.
They lived in Saratoga, an upscale hill city of Silicone Valley. The oak trees surrounding her house were sculpture into bonsai shapes as owned by a giant. Her meticulously cared for lawn, however, had a few weed patches and dry spots. My mind struggled as to what “issues” she was struggling while we drove up their driveway, walked up the brick pathway, climbed the steps and tapped on the big front door with beveled glass window panes. I assumed, I was the “issue”.
Her husband answered, led us in the spatial living room and sat us down, all too formal. She came out to greet us in a Chinese silken house coat, still not dressed to face the day even though it was two o’clock. Instead of her normal neatly coffered hair, wisps of disarray shown. She looked h.
Is her greeting me in her house coat her saying I’m no longer important to her?
We hugged, a gesture I’ve never enjoyed due to the insincerity of most hugs. We sat. We looked for easy conversation as her husband brought tea, coffee and little sandwiches out and placed them on the ornate coffee table. I noticed a slight tremble in her hand holding her tea cup.
Is she so upset with me she trembles?
Stymied for words as we sat and reviewed one another, her husband got up and brought out a pistol he’d just purchased to show hubby. It was a Sig Saur 380, like the one I got for shooting Paul. Hubby announced I had one just like it and he’d train me to be a dead eye. Julie flinched. She knew I didn’t like guns. My confession didn’t include my pistol. She supposed there had to be more to it I didn’t tell her.
After her husband put the gun back, the conversation again lagged. Breaking the silence as he sat down, he announced his oldest grand-daughter was turning sixteen and getting her driver’s license. My mind flashed back to hubby teaching me to drive and my first kiss. I didn’t mention my driver’s lesson kiss. I talked about how our kids got their driver’s licenses.
The conversation slipped into second gear. Soon we were gobbling about children, grand-children and I, even great grandchildren. The three of us prated on our good fortune, as Julie, childless, sat silent. Tit for tat, her husband and I matched spawn experiences with hubby seconding. Soon our two hours of allotted time was over.
Remembering our promise, hubby got up and reminded we had allocated two hours and we needed to rush out to avoid the inane traffic heading south.
On the porch, Julie and I were alone for a moment. I gave her a hug, a real one and asked if she had an issue we could discuss. Her body was stiff when we hugged. She dryly replied, no. After a cheek kiss, we parted. Looking up at the bonsied contorted oak trees, I made a note to sculo our yard's fir trees.
As we drove the re-routed Monterey Highway, aka US 101 south, hubby analyzed our brief meeting and speculated on her suffering Parkinson’s disease due to her hand tremble. I knew it was something else. Her stiffness when I hugged, her lack of return cheek kiss, her dry no, I knew it wasn’t Parkinson’s but knew not what.
Once again, we stayed in Santa Barbara before descending into the LA freeway traffic, now amazingly without its rug of smog, an EPA result I’d never imagined possible. This time it wasn’t the Motel 6, still there to nostalgically remind us of our wedding night. It was the Bacara, just north of Santa Barbara, near Goleta. Bacara is a hidden gem of what California once was but still is in spots. Its early California, mission influenced style architecture captures the leisure days when California was paradise with only enough people to make it comfortable.
When we first discovered it, I was enthralled by the buildings ability to capture the history of early California, the Alhambra archways, the heavy wood arched doors and the black wrought iron fixtures. In its lobby one wouldn’t be surprised to see Zorro appear behind the counter. Its 311 guest rooms are cottages, splayed on a gentle slope, down to a private sandy beach. Despite being constructed in 2000 it has an early California timelessness, as if one was visiting an early California hacienda mission, along an as yet undisturbed coast.
We dined in one of its restaurants, pleased to have a Boodles Gin martini, a Singapore Sling for me, taboo when with hubby. Unable to afford an ocean view room, we strolled, hand in hand, in the morning to its open beach front restaurant, content after a night of renewed intimacy. As we passed a cottage, its female occupant was on its little veranda, a falcon on her leathered arm. With a flip up, it soared and brought back a sea gull. Released, the gull squawked off, apparently none the worse except for ruffled feathers and lost dignity. It was obvious we were among guests not in our social circle.
The wealthy do eat differently. At the beach restaurant we had delicious omelets with a cheese never tasted before comingled with mushrooms of a species unrecognized. The crisp hash browns were speckled with scrumptious veggies. The exquisite sour dough toast, with British marmalade, was framed with straight black coffee, the real Java. We watched the waves gently roll in, each giving their final little plop of applause, as if not to disturb the tranquility of Santa Barbara. The Pacific displayed its pacific side for our morning repast pleasure.
My cell phone shattered the serenity. Reaching for it I reflected,
I should’ve left it in the room. It’s Julie’s husband, what’s up?
When I put it to my ear, he was hysterical. He had to slow down and repeat it.
Julie was dead. She’d shot and killed herself. I switched to hysterical mode too. Hubby and I scrambled up to our room, threw stuff together, hauled it out, checked out and drove back to Saratoga, surprised not to be ticketed on the way.
Again, as on my wedding night, thoughts drifted through my mind as we drove Highway 101. What? Why? How? It was a jumble with a constant theme, was it something I did or said?
Tidy to the end, Julie had laid her head on a pillow and shot down to avoid blood, sinew and bone from defacing the wall or the bullet leaving the house. When we arrived, the scene had already been cleaned, the bed removed. Our only responsibility was consoling her distraught husband. He swung from tears to rage with his own versions of, What? And Why? He knew the how, it was his new pistol, which he assumed guilt for having brought it into the house.
In response to our tepid questions if it was something we said or did, he assure us it was not. It was her “issues” she’d been diagnosed with OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It was progressing and she was more and more dysfunctional. I knew she was always fastidious but wondered if she was obsessed with my betrayals.
The next day we returned home, our vacation rubble, blown apart by a shot fired in Saratoga. I remined in shell shock.
The funeral was delayed for a month, a secular service in Los Gatos, for ashes. Her ashes were in an urn, in a marble type of mail box, at a distant cemetery, not present at her service. I mused she’d missed her own funeral, a thought I knew would make her smile.
The spartan service was well attended, mostly by people unknown to me, a reminder we only partially know another, even a best friend. At the husbands request only the funeral director and immediate family members spoke eulogies. I was relieved my prepared one would not be necessary. I didn’t trust my voice or emotions before the throng. There were a few pictures in the lobby, mine among them from long ago with her next to me. After the service I met a few old acquaintances and re-connect with one afterwards, a symbol for Julie’s replacement. Befitting her wealth, a sumptuous lunch was served at an upscale hotel in downtown Los Gatos. I met the relatives until then unknown. While her husband was cared for, the bulk of her estate went to a faraway cousin I’d never met.
The prior classmate funeral caused the question of, who am I?
Julie’s funeral resulted in a self-perception answer, an unpleasant one.
The time from her death to the funeral service allowed thirty days of reflection. By then, I realized I’d never been her friend. Despite shared interests, humor and secrets, I’d treated her like I’d treated others, except family.
I’d always been sensitive about family, defended them even when obviously less than perfect. Hubby knew; never berate my family, the family before our marriage and the extended one afterwards, atomic or molecular. If I didn’t have something good to say about a family member, I didn’t mention them. If there was something good to say, I trumpeted it.
That’s not what the unpleasant answer was. It was my trumpeting me. I’d always referred to myself in a self-depreciating manor. During the thirty days before the funeral service it slowly dawned, that was not true. My self-deprecation comments always had the hook of bravado hidden within. I was constantly at war to prove myself superior.
In school, I told classmates I was poor and made my own school uniforms because I couldn’t afford a Hart’s Department store one. In truth, I was bragging, I was superior, superior because I could make mine. My hopping on the public-school bus was bravado too, of my stealth. Engaged at seventeen wasn’t because I wanted out of a dysfunctional household. I was bragging a man wanted me, superior me. Part of the reason I’d gone with Gary to see salt ponds was because he’d stayed by my window when the other girls flirted to distract him, proving my superiority.
Initially I had an inferiority complex with Julie. Her wealth and stable family contrasted unfavorably to my assumed superiority. She was the oak tree, I a mistletoe parasite clinging in her branches. It was, a symbiotic relationship, my esteem enhanced by association with her wealth, she enhanced with me as an ornament.
With her abortion and divorce, my marriage and children the relationship shifted to my superiority where I belonged. With grandchildren, hubby’s successful business, it shifted to my total superiority.
Yet what had I done? My hidden arrows of bravado remained. I’d concealed my adulteries because they would lessen my assumed superiority. Instead, I’d piled on about kids, grandkids and our riches, wealth created by hubby and I, superior because it was earned, not inherited. No, it wasn’t blatant. It was subtle yet always there, hidden in self-deprecation expressions of friendship. Yes, she had “issues” beyond me but I’d only added to them.
Did exposure of my gun ownership, the boasting of grandkids, our mention of reservation at the Barca push her over the edge? Her husband proclaimed, it was nothing we said or did. I still felt guilty, guilty for a life of betraying her, using her to enhance my assumed superiority. During the funeral service I vowed to root out those hidden bravados which fed my ego at the expense of others. I didn’t need to compete anymore. I’d won in life’s rat race. I didn’t need ego crutches which made me evil. That was my vow as I prayed for Julie’s forgiveness, forgiveness of being her worst enemy.
Back at home, queen of my little tribe, I recommitted myself to, the right side of God.
I’d abandoned my secret puppet shadow. I’d confessed to Gabriel and prayed for Julie’s forgiveness. I accepted my sins, re-connected with God and sinned no more. Still a residual feeling of iniquitous anxiety persisted. I couldn’t extract it because I didn’t know what it was.
It wasn’t residual guilt from Paul or my last gasp spree of infidelity. It was not caused by any of my adulteries, betray of husband or Julie. It was something else awry with my soul. After William, I soul searched and falsely concluded no one loved me. Now I soul searched wondering if it was me who loved no one.
As often, I mentally turned to Sister Mary Joseph from second grade for moral guidance. We held an in my mind conversation with her guiding me to understand my spiritual discontent. I started as usual by questioning her.
“Sister, despite my return to righteousness, my confession, acceptance of what happened did and re-connection with God’s mystical body, something remains amiss in my soul.”
“Elizabeth, there are seven deadly sins in Dante’s inferno, do you remember them.”
“Yes, yes, I remember, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride, each a subsequent step down into hell.”
“Are you guilty?”
“Well lust is a no brainer. I’ve confessed to that. It’s the least of them, only gets you stuck in the first level of hell. I’m not guilty of the worst, pride with my low self-esteem.”
“Sex is God’s special gift of love. Sex is necessary for children. Lust is necessary for sex. Lust is not your sin.”
How about adultery, I’m guilty as sin.”
“Yes, you committed adultery but adultery may not be lust. Lust is excessive sexual thoughts and desires. Why did you cross Edward’s threshold? Was it excessive thoughts and desires for sex?”
“No, I crossed in fear, not lust but still crossed, ended up on his water bed and became a sexual woman!”
“Yes, you crossed the threshold and lay on his water bed but not for lust. You crossed the threshold for something else. Becoming a sexual woman was just discovery, vindication of being female.
It’s not excessive lust to enjoy sex as a woman. Did lust, the excessive thought and desire for sex lead you astray again and again? Did you crave sex insatiably; completely give yourself up to dissipation and licentiousness to live a shameless profligate life? No, you were sated time and again with your husband during bouts of faithfulness. You always put family before your sexual satisfaction even if your fortifications jeopardized them. It was not for lust you put them at risk. It was because of something else.”
As with the ten Commandments the seven deadly sins were not as simple as they sounded.
“Well sister, I did have sex over and over with other men. I had sex with many men, isn’t that lust?”
“No, a prostitute has sex with many but not for lust. It wasn’t sex which you sought over and over, it was something else. To acquire redemption, you must understand what led to wantonness, the root of your disaffection. Let’s forge ahead and move on to the next, gluttony.”
“I love to cook and eat”
“Are you obese? Do you eat to excess and waste food just to eat? Is your sin overindulgence?”
“No, no as you see, I’ve always been trim. Mostly I cook for others, for art.”
“It’s not gluttony to appreciate God’s gift of food and make God’s gift an art. Gluttony is not your deadly sin.”
“Well how about the third, greed? You know, big house, expensive car, Porsche, Mercedes, five caret diamond ring, obvious ostentatious displays of wealth. I’ve pigged out, no?”
“You possess many material things but do they possess you? The wonderful things God permitted you were from hard work and offset by your charity. You never purloined things due to obsessive desire to acquire them. Why did you acquire pretentious exhibits of wealth? It wasn’t greed. It was insecurity, your intransigent insistence on having your perceived fair share, to disavow its lack when young. Did you not give up many alluring things when renouncing your affairs? Did you not tell your husband you would follow him back to Tropicana Village if that’s where starting his business ended up? You’re not beholden to material things.”
“Okay, I’m generous to a fault. I’m beholden to material things by youth insecurity and worried I wasn’t getting my fair share in life not because I coveted anything. My life pile of material things isn’t an unreasonable accumulation considering wealth. Let’s say for me greed is a venial due to poor childhood.”
It’s not for those reasons you are guilty of committing a venial sin of greed. It’s the ruby ring.”
“The ruby ring Enrico bought? That was greed?”
“Was there not avarice in you plotting to get it and your rejection of the pearl ring? It's venial only because while there was avarice, in your heart the true motivation was due to something else, a different deadly sin.”
“Okay, I forgot about the ruby ring and how I manipulated to get it. Poor Enrico, I was unfair to him in hindsight. Now the fourth, sloth, I’m innocent, always a hard worker as Mom proclaimed.”
“Yes, you get a pass on sloth but you must understand sloth can also apply to a failure to see God’s gifts and an inadequacy of love. I’m putting you down for minor infractions here.”
“Yes sister, there were times I failed to appreciate God’s gifts of children, husband, a wonderful life and my inadequate love for them and God.”
“The fifth deadly sin is wrath which results in unnecessary violence, a desire to seek revenge, failure to forgive and spite.”
“I did hit a girl unfairly once due to wrath but I’ve never done so since.
“Yes, you hit the girl but that wasn’t wrath but defense of your father. Your mea culpa on learning her misfortune pardons you. While you rued your slap, your sin was not seeking her out to apologize and seek forgiveness afterwards. That’s not a sin of wrath. It’s a sin of another kind.”
“If wrath is hate, it’s true I hated Paul but more my own self. How could I be so stupid? I never, however, sought revenge. Once free of him I accepted who he was, even if I didn’t forgive. I’ve struggled to have malice toward none but if I do, it’s of him.”
“Paul’s debasement didn’t cause wrath despite your lingering animosity. It was despicable what he did to you, a real danger not only to you but your family. Would you have shot him in cold blood if he returned only to spew calumnies injurious to your reputation? We don’t know but if you would shoot him it would not be because of wrath. It would again, be a different deadly sin.
How about Enrico, was he subject to your wrath?”
“Enrico? Why do you suggest wrath for Enrico? Is it because I manipulated him for the ruby ring, the other half of my avarice?”
“Again, it wasn’t mortal but you were malicious toward him, no? Did you not enjoy his pleas not to abandon him? Did you not fail to wear his ring to spite him with malice aforethought?”
“Hmmm…. Okay sister I accept there was some wrath but it’s venial, okay? With hindsight, I was petty and vindictive.”
“Good, you accept guilt, the first step in forgiveness. Your sin against him, however, is not wrath and if it is, it was venial as he was a bit of an asshole. It’s more complicated. Why did you enjoy putting him down? He was educated and you not, no? Was your demeaning deportment with him to mitigate your own dysfunctional family background? Let’s move on.”
“Sister the sixth deadly sin, envy or jealousy I take a pass on it. I’ve never dwelled on what others have and I don’t.”
“Not so fast. Why so many men? Why did you first agree to marry? Were you not afraid of missing out? Of not getting what you could? Did you not want more to paint on your landscape? Isn’t what you did in life related to what others have?”
“I see what you say. It’s tied to greed but again it’s venial for me, right?”
“It’s not your deadly sin which keeps your ailing soul searching for a cure. Like greed, your sin of envy is venial. You sought to acquire what others had was not for the thing but because of something else.
The first and foremost sin, pride, is the seventh deadly sin. Did you know, Elizabeth, it’s the one which led to Lucifer’s downfall?”
“Yeah, I remember that one. Michael the Archangel pushed Satan into hell. Well sister I’m not guilty of pride. I’ve always suffered from self-esteem issues. Saint Michael can’t throw me out of heaven for pride.”
“Do you understand the sin of pride, the Queen of vices? It’s excessive self-admiration, vainglory for who you are. Your perceived low self-esteem was because you thought you were not the least but the best, the most deserving, the most accomplished. You thought you were better than others, much better, the best, yet you were ashamed of your family, your background and your perceived looks. You were upset because you were not the most admired, the fairest of all, when you thought you should be.
Yes, you grew up poor but many do and most struggle financially. You, however, because of pride considered it an insult. It’s why you never shopped with your mother after food stamps, your pride would not let you admit you were shamed by poverty when you were condescending of others. You never invited friends home because you were ashamed it would detract from your self-righteousness image. You shied away from boys, worried they would insult your looks. You preyed on Julie, first to enhance your image and then to proclaim your superiority. You were pertinacious in avoiding anything which detracted from your inner feeling of pretentiousness.
Once married you had everything yearned for. Still you crossed a threshold; not for sex but to prove you were worthy of the attention and admiration you deserved, finally recognized as the illustrious entity you are. The earrings, dress, shoes slated your thirst of pride. You are narcissistic, loved to see your reflection in the mirror when having sex, an affirmation of your desirability, your power over the man.
You attended a formal event with Edward wearing a pearl necklace and black gown which you loved but confronted with the event’s academics you were filled with unease, unease you would fall from his pedestal and be who you actually were, your pride shattered.
You were not heart broken when he left, you were pride broken, no longer his exquisite Asian doll. Again, and again you sought pride’s reinforcement with others until caught in the act with William’s lover. The shoe’s poison dart killed your pride as he abandoned you, unworthy of his attention, to console her.
Paul was your.pride’s penance? Your debasement was to avoid seeing the pride within you, your assumed superiority.
Pride is your sin Elizabeth, its why your soul still seeks peace because you have not understood your true sin against God, the sin of excessive self-love. It’s why during sex you made love to yourself.”
“Oh, no, sister, you’re right! Pride’s my sin. It’s why, when selected among the many, I went to Notre Dame, because it marked me as better than the others. Even my good points of being the best wife and mother are tinged with pride, my pride to see myself as better than others as is my helping others, donating to charity and assisting in the kids schools. Even helping Gabriel and my life long friendship with Julie were tainted with pride!
Husband, his business, the children, grandchildren now great grandchildren all my love is tinged with pride. It’s why despite my love of them, I could betray them and risk everything. It was pride. My secret puppet shadow is pride!
What can I do now sister? Help me!”
“For every deadly sin, there is a compensating virtue. You can’t change what’s done. You accept, accept who you were with humility. To understand not what you did but why, is the first step in humility. You still have time to sooth your disconsolate spirit. Just take one step at a time on the path of humility.”
As when young and often during life, Sister Mary Joseph helped me to move on and understand the complexities of life and my actions.
Like Mary Magdalena, I ask forgiveness and vow to sin no more.
Each day I take another step further into humility. My soul tags along the path to serenity. It’s going to be a long walk.
Author Notes: She struggles with the why, why she was wanton.