Erin hadn’t expected that Maria would come looking for her. Her college roommate had been working across campus for years, but Erin had thought that they’d finally reached a sort of détente where they didn’t see each other for many months at a time, and then only fleetingly in an aisle at the grocery store, and that was okay.
The last time she’d really spent any time talking to Maria had been at their reunion, very nearly ten years ago, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t the invitation to a pre-union party, a “gathering of old friends” from high school, that had drawn Maria back toward her. She claimed it wasn’t that. Maria said she wasn’t even going.
“I get invited to Benny and Susie’s house every year during the summer and for their Christmas party for smaller groups than this, so I don’t think I want to face that huge group,” she said to Erin, rolling her eyes. Still talking about Benny and Susie, as though they were the young kids they’d been in high school, though now they owned a large slice of property out in Marin, with a pool and a tennis court.
“Are you going? You should go. You haven’t seen a lot of the gang since the last reunion, have you?”
Erin had hated the fact that she’d waited even a moment to press the no key on the invitation when she’d opened it in her e-mail. She had no idea why she’d been invited after so many years of being ignored. Her break with Maria almost ten years ago had come because she had felt that their meetings had the flavor of interrogations so that Maria would have more interesting information to relay when she went to her gatherings.
“Oh, I saw Erin since last time. You wouldn’t believe what she’s up to.”
Of course Maria always made the correct sounds of empathetic concern for whatever it was that Erin was facing that particular year. Erin had promised herself each time that she wouldn’t tell Maria all of the details of her life, that she would somehow manage to present herself as Maria’s peer, rather than someone Maria pitied and secretly despised, but that never managed to pan out. At the end of each lunch, she’d find herself in the restroom, hating herself for being so thoroughgoing in revealing just how differently their lives had evolved.
Not that she’d been all that put together when Maria had known her in college. They’d lived together during one of the first years of Erin’s eating disorders when Erin had not yet developed any cunning about hiding her binging and purging. Maria certainly had her stories to tell. Erin remembered with hot shame one Friday evening when she thought that Maria had gone home to visit her parents a few hours away by train, as she did most weekends.
Erin worked many hours a week in the library to pay rent and utilities, but her food and laxative costs were high for a young student, and she was totally broke that weekend and madly craving chocolate doughnuts. Maria had a stuffed bear full of change perched high on her pillows, and Erin had been scrounging in its belly for change when Maria surprised her by coming home to find her sitting on her bed, Erin’s hand deep in its fake fur.
“What are you doing?”
It was a relationship ender, even though Maria was a psych major and purported to understand. Erin moved back home at the end of the year. She couldn’t even remember that incident for the longest time.
Of course she’d long ago paid Maria back, but she was sure that that story was lodged in the minds of many of her former classmates. Erin Smith, a thief. Just one of the many deep humiliations of her illness, but it was one she was sure had not been forgiven, so she was never quite sure why Maria persisted in their relationship, except that it was exotic.
Maria had married a quiet, kind man she worked with, and they’d had a daughter, not as old as Martin but older than Pete. They had arranged a playdate or two with the children, but it hadn’t worked out. Julia was a mild and well-mannered child, very likely to be run over in the ferocity of Erin’s sons’ play. Soon enough, Erin and Maria, when they met, had lunch together without including the children, and the lunches tended to happen less and less frequently.
Erin told herself that she was being paranoid about Maria’s motives for continuing their relationship. Most people have friends from high school, don’t they? Maria was perhaps the one person who could qualify for Erin, since she’d gone to her reunion and had failed to connect. There were a few people she liked well enough, but not so much that she’d do more than maintain social media “friendships” with them. She’d tried to sustain conversations with a couple more, only to have one of them turn in her e-mail for a chance at a reward from a gas station. She decided that era had passed, though she was as interested as everyone else in hearing what became of the others. She simply wasn’t interested in being watched for information, if that was what was happening.
She wondered what they thought was going to become of her, if they ever stopped to give it a thought. She had dreams for herself, but she doubted that when Maria did her annual check in it was to see whether Erin’s dreams had materialized in any way. It felt as though she wanted to see how far Erin had fallen this year. Where had her relationships with men taken her? How despondent had she become about Martin’s mental health? Maria’s interest never felt like a healthy one, especially since it always came with those reminders that she would be seeing people from Erin’s past, and that, no, Erin was not invited to see them.
At first, Erin had been naïve and had assumed that when Maria mentioned parties with people from high school, she meant to include Erin in the future. She even asked whether she could come sometime.
Maria just got a confused look on her face. “Oh no. I don’t think so,” she said.
After that, Erin had assumed that she would stop mentioning going to these parties. Like your mother taught you when you’re a little kid, don’t talk to the kid who’s not invited about the party you’re going to. But somehow, that message had never gotten through to Maria, or perhaps this was her revenge on Erin for all of the things that Erin had gotten wrong over the years.
Because let’s face it, it wasn’t just the bear. Maria had been horrified at living with someone with bulimia for a year. She was the one who had to teach Erin how to properly clean the toilet so no one would know she’d been throwing up. You learn to forget those things, but how could you possibly forgive? Later, she told Erin that there’d been stashes of Three Musketeers wrappers everywhere in the apartment. It had taken her and her new roommate, another friend from high school who had by now completely disappeared, months to find them all. (Erin wondered about that second friend and her clean get away. How did she do it? A new name had certainly helped…plus a move out of state).
Once Erin stopped agreeing to meet, and Maria had invited another friend to lunch too. Erin had wanted to go. She’d wanted to see Jose, who’d always been so funny in high school. But she’d felt the trap the moment Maria said to her, “Come on, Erin, you should really come. You really are invited.”
The invitation had opened some huge rage in her that Maria hadn’t just unwittingly been mentioning all of the times that Erin wasn’t invited. As innocent as she looked, so small and unassuming with her soft dark eyes, she really did know what she was up to. And Erin didn’t show up for that lunch.
She did come to the reunion, because another friend from high school had pressed hard for her to attend. Once she’d done it, though, it left her flat. She’d exchanged a lot of old photos with people she’d sung in choirs with in junior high and high school, and she’d seen herself in a video produced by one of the people she liked, but most of the time she was talking to people she had so little in common with. And at the end of the night, she was sitting next to Maria as Maria made arrangements for yet another party she wasn’t invited to. Talking to several of the people in the circle Erin was sitting in in half sentences.
“So we’ll see each other then. Yeah. That’ll be great.”
That was the end for Erin. She supposed that she could tell Maria what the problem was and see her soft face collapse with some apology. “Oh, Erin, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” But it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. They’d had the conversation before. She felt ready to be done with high school.
She saw Maria at a distance a few times and just veered away from contact. Someone Erin had known less well died, and some of the group from their class exchanged e-mail, planning to attend the funeral. Erin thought about it and didn’t go. When her own father died, she did call Maria, because Maria and her father had been close at one time.
Maria’s voice had been cold. Clearly she had noticed that she was being snubbed.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Erin. He was a good man.”
They hung up, and Erin really thought that really was the end on both of their sides.
Until she walked into the building next door to get coffee, and when she went to put sugar into her cup, Maria was standing at the table next to the coffee lids. Erin had never seen her on that part of campus since she’d moved to her department years ago.
“Erin, is that you?”
Erin felt a lurch in her stomach, but she put a smile on her face.
“Maria, how are you? What are you doing here?”
“Actually, I’ve been looking for you. I’ve come over here a couple of times on my lunch hour, hoping that I might run into you, and here you are!”
“Here I am!” Erin wondered whether it really was an accident, or whether Maria had been here a while.
“So how are you? It’s been such a long time since we talked. How are your boys?” Maria had a determinedly interested look on her face, and one wouldn’t think that anything had ever happened between them.
Erin felt a flash of determination not to strip down to her core in front of this woman she hadn’t talked to in years.
“I’m doing really well, thanks. I’m still working for the same department, as I’m sure you saw. Martin has started working for a computer company, and Pete is taking a year off before he starts college.” She figured that that was near enough to the truth to offer up to a virtual stranger.
“That’s wonderful. I’m so happy to hear that your boys are doing well. My Julia is a junior on campus now and getting ready to do her study abroad program in Greece next semester.”
“What’s she studying?” Erin couldn’t help asking.
“She’s majoring in international relations with a minor in Middle Eastern history and languages.”
“That sounds like a really great program for getting a job.”
“Yeah, she’s already been recruited by several agencies, so we’ll see where she winds up. Listen, getting that invitation from Benjy and Susie just reminded me that I’ve been meaning to check in with you for quite a while. I saw that you got an invitation too. Are you planning to go?”
“No, I’m going to be out of town,” Erin said.
“Oh, too bad. It would be a chance for you to catch up with everyone. Oh well. Are you going somewhere special on vacation?”
“Well, we’re going to Norway to visit my boyfriend’s children, but that week we’re at a conference.” She decided not to mention that it was close enough that she could come back to attend the party if she felt like it. She just didn’t feel like it.
“Wonderful! We’re going to spend time in Europe with my sister and her kids this summer, and I’m so busy that I don’t think I’ll make it either. This party’s going to be such a zoo with all the people they’ve invited and all their families. I always see them at Christmas parties and later in the summer, so I’ll probably just sit this one out.”
Erin checked the watch she felt happy that she’d worn that day. “Well, I need to get back to the office.”
“It’s been lovely to see you, Erin. You know where to find me. I have the same e-mail as before, so send me some mail and let’s have lunch sometime.”
“Sure! Take care, Maria.” She turned away, knowing that she would never send an e-mail. As much as she aspired to be a kind person, she just wanted this relationship to be over.
She walked up the stairs toward her office building with the paper cup of coffee in her hand still trembling a bit. She wished that these encounters didn’t affect her, but they always did. What did Maria even want with her anyway?
Everyone kept saying how sweet Maria was, but the truth was that she’d never offered Erin any help, any emotional support. She just spent years watching Erin’s life unroll with a kind of morbid fascination, as if it were a latter day morality play. See? Erin was bright and talented when she was younger, but then she got wild and slept with a bunch of guys, and look how things turned out. Two divorces and her son is mentally ill. She says she’s a writer, but have we seen anything she’s written? My sister always said her writing was strange.
Or so Erin imagined Maria talking to her friends from high school. Perhaps that was why they’d wanted to see her again after all these years. They’d thought she’d jump at the invitation. But it came at least forty years too late.