By Karen Brode
I had not seen Wanda since high school forty years ago, except for a few awkward meetings in Wal-mart or the grocery store. I didn’t know what to say to her, really. She and I had been inseparable in elementary school, but by middle school, just like that, we had nothing in common.
The older we got, the wider the gap between us. As teenagers, I overheard church matrons talk about how boy crazy Wanda was.
“That girl,” said the ever-righteous Mrs. Albright, “she’s gonna wind up in a world of trouble one day.”
The ever-pious Mrs. Carmichael agreed. “Her mother leaves for work and Wanda has a boy to the house until she goes to school.”
“She needs to be more like Jane here,” said the devout widow Mrs. Stewart. She leaned forward in her pew to pat me on the shoulder. “Janey here is a good girl.”
Nothing like three old ladies contrasting you with your worldly ex-best friend to make you feel ancient and undesirable. And I was only 13 at the time.
That didn’t bother me as much as knowing that Wanda’s mother held me as an example to her daughter as to how a girl should be at 13. Whenever they argued, Mrs. Rivers always ended with, “Why can’t you be more like Jane?”
It made me cringe.
Years later, in 1968, the old ladies’ predictions came true. It was our senior year and Wanda walked through the hallways holding her books in front of her, keeping her eyes cast down. She had gotten pregnant the summer before and been forced to marry her boyfriend. She finished high school, then, with a baby on the way and a new surname.
Whenever I saw her walking the halls in shame, I always wondered if she had wanted it to happen, or if it had been some horrible realization when she looked in the mirror one morning and saw the pregnancy beginning to bloom.
I’ll admit, there was some part of me that was a little jealous. There were mornings when I walked past Wanda’s car and she and her young husband would be locked into an embrace of passion and desire. No one had ever been that needy of me. No boy had ever clung to me as if I were the answer to all of life’s problems.
And now, all these years later, Wanda wanted to have lunch with me. We hadn’t really talked in over forty years, and yet, the same worries and concerns plagued me at 60 as they had in high school. I worried that she might think I looked down on her, but I didn’t. Instead, I hoped I could somehow seem as worldly as she was.
The last several years had been so hard for me. I had been through things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I wanted to show Wanda she wasn’t alone in all that she had suffered. I didn’t want her to think that she had been singled out to feel miserable and to make drastic mistakes. I wanted her to know all that had happened in my life, to somehow put things in perspective so she would know she wasn’t being punished for not “being like Jane.”
Or, maybe it was the awareness that I had been Jane and, in spite of following all the rules, I had still suffered horrible things and made bad choices. No one escapes unscathed in this world.
When I entered the restaurant, I saw her already sipping on a margarita in a booth. I approached the table and she stood up to hug me.
At first, we talked about our children and I learned what had become of her right after high school. Her first child was named for the young man she had clung to in the car all those years ago.
“God, I hate him,” she said, talking about her ex and taking a long sip on her margarita. “We had to go and have two more kids before we figured out we couldn’t stand each other.” At 21, she became a single mom with three kids.
I thought about that time in our lives when we were just kids. I remembered how so many of her choices were in direct defiance of her mother and the church we went to. It seemed an awful price to pay to have to raise three kids on her own just so she could get back at her mother, but I didn’t point that out.
I cleared my throat and told her about my son, Frank. “When they found the cancer, it was stage three,” I said about his brain tumor. “It nearly did me in.”
Rather than understanding, the conversation took a competitive turn.
“At least he’s still alive,” she said. “My grandson is only ten and has stage four brain cancer. He’s taking chemo and radiation as we speak.” Her voice was hard as she said, “Nobody knows if he’s going to make it.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. It was sad to think about a little boy going through what my son went through, and worse. Still, there had to be some way we could connect, some way I could show her we were similar.
When the waitress came to our table, Wanda ordered a chicken salad and another margarita. I looked across the table at her folded up menu and empty glass. Then I looked to the waitress who was standing above me, waiting for my order.
I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“A chicken salad and a margarita?” asked the waitress. She no longer looked at me, but wrote in her pad.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I didn’t think I could get the word margarita out of my mouth without my voice faltering.
I hated the taste of alcohol. After considering my genetic background, I realized this was a blessing. A recovering alcoholic had once told me never to take even a sip of alcohol. With a whole line of alcoholics in my family, he knew what I was up against.
“You’ll never be able to stop,” he had said.
So I trusted this advice and stayed as far away from it as I could. But then life caved in on me and I turned to tranquilizers, pills my doctor had prescribed in great quantities.
At the time, I told myself that was different. Pills prescribed by a doctor couldn’t be the same as drinking alcohol. A psychologist had explained to me later that the tranquilizers I was taking were from the benzodiazepine family; they hit the same receptors in the brain that alcohol did. I might as well have been drinking alcohol.
It made me feel duped somehow that in my weakest moment I had not escaped addiction. Looking back, I admit those tranquilizers were all that got me through the scary and sad times. But at the end of it, I was left with a nagging addiction to benzodiazepines. I no longer had a choice about taking them. My body wanted them even if I didn’t. And now I had to take them everyday, just to feel normal.
I had been warned about what might happen if I tried to stop taking tranquilizers too fast: nausea, body aches, palpitations of my heart, and a seizure. There was a chance I could die if I just stopped taking them cold turkey.
The waitress brought me my margarita and I stared at it a long time before taking a drink. I knew I would have to at least look like I was drinking it. I knew Wanda was watching me, wanting to convince herself that I was still too good to be like her.
Finally, I picked up the drink and took a small sip. I lingered on the straw to make it seem like I had taken a bigger swallow. The taste of the alcohol was awful. I tried not to gag.
Wanda was in the middle of telling me about her children, a boy and two girls. I kept my eyes on hers as I casually opened and dumped three packages of Sweet-n-Low into my margarita.
“My youngest is the only one who lives nearby,” she said. “The others have moved as far away as they can.”
I’m not sure how much time had passed when I ventured my next sip. Wanda was telling me in great detail about her mother-in-law who lived a few blocks from her and her second husband.
“That woman goes doctor shopping every few months, and she’s 88 years old. Can you believe it?”
I secretly felt sorry for Wanda’s mother-in-law. She was obviously a woman like me—she wanted her pills.
Wanda continued to regale me with stories of her life and her children’s lives. I listened as best I could while adding four more Sweet-n-Low packets to the margarita. Surely, I thought, this is how to make a margarita taste less like alcohol and more like an attractive drink.
I took another sip. Nope. It still tasted like alcohol.
I was somewhat relieved when the time came for me to share a little about my life. In spite of having to relive some of the worst moments of my life, at least I didn’t have to drink any more of that margarita while I was talking.
“He was 18 when we got the call,” I said about our son. “We got to the scene of the wreck just as they were cutting him out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Now, every time I hear a siren, my mind goes back to that night.”
Wanda nodded. “It’s a horrible thing,” she said. “My youngest was in an accident and they had taken him to a hospital in Dallas. My husband and I had that long drive through Dallas traffic, not knowing what we would find when we got there. Thank heavens he was still alive.”
Wanda had been married to her second husband for 30 years and she was full of praise for the kindness of this man who had come along to help her raise her three children. I thought it was wonderful, too, that she had found someone so devoted to her.
While she talked, I listened intently, making sure we had eye contact while I emptied four more Sweet-n-Low packets into my drink. Thinking that should have done the trick, I cheerfully took a rather long sip of the margarita through the straw. It felt like fire going down my throat. I started coughing and couldn’t seem to stop.
“Jane, are you alright, hon?” Wanda asked.
I nodded, but kept coughing. “I’ll be okay—cough—just give me a minute—cough.”
Finally, I grabbed a glass of water and downed half of it in one swig. The coughing subsided and I was able to tell Wanda about my job woes.
“I had worked for that place for 30 years,” I said. “And, right in the middle of Frank’s illness—right when I needed support the most—they fired me.”
I thought for sure this would somehow bond us, that she would see we were alike underneath it all. But the eyes looking back at me had no sympathy, no understanding.
“Try being a single mother with three small children and being fired from two jobs in one year,” she said. “I thought I’d never recover after that.”
I looked down at my margarita and realized then it was the only thing that Wanda seemed to relate to. But then she said, “You know, I might drink some of your margarita if you hadn’t drowned it in Sweet-n-Low.”
I was hoping she hadn’t noticed.
“Oh,” I said, laughing awkwardly. “It won’t go to waste. I’ll just get a to-go cup and take it to my husband.”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. Her eyes were wide with surprise. She leaned over the table and said in a quiet voice, “Jane, honey, you can’t ask for a to-go cup for an alcoholic beverage.”
“Oh, yeah!” I said, trying not to blush. “What was I thinking?”
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.