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Save the surface and you save all. Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy.

Sometime last Spring, when I was still living in San Francisco, I flew down to Los Angeles for my birthday. I rented a hotel room for a night, squared the husband away with the baby and sent messages to girlfriends I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic. So that is to say, years.

My first rendezvous was with E. She’d gone to high school with one of the boys from my church, and would come on Fridays for our weekday services. She always sat in the front row and swayed her hips ever so gently to the rhythm of white as snow. She lived somewhat close to me in the valley and would offer to drive me home at the end of the night. Even though she was 2 years older than, a vast difference when one is 14, we became fast friends.

Part of our ease with one another came from the fact that both of us were people who wanted to be anywhere else than home. I understood that her family sucked, maybe even as bad as my own. There was a “before-and-after” for E. Before, her mother and younger brother lived in a big house in Granada Hills. Her mother did not work and nurtured a reputation that she had been beautiful in her youth. E.’s father was some sort of businessman– one never really knew what Korean businessmen did for a living, but it was understood that they were if not rich, than well off. After was when her father had bankrupted whatever business he had, abandoned his family for another woman in Korea and left them destitute.

I visited her once. They lived in a bad part of the Valley, close to the freeways. I remember stepping into her apartment and expecting to walk into her living room, and then realizing that the step was all there was. They lived– all 3 of them– in what appeared to be a hallway closet. Her mother had been lying down, and then opened her eyes abruptly and then almost leisurely sat up to greet me. I hazily remember her as pretty, almost genteel in affect. I remember thinking that my own mother would not have reacted so kindly if come upon by a friend of mine. My mother with her too-tight perm and squared jaw would have squawked my name. Back then, I attributed this difference to the fact that my mother was not beautiful.

Lunch was at The Henry, a typical westside, indoor-outdoor restaurant with a menu of california farm-to-table fare. E. arrived draped in all manner of jersey and cotton, loose and grey. Still, one could see she had kept the exact same form since adolescence – tall, extraordinarily thin, little to no make up. She was not conventionally beautiful, but she did have an ease about herself that beautiful women have. Had she picked this up from her beautiful mother, I wondered. Or was it all staked on her well-preserved silhouette?

We embraced and I looked directly into her face. Yes, truly still the same. A long nose with a slight dorsal hump which gave her a bird-like appearance, but otherwise an unremarkable and inoffensive visage. Of course, she was slightly aged–gravity tugging here and there. When are our eyes met, I saw that she saw the same in me, we were no longer young girls.

We sat down and she ordered all the best dishes off the menu, more than we needed. I appreciated her appetite. The first half of the conversation she asked about my son who must have been 18 months at that time. O. was walking, saying Da-da and cheerful first thing in the morning. She asked then, like a lot of my girlfriends who are married to Korean men, how marriage was to a White guy. What were his peculiarities? How did he give you money? What did he eat?

I suppose his peculiarities were mostly about what he ate, I answered. She laughed and said, “that’s so Bay area.” Yes, I had to reach back to when I had first met my husband, and started staying with him for weekends in San Francisco. He would take me to his market on an early weekend morning, where there was only street parking on the busiest street. He treated this outing as if it were a date — which I found utterly confusing. His grocery store was smaller than any New York deli I’d been in, but it was crammed full of other White people like him, pale, clod in running shoes and dressed in vests. He’d pick up a stone fruit. He called peaches stone fruit — another White peculiarity, and would examine it closely, as if it were a diamond. E. laughed. I had almost forgotten how strange I used to find him, I tell her.

The food came, all at once as she requested. The table was soon filled with plates of meatballs, shaved brussell sprout slaw, a pork sandwich. I mentally put off my diet for one more day. E. had already cut the sandwich in half and plated it in and pushed it toward me. We tasted each dish quickly, remarking on what was good and what was unremarkable. We gossiped about all the people we knew in common. The air felt perfectly balmy, we were shaded gently by overhead palms. So strange I thought for this weather in May in LA. The Mays of my childhood in the valley were tormented by the Santa Ana winds, red sticky dust in my airways. But I forgot, we were firmly on the west side, on Robertson Boulevard without a care in the world seated next to European tourists wearing polos seriously, talking to each other with their sunglasses on.

I cleared my throat, thinking briefly about how to phrase the next question. E. and I had lost touch after I went to college. When I got married, it had probably been more than 10 years since I had spoken to her, but I had texted her, remembering that she’d become a minister and asked her to officiate my wedding. It was then, I learned that E.’s husband had at the age of 40 decided that he wanted to go to medical school, which had caused a cascade of changes; including leaving his wife when she was pregnant with their fourth child to move out of state.

When E. had first related this story to me , she asked me what I thought. I didn’t know what to say. It ‘s always been difficult for me to be completely honest with my friends. Isn’t the basis of most friendships is that we overlook these confrontations and instead allow time to solve them? Of course, I thought his behavior was strange. He was the eldest son of an anesthesiologist from Valencia, he had gone through the trouble of getting a doctorate in theology but never followed through in forming his own ministry or church. In fact, he had never held an actual job. But they had continued to have one child after another, living off an allowance from his father. She had married a strange man and become strange herself. How could I answer the question of the correctness of his behaviors, without impugning her own decision to marry and stay with him? So I had demurred, making vague noises of curiosity and confusion instead of telling her what I thought.

But now, having eaten and watched her, I saw that nothing had resolved since our last conversation. she looked unhappy. It wasn’t only age I saw that had left its mark. Her eyes were sunken and her mind seemed to flutter from one topic to the next. Psychically, she seemed to be shaking, in the throes of a decision.