Hope

Becky is 39. She doesn't care about her 40th birthday. Her mother wants to make a big deal out of it, so Becky has stopped taking her calls. This means her mother will plan a surprise party. Becky plans a different kind of surprise - the surprise of not being anywhere near her mother until one of them is dead.

This unvoiced decision marks the moment her descent into darkness finds its voice, the moment her secrets become scars. It is only after this moment that everyone else sees the changes that have been seeping into her soul for months. The evidence - a defeatist attitude, a disregard for deadlines, poor hygiene - leads to confrontation, then concern, then a painfully intimate conversation with her supervisors. She is given phone numbers for doctors and therapists and granted a leave of absence for an "indefinite period." They tell her this is a good thing, that they want her to be well, that they'll be here when she's better.

When she hears the words "indefinite period" she sees a rowboat in the middle of the ocean with no oars.

It's a month before her birthday when Becky's best friend Lindy finds the courage to drag her out of her apartment. Becky doesn't want to go out for coffee. She would rather lie in bed and search for answers and lies in the lines and shadows of the white textured walls. Bed is the only place she feels safe. She begins to tell Lindy this, but before the words come out, she decides it's another lie. In that hesitation, Lindy gets her way.

When they get to The Waterfront Cafe, Becky catches her reflection in the window and wonders who the homeless woman is standing next to Lindy. They are seated on the patio, which affords a dramatic view of the wide brown river, the walking bridge filled with arm-in-arm couples, and the setting sun. Becky only notices the arm-in-arm couples. She hasn't brushed her teeth in three days.

The chairs are made of wrought iron and when Becky tries to slide hers back across the concrete it catches on a seam and she nearly tips over. Somewhere between the tipping and the recovery, she feels weightless and afraid. She wishes she could stay there.

The small round table between them is barely big enough to fit their coffee cups and Lindy's dog-eared copy of
Let's Pretend this Never Happened. She's read it twice. She means to give it to Becky.

The conversation begins with a proclamation spoken loudly enough that it brings a glare from a woman in a white dress sipping tea. It will end with the same proclamation offered in whisper.

"I hate the word hope," says Becky. "I fucking hate it."

Becky's life is an accumulation of losses. She does not enumerate them today, but Lindy could. The loss of her father to cancer. The loss of her self-worth to a disinterested husband. The loss of her marriage to an affair. The loss of her lover to reconciliation. The loss of her son to cocaine. The loss of her mother to…whatever it is that makes mothers crazy. And the loss of her career. "Temporarily," Lindy would argue. Becky adds another loss to the list after staring at a couple praying at a table near the patio door.

"There is no god," she says.

"I think there is," says Lindy.

"You can't sit there and tell me that the god of the universe is looking down at me right now and thinking 'ah, that's just where I want her,'" says Becky.

Lindy wasn't going to tell her that. Not again.

"And don't give me that 'mysterious ways' bullshit, either," says Becky.

The next seventeen minutes go by without a word from either of them. Becky holds her coffee cup like she's telling it a secret. She sips it cautiously, like it's filled with acid.

"I miss you," says Lindy.

Becky wishes she could say the same thing to Lindy, but words cost too much and she is broke. She sips more acid.

"I hate the word hope," she says.

When Lindy takes Becky back to her apartment, she puts the book on her kitchen counter.

"The author reminds me of you," Lindy says, pointing to it.

"Which me?"

"Both."

This was a Sunday.

On Tuesday, Lindy brings Becky Chinese food. She answers the door in a Grateful Dead t-shirt three sizes too big. They eat in silence at the kitchen counter. The book is right where Lindy left it.

On Thursday, Lindy intercepts Becky's mother in the driveway and convinces her not to visit, and definitely not to make a big deal about her daughter's birthday. Not yet. Becky's mother looks like a broken doll when she leaves.

Lindy spends most of Saturday cleaning Becky's apartment. She dusts around the book on the kitchen counter and puts a vase of daisies next to it.

The next three weeks look the same to Lindy and Becky. The only thing that changes is the kind of flowers in the vase next to the book. Mums, next. Then tulips. Then roses.

It is a Thursday when Lindy sits in her car for fifteen long minutes, praying for the strength to walk the 37 steps to Becky's apartment building. It does not come, but she walks the 37 steps anyway.

When she uses the key Becky gave her two weeks before to open the door, the first thing Lindy notices is the smell. It is a wretched blend of sour milk and roses. She dumps the curdled milk into the sink and ignores the flowers and walks into Becky's bedroom with slow, fearful steps. Becky is where she always is, lying in her bed. The window is cracked open and a breeze is blowing lacy white curtains into a dance so delicate it makes Lindy's stomach ache. She sits in the chair at the end of Becky's bed.

There is a long silence. Lindy doesn't know where to begin.

"It's Ben," she finally says. "I just found out that he…he…" but she can't finish the sentence. She can't say it out loud. She buries her face in her hands and begins to sob. When she looks up, Becky is sitting on the end of the bed, just a few feet from her. She is wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt four sizes too big and holding a box of tissues.

Lindy takes a tissue and blows her nose and this is when she notices the book on Becky's nightstand.

"He's cheating on me," says Lindy through a sniffle. Just saying the words brings a new flood of tears and she hides in her hands again. "I hate…"

There is another long silence. The breeze releases the curtains and they fall flat against the window.

"I hate the word hope," Lindy says. She feels her best friend's bony arms encircle her. It feels like a hug from a glass butterfly.

"Me, too," says Becky. "Me, too."

Her breath smells like toothpaste.
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