“In the Studio,” oil on canvas, by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1881.

by Cornelia Nixon

I think at last I will give up the Blacksmith House. I’ve liked the place since college, when my best friend Celia and I would meet for coffee in those frugal, scrubbed-pine rooms, full of the feel of long-dead Puritans, which we were not. You could smoke in public in those days, and we sucked unfiltered Pall Malls, the most kick for the buck, making sure that there was paint on us somewhere. Celia was beautiful, part Indian, part imp, with Coke-bottle green eyes and skin that somehow let you know it wasn’t white, though it was nougat-pale, creamy. Her father and older brothers fished in Maine, and she liked to wear ripped jeans, flannel shirts, and stroll along beside the tweedy Harvard crowd with languid grace.

Underneath, hidden to everyone but me, she had a conscience worthy of Aquinas, and a deep God streak. She wanted to discuss the moral implications of our every act. Was it right to buy paint when you could give all your money to the poor? Was a portrait of a dying homeless person just sensation for itself? For years we wondered what she could do with a certain married professor that would be morally correct, yet satisfy her raging need to get into his pants.

“He tucked the label in my shirt,” she said one day, upstairs in the Blacksmith House. “I felt his fingers on my neck. He went on staring at my canvas like it was nothing. I think he has some casuistical system worked out, wherein he can do anything so long as his motives are pure. He pretended to be calm and said something about Gauguin. ‘What was his crime against perspective?’ as if I might do it too. As if his mission were to prevent me.”

“What did you do?”

“I didn’t know what to do. Do I have to say something, to keep from being wrong? Like keep your mitts off, buster? Not as if I mind. Do I have to lie, to keep from tempting him?”

“Yes, you do,” I said and gave her a hard look. It was one of our big subjects—lying from kindness, to protect someone, lies of omission. When did they become the same as any other lie?

She took the cigarette out of my hand and sucked on it. “But you never lie, do you? And you know it. Would you tell him you wanted him, and therefore he should keep his mitts off you?”

I reached across the table, pushed a silky lock out of her eyes. We touched each other all the time in public, made a point of it. We held hands, or stood with one arm draped around the other’s neck. I was what some people would call a tall cool blonde, and we must have been a sight, Celia soft and dark, me all bones, entwined. Not even lesbians did that in public yet, and we weren’t lesbians. I’d had a parade of men and boys, a new one every two months. Celia was not a virgin, but she wanted to get married, have a baby some time soon. I wanted that life, too. It’s just that our approaches were a little different.

“You can’t tell him unless you want to seduce him. Because you know it would. He’d go insane.” I had seduced a married professor myself, the year before, as Celia well knew.

Her laugh was soundless, like a bellows puffing in and out.

“Knowing I felt the same? But I keep thinking—what if he’d be happier with me? His marriage is hollow. He never sleeps. He reads all night. He drives me home three nights a week.”

I nodded. Celia lived about three blocks from him, in a house with other students.

“And that’s fine. So long as you never do a thing you couldn’t look back and approve of fifty years from now.” It was our principle, the one that stood to every test.

She closed her eyes. “Oh, God. Of course I can’t. The guilt is even too much now.”

She leaned forward, searched my eyes.

“You know what I wish? I wish we could be Catholics. They know exactly what a sin is and how to get absolved. Protestants have to obey the spirit of the law, and that’s endless, because it’s vague. And no one hears your confession. You carry the same sin year after year, and never get absolved. ‘We are forgiven,’ says some minister who hasn’t heard your sin, and what is that supposed to do? It hasn’t been removed. Not like when a priest has heard the whole earful, and he frees you from it. Go in peace and sin no more. Then it is truly gone.”

I held my hand over her head. “Go in peace, my child, and sin no more.”

She caught my hand and gazed into my eyes. “You laugh, but you know it helps, even if it’s you. Do you really think I am absolved?”

“No one was ever more innocent than you.”

“That’s now.” She laughed her soundless laugh. “How will I ever keep from telling him?”

I grinned. “Just stare at that little bald spot on his head and think about Gauguin.”

*

Celia stopped riding home with him. We graduated, wondered what to do. We both wanted to paint, but how were you supposed to eat?

There was art history, and we got fellowships to read a million books while grading freshman essays on the Post-Impressionists. We spent more time on Levi-Strauss and Baudrillard and Lyotard than anyone who’d ever held a brush. We took the same classes, and dominated them. Celia hated abstract art, except Rothko and Franz Marc, in whom she thought the spirit moved. She could say words like “numena” and “grace” with a straight face, while I tried out the tougher faiths of Marxism and cultural historicism.

“Art is hoax,” I said, “And surplus capital, effluvia of luxury. Art is imperial aggression, very thinly veiled. The sun never sets on Jackson Pollock’s empire anywhere.”

Then I retired with Celia to the Blacksmith House, to discuss the hierarchical behavior all over academe and how there was no way to escape judging constantly. We wondered if we could foster our students without hurting them, and read each other’s seminar papers before we turned them in. We talked an hour on the phone at night, even if we’d met that day. We wore each other’s clothes.

“We need another year,” she said one afternoon. “For this friendship to gel.”

“To gel?” I said, a little hurt she could think so. How much more gelled could it get? She was already the best friend I’d ever had.

“I mean, for it to become strong and flexible, the reed that bends in gale-force wind. So even if one of us had to commit murder, we’d defend each other automatically. Three musketeers.”

I picked a tobacco flake off of my tongue. “You planning to murder someone soon?”

Her green eyes shone. She laughed her puffy gasps. “You never know.”

Our second year in grad school, Celia met a future minister named Daniel, moved in with him, and took two incompletes. Her back hurt, she said, from so much reading, and she couldn’t paint. She carried a pillow into class, and went to chiropractors instead of to the library.

“Paint gives me hives,” she said. She went to herbalists, who made her give up cigarettes and coffee. She quit going to class. One day I saw her disappear into the big brick church on Harvard Square.

“We’re off art, and into God,” she told me when I asked.

“Okay. But what will you do now?” As far as I could tell, she wasn’t doing anything.

I was too busy to pay attention for a while. I finished course work, studied for my doctoral exams. I had to memorize the history of Western art and every theory about it. For a year, I hardly slept. I read. I smoked three packs a day, and knew what time it was by counting butts.

People fainted in the course of their exams and threw up in trash cans. The written part was sixteen hours long, plus three oral, two more when the art department challenged every word. By the time I finished, I knew nothing about anything, and staggered out to Celia in the hall. She waited with me while the art department debated my fate inside. Finally, the tall, gray-haired chairman came out from behind the bevelled glass.

“It was a pass, but not as good as we expected it to be,” he said mournfully.

Celia gripped my arm and led me out of there. She took me home to the apartment she now shared with Daniel, a decent place in an old house in Somerville. Daniel was extremely thin, with deep lines in his face, though he was only twenty-five, like us, with a blond shock of surfy hair. He gave a wry smirk as he held a champagne glass toward me. I reached for it, began to sob.

“It was too hard.”

Celia crouched beside me, pressed her cheek to mine. “I know,” she said.

And it was true. She did.

*

That summer, Celia married Daniel at her parents’ seaside church, and stopped taking my calls. Daniel answered every time.

“She isn’t here,” he’d say. Or, “She’s resting now.”

Resting?” I said. “Resting?”

Had Celia become an invalid? Did Daniel keep her locked inside their room? Even prisoners got one phone call. I phoned every day for weeks, but she did not call me.

“Hey, Daniel. Tell Celia I’m not calling back again. She’ll have to get in touch with me.”

“Okay,” he said. But when my phone rang, it was never she.

A year later, I caught a glimpse of her in the chilly reaches of the Harvard swimming pool. She was hugely pregnant in a green tank suit stretched tight, and I watched her underwater do a dreamy breaststroke back and forth. In the locker room, we both stood at the mirror, several women in between, while she drew a faint brown line beneath her eyes and smudged it with a fingertip. I’m sure she saw me in the frame of her vision. But she did not turn her head.

I supposed it was the saga of my life, the way the boyfriends came and went, that looked especially boring from her new position on the inside of a wedding ring. I could almost understand.

But when I knew that Celia was gone for good, I was more crushed than I had ever been by any man. You expected that from lovers, but not from your best friend. I caught the flu, kept smoking, and it turned into pneumonia. I spent a month in bed, unable to catch my breath. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I wanted to find a deep woods, crawl inside a big black garbage sack, and put a gun inside my mouth. I wanted to dispose of my remains and never be identified. I had no messages to send to anyone.

Instead, I found a psychiatrist who took me on for charity at half the going rate, and spent a year weeping for Celia in his red wingchair. Dr. Douhomet was hairless as a frog, and hardly said a word, except “Time’s up” and “Thirty-five dollars, please.” Once when I described the way that Celia and I had touched in public, he gave a small, superior smile.

“It was erotic, but not genital,” he said and nodded with a click.

I shook my head. “It wasn’t erotic. It was playful, and about defying categories. It wasn’t easy to freak out the art department, but we tried. We wanted to show them even straight girls could do that. That there were more things in heaven and on earth than were dreamt of in their philosophy, Horatio. Or in your philosophy,” I said with sudden energy.

He went on beaming his Olympian grin, and didn’t say a word.

One afternoon I saw him drive his BMW convertible through Harvard Square, and I lit up like the preteen fan of some rock star. I ran a block to try to catch him at the light on Church, and when his car was gone, I laughed and laughed. So that was transference—and if I felt that way about a frog, of whom I knew nothing, it was a very strange experience. I supposed he wanted me to transfer onto him and somehow feel what I had felt for Celia, and cure myself by understanding it.

But the feeling I had on the street was nothing I had ever felt for Celia. I loved Celia, but I would not have chased her up the block. Sex was what gave you that crazy energy, and I had done stranger things for men I hardly knew. And after I had slept with them, I felt related to them, forever and ever, amen. It must be because my genes got mixed up in it, trying to fulfill their evolutionary destiny.

But I didn’t feel that way for Celia. Evolution wasn’t interested in friendship, and that gave it a democratic feel. Friends loved each other voluntarily, no matter how close they got. And that meant Dr. Douhomet had nothing he could do for me.

“I’m not coming back,” I said the next week, in his chair.

His cheeks went purple.

“But you’re finally getting somewhere!” he shouted. It was the first time he’d expressed emotion, while I’d been weeping for a year.

“That’s okay. I feel much better anyway.”

And it was true, when I walked out of his office, it cheered me up. I didn’t need a shrink. I needed a friend to talk things over with, share the details of my life.

But I was wary, and I had a dissertation now to write, on the New York School. It took me five more years, and I was over thirty, so lonely I thought I might implode, before I had the heart to find another friend.

*

It was the week I broke up with my sweetest lover ever, a handsome pipe-welder who sculpted on the side. Ricky had made me an eight-pound valentine of inch-thick sheet-metal, with a small arrow he had somehow made to pierce right through. He’d done it tenderly, precisely, using his blow torch. He made love like that, too. But he had gotten a vasectomy at twenty-three, and he was never going to marry me.

“You’re never going to marry me, are you?” I said, one night on the phone.

“No,” said Ricky in a voice of mild suprise. “Did I ever say I would?”

He hadn’t, that was it. Now what was I supposed to do?

I needed someone I could tell it to. I thought of Katie, who was art director of a Boston magazine. Katie was thirty-eight, and lovely, confident, good at what she did. We had met socially, and she took pity on my student poverty, gave me castoff clothes. They were the best things I had ever owned, a wool Ralph Lauren skirt, a hand-knit harlequin sweater, fawn-brown Gucci loafers light as glove leather. For the shoes alone, I ought to call Katie.

We made a date for lunch at the Blacksmith House. I hadn’t smoked since the pneumonia, and half of Cambridge had quit, too. Most restaurants around the square ignored the trend, went on as smoky dives where you could swill martinis, chew on fat and gristle in the dark. Only the Blacksmith had clean air, mesculin salads, homemade soup—which meant it would be packed with parents, kids in strollers, diaper bags. So I put on the Guccis early, dodged the icebergs crossing Harvard Yard, as snow began to swirl.

The tall, lean windows of the Blacksmith streamed, as frost-bit people packed inside. Puffed coats stood eight-deep to the counter, babies squalled. I tried to wiggle into line. But someone dropped a bowl of lentil soup down the staircase, and the crowd recoiled, slipping on the oak floor.

I waited half an hour, and was almost to the register when Katie wedged inside. She looked about nineteen in a hooded car-coat, tall suede boots, hair sprung out around her face in bright banana curls. She worked out hours every day with weights, got massages, facials, manicures. She had her pores vacuumed, hair lightened with special weaves. Unwinding her long scarf, she cried out in a cheerful voice, inches from a woman trying to pull a toddler out of its snowsuit.

“Sorry! The gynecologist ran late. I asked him to check out the bacteria in there, you know, take a smear and look under the microscope. And he said, ‘Whew! Have you got bacteria in there!’”

Katie was from Manhattan, and I’d noticed that New Yorkers could say anything in crowded restaurants, sure they’d never see the same people again. But Cambridge was about the size of an Upper Westside block, and I cringed as she shouted on.

“And I have this thing on my shoulder, this little nothing red spot. I showed it to him, hoping he would say it’s definitely not herpes, and I should forget it right away. Know what he said? ‘Yep! Sure looks like herpes to me!’”

Mortified, I stared into the deli case. What did I care what these people thought? I did, though. I cared. Holding up one foot, I pointed to the Gucci loafer, trying to distract her.

Katie smiled and nodded, shouted on. “He said it can be years in incubation, so there’s just no way to tell who gave it to me. It could be some guy ten years back, who didn’t know he had it. He may just be getting symptoms now, and wham it’s got me, too. The doctor says I shouldn’t bother notifying guys I’ve slept with in the last few years, since they’ll find out soon enough. Oh, lentil soup, how perfect, don’t you think?”

The girl behind the counter had six rings through her upper lip, and she lifted it as if she hadn’t realized women our age still had sex. I had once given that look to my mother and her friends, when they fixed their hair or shopped for clothes. Why do they bother? I had wondered then. Who’s going to look at them?

“Two lentil soups,” I said. I turned to Katie loyally. “I bet you’re going to be fine.”

She seemed to strain to hit a high note that went through walls. “No way. He said there’s herpes now in half the single population. But even married people aren’t quite safe, are they? Think of Bob’s poor wife. You know, that guy I slept with last year? She’s probably got herpes too!”

The girl behind the counter slopped our soups in haste. Hoisting the tray, I turned to fight my way into the crowd. But it parted like the Red Sea, averted eyes on every side.

Upstairs, no one knew how dangerous we were. All the babies had been crowded into two small rooms, like steerage class in a potato-famine year. The only empty table lay buried in coats, children squirming all around. We worked our way in, settled down beside a young blond woman with her sweater pulled up, one pink breast exposed. She looked like a Swedish grad student, and her tiny red-faced infant suckled audibly, so close I could smell milk.

I smiled at Katie, rolled my eyes. Of course we’d have to talk on neutral subjects here. Katie knew a lot about the art scene, and she had explained to me the process of full-color printing and the problem with the greens. Shaking out my paper napkin, I held my spoon above the soup.

“So, did you see that thing on Caravaggio, in Art in America?”

She brightened with delight. “By that dick Howard James? Oh, sure, you know who he is. He did those burning scarecrows under glass. ‘American Gothic.’ You know, you saw that. I knew him in Soho, when he was sealing dead seagulls in plasticene. And he not only was a dick. He had this huge one that he thought you were supposed to die for. He thought it was about pumping, you know? Pumping! Half an hour, in-out, in-out, in-out, on and on and on!”

Crowd noise ceased, and Katie could be heard in the next room at least.

“Does that do anything for you? You know, pumping?”

I took a slurp of soup and gestured to my full mouth. She leaned forward, yelled.

“What’s that you’re mumbling? I bet it’s no. It doesn’t do a thing for me either. Oral sex is what I like. Licking, I mean. But most guys only seem to like it for themselves. It’s been an age since I found anyone who’d give me cunnilingus, more than two minutes anyway. Have you? Do you have trouble finding men willing to lick you properly?”

She waited for an answer, as did everyone at every table on the second floor. A pierced and tatooed, gender-non-specific busperson paused with a tray nearby, pretended to scan the room.

“Let’s not talk about it here,” I whispered.

“What?” She gaped at me. “Not talk about it here? Why ever not?”

*

I was miserable for days. I was not cut out for friendship, that was clear. Why couldn’t I have talked to Katie and forgotten all those people listening? I was raised to be inhibited, by unhappy Protestants. Why couldn’t I have shouted pump! lick! herpes!, told a few tales of my own? Maybe then I’d have a friend.

But I didn’t have one, and now I was even more alone. I missed Ricky terribly. I’d been invited to an opening in the Back Bay, and he might be there. I knew I shouldn’t go, but I put on his favorite dress, a knitted cream silk sheath, and the three-inch heels he said made my ankles unforgettable. Wrapped in my somewhat shabby overcoat, I took the T to Arlington and wobbled through the slushy streets.

I had almost reached the gallery, when a cab pulled up in front and Ricky bounded out. He looked devastating, wide shoulders in a tweed jacket, curls on his strong brown neck. He turned back toward the cab, and Katie stepped out in a tight black dress and heels. Her ankles looked extremely good. Laughing, he put an arm around her, and they disappeared into the gallery.

My toes froze as I stood, and certain memories came back to me.

“You and Katie, what a team,” he’d said, the night I introduced them, warm brown eyes gleaming. Once I went up to Vermont to see my family, and when I got back, neither of them told me they had met. Then Katie had a party, and I took Ricky. It was a November night, cold in her living room, and Katie shivered in a shimmering tube top. She fiddled with the radiator valve.

“Ricky!” she cried. “This thing doesn’t work. You’re the only one who ever made it put out any heat. What did you do?”

Ricky blanched, and so did I. He rushed in, and the two of them fussed with the valve, animated as if on a stage. They shouted about a painting on the wall, which someone had given Katie. Ricky thought that it was bad.

“Really bad!” he cried. “Wretched!”

“Oh, not that bad!” she yelled.

“No, really bad!”

They laughed frantically. Now all I could think of was how Ricky’s favorite brand of sex did not involve pumping.

*

I had a friend once, loyal and true. I was five, in a mill town, and Sue Ellen’s family lived next door to mine. Two years older than I was, she still stuck with me all through elementary school. We talked for hours on her brick front stoop, about the strange things people did, and where pets went when they were dead, until she graduated into junior high and started to wear nylons and french heels, and smelled like Campbell’s Soup when it was warm. Then my father lost his job, and we had to move to my grandparents’ farm. I never saw her after that, though we wrote for a few years, on the perfumed stationery our brothers gave us every Christmas and birthday.

In the country, I had cousins but no voluntary friends. Then Radcliffe took me on for charity, let me wait tables in the dorm. I made friends with Amy, a small, dark, quiet girl I waited on, who was smart and funny when you got to know her, privately, and had the finest taste I’d ever even seen. She was from the Upper Eastside of New York, and she got married after our sophomore year and moved back home.

I heard from Amy sometimes and had been to visit her and her husband, Alex, and their little boy. Amy had a gift for friendship, and I often cried when we talked, as if I were in therapy. She had in fact become a therapist, but had to limit her practice, while Alex was chief surgeon of a major hospital, and wrote books in his spare time, about medicine and ethics, life and death. “Poetry,” The New York Times had called his last, which spent a few months on the bestseller list.

Why didn’t I call Amy more? I picked the phone up, punched her number in.

“But how did you know?” she cried. “I’m coming up to Boston for a conference. Let’s have lunch at the Blacksmith House.”

I had no qualms. Amy was the most discreet person I knew, and she never even gossiped or said mean things about anyone. Merely being seen with her should raise me in the eyes of all those supercilious pierced persons in the Blacksmith House.

The day she met me there, she looked the way that I remembered, lovely and well dressed. She could look natural inside a tailored skirt, a cashmere sweater, pearls, at eleven in the morning, in 1998, and I felt tasteless in my tight black pants and chunky shoes, like some fake teen. My hair had never once been so well cut as hers, in a simple shape from some hairdresser you needed an hereditary link to see.

“You look wonderful,” I said. “Mind if I just go shoot myself?”

“Don’t do that, please. I like the way you look. It’s so … caj,” she said, meaning casual, and I felt a rush of pleasure. The last time I had seen her, we decided that should be the term for suave, cool style. I was touched that she remembered what we’d talked about.

We carried tea and mesculin salads up the stairs, and at first we had a good few feet between us and the nearest mothers with children. But soon a troop of Japanese tourists came shyly in. The Swedish grad student wedged next to me and flashed her young pink breast, as if we had agreed that she should always nurse by me.

“Are you all right?” Amy murmured. “Everything okay?”

I felt the urge to cry, because I missed Ricky and had no money for haircuts. But I held it off a moment, almost happy, knowing I could tell it all to her.

Suddenly she gave me a big blazing look. Her eyes looked huge and black, intense.

“Well, I’m not all right. Alex told me last weekend he doesn’t want me anymore. We’ve only made love about twice in the past year, and I asked him why. I took my clothes off, waved my breasts around, and nothing happened. I asked if he has any sexual feelings, and he just looked uncomfortable.” Her voice rose to a seagull’s cry. “I think he’s fucking someone else!”

At tables nearby, conversation ceased. I tried to notice only what she’d said. Alex was urbane and charming, asked intelligent questions about my work. The last time I saw him, he’d started to go bald and grown his hair long on one side to comb across. I caught a glimpse of him emerging from the shower, a wing of hair about a foot long jutted from his ear. Was that some kind of danger sign I should have recognized?

I kept my voice down. “Maybe he’s just getting middle-aged. You’ve been married a long time.”

Her voice stayed loud. “But I’m still horny, and why shouldn’t he be too? Bald guys have lots of testosterone. I bet he’s having tooth-and-claw sex with some nurse right now. It makes me so angry! And horny! You know that awful kind of horny you get when you think everyone is having sex but you?”

She gasped, and dropped her head back on her neck. Around the room, no one moved. The tattooed bus-nerd lingered near our table, stared. If Amy noticed, she didn’t care.

“You know what I want to do? I want to masturbate some guy while telling him how much I hate him. Doesn’t that sound great? Go fuck yourself, you say and yank on it. Go fuck yourself!”

Sometimes life presents you with a test, and you have ten seconds to pass or fail. I had failed most of them so far. Did it matter that I’d never wanted to do what she’d said?

“Wow, sure does!” I cried. “Jerk off the jerk! Only you shouldn’t do it all the way. Just almost, and then say, ‘My hand is tired.’ Tell him you’re going to find some guy who doesn’t have to comb his hair across his big bald spot!”

She whooped. “Some guy about nineteen who wants it all the time!”

“He’ll beg for it!”

“He’ll be your slave!”

“And you can tie him up and torture him!”

Amy giggled, stared at me, along with everyone else in the Blacksmith House.

“Well, I suppose, if that’s what you like,” she said demurely, sipped her tea.

*

A week later, another therapist told Amy Alex did indeed have someone else. Not a nurse, but a psychiatrist whose name was practically a household word. She wrote articles for The New Yorker and commentaries for “All Things Considered,” and Alex had been seeing her for years. All the therapists in New York knew, except Amy. When she confronted him, he seemed relieved. He moved to an apartment near his hospital.

“Everyone knew but me!” Amy shouted on the phone. We had been talking for so long, the phone burned against my ear.

“Why didn’t Alex tell you? What exactly was his plan?”

“He says they thought I was too vulnerable. They thought! Him and his concubine, like I’m this patient in their care! I think everyone’s been doing that to me. Did you know he was seeing her? Would you have told me if you did?”

“No way.” I felt a qualm. Could I have lied and kept it to myself, and would that have been better? I wished with sudden violence that I could talk to Celia.

“Are you glad you know? Do you still like the person who told you?”

“I do. I like her more. Where would I be without her? In the dark! When I think of everyone who knew and kept the truth from me!”

I took the train down to New York and sat up half the night on Amy’s couch, talking it all through. Punchy in the dawn, we told each other jokes, about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb, and how many art critics. I told the one about the penguin who tried to drive across a desert, but its car broke down. The penguin took the car to a garage and went into an ice-cream parlor to cool off, and covered itself in vanilla ice cream.

“Looks like you blew a seal,” said the mechanic, coming in.

“Naw,” said the penguin. “This is just ice cream.”

We laughed and squeaked. Amy tried to speak.

“What do you call that ugly piece of flesh on the end of a man’s penis?”

I didn’t know.

“That’s … the man!”

*

A few weeks later, back in Cambridge, my phone rang at 1 a.m.

“I have to find a man,” said Amy, in a panicked voice. “I want to have sex right this minute! How do you find men? Tell me quick!”

All the men I knew were either married, or untrustworthy, or recently divorced and needed time in the emotional deep freeze. Half of them were my old lovers anyway, and I’d already told her what was wrong with them.

“I don’t care! He can be a jerk, and live in Timbucktu. So long as he’ll fuck me!”

Two weeks later, Amy had found Steve, a nice genetic researcher at NYU, younger than she was. She didn’t call me for a week. I left messages, and she called back a few times. But she was busy now with Steve, and her divorce, and juggling her practice and her son. Soon we only talked to each other’s answering machines.

I understood, though I was shocked to realize how few resources I had left. I had nothing but my dissertation, and even that was getting done. I applied for jobs, and went down to a conference in New York for interviews with two midwestern schools. I called Amy, and she said she’d be with Steve all afternoon. But could I meet her around six at her favorite sushi place?

The sushi bar was tiny and crowded, and Amy was half an hour late. They wouldn’t seat me until she arrived, so I had to stand. At last she breezed in through the bamboo-decorated door, flushed and grinning in a rumpled tweed suit, and they put us at a table about two feet wide, in the center of the tiny space. She looked great, but she’d been drinking martinis all afternoon and seemed unable to talk quietly. Her voice was high and powered by a laugh.

“God, isn’t sex great?” she yelped. “Is it always so great for you? Is that what you’ve been doing all these years, fucking every afternoon?”

I murmured that, as she knew, I had not seen anyone for several months.

She shouted sympathetically. “But you have to find someone! If only I had known, I never would have waited for Alex to fuck me twice a year. I would have done it with the Fed Ex man. Surely you know someone you can fuck!”

I wondered if such things were shouted all over the country now, wherever women met. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped.

“Let’s not talk about this in a sushi bar, okay?”

“Okay, sure. Sorry.”

Sake, she gestured to the waitress from across the room, holding up her hands to imitate the china bottle and the cup.

“If it makes you uncomfortable. But just tell me one thing.” A giggle squirted out of her. “Don’t you think sex is great?”

*

After that, I did without close friends. Sometimes I did talk to another grad student, Lisbeth, who was English and even more bitter than I was about the years we’d spent in school. When we started, Lisbeth had been glamorous and willowy, but now she drank, and she was shapeless as a tube of pudding, with a red face and broken vessels in her cheeks. She liked to say things like, “Mmmmm, Dom Perignon, and such a full bottle!” She liked to slander women we both knew. She insisted so-and-so “would screw a bush if she thought there were a snake in it,”or that no inch of someone else was untouched by the surgeon’s knife. A man we both knew had a lovely wife, who happened to be rich, and of course Lisbeth said he’d only married her for money. I knew Lisbeth’s intentions were not especially good, and I mostly steered clear of her.

My final year at Harvard came down to a pinched, reluctant spring. In June the sun burned through, and lilacs opened, sweet enough to make your temples pound. I got a job at one of the midwestern colleges, where I would know no one. But my fellowship was over, and I had to go. I filed my dissertation, packed up my few things.

A few days before I had to leave, I walked through Harvard Yard. It was hot summer now, and I could smell cut grass, Chinese restaurant, hints of sewage from the Charles. Circling the square, I visited the stations of my youth. On the brick sidewalk, I could see Celia ahead of me look back laughing, in a ripped tank top and ragged cutoff jeans. The bricks were there, the yellow light on them. But where was Celia?

I’d been invited to a party, in a loft in Watertown. Everyone I knew in Cambridge would be there, and I was tempted not to go, avoid saying goodbye. But I had nothing left to do. At nine o’clock, I dressed and took a cab.

The loft was in a warehouse with big clanking metal doors, the room high-ceilinged as a barn, a hundred people packed inside. The first person I saw was Lisbeth, face already splotched. She held a drink in one fist and a burning cigarette.

“Fancy running into you like this!” she cried and kissed me on the lips, which no woman had ever done before. Startled, I stepped back. Her voice rose as if eager for an audience.

“And to think that I just had a call this very afternoon from Celia!”

Arrested, I stared like a cow unaware it has been shot in the head. Celia called Lisbeth?

“Oh, but how tactless of me. What a shock it must be for you to hear that. Can you ever forgive me? Here, let me get you a drink.”

She took hold of my arm and dragged me off to find a double scotch. Then she backed me in a corner, stood too close, and offered me a cigarette.

“Pardon me, it slipped my mind. Your marvellous pure lungs, like Celia’s. You two were always quite the pair! But you seem rather sensible, next to her. Poor Celia’s quite batty, you know, up there in New Hampshire with those eight or nine small boys. I thought the worst was when she needed to be Born Again, as if once weren’t bad enough. Tent meetings, all that, passing out for God, that sort of thing. And of course she’s always been a positively devoted hypochondriac, exists on rice and greens.”

She took a drink, and her shoulders shot up with eagerness to swallow it and tell me more.

“And now! The horror! She’s become a Catholic. A lay nun, no less, part-time bride of Christ, and scribbled a book to enlighten the rest of us. God Is My Co-Dependent, I believe it’s called, or perhaps it’s Going All the Way with God. Still married to the country parson, though, alas.”

I tried not to show that every word of this was more than I had ever heard. Lisbeth shrugged my murmurs off and stared into my eyes, as if she knew this news would hurt but still be good for me.

“Now, you do realize, I trust, my dear, that she is nothing to disturb yourself about. She has become a very ordinary housewife.”

“Disturb myself about?”

She shook her head, as if to dislodge a fly. “Oh, you know, your lesbian period. We all knew about it at the time. Such a good idea, I always thought. So sensible of you! It’s just that Celia couldn’t bear it, though, you see. She recoiled, in fact. Oh, dear, I fear I have stepped in it, haven’t I? Can you ever forgive me? Let me take you out to lunch, say, Thursday at the Blacksmith House?”

*

I escaped, and made no dates. I went home and tried to blot out Lisbeth’s voice. Had everyone believed I was in love with Celia? Had Celia thought I was? I knew it wasn’t true, and yet I couldn’t sleep. I dreamed of sneering faces, murderers outside my door, and woke up every twenty minutes all night long.

In the morning, big white cruise-ship clouds stood motionless against a hot blue sky. I packed up my last things, and the phone began to ring. I had forgotten to unplug the answering machine. A woman’s voice began to speak.

“I had to call. I had a message. It was very clear.”

It was a dry Maine voice, full of salt cod. It took me several moments to be sure.

“It was the strangest thing. I was just praying, and I knew. I had to call.”

I picked up the phone. My tongue wouldn’t move.

“So, Celia. How’ve you been for six or seven years?”

Sharp intake of breath. “It hasn’t been that long.”

Who was I to argue with someone who heard from God?

“Okay. What did the message say?”

“They’re not in words. It was just a feeling, that I had to talk to you. But when it happens, I don’t question it.”

I felt impatient with the call. Had she had my number all this time, like when I was plotting to dispose of my remains?

“So, hey, Celia. Why did you stop speaking to me?”

She seemed to expect this. “That’s too big a question to answer on the phone. Meet me in an hour at the Blacksmith House.”

“Okay,” I said before I thought, and Celia hung up.

So she was in town. She had swooped in, and now I was to report as ordered. Had she come to prove me wrong about the democratic nature of friendship? Was I supposed to just eat mesculin salad with her as if nothing had happened?

Sweating, I drifted to the Blacksmith House. The moment I saw Celia, I felt calm. She did not look the way that I recalled. She did look like a nun, or an old-maid clerk in 1956—stick-thin, in a Peter Pan collar and lace-up shoes. Her hair was bowl-cut, but her eyes were still Coke-bottle green, and when she saw me, something impish flashed through them. She walked toward me with languid grace.

“But you look wonderful,” she said, as if she had heard differently. She kissed my cheek, and laughed her airy laugh.

“Hey, thanks. Want some lunch? They make good salads here,” I said, as if she’d never been there before. “I mean, they’ve gotten better lately.”

“Sure.” She laughed again, breathless, as if this were hilarious. She seemed astonished to be there with me.

We carried salads up the stairs. The place was packed, but without piles of snowsuits, there was more room. The baby of the Swedish grad student could now sit up. Most of the other mothers looked familiar, too. Even the Japanese tourists could be the same.

Celia showed me pictures of her two small sons, and Daniel, and the white church where he led the flock. Daniel was even thinner than before, his face ashen, as if he’d been incinerated from within. He looked ill in his white collar, and even in the Santa suit he had put on for a children’s party at the church. But their boys were round and rosey, cheerful, with pink cheeks.

“And have you joined the Catholic Church?”

“Oh, yes!” She flushed with happiness, and told me all the steps she had gone through, and what a lay nun was, and that she hadn’t taken vows and might not. But she said Daniel understood and even envied her.

I got us coffee, cream for her, the way she’d always taken it. She was pleased that I remembered, and gave me a searching glance. She played with the flimsy cream package.

“I should answer your question. I’ve thought about it now for years, of course. I’m not sure what to say.”

“You don’t have to, if you don’t feel like it,” I said in a rush, not meaning to. Of course she had to say. I had almost killed myself, and I was over it. What could she say now that would make a difference?

“Just tell me why you wouldn’t take my calls. You could have explained. It’s not like we weren’t talking every day.”

She waved one hand, laughed quick clean puffs. “I know, I know.”

She seemed unable to go on. But something in her face told me I had to wait. I waited, wishing that I didn’t need to know.

She did say something then. I know I heard it, saw her lips move and her eyes beseeching me. But seconds later I could not remember what it was. It may have been so vague my mind refused to take it in. Or maybe it was what I’d always thought, that, being married, she could no longer approve of me. Whatever she said, it might have held the secret of friendship.

But it was gone the moment she said it, and part of me began to keen, and shred its handkerchief, its plastic garbage sack. What did she say? It was as if no one was listening at all.

Celia seemed relieved, and talked with animation, asked questions about my life. I told her, leaving out the year with the psychiatrist, since it seemed rude to mention it. She talked about her children’s choir, her husband’s early mid-life crisis, and how impatient she felt with it.

“He actually said lately that he doesn’t know if he believes in God. As if he’s twenty-two! The weekend he said it, we’d had this major breakthrough, too. I didn’t think there were any more barriers we could overcome.”

“What kind of breakthrough?” I said, not really following.

She flushed happily, began to shout.

“It was the most amazing thing. You know how, when you’re fucking, and you feel the Holy Ghost descend? And your orgasm sends you up to a higher dimension?”

Around us, people froze. The same wait-nerd who’d been there every time appeared a few yards off, perforated ears open wide.

I didn’t pause. I shouted back.

“Your orgasm? The Holy Ghost shows up when you come? Do tell! How does it feel?”

I leaned back. I relaxed. At last I knew what was going on. I knew where we were headed to. Lifting my cup, I nodded encouragement, as Celia went on.

“Lunch at the Blacksmith” originally appeared in Ploughshares and won a Pushcart Prize.

Cornelia Nixon’s books include Now You See It, Angels Go Naked, Jarrettsville, and The Use of Fame. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere, and have won two O’Henry Awards, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Nelson Algren Prize. Her novels have received The Carl Sandburg Award and The Michael Shaara Prize. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe.