Friend From My Youth

Amber Visions/Flickr
Amber Visions/Flickr

The affix en was the subject of the lesson. Only one student had shown up, a young woman, 23, with a sturdy, athletic body, long dark hair, and a round face, who brings to mind my best friend in fourth grade, a skinny girl whose hair was blond, not dark, and who had her mother’s high cheekbones and a long, angular face, not a round one. But as a girl and later as a college student and then as a grown woman, my friend often had the same expectant expression as this student, equally confident and hesitant, as if she were waiting for the right moment to jump in with a joke or a funny story. It was a self-conscious look but without a trace of embarrassment or cunning. I remembered that about my friend, and here the exact same look was on this very different face. It was strange. I tried to forget my fourth-grade friend, but how could I when she kept reappearing with each subtle adjustment of my student’s expression? Here my friend was in different guise, across the room, waiting, alert but not wary, ready but not impatient. I almost expected the student’s shape and coloring to disintegrate and fall away and reveal my friend, laughing at how long it had taken me to recognize her in her getup. We might both be 10 again, playing hide-and-seek, and my friend hiding in plain sight. “I knew it was you!” I’d want to say when she shook off the disguise. “I guessed!” My friend would laugh merrily. No wonder I felt so inclined to like this student.

There comes a point when a student who has aroused my curiosity no longer fascinates me. It’s not that I discover I was wrong in my opinion and am now disappointed, but that I get used to the student. So far, however, this student has continued to intrigue me, even after five months of class. That evening, I watched her ponder the textbook’s questions designed to encourage (encourage) the use of words with the affix en. The first was whether a shortened work week with a longer workday was preferable to a lengthened work week with a shorter workday. I expected her to choose the shorter week of, say, four 10-hour days rather than the six-day week with shorter hours. She did. “By lengthening the workday and shortening the work week, you have more free time to enjoy yourself, even if it’s just sleeping,” she said, smiling.

I chuckled because I knew how much she likes sleeping. I had already learned that she sets five alarms to wake up, and still she often lingers in bed too long and has to pull on her clothes and run out the door, no breakfast, no shower, to avoid arriving late for work. I know her boyfriend is still slumbering in bed, having learned to sleep through the barrage of alarms, I know he doesn’t do housework, and I know that when she comes home at the end of a long day and gets into bed, the bed is unmade.

“I couldn’t do that,” I’d said when she’d shared this private detail earlier. “I couldn’t get into an unmade bed.”

My student had nodded. It seemed too silly, she’d explained, to make the bed before dinner only to mess it up again just an hour later. It was my turn to nod, showing that I understood the reasoning, though it didn’t seem silly to me at all. Making the bed isn’t only to have it neat all day, but to provide that precious moment of drawing back the covers, akin to removing the paper from a present. Or the lid from a Tupperware container where the leftovers are stored instead of on a plate shoved into the fridge. It’s about starting the night afresh, not just taking up where you were when you crawled out in the morning. It’s about having things right. She ought to understand—she likes her clothes folded just so and because her boyfriend doesn’t do it the way she likes, the laundry is her chore. So is the shopping, the washing up, and the housecleaning. “What does he do?” I’d asked when I learned this.

“The cooking,” she’d said, her face showing that wonderful combination of surprise and satisfaction. “He does the cooking. All the cooking. I hate cooking. And he does it all.”

Of course. The cooking done, the meal ready. You’d be grateful to come home to that and wouldn’t make a fuss about the unmade bed. “Besides,” she said, “I don’t care.”

And yet, I pointed out, she cared about how a T-shirt was folded. You’re going to wear the T-shirt, so let it be satisfactorily folded. You need to go to bed, so let it be inviting.

“But I don’t care,” she repeated, almost nervously but with that characteristic quick surprised laugh, adding that by that point, any bed, made or unmade, is inviting. Her smile was full of promise and quiet gaiety. If a smile were a footstep, hers would be a hop and a skip. Not a forceful stride, a leisurely stroll, a saunter or amble or march, just a happy, self-conscious hop, and then it’d be over. Until she did it again. Just like my friend.

In “Friend of My Youth,” Alice Munro’s narrator tells of seeing her mother in a dream. In real life, her mother had died after years of a debilitating disease, but in the dream she looks good—so much better than the narrator remembers that she is astonished. In the dream, her mother makes light of the signs already appearing of her coming infirmity. “It’s nothing much,” she assures her daughter, with her old liveliness and humor. How, the narrator wonders, could she have forgotten this? As I turn to my student to ask her opinion about one question or another in the book, I am not surprised by what I have forgotten but amazed by how well I remember a friend from my youth and by how strong her presence is. I am surprised by how real the past is and how tenuous everything else, how uncertain. How much fun my friend still is, slipping into a room quietly, drawing no attention to herself, hiding in plain view.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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