Ann Arbor, 1966. She was dressed creatively, always with sweaters and scarves when it was cool or cold, in maroons, blues, off-yellows. Her eyes were brown and alive. She had a high-wattage smile. I was shy, but somehow I mustered the courage to talk to her. She was shy, too, it turned out. This was the University of Michigan, fifty-five years ago. At the beginning of my junior year I took a History of Art class that, as it turned out, gave me far more than an appreciation for Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio and the other titans of painting. I met Janet Taylor Pickett. I sat next to her, and one day clumsily struck up a conversation.
We became friends instantaneously. I felt as if I’d known her my entire life. No — and indulge me, please — as if I’d known her in past lives and in future lives as well. Our humor was the same. Our outlook was the same. Our concept of art was the same. Our tastes were the same. There was a sympathy that went deeper than any connection I’d ever had with another person — male or female. I swam in it with great satisfied pleasure. However that happened — it was. Never mind that she was an African-American girl from Michigan, and I was a white boy from Virginia. We leapt beyond that as if it were meaningless.
Jan had an apartment on campus, even though her parents lived in Ann Arbor. We began walking together after class, then going to movies and then spending time in her apartment listening to music and talking. It was never romantic. We skirted around that, but we were meant to be friends, not lovers. That didn’t bother us at all. I say “we,” because it was clear this was something exciting and good for both of us.
Throughout our junior and senior years in the 1960s the backdrop was the great University of Michigan. Everywhere, there was a sense of fostering, of exposure. So much at that time urged us to grow — everything at the University of Michigan was an inspiration. We would go to the latest Ingmar Bergman or Fellini film and rave about it for days to each other. Sometimes we would be shouting at one another to be heard, each of us vying to make a point that had to be made. We went to see Andy Warhol and his troupe when they breezed into Ann Arbor with solemn attitude.
“We’re screening ‘Vinyl’ tonight,” said the diminutive, long-haired Gerard Malanga haughtily. “It’s very rarely shown.” He looked at the audience with undisguised pity. Oh, he didn’t fool us, that New York elf! We mimicked him for months.
“I’m having a tuna sandwich,” I’d say to Jan. “I very rarely eat tuna.”
“I’m wearing a purple scarf,” she’d say. “I very rarely wear purple.”
“I very rarely blow my nose.”
“I very rarely use a Q-Tip.”
I had a little motorcycle — just a Honda S90, which barely qualified to be called a motorcycle — and we used to zip around Ann Arbor on that. Jan would reach around with both arms and hold onto me. She was always afraid — and with good reason — and so talked in my ear constantly.
“Slow down! Watch out, you numbskull! Did you see that car?”
“Shall I go faster?”
“Here we go!”
“No, Richard!” She called me by my full name for emphasis.
The crisp fall air, and me on my motorcycle and Jan petrified on the back and holding on — this was the life.
The most important affirmation between us was that at the very depth of our souls, at the most fundamental DNA of our beings, we were artists. We were meant to do this on this earth, to be a painter and to be a writer. It was our calling. We believed in each other’s course in life. Where could we find that in such a powerful dose back then? I know I believed in her. I knew she was a painter. What more can you do for a person’s dreams except to believe in them? This young woman wanted to be a painter. This young man wanted to be a writer. Could we do it? Certainly! We were conspirators together. I loved her soul, her heart. I was always elated, energized, to be around her.
One day, out of nowhere she said to me,
“Rich, you and I will be friends forever.”
“Yes, forever. And ever.”
“I swear on my mother’s grave.”
“Your mother’s alive, you jerk!”
“We bought the plot already. But — seriously. Forever. Through thick…”
“Through thick and thin. I promise.”
I used to tease her about not knowing anything about the South. I had grown up in Southeastern Virginia. I’m not sure she’d ever been to the South.
“How can you call yourself a black person?” I’d say, straight faced. “You don’t know the first thing about the South.”
She was laughing.
“Do I have to teach you everything?”
“Rich! You are so full of shit!” Then she laughed. What a laugh! From the gut. I’m smiling just thinking of it.
“You can’t be black,” I said. We were talking about cornbread. “You must be faking. You can actually sit there and tell me that you can’t cook cornbread in a skillet?”
“No! My mother cooks cornbread in a pan. That’s the way you cook cornbread! That’s what she says. She says that’s the way it should be done!”
“Well, I hate to say your mom is wrong, but step aside.”
“This I have to see.”
“Are you taking notes?” I asked.
“No, I am not taking notes.”
“Ok, I just don’t want you to embarrass yourself in the future.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.” She had the low-toned retort of Eve Arden. We were a perfect comedic duo. Drier than dry ice.
And she really didn’t believe me. But I made her fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread — each separately, of course — in the cast iron skillet I gave to her and taught her how to season and care for.
“Oh my God, Rich, this is good!” she said, shoving a forkful of collards into her mouth. “Make me some more!” she said.
“What do I get?
“What do you want?”
“Take me to the movies.”
The next night, I made her fried pork chops and rice with pan gravy. I made her a Southern meat loaf. I think I may have even tried to replicate my grandmother’s open-faced peach pie, a true masterpiece. I cooked her other, non-soul food dishes, and she loved them all.
She took us to see Putney Swope, that deliriously politically incorrect satire of advertising at a movie theater in Ann Arbor. This movie was a complete surprise — irreverent, full of the oddest characters and funny. I remember Jan hitting me so hard on the arm to relieve the agony of her laughter, her mouth open so wide, and me, literally, tumbling onto the theater floor, like a holy roller, screaming. The pain! The exquisite pain of laughing! Even though Jan was laughing, she still had to pull me up off the aisle. That was too much for her. She was actually very proper. Which made for a lot of fun.
It’s nearly fall as I write this. The air will change, at last. A sharpness will take hold of the days. I think once again of Ann Arbor and how wonderful it was to be there, especially in October and November. I remember walking with Jan down the streets of Ann Arbor and across campus in our fall clothes — me in my ever-preppie outfits (“You’ll always dress like a preppie,” Jan said to me years later when I feebly attempted a style change.) and she in her multi-colored cottons and wools, scarves twirled around her neck three or four times with turban-like complexity and grace. We would sit in that apartment of hers and talk and listen to music. She had the album, Bitches Brew, by Miles Davis, with its florid African-American art. I’d never heard of Miles Davis.
“Oh, Rich, this is so great. You have to listen to it.”
So we listened to the entire double album, and I entered the world of Miles. I just looked the record up, and I found that it was released in 1970. I graduated from Michigan in 1967, and then went on to graduate school at Wayne State University. I got my MA there in 1970. So this tells me that my memories of being with Jan cross over Ann Arbor and Detroit.
I may have known more about the South and Southern food than she did, but Jan had something I did not and about which she knew more than I — a family. Her mother and father lived in Ann Arbor, and she loved them deeply. They were her anchor. Throughout her life she thought of them, went to them for strength. My parents were divorced. I wasn’t close to either my mother or father. I didn’t have a family. Oh, that sounds so melodramatic now! But back then, it was different. I was jealous. I was jealous that Jan had a home with a family.
This was all made so clear to me my senior year.
Jan had a party at her house one evening. It was the first time I’d ever been to her house. So many years later, I don’t recall much about the physical layout. A group of us arrived late. Jan’s parents had already gone to bed. She put on music, brought out food, and we started dancing and having a good time. I guess we were having too much of a good time, because of all of a sudden we felt ourselves in the presence of two adult figures in bathrobes, Jan’s father and mother. They were standing there like parents in bathrobes who have been woken by music from a party their child is throwing at a rather late hour. They had that look, classic. I laugh to think about it. Did they even realize they were a kind of cliché? It’s a rite of passage to be confronted by freshly-wakened, displeased parents. You can’t have a proper adolescence without it.
“Oh, hey, Mommy and Daddy!” Jan said in bright surprise, as if she’d forgotten to invite them. “These are my friends.”
I don’t remember what Jan’s father said exactly. He took the lead. Maybe something like, “I think it’s time for everyone to go home.” At the very least, I’m sure he told us to turn the music down. Jan acted as if they would want to be woken up. That, obviously, was not the case. What I do remember most of all is feeling a mixture of emotions — the old sense of submission and contriteness in the presence of parental unhappiness, of course. But I felt other more complex emotions as well. Jan had a mother and father, together. She was part of a family. I was not. She was part of a family, where discussions, plans, arguments, sadnesses and successes all occurred within the warmth, solidity and traditions of that simple, strong unit. I missed that so, missed having a family, yearned for it with an unquenchable longing. I still do. And there it was standing before me, in bathrobes, two people, together.
Jan and I had long conversations about art — about painting and writing. We sat together on the floor of her Ann Arbor apartment and made plans, discussed our dreams about our futures. They weren’t about marriage and family, or making money. They were about art.
She said to me once, “Listen, Rich, I’m going to be a painter. And you’re going to be a writer. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. You might as well get used to it.”
She was so confident. I grabbed hold of that confidence like I was running to catch a train, and hopped on. No one had ever made me feel I had a right, a duty, to be a writer. For Janet, it was the idea that there was a place waiting for her in the pantheon of painters. She had a spot, reserved, and she was going to claim it. That’s what she wanted me to see for myself. And I did — with enormous doses of self-doubt tripping me up along the way. When the doubts did come, I’d call her, or come over, and she’d get me back on track.
“Look, stop with all this ‘I-don’t-know’ stuff,” she said. “You’re a writer. Just accept it. And write.”
“But nothing! I, Janet Taylor, am telling you, Richard Goodman, that you are a writer and I don’t want to hear any backtalk.”
“Look at me.”
“I said ok!”
“Look at me.”
“All right! I’m a writer!”
“End of story.”
Later I realized what it took me so long to learn and that Jan knew so well. That is that you make yourself what you want to make yourself. Nothing in your background — not your parents, your religion, your education, your social status — nothing should sway you in your decision about who you want to be. That’s your decision. Yes, I had to be taught that. And I was. By her.
Time gets condensed here. We both graduated from the University of Michigan. I went to graduate school in Detroit. I saw her in those two or three years I was living there. Then I took a job in Chicago. And she went east. Eventually, I did, too. She ended up in New Jersey. I, in New York City. We saw each other from time to time. She married a lawyer. He swept her off her feet. Her life changed, and not just because she was a married woman.
“I entered that world of lawyers,” she told me years later. “My husband was with a big firm, and he was one of just three black lawyers. Then one of those three left, and it was just him and another black lawyer. I remember going to dinner parties and sitting next to the wives of these rich white lawyers. They were so condescending.”
I visited Jan just once during this time. She was living in Newark, New Jersey. I took the train over from New York. When I walked into her apartment, I could see on her face that things had changed. There was a small party. I was the only white person in the room. Jan came over and greeted me. There was something measured about her greeting. Something she was holding back. She introduced me to her husband. How much did he know about me? I didn’t know. Her husband was cordial, welcoming, but you can sense when you are not meant to be in a certain room, where you simply don’t belong. And of course, here was a male, me, a white male to boot, who was his wife’s friend, who had been his wife’s good friend, possibly something more, even before her met her.
I didn’t stay long. I mumbled something, some reason I had to leave, after a decent interval. Who knows what? I’m sure no one regretted me going.
I didn’t see Jan again until after she was divorced, years later.
That was I think the only time I felt acutely the fact of our different races. That evening, I saw her more as a black person than as Jan. I could see, that evening, somewhere in her eyes, the regret that things couldn’t be the way they were before. There was a wall between us now, and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable.
Jan didn’t feel at home in that world, either. “I think my husband saw me as some kind of trophy,” she said later.
After I visited Jan that evening in Newark, we kept in touch by phone for a while. She called me to tell me that she was pregnant. She was very happy. Maybe the happiest I’d ever heard her. Then the calls came less and less frequently, and I’m not even sure she called me after her daughter was born. After a time, we stopped communicating. It made me sad, but I was also angry at her for letting that happen, even though it was perfectly understandable. But happen, it did, and I nurtured my loss carefully. From time to time, I would think about all those lovely times we’d had in Ann Arbor. I hadn’t experienced any friendship as potent as this since.
What was she doing then? When we finally met again, so many years later, she told me.
“I had Samantha. I was being a mother. I was taking care of Sam. My husband was working long hours. I hardly saw him. I didn’t paint as much as I should have. Then at one point I found out he was having an affair.”
“How’d you find out? Did he come to you one day and say, ‘I have something to tell you’?”
“No, I discovered it myself. In an e-mail.”
They divorced. Her husband eventually re-married. She never did.
At the time I lost Jan years ago, I was working in advertising as a copywriter. I earned good money, but hated myself for selling out, for prostituting myself. At the University of Michigan, I had won a Hopwood Award, a prestigious writing award. Jan knew about this. I started out with intentions to be a real writer, but strayed into the world of slogans and headlines. At one point, I decided it was now, or never. I was in my forties, living in New York City with my Dutch girlfriend. My girlfriend missed Holland, and I was disgusted with myself and with New York, so we decided to move to the South of France for a year. My ill-gained earnings would pay for a year in France if we were careful. We packed up, took our dog and two cats, and flew to France. There I planned to write the great American novel.
I didn’t. What I wrote was bad. I couldn’t bring myself to take it back to America with me, so I burned all of it. What I did do, though, was to cultivate a vegetable garden in the little village where we lived. When I came back to New York, I surprised myself by writing a book about that experience. I was further surprised when that book was accepted for publication. French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France was published in 1991.
There is a reason I’m telling you this. At the time my book was published, I was engaged to be married. I was forty-six. I hadn’t seen Jan in perhaps ten years. I didn’t think I would ever see her again. This produced a kind of melancholy that floated in and out of my life from time to time. Suddenly, I’d think about Jan, and wonder if she was still in Newark, if she’d had a boy or girl — I didn’t know yet it was a girl — if she was still painting. When I thought I would never see her again, I would feel bereft. I certainly never forgot her. I probably still held out some hope that I would see her again. She had believed in me. I had believed in her. That’s a strong bond.
One day, about a year after my book had been published, I got a letter that had been forwarded to me from my publisher. It was from Jan. And it began,
I’ve found you! I have found you!”
She’d bought my book — not knowing I had written it! Later, she told me the whole story. At the time, her father was in the hospital, dying.
“It was such a bleak time,” she said to me. “Everybody was sad. Daddy was angry he was dying, and I couldn’t do anything about it, couldn’t help him. I kept looking for things to cheer me up. I was in a book shop, and I saw the cover of your book. It was so sunny and bright! It just radiated energy! I bought it without even realizing you had written it, I was so out of it.
“I took it home and began reading it,” she said. “Then about halfway through the book, I thought to myself, I know that voice! Then I looked on the cover and saw your name!”
“No,” I said, “that’s too crazy.”
“It’s true! I swear it! I thought, this can’t be my Rich Goodman! Then I looked at your photo on the back cover, and it was you!”
I wrote her back to the return address she had put on the letter to me. She was living in Montclair, New Jersey. She had been teaching art at a local college for years. She was divorced from her husband, but she hadn’t remarried. She’d bought a little condominium in Montclair. Her daughter, Sam, was grown and in college. By this time, my marriage was breaking up. It was a bleak time for me. Love was dying, and then it was dead. I had vowed, because of the experience I had as a child, never to divorce. I vowed never to put my child through what I had been through as a child, through a divorce. So much for my high-sounding vows. So, when Jan and I arranged to meet for the first time in perhaps fifteen years, I was in a fragile state. I wasn’t me. My mind was torn apart, and my psyche, too. I was numb and floundering.
We decided to meet in Soho, in Manhattan.
“I always love coming to the city,” she said. “I love going to the galleries, seeing what’s new.”
I was so happy to be seeing her again — and nervous. Would it be the same? Would we reconnect? Would the friendship be the same, would we still have that incredible rapport? Would we have that deep connection that we felt from the first day we talked in the History of Art class so many years before? I said I’d meet her at the Rizzoli bookstore on West Broadway. What a marvelous place that was! Gone, now, like so many other wonderful bookstores in New York, but we had it for a time. Jan was passionate about books and writers as I was, and she loved the store, too. I came early on a winter Saturday. It was cold. I wandered like a kid among the titles, unaware of time. Then I heard my name.
That lovely female baritone again! I turned and saw her. Janet Taylor. She was there, dressed in a long burgundy wool skirt and dark sweater with one of her trademark florid scarves twirled around her. She was smiling. The flavor, the power, the presence was there. She was so glad to see me, and I her. We ran to each other. Yes, she was older, her hair was tinged with gray. I was older, too, of course. People get older — even us.
“We did it!” she said. “We found each other.”
“I can’t believe it!”
She looked at me and my clothes and laughed.
“You’re still the consummate preppy!”
I shrugged my shoulders. What could I say?
We left the store and went walking about Soho, basking in our fortune of having found one another, ignoring the cold. I loved seeing her walking around in that great part of New York, home to so much art and to so many painters. After a while we went to a little cafe somewhere and tried to bridge the gap of so many years.
“Listen,” she said. “I want you to come to Montclair and see my place. I want you to meet my daughter.”
“Sure!” I said. “I’d love to.”
“I’ve got lots of my art at home, and I want you to see it.”
It was almost like being in Ann Arbor again. What is stronger than friendship?
Two weeks later, I took the bus from New York to Montclair. I had a bit of trouble finding her apartment, but I finally did. Jan greeted me at the door. God, it was good to see her! Somehow I felt this second meeting established the realness of our reconnecting. Her home was filled with books and music and, as she said, her artwork. It was rich and crowded with her talent’s expressions. It was lovely to sit there. She showed me what she was working on, a series of collages made up of women’s dresses, photographs, and paint. The photographs were of her mother and her grandmother. I knew it was powerful work. Your first reaction to art never lies. She obviously still had those strong ties with her family. We drank tea and talked of the past. We listened to music. Then the door opened and Samantha, her grown daughter walked in. I gasped. It was Jan. 1966 Jan.
“See her in me?” Samantha said, sensing it right away, not missing a beat.
“Oh, my God!” I said. “Yes!”
There I was, thrown back to Ann Arbor, with my beautiful Janet Taylor. To 1966. To our youth. She, in the form of Samantha, had just walked into the room. I wonder how often this happens to people, seeing a ghost, seeing the youthful version of someone through their child, feeling you have been lifted back through time. Sam not only brought her mother’s youthful aspect into the room, she also brought the sense that I could go back in time and have my young Janet again. I wanted young Janet Taylor back. I wanted Ann Arbor in 1966. I wanted her on the back of my motorcycle. I wanted my youth back — and why couldn’t I have it? Here was young Jan, standing right before me! Let’s go — let’s go to a movie, my darling Jan, and then will talk about it until our jaws ache.
But no. It was Samantha, a young girl of today, very much her own person. It was so strange to see Janet — the real Janet — talking to herself, mother talking to daughter. Older Jan talking to younger Jan. It seemed odd to me to hear Janet talking to Samantha like a mother — like our parents used to talk to us. She sounded so reasonable, so — parental.
I began visiting Janet regularly. I sought refuge in our thirty-year friendship. Around her, life was full of promise. Here we were! It turned out that she had a boyfriend, who was white, but she was in great turmoil about him. They had been going out for a number of years. He was an English teacher. I met him once, and he was a nice enough guy. We all went for lunch in Montclair one day. He didn’t want to get married, or even to move in. He’d been married, and once was enough, he told her. That was, ultimately, the problem — his ex-wife. She became very ill, and he dropped everything to take care of her. This hurt Jan deeply. Not that she was against him helping someone, but that he demonstrated such tenderness for, care of, and commitment to, a woman in his past, his ex-wife. He hadn’t showed that for her.
Since she was a teacher, she had the summers off. That following summer she went to Spain, to an artist’s colony in a small village up in the mountains somewhere. She wanted a place where she could paint without interruption. She called me from there.
“I’m lonely. I feel so alone, so isolated here. I’m the only person of color. I feel like everyone always looks at me everywhere I go.” I could imagine the impact she would have in a small village in Spain.
“Concentrate on your painting,” I said. “That’s what you’re there for.”
“I do! But I can’t paint all day and all night!”
The fact is, Jan was a bit lost away from her roots. She was tender, vulnerable. “I’m a homebody!” she used to tell me again and again. “I love my home, my things, my garden, my plants, my music. I’m happy just sitting in my big old chair and reading and listening to music.”
When she returned, she found she had some medical problems — she was told she had to have an operation. She was worried about the danger, but all went well. After the operation, I visited her in the hospital in Montclair. She felt very fragile in those circumstances. I know she wished her parents were still alive to be there for her. I took a book, and I read to her. She never forgot that. Once she healed, our visits continued. We caught up. I heard the details about her divorce, about raising her daughter, about her career as a painter — so difficult it had been — about the men who had been in her life. We talked of friends we knew back then in college.
“What about Chris?” I asked her. “Whatever happened to her?” Chris was in our History of Art class, too, a painter as well, and one sexual predator. And funny.
“Oh, my God! You won’t believe this! She’s become a born-again Christian. And she’s so boring!”
Janet was always working on something. Through the years she’d always painted, or made multi-media assemblages or ceramics. She’d had some shows, some group, a few one-woman — so typical of a painter’s life. She’d sold her work. Some of it was in local museums. She had a gallery in Montclair. But she wasn’t famous, or wealthy, that’s for sure. But whoever is? So few artists make their living solely by their art. Oh, yes, we’d like to! But the main thing is to write or paint what we want, what we need to. “You do what you have to do to pay the rent,” she said. “You’ll always find a way to do that. But you have to do your art.”
I am here in Montclair this day in her home to help us make sense — no, not the right word — to simply explore our friendship and try to answer some questions — befuddling questions, I call them. How did we become friends irrevocably, almost instantly, forty years ago at the University of Michigan? How did a white boy who was raised in the segregated South feel as if his soul were linked to this black girl raised in the north instantaneously when everything in our backgrounds would have conspired to not let that happen, to not even make it remotely possible? Can we discover anything useful about this mystery of the color of our skin? I’m not sure we can ever figure this out. And mostly this is a way of coming back together after a painful absence.
She is a beautiful woman, sixty-two now, with a great raucous laugh, blazing white teeth, limpid brown eyes, expressive hands and a voice as flexible as a musical instrument.
“I was a little distrustful,” she says today about those first meetings we had in Ann Arbor when we were students so many years ago. This is the first of many confessions we make today. She goes on. “I thought, ‘What’s this white boy want from me? Is this about sex? Is this about friendship? What’s it about? What does he want with a black girl like me?’”
“For me,” I say, “this was a huge shock, my instant attraction, my instant sense of feeling so comfortable with you. Everything in my background was against this happening.”
She knows what I mean. She knows I grew up in the segregated south, in Virginia Beach, Virginia in the 1950s, where segregation was still law. It wasn’t that so much the law that influenced me. In fact, the signs on the rest room doors, “Men, White”; “Men, Colored”; “Women, White”; “Women, Colored” only confused me.
“We’re taught not so much by instruction,” I say aphoristically to her, “but by example. Our reality is…”
“Situational,” she says.
“Yes!” I say, and once again I feel that sense of almost Siamese twin-like connection with her, as if we share the same bloodstream and DNA, or, at least, emotional and intellectual DNA. That sure, instant sympathy between us.
“I’d never had a black friend before,” I say, “and everything in my background told me not to. I was raised in a place where that couldn’t happen.”
“And I was raised in Ann Arbor where I had both black and white friends,” she says.
“That doesn’t explain how it happened.”
She leans back in the fat chair she’s sitting in. Her legs are tucked under her. I’m next to her seated on the couch. “No, I guess it doesn’t,” she says.
Her voice is lovely, a tenor sound, and she’s very animated. She loves to laugh.
“I never wondered why you were friends with me, a white boy,” I say. “I can tell you that I don’t think I’ve felt as close with another person as with you.”
“No.” I’m thinking, trying to tease out reasons why this friendship happened like a coup de foudre, thunderbolt. “I think our friendship was helped by the fact that you’re a painter, and I’m a writer. I’m not sure it would have worked as well if we’d both been writers.”
“I think you’re right.”
This doesn’t really explain it, either, but it’s the best I can come up with now.
Then I dip my toe tentatively into the pool of the topic of race.
“One of the most powerful aspects of the friendship is about families. To me, anyway. Everything about you and your family was not the way I thought it was…supposed to be. I…was jealous of you. Or, I guess envied you would be the better word.”
“Because you had a father who was proud of you. I remember once you told me a story of going back to Ann Arbor to install one of your paintings there, and your father was there to witness this very public recognition, and you told me he said, ‘Your grandmother would be so proud of you.’”
“Yes,” she says, “I remember.”
“Well, my father never once said he was proud of me. It was the opposite. Then there was the simple fact that you had a father and mother who were together. You had a family. And I didn’t. My father and mother were apart, divorced. My family didn’t exist.”
“Yes, and this wasn’t what you’d been told, or experienced,” she said. “You’d been told that black men leave their women, and black women raise their children alone.”
The sun pours into the room in Jan’s apartment. There is brightness everywhere.
“And we tried sex once or twice,” Janet says, amused. “But it didn’t work! We said, ‘Naaah!’ And we realized it was about the friendship.”
Which is funny, because sex always seems to get in the way of friendship. It didn’t here. Yet another mystery.
We’re similar in many ways. Both she and I were married, and now we’re divorced and have been for some years. Both of us have one child, a daughter. Both of us have been artists our entire lives, through thick and thin. Both of us have been teachers most of our lives. Both of us are far from being famous. Both of us love books. Both of us share the same sense of humor. Both of us love food, love to cook. Both of us love to travel. Both of us love to laugh.
I look at her. It’s still a mystery. It’s still a great mystery.
“You know,” I tell her, “You may have distrusted me and my motives, but one thing I know with absolute confidence.”
“I never once doubted you liked me, that you were my friend. I never once doubted that I liked you and that I was your friend. I knew that. Immediately.”
She nods, smiles.
All of a sudden I stand up with a jolt. “I know something else!” I say. I start walking around, pacing. “I have to move around now this is so exciting,” I say. She laughs. She loves this. She’s seeing the boy of forty years ago. “What I realize now is that on the one hand I felt this very strong pull toward you. On the other hand, my background said this shouldn’t be happening. That it can’t happen. Not a friendship with a black girl. People like me, from my background, don’t have friendships with black people. But what I knew for certain was that our friendship was true. That was certain. So if it was true, then that must mean that everything I was taught growing up was false. That whole world was false. And that seemed impossible. How could that be? So I was confused as hell about that.”
We need a break from the intensity. I’m also afraid I might go too far in talking about race and my background. But I feel now a sense of electricity, of excitement, as if I’ve been given a pass into another world, a forbidden world, and can walk around in that world uninhibitedly.
We talk about our daughters for a while. Her daughter is Samantha, or Sam, as everyone calls her. Sam went to law school and got a job in a big New York firm, but is now living and working in LA for an independent film company.
Jan has never met my daughter, and I think her relationship with her daughter, who is just seventeen and who lives now exclusively with her mother, is closer than my relationship with my daughter — another reason for me to be envious.
We talk for three hours, almost nonstop. Jan talks more than I do, but I don’t mind. I’m just happy to be back in her presence, and I can’t wait to talk about all the things we’ve always talked about with so much passion and humor and intensity — books, paintings, movies, people, Italy and France, food, what it means to be an artist, love, the pain of lost love. But not race so much.
“I think in all the years we’ve known each other,” I say, “we talked about race very little.”
Jan nods. “I think you’re right.”
She says, “You know, when you get older, friends drop away. Some die, and others just fall away, fall out of your life. And so it’s important to keep the friends you have.” She looks at me and smiles. I think of all the friends of mine who have fallen out of my life. And I smile at her, so grateful for this great mysterious, profound friendship.
She talks about her father, “He worked for a rich white family. I think about all the big and small humiliations he had to endure.”
She talks about the book, The Help. She says, “I can’t read it.” I think she means because a white woman was attempting to put words into a black woman’s mouth. No. And I should’ve known that wasn’t the case, because Jan is an artist, and she understands what art is, and what and how it does what it does. No. “I can’t read it because that’s what my mother did sometimes. She was someone’s help.”
Then I get an electric kind of thrill. A thrill of shame, but also a thrill of drama. Because this story of ours is very dramatic. It’s intimately dramatic. Jan’s mother was then, from time to time at least, the kind of black woman who worked in the kitchen, or cleaned the house, or ironed, or did the wash…and the guilty, sympathetic reaction I have is: now I know who her mother was. I recognize her. This does not challenge me as her father and mother’s marriage did, or as did, and does, her father’s loving support of her painting did. This is as the world I grew up in told me it should be. All of that is still with me. Will I ever be able to purge it?
I asked her if racism was a constant problem.
“Not so much. But what will happen is that just at the moment when you’ve forgotten it, something will come along to remind you. I was in a store once, during the week. It was a grocery store. I came up to the counter with something, and the guy behind the counter said, ‘Looks like your lady gave you the day off.’ I said to him, ‘No. My “lady” didn’t give me the day off. I’m a college professor.’”
So here we are, both of us divorced and alone. She’s sixty-two. I’m sixty-five. There is a hidden sigh somewhere. That we are, so close, have so much fun together, maybe we could be together and see out old age and death together. Be each other’s companion. I knew she feels this, or something like this. It’s clear. I do, too. But I don’t think we could live together. I think that would ruin the friendship. Still, it’s sad. It’s sad that we can’t comfort each other on this last journey.
And so there is running through this friendship the idea of regret that we couldn’t be, weren’t a couple.
“I remember laughing so hard with you!” she says.
Then her speech slows to an adagio.
“I haven’t laughed like that with any man since. Never.”