Stacey and I gave birth to girl twins on the same day, in the same hospital, two hours apart. Stacey's husband, a longtime AA member and yoga enthusiast, says it's karma that brought us together that rainy, autumn night 15 years ago. Even Stacey, a staunch member of a fundamentalist church and deeply suspicious of words like karma, believes that she and I are meant to be lifelong friends.
Not that our friendship has been easy for either one of us. I'd had a hint of future trouble when we first met in the maternity ward. A nurse had mistakenly brought Stacey's infants to me in the middle of the night to be breastfed. Though I'd just awakened from a deep sleep, and the lights were dim, I noticed that the two babies looked ruddier than usual and appeared to have lost weight. "Are these my babies?" I asked. Before the infants could latch on, the nurse checked the identification on my wrist, let out a scream, and rushed them out of the room.
The next morning, the hospital made Stacey sign papers saying she would not press charges. Initially the staff had asked me to consent to an HIV test, then changed their minds when I assured them I had not breastfed the babies. Stacey visited me in my room. "You, Katrin, having AIDS! No. That's the disease gay men get. Gay men. Yuck, yuck!" I was taken aback by her offensive remark, but I let the comment go.
Our lives intersected a great deal over the next few years, before the girls entered elementary school in separate districts. Unlike the area where Stacey lives, my neighborhood has wide streets and few cars. Once a week, Stacey brought Cheryl and Sandra to visit me and my twins, Margaret and Lydia, and we'd push their strollers to a nearby playground. When we could get a break from the kids, Stacey and I took long walks or bike rides together.
For 11 years in a row we held joint birthday parties. But in middle school, when friend groups became all-important, the girls drifted apart. Fashionably dressed, Cheryl and Sandra spent time with their church youth group. Wearing jeans and black T-shirts, my twins kept up with the science fiction and fantasy "nerds" at their school. For their 12th birthdays, Cheryl and Sandra had a sleepover, and didn't invite Lydia and Margaret. I was hurt by this slight, even more than my daughters were. But our families eventually adjusted.
Stacey and I continued with our weekly visits to talk and march off calories. That is, until the summer before eighth grade. Margaret had missed the last few weeks of seventh grade due to a depression that had built up all that spring. Her sleep schedule turned upside down and we could no longer motivate her to get out of bed in the mornings.
One evening that June, I arranged to pick up Stacey for a walk. I knocked. Stacey called, "Come in. It's not locked." There was always a feeling of welcome at Stacey's home and that day I needed it more than ever. The scent of baking dough and garlic filled the air.
By habit, I brushed my hand along the pottery wind chimes, and they rang melodiously. "Wind chimes invite chi into the house," her husband once told me. "They attract opportunity." He and I enjoyed talking yoga. Stacey tolerated his interest in Eastern religions because his meditation practice had helped him to give up drinking.
She came to the door and we headed south. "I'm so glad you called! How are the girls?" she asked.
"Terrible. We're all stressed out. That's an understatement!"
"What's going on?"
“Margaret's been having difficulty sleeping. The doctor put her on an antidepressant. After just three days, she came into our room in the middle of the night, sobbing. She said she wanted a box cutter to kill herself." I took a deep breath.
"No!" From the corner of my eye, I saw Stacey shaking her head.
As we walked, I talked non-stop about our search for an available child psychiatrist. A half hour later, words were still spilling from me.
"Margaret says she's a lesbian. Lydia, too. Some of Margaret's depression relates to—well, a girl she liked." I blathered on, telling her that I was glad the twins had confided in me and it was okay with me that they were gay.
Stacey looked over at me, her face fallen into a frown. "Oh," she said. I sensed her turning inward, staring out with sad, frightened eyes. I couldn't guess what she was thinking.
We finished our walk. I gave her a long hug, and we stood on her porch. She looked at me, frozen and stony-faced, though she took my arm gently, saying, "Let me know if I can do anything."
With a sinking feeling, I realized I'd unburdened myself in a way that had startled and, in turn, weighed on her. Though her concern was real, I concluded from our awkward exchange that she did not want me to call. Nor would I.
That summer we biked or walked together only three more times, and with little conversation. I didn't know how to fix the unease in our friendship. Stacey would send me an occasional check-in text and I gave her vague replies that we were okay. I did not tell her I missed her.
By early winter, Margaret told us that she was not lesbian, as first declared, but transgender. Margaret was now Noah. The revelation startled me, but we adapted to the new situation, especially since our child's depression was lifting and he was able to return to school full-time. To my surprise, most people at the school and at our Episcopal church readily accepted the gender change. Lydia told me she'd texted Cheryl and Sandra with the news and they were fine with it. Did Stacey know?
By late April, as if events in our household hadn't inspired enough gossip, Noah had a girlfriend he was holding hands with in the hallways at school. Appropriately named Joy, she was a very pretty eighth grader with long brown hair who never stopped smiling. Noah was in awe of her and she, in turn, giggled in his presence, fingered his spiky hair, baked him cookies, and cheered wildly at his spring band concert. In that season of rebirth, Noah was doing well, and Lydia, too, was adapting to having a brother; our challenges were manageable.
One warm day, the adoring couple was stretched out on our lawn on their backs with their arms around each other. Their position near the hedge may have felt secluded to Noah and Joy, though anyone passing on the street had a clear view. Was I irresponsible to condone this intimate affection between 14-year-olds? Maybe. Still, to interfere seemed cruel and unnecessary. Why not let them have their happiness?
As I was getting the mail, a car pulled up and there, totally without warning, was Stacey, delivering some cookies I'd ordered for a fundraiser. I felt like ignoring her, but decided to be brave and stand my ground. Why did I care what she thought about Noah, anyway? Without getting out of her car, Stacey glanced up the driveway. Our eyes met. Whatever she was feeling, she masked it well.
After exchanging superficial pleasantries, Stacey departed. As I waved goodbye, my face and jaw went tight. I asked myself what I could be feeling. Irritation. Rejection. Hurt. For sure, anger. Well, I thought, if Stacey wanted a friend only under certain criteria, which I did not meet, so be it. For solace, I walked down to the lake.
When I returned an hour later, the lovebirds were still on the lawn. Noah, eyes closed, rested his head on Joy's chest. I was grateful that this loving girl had come into his life. Every day, he was happy. It was obvious that in allowing Noah to live as a boy we'd made the right decision.
Two weeks went by. Stacey and I did not contact each other. A month passed, then two, and our children finished middle school. The summer passed. Sometimes I thought of Stacey and tried not to recall the comfort of coming into her unlocked house to the smell of fresh-baked pizza. I was fine. My family had adapted to a new normal.
In September, our pairs of twins began high school in our respective communities. I never saw Stacey. I hadn't completely forgotten her, though. One day in late October I saw a set of hanging pottery bell wind chimes, similar to the ones at Stacey's house. I thought, half-jokingly, "Why didn't I think of inviting opportunity into the house earlier when I had so many obstacles in my path?" I bought the chimes and hung them from the carport near the front door. Perhaps Stacey's own chimes, or my own, rang in her ears that night: Call your friend. Whatever is bothering you is not important.
The next day, Stacey, as if she had not disappeared for nearly a year, sent a text, asking if I was free for a walk. She offered to come over. I considered. Why not?
It was drizzling. After days of rain, the lawns and conifers appeared verdant. Stacey looked at me as if to ask a question, then said, "Look, I made things difficult for you."
I said, "How are we now? What are you thinking?"
She hesitated. "There are things I just don't talk about. That's just me." Then she said, "I really admire what you've done for Margaret. I mean, Noah. It could not have been easy."
I took a deep breath. She wasn't looking down on me, after all. I realized I'd judged her, just as I'd felt she'd been judging me.
As we walked again, I felt an ease between us; the energy had somehow shifted into place again. We tackled the big loop that dips down toward the lake, taking up the old subjects of books and movies as we steered around puddles. Like avoiding certain streets near a commercial thoroughfare, we chatted about our families in very general terms, and I realized that I no longer felt the need to discuss Noah's former depression or his gender transition with Stacey. In fact, I could relax, knowing she would not upset me with questions or a need for explanations.
The next week Stacey and I exercised together again. Soon we reverted to our old schedule of frequent walks or bike rides. We'd accepted each other's limits.
Stacey and I have found our stride.