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Claire was stuck in traffic, edging into the left turn lane just before Central Square, when she glanced over to the near left corner of a side street and saw the makeshift booth set up. Someone had used black magic marker to draw a Hitler mustache on Barack Obama’s face. She used to love that campaign poster from 2004, the one that proclaimed HOPE in large letters across the bottom.
It was those kids again, the ones who sold the newspaper with the same bizarre, fake news stories month after month. The car ahead of her wasn’t moving an inch, and Claire leaned to her left to find out what was causing the holdup. A long line of cars stood idling in the left lane. Maybe the signal was on the fritz. Or someone wanting to make a left turn was waiting for a break. Either way, Claire had time to observe the action on the sidewalk. IMPEACH OBAMA, the poster’s block letters entreated passers-by. Two women with young children veered away from the kids in the booth, moving into the crosswalk to cross Mass Ave.
Claire was on her way to visit her friend Rosie, who was at home recovering from surgery. Claire had promised Rosie she’d be over by one. It was nearly two, and Claire still faced a good half hour in heavy traffic. That did not deter her from making a detour, a hasty left turn onto the small side street a few blocks off the road to Rosie’s. She felt lucky to find a parking space near the booth the anti-Obama people had set up. She fished in her handbag for quarters for the meter, but came up empty. I’ll take a chance, she thought, I’ll only be a few minutes. She jammed her handbag under the front seat where no thieves would notice it. Rosie’s car had recently been broken into at a gas station when she went inside to pay the cashier. The insurance claims guy told her she should never leave anything in sight in the car, especially in a locked car.
“Not even a coffee cup,” he said. Rosie reported this to Claire, who took it to heart. Sometimes she cheated a bit, leaving a neatly folded Whole Foods bag on the passenger side floor in front. But the last thing Claire wanted was a busted window, glass everywhere, her wallet gone. She used her foot to maneuver the handbag until the straps disappeared under the driver’s seat.
She clicked the key lock, which made a satisfying beep. She eyed the Obama poster. The Hitler mustache really got on her nerves. When she was within fifteen feet of the kids hectoring people who passed by, she stopped. Which one should she approach first, she wondered. What should she say?
A pale woman with long brown hair pulled back with a plastic headband, looking every bit like a young suburban mother in her summer skirt and sandals, thrust a piece of paper in Claire’s face. Claire took a couple steps back. The young woman moved towards her, and was now as close as a longtime confidante at a funeral. Claire smelled what she thought was soap, or maybe shampoo. She stepped back again, to give herself room to breathe.
The young woman began to speak, and continued for a few minutes without taking a breath. This was a prepared lecture, about the President shutting down all the nuclear reactors and taking us all back to medieval times, something about the Knights of Rhodes, hospices for the dying, and a cover-up related to the murder of Muammar Khadafi. Claire felt dizzy. When the young woman stopped to take a breath, Claire saw her opening.
“Look, I’m not interested in what you’re selling here—”
“We’re not selling anything,” the young woman said. Claire now thought of her as a girl, because in truth, she was much younger than Claire had thought at first. "Unless you’d like to buy one—” She thrust a pamphlet at Claire, who kept her arms folded tightly across her chest.
Claire shook her head and made a face the one her ex-husband liked to tease her about—your disgusted face, he had called it, like you’ve just smelled something rotten.
“Just a second, I want to ask you a question,” Claire said. She looked directly into the girl’s very green eyes. “When was the last time you called your parents?”
The girl ignored her and talked about impeachment and the necessity of avoiding a third world war.
“Really, when was the last time?” Claire continued. “Your mother hasn’t heard from you in months. She’s worried. When was the last time you called her?”
The girl tried one last time to deliver her prepared screed, then shrugged and returned to the booth. She called out to a couple of women. They were speaking Spanish and holding two little boys by the hand. None of them paid attention to her.
Claire looked at the others working with the longhaired girl. One was a young man with a tidy, short haircut. He wore a white shirt tucked into belted khaki pants. Claire thought he looked like a Mormon missionary, or a Jehovah’s Witness, except that he wasn’t wearing a tie. Two women stayed behind the booth, organizing flyers and trying to keep them from blowing away in the breeze.
“Our First Amendment at work,” Claire said aloud. Then she looked around to be sure nobody had heard her. She walked back to her car, clicked the electronic key, and when the car chirped, she climbed inside, dislodging her handbag from under the driver’s seat and tossing it onto the front passenger seat. She popped in a mix CD her son had made for her. On the outside of the silver disc, he had written a label in his cramped hand, Folk Oldies. The first song was a Simon and Garfunkel, and it was a wonder her twenty-year-old son knew this one. “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” sang the youthful voices. She enjoyed the sad feeling listening to the song gave her. It reminded her of college. She had loved lying back on her bed in the dorm, closing her eyes and listening to the same LP for hours on end.
She glanced over at the group of sidewalk activists. What she had really wanted to say to the girl was, I know what will become of you if you don’t leave this business now. If you would just call your mother, that would be a start.
Claire knew all about this group, almost back to its beginnings years earlier. She had a friend from high school days, a girl from the northwest side of town. Helaine was the only child of a Swedish father and an American mother. The athletic activities at their all-girls Catholic school were limited to basketball, field hockey, and lacrosse. Helaine was a golfer, and a very good one at that. She competed in tournaments and racked up many prizes. Claire watched as Helaine not only made first honors every quarter, but also achieved a certain status in the small world of women’s golf. When it came time to apply to college, Claire and her friends aimed for state universities, but Helaine went to an elite women’s college, in the days before the Ivy League schools went co-ed.
She visited Helaine often, driving up to Pennsylvania to spend the weekend. Her friend had mastered the art of irony early on, and could bring down a snobby girl, a boy with bad manners, or a full-of-himself assistant professor with a succinct, understated observation.
“You might want to reconsider that heinous jacket,” Claire once saw Helaine say to a rich girl from New York whose mother been a daytime tv star who went into New York City government. “Wearing fur is tantamount to asking to have paint splattered on you," Helaine continued. The girl looked shocked. Then she walked straight back to her dorm room to change her coat.
Claire and Helaine stayed up late discussing Sartre and Camus. They leafed through Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to take note of the season’s fashions. Sometimes they rode the commuter train into town, looking for sale bargains at Wanamaker’s or Bonita Teller. They went to mixers at the men’s college nearby, smoked grass and danced in a big circle with the stoners. Helaine majored in philosophy and went to Sunday Mass. Claire lived at home and was a dayhop at the local state college. She majored in education and became an agnostic, sleeping in on Sunday mornings.
Then Helaine met a boy, and told Claire to come vist, she wanted to introduce Claire to him. Claire didn’t see what the big deal was. The guy wasn’t much of a student, though she had to admit that from the photo Helaine sent, the two of them sitting under a tree, he looked very cool in his work shirt, long hair and love beads.
Soon enough, Claire could never reach Helaine on the dorm phone and even if she left a message, Helaine never returned the calls. The amusing letters dropped off altogether. Claire met the new boyfriend briefly, when she was on her way to the train after a weekend visit with Helaine. He was a handsome, blue-eyed blonde, a few years older. He offered Claire a joint for the road, but she declined. He didn’t seem smart enough to be a philosophy major, but then, she’d never been in a class with him, so maybe she was missing something.
Claire didn’t forget about Helaine, but she no longer wrote to her. It was too hard to do all the work of the friendship, and Helaine seemed to have time only for her studies and for her boyfriend. Months passed, and then a year or two. Things change, Claire thought.
Claire heard from the old high school grapevine that Helaine had a new love interest. She had asked about Claire, what she was doing, whether she had gotten married yet. Of course, thought Claire, it was just like Helaine to find another boyfriend immediately after dumping the old one. This one had graduated and moved to California, where he was getting a masters in chemistry. He was also dealing drugs, mostly acid—which it was said he cooked up in his lab—and he flew Helaine out to visit him every month. Claire didn’t think this was such a great idea, but who was she to say? She and her college dropout boyfriend were moving in together, despite her parents’ disapproval. She didn’t have a job lined up, and he hadn’t finished school. They slept on a double mattress on the floor, and the rest of their possessions consisted of books and records, a chest of drawers they found on the curb on campus move out day, unmatched hand-me-down china from his mother, and forks and spoons they pilfered from the dorm cafeterias.
All this seemed to meet the definition of news, so Claire decided to write to her old friend. Helaine wrote back that she’d broken off with her drug dealer and decided to stay in Philly for grad school. She was sharing an apartment with three other girls. “Right near the art museum, you should come up and visit,” Helaine wrote.
Claire called Helaine. “I’ll take a raincheck. I can’t come just now. Maybe in June after school lets out, when I have more time.”
Helaine sounded annoyed. “There’s important work being done here,” she said, “I’d love you to see what we’re doing.”
Claire said, “Maybe after Christmas, then.” When she hung up, she felt as though something had happened to Helaine, but she wasn’t sure what that might be. She sounded so different.
On days when her seventh graders wrung every last ounce of energy from her, Claire’s heart lifted when she sorted through the mail and saw the brown ink Helaine always used, and the good ivory stationery. Helaine was immersing herself in Wittgenstein, on her own. She wrote about demonstrations by poor people whose rental homes were being bought up by the ever- expanding university, and the students who were joining her group’s sit-ins. She had joined a political faction that splintered off from the anti-university expansion group. Claire stuffed the letter into her top desk drawer, pushing it way in the back with store receipts and canceled checks.
Helaine continued to call, inviting her to attend some conference or another, about welfare rights, or anti-war demonstrations. The first few times, Claire said she’d think about it, but she always begged off. She explained that she was overwhelmed by her teaching duties and needed the weekends to catch up on paperwork and tend to house chores.
Finally, Claire relented. It would be a short trip from College Park down to Washington. She could take Helaine out to lunch or dinner, find out more about what she was up to. They could have a little reunion, maybe a nice Italian supper with wine, in Georgetown. She drove in on a rainy Saturday. Following Helaine’s precise directions, she found the church parish hall, an old brown building in Northeast. A piece of white tag board taped to the door directed people to the welfare conference in the basement. A battered coffee urn was set up on a rickety metal table in the back of the hall. Styrofoam cups were laid out, with sugar and powdered creamer, which Claire hated. Speakers lectured about the conjunctive crisis in capitalism, a phrase that was repeated in the presentations all day long. The speakers alluded to mysterious conspiracies between Israel and the Queen of England. They insisted that there were connections between the Queen and international drug cartels. Claire’s brain was spinning. She couldn’t figure out whether Helaine’s comrades were geniuses or whether they were confused or mistaken.
Helaine couldn’t have dinner with her. She had to catch a ride back to Philly, where she said her colleagues in the movement were waiting for her.
“My Lord, you have to eat," Claire said. “Come have supper with me.”
But Helaine refused. Claire dropped her at a dilapidated frame house on a rundown block where she would meet her ride. All the way back to her apartment, Claire wished she hadn’t gone to the ridiculous conference. She thought of all the things she could have done with those hours—make curtains for the kitchen, repot the plants that were root bound, put in her monthly hours at the food co-op.
After that, there were no more letters, no phone calls. Two or three years passed. Claire heard from the high school grapevine that Helaine had dropped out of grad school. When Helaine's mother died, Claire’s mother cut out the obituary from the Post and mailed it to her. Claire had an old phone number in Philadelphia for Helaine, so she dialed it, expecting to get some ex-roommate of Helaine’s who would provide a current phone number. But Helaine answered. Claire felt her heart pounding in her chest. She expected Helaine to show some surprise at hearing from her, but there was none.
Claire told Helaine she was sorry to hear about her mother’s death.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Helaine said, in a flat tone of voice. “She had cancer. She was sick a long time.”
Claire asked, “How are you doing? Are you okay? Twenty-eight is young to lose a mother,” Claire said. “I’m so sorry, Helaine.”
“It’s fine,” Helaine said. “Everything is okay.”
Then she said, “You really should come down and visit. We have a conference coming up. I’ve been doing some writing for Ralph.” Ralph was the chairman of her political party, or whatever it was. Claire said nothing, waiting for Helaine to stop talking. She stopped trying to make sense of what Helaine was saying. She stared at the flowered kitchen wallpaper and tried to think of a way to end the conversation.
“I have to go,” Claire said. “I have a meeting myself, in about an hour, and I’m taking the bus, it’s a long ride.”
Claire hung up the phone and stared at the yellow receiver resting in its cradle. She thought of the many phones she had talked to Helaine on over the years, starting in high school with the old black one, then the blue Princess phone her parents gave her for her sixteenth birthday, the hall phones in the college dorm, the avocado green phone her parents had when Claire lived at home during her last college summer. Now, the yellow wall phone stared back at her with its twelve touchtone buttons. She was never going to go to any more of Helaine’s conferences. She did not feel like being recruited.
A year later, Helaine called again.
“I got married,” she announced. Claire had a moment of elation, a flashing image of Helaine in a simple white dress, holding a bouquet of daisies.
"Who?” Claire asked. “Who is he?”
He was another of those pale, drab people from what Claire had now begun to think of as Helaine’s cult. At a party in the city, she bumped into a longhaired girl who had gone to college with Helaine. The guests sat on the floor and listened to Neil Young, while they drank cheap red wine and passed around a joint.
“She used to be so religious,” the girl said. “Never knew anyone so Catholic. Went to church every Sunday. Worse than an Orthodox Jew—my grandmother’s orthodox, I know what religious fanatics are like. Then Helaine got that boyfriend, the one who went to California, and she threw over the religion. Replaced it with something just as strict, I guess.”
Claire thought the girl had a point.
Now Claire heard Helaine say her wedding had been at city hall on a Monday morning. There was no cake, no maid of honor or best man. Someone from the clerk’s office was the witness. They got married, and went back to their work.
“Playing much golf?” Claire asked, regretting that she’d asked as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Helaine said she had sold her clubs; she was too busy to play. She had important work to do, work that was going to change this country.
They had one more conversation after that. Helaine called her. There was no catching up, none of their old gossiping. Helaine called the protesters at the New Hampshire nuclear power plant subversives, out to destroy American society, bent on returning us to the cruel world of the Middle Ages. The real answer, Helaine went on, was fusion energy. Fusion was the future. Ralph knew a lot about fusion. He had collaborated with some outstanding physicists to spread the gospel of fusion.
“Helaine, stop. Stop a moment,” Claire said, interrupting her old friend. There was silence on the other end of the line.
Then Claire heard herself say, “Don’t call me again. I’m hanging up now. Don’t call me, ever, Helaine.” She replaced the receiver into the phone’s base softly, and tried to breathe deeply. Her face felt hot.
Claire recalled that one late summer afternoon when they were still in high school, Helaine pulled up in front of Claire’s home in a black Beetle convertible. She gave the horn three short toots. The car’s top was down, and Helaine had pulled her golden hair into a ponytail. Her golf clubs, in their handsome brown leather bag, lay in the back seat. Claire ran down the front steps of her house, carrying only a pack of Newports. A five-dollar bill was tucked into the pocket of her shorts. She slid into the passenger seat while Helaine turned up the volume on the radio. Martha and the Vandellas.
“Where to?” Claire had asked her friend, and Helaine laughed and put the car into first gear. “Anywhere we want,” Helaine said, and the car motored off to the parkway and down to the city.