“Here. Take some of this.” (What?)
I jerked back to awareness and realized I’d been climbing the sky above the trees across the
street from the Chinese restaurant, the October blue sky that was so wide and quiet, where I didn’ t have to say
anything or brace against my irritation.
Ingrid wanted me to have some of her Mongolian beef—no, Ingrid wanted me to have most of her Mongolian beef.
“I’ll take you to lunch next time,” she went on. (I’ll pay my own way, thank you.)
“Maybe I could do some cleaning for you.” (No, I’d rather keep the mess I’ve got.)
“Why don’t we get a house together with some other people?” (I’d never get any time to myself.)
“You are like honey to me.”
I had met Ingrid when we volunteered for the same social justice cause. All I knew was that she came from somewhere
in Scandinavia and that she seemed reserved. One day, as a group of us were finishing our volunteer shift, she
said to me, “Why don’t you let me cook a meal for you, dishes from my country?” Hmm…I didn’t know she’d even noticed
me. It seemed like a good idea. I was lonely, and God knows I needed friends. I had just moved, I was in that painful
limbo after the aching end of a relationship, and a life direction that had seemed so clear wasn’t.
Ingrid didn’t have a car, so I drove to the grocery store, where she stocked up on new-to-me spices and more
staples than I’d bought in a long time. When we got to my apartment, she oohed and aahed over my paintings, my
books, my cat, even the clutter that she said had a bohemian elegance.
And she did cook a good dinner. We ate well and talked. She insisted on washing the dishes. She wouldn’t even
consider taking any of the leftovers. Then I took her home—she waved as she went up the steps to her furnished
Several weeks later she suggested she cook for me again. As time passed we’d go out for coffee and occasionally
to the movies. I liked having someone to do things with, someone who regularly told me I was smart and funny and
wonderful. I liked being able to depend on Ingrid’s adulation, her always being ready to do something.
I felt honored that she let me into her life, beyond the quite proper reserve that she showed in public. She
told me about her family and how no one wrote or called when her sister died. She told me how the man for whom
she had sacrificed so much left her suddenly, how she didn’t see herself getting involved again because relationships
were always a disappointment. She told me how she wound up half a world away from her country, with no idea of
ever going back. She told me how it felt not to be able to get work in her profession. Sometimes I listened and
sometimes I gave advice. I was such a good person.
Ingrid began to depend on me, to tell me even more—and I found myself pulling back. I still talked, more than
a little, about the man who had left me and how hard it had been. But I was less open than I appeared. She was
starting to get on my nerves — and how do you say that to someone who thinks you’re her best friend?
The less I knew what to say, the more she annoyed me. To have something to say, anything to say, I started indulging
my sharp tongue at other people’s expense, in particular a woman neither one of us liked. “You are so authentical,”
Ingrid would coo. Then we’d laugh—high, trilling laughs with an edge of hysteria —and in that moment of ersatz
intimacy, I could breathe and she didn’t irritate me. But my annoyance always came back, and increasingly I didn’t
like who I was with her.
When we’d talk on the telephone (she was always the one to call), sometimes I’d find myself holding the receiver
away from my head. She would talk, and talk, and talk. Then, when we were hanging up (sometimes I’d say I had to
go to the bathroom or there was something on the stove), she’d say, “Call me.” (What? Call you—when we’ve been
talking for an hour?) Once I did say that bothered me. “Oh, that’s what we say in my country.” (Oh.)
Over time it all got to be too much: her bleeding need for approval and my own surliness, her thick sadness
and my frustrated, increasingly impatient responses. And I still didn’t know what to say. I was afraid if I tried
to explain what was bothering me, I’d explode—and what right did I have to be so critical?
At last, finally, I did say, “I’d rather we didn’t spend so much time together.” Ingrid seemed hurt, but didn’t
protest. She didn’t have much chance really; I said this one night as she was getting out of the car.
Several weeks later I succumbed to my own guilt and confusion. I thought to myself, “Well, maybe it will be
all right if we don’t get together so often, for so long. Surely we can have lunch.” We did go to lunch, this time
to a grill instead of the Chinese restaurant that had gotten to be a habit, and it wasn’t all right, it wasn’t
all right at all.
That day when I dropped Ingrid off, I said, “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to spend time with you.” This time
she did protest, this time she did ask why. “I can’t go into it, I just won’t do that,” I replied. I didn’t know
how to say, “I don’t give a good tinker’s damn about you—I don’t even like the way you breathe.”
A year later our paths crossed unexpectedly. I found myself able to say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” We embraced.
I haven’t seen her since. Her name isn’t Ingrid and she’s not Scandinavian. I made these changes, and others, so
I don’t have to call and tell her I’ve written about what I couldn’t say during our lunches.
Lynn Park, a self-styled “loose cannon for God,” is an editor who lives in Alameda, California, with three cats,
too many books, and verdant clutter. She is the copy editor for God’s Friends.