Writing 101: Day Six, Character-Building

I ran into Kerry for the first time in ten years. I remembered her from  high school, but all she cared about then was cheerleading and getting married. The last time I saw her she had been headed for college to get a degree in elementary education. Somewhere between her freshman and sophomore years her vivacious personality and toothpaste-ad beauty had snared her the sought-for husband. Soon I began to receive monthly updates of letters spilling over with baby pictures. Nothing very personal was ever said, just reports on how the baby was doing and how happy she was. I moved away and we lost track of each other. Since she hadn’t really penetrated my consciousness very much, I gave her little thought in the intervening years.

But seeing her this Tuesday was a shock. It was as if all the light had drained from her eyes and something had pricked the balloon of her personality until it lay on the restaurant table between us, flat and deflated. Everything irritated her: the service, the menu, the voices of the other patrons, the fact that I was wearing a color she didn’t approve of. I was trying to think of excuses to leave before the meal arrived, but none came. I was only half listening when the giveaway sentence fell like lead between us. “And then after the divorce –” What? What divorce? I had long ceased receiving updates on her idyllic life. I had no idea.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” she smirked. “The majority of people in this country who get married get divorced. So what’s the big deal?”

I mumbled something about not knowing about the divorce and was trying to think of some way to change the subject. This definitely qualified as an awkward moment.

“Come to think of it,” I said. “I only know of one girl who is still married from high school. You remember Carol?”

“Carol just trapped him into marriage. If anybody should be divorced, she should.” There was a biting meanness in that remark that left me speechless. She tapped her fork on an invisible spot about three inches in front of my nose. “And don’t try to pretend you’re happy. I know better.You were the one who was supposed to go on to college and get that big-shot degree. Didn’t happen, did it? I heard you ran out of money right before your junior year. Husband didn’t make enough money, did he? And your parents didn’t chip in either, did they? They didn’t care, did they? That makes you a failure, too. Don’t pretend you’re not. What a joke. Life is just a joke.”

That gesture with the fork had frightened me. Its resemblance to a pitchfork was a little too much for this country girl. “Maybe we shouldn’t be having this conversation,” I said shakily.

“Ha! I got you there, didn’t I? I hit a nerve!” she crowed. “So now you want out of the whole conversation. You don’t want to talk. Miss Fancy Pants doesn’t want to talk.”

I was beginning to want a pitchfork of my own. “Look,” I said. “You are obviously hurting too much from something I know nothing about. I came here to have lunch with you just because we met on the street. I knew nothing about what happened to you and Tom –”

“You certainly did. I’ll bet everybody was just dying to tell you all about it. That’s why you asked me in here. You just wanted to  gloat.” She got up and slammed the chair under the table, snatched her jacket off the back of it and started digging in her purse. “Here’s a tip. Tell them to send mine back. I didn’t come here to be insulted.”

“I didn’t know anything about this. If you weren’t hurting so badly we could’ve gotten through this dinner without my even suspecting. Look, we weren’t the best of friends. We ran in different circles  –”

“You never ran in any circles at all. You were just a loner.” And with that she stalked away. I can still hear the clump – clump of her stylish heels on the restaurant floor, fading out to the door and then blending with the traffic.

It was as if I had been caught up in a roaring tornado and then slammed to earth miles away. I was aware that the noises in the restaurant had almost ceased. My cheeks were red and burning and I was trying to figure out how to sneak out with all those eyes on me.

I jumped when the waitress set my salad in front of me.  “It’s on the house,” she said in a whisper. “I wouldn’t talk to a dog like that. But believe me, there’s one like that in every family.”

“There is?” This was a new concept to me.

She nodded. “It’s like the stages of grief people go through. Someone wrote a book about it. You know – denial, bargaining…. what was the other one?”

That broke the spell. “Anger!”

You can meet the nicest people in diners.