? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 8

Creative Nonfiction

Mary Carpenter


Deep red walls pulsate with human noises booming,
screeching, chattering.
Over faint, annoying strains of disco, waiting people
spill in among tightly packed diners at the black lacquered tables.
It’s the early ‘80s era of Studio 54, and cocaine is flowing
freely along with champagne and money among professionals
in New York City. From across the room a pale hand is waving.
I locate the face, almost translucent in the narrow beam
of an overhead spotlight, of my friend Melissa from college.
We were the two in our group of friends who didn’t wait or
barely waited for Wellesley to end before marrying two close
friends, both preppie, both at Harvard and members of private
eating clubs, both named John. Less than five years later
Melissa and I are both single again, living and experimenting
with the wilds of New York’s edgier Upper West Side—not
the East side where our ex-husbands and most of our former
friends and relatives live.
I cross the room. Melissa’s bright red very fuzzy sweater
looks itchy, she must never sweat or scratch. Her eyes are
black with shadow, her apple cheeks further rouged by the
heated restaurant. On her arm a thick white bandage. “Melissa!”
I say. I’m almost on top of her before I can be heard.
Introductions are made and her dinner companion, a black
man, turns his head with a perfunctory half-inch nod. Handsome
black face, elegant clothes, very white teeth. A fleeting
smile. Colors have been mixing with impunity for decades but
less among my friends. Black, red, white—no room for nuanced
I have to ask, “What happened to your arm?” Our
friendship is based mostly on our similar pasts. Once or twice
a year, I call and we have lunch. Not much more. From the
instant she begins her fast-talking Midwestern twang, Melissa
is brilliant, also gorgeous and talented—dancing with the
American Ballet Theater from the minute she moved to New
York, then getting a social work degree. Friends of John and
Melissa were surprised when they married, he quite conventional
from old money; she more glamorous, maybe a little
flaky, definitely not stolid—not what was expected for John.
Melissa tells the story of her bandage: of putting her
key into her office lock at the street door, absorbed in listening
to the walkman covering her ears, a man pushing against her,
demanding her purse. Then he sliced her arm with a knife.
“Ohmygod,” I say, looking toward the boyfriend to share my
shock. He doesn’t look up. Why would I question such a story?
After Melissa dies, a mutual friend berates me, “Come
on,” Jon (a third John but no h, Jewish) snips, sipping his seltzer.
Behind his head looms blood red leather of a Queen Anne
chair, one of many scattered around the hushed dark wood,
Harvard Club library-looking room on a late fall afternoon.
Some graying heads dozing. “How could you believe that?”
Jon asks, pointedly staring his astonishment. “The boyfriend
did it.” To my puzzled forehead, “He sliced her arm.”
“The guy sitting right there? The guy at their dinner table?”
I struggle to switch images from boyfriend to slicer. Jon
sneers, angrier, “He was the boyfriend at the time.” I’ve had
bouts of gullibility, once reading the Lampoon issue of TIME
magazine, not realizing the joke, chiming in with off-the-wall
quotes from the articles until someone set me straight. Later I
wonder if Jon—brilliant defender of criminals including the guy
who pushed a talented violinist off a subway platform—had
been me, at that moment in the red and black restaurant, if he
would have recognized the elegant date as the slicer.
Blindsight is a neurological disconnect in which a person’s
brain convinces her that she is blind, although some
part of the brain receives visual signals: when interviewed, she
becomes thirsty—she grabs the glass of water in front of her
that he/she cannot “see.” With blindsight, I know more about
Melissa than I think I do.
Icy white tile floors, snowy white sofas, billowing white
curtains, white broken up by many mirrors—the white East
Side apartment is where Melissa lives first in New York City 
with her husband John. In the kitchen, white, white, white,
appliances, floor, curtains. Frothy white mounds of duvet and
pillows, more mirrors, in the bedroom. To the white apartment,
Melissa brings clients from her Legal Aid office. I admire
Melissa for her work with needy people, envy her helping
them, being willing to bring them home. I consider social work
school but never get there. In the white bed late one night,
John discovers Melissa with one of the black clients; the white
apartment ends.
In noisy restaurants, Melissa and I meet for our lunches,
competing at our tiny tables for who orders less—smaller
and smaller appetizer salads—exchanging news at a highspeed
pitch, each taking over when the other stops to eat or breathe, 
neither challenging the other, no one really listening. If
I’m completely honest, maybe I wouldn’t stay Melissa’s friend.
Matching her fast-talking exhausts me: after one lunch I go
home for a nap.
When Melissa tells me about being caught in bed with
her Legal Aid lover, I smile good for you, for exhilaratingly inappropriate
sex (at 16, he’s about half our age), for breaking the
mold, for venturing beyond the milquetoast world we come
from. Because to disapprove or look worried might risk losing
Melissa’s friendship. I work hard to avoid the pain of loneliness,
I’m struggling, too. I stay her friend but I don’t help her.
The afterimage remains: a muscular black backside among
the powdery white puffs.
Then Melissa lives alone, for a while moves in with, later
marries a Legal Aid lawyer, Steve, whom I meet, dine with,
once or twice. Again I envy Melissa, her poverty lawyer of high
morals and convictions, a man who doesn’t reach for lucrative
salaries but dedicates himself to saving the disenfranchised, a
good man. Right?
Wrong again. At the Harvard Club Jon tells me Steve
skipped town after robbing Melissa blind. As a condition of
agreeing to get out of her hair, Steve makes her sign every
check in a book of checks, and then takes off around the
country in the new Porsche she bought him, continuing to
drain her bank accounts. Whatever could have happened
to persuade Melissa, smart as she is, to sign those checks?
When Jon tells me about Steve as part of a chain of events
leading to Melissa’s death, though, the memory comes into
focus: Melissa telling me bits of the Steve story over one of
our lunch salads, something like, “He has my checks, he’s
spending my money.” I don’t get it, but I don’t question her.
Melissa and I don’t pry. We’re WASPS, we follow the WASP
rulebook for question-asking that brooks no probing, especially
into matters of money.
One morning several weeks after the black and red
restaurant encounter, Melissa is slumped on the black couch
against a wall outside the office of Dr. S., a psychiatrist whom
I see on Melissa’s recommendation for biofeedback—my jaw
is out of whack from asking questions, doing interviews for
work, nothing personal. I’m surprised Melissa’s here—she
didn’t say she was his patient. Or did she, and I wasn’t listening,
blindsight for the ears. The doctors’ lounge is busy, no
low lighting or white noise machines, more like a hospital than
a private practice waiting room. Melissa is wearing the same
fuzzy, glitzy sweater, her evening sweater in the morning.
Melissa is a prolific discount shopper with so many designer
clothes she has metal racks to hold them like those at museum
coat-checks. Another tidbit from Jon at the Harvard Club,
near the end of Melissa’s life, her boyfriends, by now more
than one, wheel these clothes racks out along the Broadway
sidewalk in front of her building to get quick cocaine cash.
In the sunny morning doctors’ office, Melissa’s eyes
are ringed with black, painted on, maybe not? She looks frail,
a limp doll propped up against the black couch back. WASP
etiquette includes rules that limit conversations in doctors’ offices.
Without questions, we don’t know what we don’t know.
On a family ski trip in my teens, our bus is in an accident on
the snowy mountain road, one of its wheels over the cliff and
something else with headlights barely visible in the valley below.
Is anyone hurt? Our bus turns back so we can spend the
night nearby and the next morning some of our parents give
formal statements about what happened. I should remember
at least that we got a day’s reprieve from skiing, from lugging
heavy equipment, from standing in freezing cold lines, from
worrying about falling or falling behind the others—although
once on the slopes, loving the dark pine woods, the hard- earned chili and hot chocolate after hours in below-freezing
cold and wind. About the accident, we kids are expected to
follow the adults’ lead, otherwise to say nothing. People tell
you what they want you to know. The result for me, besides
that image of the bus wheel hanging over the cliff, is no memory
at all.
Maybe Jon is more perceptive than me because he’s
a lawyer and Jewish: he asks personal questions. My Jewish
friends know about helping people in trouble, bringing casseroles,
dropping by—WASPS order take-out and lock doors.
On the other hand, I first met Jon on a blind date and after a
few meetings told him we should be friends. “How can that
be?” he kept asking. “What do you mean? You’re not attracted
to me!”
At the Harvard Club Jon tells me that for months after
meeting Melissa, he’s in love with her, he wants her to be his
girlfriend, he wants to rescue her. I am not sure how boyfriend
and rescuer are related in his mind, or if they were in hers. Or
why or how Melissa said no to his offers. Jon thinks she was
coming around before she died.
Days after her death, it’s time for my next appointment
with the psychiatrist. Although I’m not a psychotherapy patient,
Dr. S. usually talks to me for a few minutes while hooking
up the biofeedback machine, maybe in order to charge the
insurance for his time. Usually he asks how it’s going, and I
say, ok. Today, I say, “I guess you know about Melissa.” “No,”
he says, expressionless, maybe already distancing himself.
“She committed suicide,” I say. I tell him the short version of
what I learned when Jon called me in the late-night hours: she
took a lot of cocaine; then feeling too high and maybe ready
to die, she took Valium to calm down, a lot of Valium. Then
she asked someone to call 911. In the ambulance, she said, “I
don’t want to die.” In hindsight her heart attack—how cocaine kills—
is deemed a suicide.
Dr. S. says, “Too bad. She was doing so well with me.”
Self-centered, cold, avoiding malpractice? Or like me? I also
thought she was fine. I leave him furious, I quit biofeedback.
Melissa, many of our New York friends, me—we are
privileged, careless, maybe desperate. We are among the first
generations of female college graduates expected to have
serious work, even professional careers. In the fall of 1968
my mother packs me off to college with clothes for Harvard
football games and husband hunting. By the following summer
of 1969, I’m going to nude beaches and Cream concerts
in Berkeley, Greek dancing in the Palo Alto hills. The following
spring, I am on strike against the war and at the same
time preparing to marry a naval officer: no one questions the
conflict. Now single in New York, we work, go to discos, stay
up too late, choose the wrong men, have extra money for
discount designer clothes and cocaine—how better to follow
up the rebellions of our 1970s, breaking out and away from
everything our parents missed.
A banker friend of mine takes so much cocaine she
leaves for work one morning without her glasses, her vision
so bad she takes the wrong subway and then has to go back
home and start over. We are all riding that train, blinding ourselves
to the pain and boredom of figuring out who we are,
afraid to grow up.
Melissa and I share similar childhoods—successful
corporate lawyer fathers and mothers who didn’t work;
leaving home in 9th grade to attend Connecticut boarding
schools, until only recently called “finishing schools,” far from
our families; and then Wellesley College. We both have frizzy
hair, rebellious unless we sleep on painfully enormous curlers
or iron our hair straight until it falls out. Also like Melissa, I
move to New York with a guy, my boyfriend at the time, and 
then we are both unattached. I move in and out of various
living arrangements, house-sitting a friend’s co-op, sharing
with another boyfriend, trying a new building where a childhood
friend lives. I have trouble settling, agreeing to any one
life. Melissa and I take cocaine, joke about it over our tiny
salads. When Melissa gets me a blind date with a childhood
friend, I expect upstanding, nice Midwestern. When he rips
my clothes off I’m shocked—destroying WASP property—but
sorry he doesn’t call again.
Surrounded by ochre sands and tall saguaro cacti,
framed by distant shadowy mountains, two decades after
Melissa’s death I am visiting my sister K.’s treatment center. K.
and I face each other in straight-backed chairs, the other participants
seated around us in a cheering-on circle. K. tells me
I’m responsible for her cocaine abuse because I introduced
her to her supplier, Melissa. I protest. I had no idea Melissa
was dealing cocaine, assumed she was like me, buying it occasionally
for parties, and wasn’t she a serious person with a
social work degree? I am not believed, no one cares. I know
the truth: even if I’d been aware of Melissa dealing cocaine,
all the more reason to invite her to a party with my sister and
friends—we were all doing it. In the clear desert air, the caring
person I want to be would never introduce her little sister to a
drug dealer.
At the Harvard Club Jon gets to his point: I was Melissa’s
friend, I could have helped her.
My tiny overheated apartment dining room is crowded
for the June 9th birthday of Jon and me—also the birthday of
about 20 other people I’ve met over the years, all of us Labor
Day babies when I finally do the math. Wine bottles, take-out
salads, desserts cover the party table. Jon and Katie meet
Melissa—I barely notice—so that when everything turns out
the way it does, the fault is mine. I see the logic. I’m inviting
friends to my house, I should know them better, have become
close enough to them to know whether they deal drugs and
when they are in trouble.
Most of my information about Melissa’s past I’ve heard
through the grapevine. During college, her prominent lawyer
father dies falling from a Milwaukee bridge, at first explained
as fainting from the flu, unquestioned until a few days later,
then the truth that he committed suicide. Melissa has three
sisters, to me sounding idyllic, a gaggle of girlfriends to trust,
sympathize with, share clothes.
When first married, John and Melissa have a formal dinner
party, lots of small dining tables: the three sisters are there
working, passing food and washing dishes throughout the
meal, moving among us and standing at the sink where we
see them, but not sitting or talking with us. For the 1970s,
even among those from wealthy backgrounds with servants,
the arrangement seems odd—we should be passing and
washing all together—but at the same time incredibly generous
sisterly behavior.
Later when we live in Manhattan, Melissa’s mother is
diagnosed with liver cancer—a death sentence, Melissa tells
me. Months pass. At our lunches, I ask about her mother.
She tells me about her mother’s boyfriend, then about their
trip abroad. One day a phone message, her mother has died,
Melissa is flying home to Milwaukee. I leave a message back,
maybe later we talk briefly, probably not much. I don’t understand
the enormity of a mother’s death, I’m not close to
mine: for the first five years of the 1980s, she stops talking
to me, then becomes a falling down drunk for ten years until
her death on a dark autumn morning. Afterwards as winter
looms I struggle to get out of bed, set a second alarm, buy
another clock with a light that gets brighter as the time nears
to wake up. I lie there, light shining and alarms ringing, unable
to move, thinking about my kids not getting to school, finally
throwing myself onto the floor, all this for a mother who was
absent for the previous 15 years and most of the time before
that. But when Melissa’s mother dies, when she is barely 30,
I feel nothing.
I misunderstand my friendship with Melissa. She has
three sisters and talks about at least one other friend, so how
is it possible I’m the one who lets her down?
If we ate more lunches. If I called more often. Melissa
doesn’t call so I don’t either. Melissa always looks perfectly
coifed, garbed, and chipper. I try to match the look, not probe
beneath it. We grew up with such formality. That day at the
psychiatrist’s office it doesn’t occur to me to say, Melissa, you
look terrible, let me help you, bring you to my house, feed
you. Instead, afterwards with my freshly-released jaw I hurry
to work, talk on the phone for hours, reclench my jaw, hold
onto that jaw instead of on to the people close to me. In the
years afterwards I cannot forget the image of Melissa on the
couch, looking as if things were really bad—so thin but so
fashionable that I don’t worry. And then it’s too late.
Recently I read about “The Longevity Project,” a study
that found the single greatest predictor of a long life to be conscientiousness:
conscientious people are prudent, persistent
and well-organized—more likely to live healthy lifestyles and
take medication as prescribed, find themselves in healthier
situations and relationships. I might be persistent, and Melissa,
well-organized; but neither of us has a great shot at longevity.
Yet I’m still here.
My carelessness hurts people. Melissa does not survive.
I resume life without Melissa. Over those salads, across
those tiny tables, with other people, Melissa is as clear to me
as if it were yesterday, not 30 years ago—her brown curls and
dancing smile and sweet Milwaukee accent. During a brief
bout of mid-life piano lessons, I choose “Sweet Melissa,” because
I like the song, only later making the connection to Melissa.
I remarry, move to Europe where there are no drugs in
our lives, have children. Knowing about carelessness, I worry
about my children. More friends die—AIDS, cancer, a murder.
I can’t stop thinking about Melissa, about how she might have
lived, about how she died instead.
Over time I see Melissa clearly, her fragile beauty carefully
delineated. But blindsight is perennial, catching me by
surprise when I least expect it, only nowadays I work hard on
strengthening the lens.