Blinders

Jennifer Hocevar

Outgrowing Natalie


The first time I met Natalie she found me sitting in the dark, watching a movie with her boyfriend. I was wearing an old t-shirt and a pair of men's boxers. We would laugh about that unfortunately-timed first meeting later. The boxers belonged to my boyfriend Tim, who was asleep in the next room. Jake, Natalie's boyfriend, and Tim were roommates. The guys and I had been friends since childhood in the same small town. Jake was like a brother, and it hadn't occurred to me that the sight of us together might be scandalous until Natalie walked in and gave me a suspicious once-over.
  Natalie was thin and waif-like. Her legs seemed miles long and made her look much taller than her petite five-foot, four-inch frame. Her hair was cut into a chin-length bob with bangs and was an unnatural shade of brunette. She had large doe eyes and a kind face. There was something about her that was all at once sweet and fierce. Her outfit was clearly well thought out in that it looked effortless. Her style was unique while still being on trend for the late nineties. It was an odd mixture of grunge, goth, and preppy schoolgirl that somehow she made work. She smelled of cigarettes and L'eau d'Issey perfume. I liked her immediately.
  As Natalie would tell the story later, she didn't make up her mind as to how she felt about me until a couple weeks later. We were at a party at Tim and Jake's apartment. They had an immense second-story loft in an ancient building on the east side of Milwaukee. It had well-worn hardwood floors that groaned when walked on and grand crown molding elaborately carved from solid oak that was starting to separate from the walls in places due to years of warping. It still seemed far too fancy for the current tenants, a slovenly bunch of early twenty-something guys who didn't appreciate the apartment's old-world charm.
  The party was roaring and Natalie was nowhere to be found. She and I were practically honorary residents of the old place, and I figured that it would make life easier if we became friends. I squeezed through the partygoers to the little kitchen in the back of the apartment and peeked out the curtainless window. I saw Natalie's shadowy figure sitting on a plastic lawn chair on the rickety second floor wooden porch. She was alone. The glowing red circle on the end of her lit cigarette seemed to be floating freely next to her head like a tiny satellite as she held it up gracefully between her middle and pointer fingers. I stepped out through the kitchen door onto the porch.
  "Hey," I said, willing my voice to sound cool yet friendly with just one word.
  "Hey," she replied. It was too dark to read her expression. I hoped I wasn't annoying her by interrupting her solitude.
  "Do you suppose I could bum one of those?" I nodded towards her cigarette.
  "Sure!"
  I was surprised by her sudden enthusiasm. She dropped her flip-flopped feet to the ground and reached down with her left hand to dig in her bag. Her right hand remained elegantly poised over her head holding the half-smoked cigarette.
  "I didn't know you smoked!" She seemed barely able to contain her joy.
  It was a habit I had only recently picked up. I made it through the first four years of college without ever smoking, only to start up during the last semester of my final year of school. I blame the summer I spent in Europe along with the stress of applying to graduate school. Admittedly, I kind of liked the way it shocked people when they found out. I definitely did not fit the profile of a smoker. I was used to being thought of as the cute, quiet cheerleader, and it felt exciting to be considered a badass, for once.
  "Oh, I don't that often. Mostly just when I drink," I said. I was still in the typical denial stage an early smoker goes through during which they truly believe they only smoke when they (fill in the blank).
  "I only have menthols, is that okay?" Natalie continued to dig through her bag without looking up at me.
  "That's great," I lied. I wasn't sure I was actually badass enough for a menthol, but I didn't want to let on.
  She looked up from her bag, victorious, and handed me a fresh cigarette and her cheap Bic lighter with one hand. I plopped down in the chair next to her, lit up, and handed her back her lighter wordlessly as I tilted my head back and exhaled the icy smoke of my bummed Camel Menthol Light.
  We sat side by side in the dark for the next hour and chain smoked and drank cheap beer and talked and laughed about things only twenty-two year olds could laugh about. Somewhere during the night we became friends. What I didn't know, what I couldn't know back then, was that that was the first night of the next chapter of my life. A chapter that I look back on now with equal parts fondness and pain.

*

  It wasn't long until Natalie and I became inseparable. At first we relied on our boyfriends but quickly graduated to hanging out on our own, forging our own friendship that had nothing to do with them. If there is such a thing has a heterosexual girl crush, I had one on Natalie. She got me. Like no one else before or since, really, she understood me, and it was remarkable. We shared a love for books, coffee, witty banter, awards shows, and a similar dry sense of humor. Within a few months, we were speaking to each other in an intimate communicative short-hand typically reserved for identical twins or octogenarian married couples. It was as if life was a perpetual Seinfeld episode and we were the writers. There were inside jokes to be had in any given situation and we were always in on them.
  I moved to Milwaukee to go to graduate school and to finally be near Tim, one of my oldest friends with whom I had only recently entered into official couplehood. My plan was to keep my head down, study, get my Master's degree, start my career, and wait patiently for Tim to realize that he and I were meant to be together forever. I expected this to be a transitional time of hard work and planning for my real life to begin. I hadn't banked on that process being so much fun.
  Natalie and I started a book club with a group of some of her girlfriends that I had grown to know through her. These women were older and seemingly more worldly than I, and I found them fascinating. We would meet one Thursday night each month in a different trendy restaurant. We discussed strange and socially provocative books that I never would have picked up on my own and drank cocktails mixed with flavored vodkas. I was in heaven.
  One afternoon in fall, Natalie and I were walking near the guys' apartment on our way to get coffee. We were taking a brief respite from football and the smell of Boy—that stale smell that seems to engulf any living space in which multiple grown males reside. It's a permeating mixture of dirty sweat socks, old take out, and unwashed hair. We clomped through the leaves on the uneven sidewalks of this old city that I was growing to love engaging in our usual witty banter. Natalie suddenly stopped and turned toward me, the look on her face serious.
  "I just wanted you to know that you're my best friend. You're the best friend I've ever had," she said. Her wide eyes searched mine, hopeful.
  I smiled broadly. "I know! I was thinking the same thing!" I squealed with remnants of the adolescence in my not-so-distant past resonating in my voice. Natalie's face shone with relief as if she was worried that I wasn't going to share in the sentiment of her admission. We hugged and jumped up and down like a pair of middle-schoolers at a boy band concert and shouted, "Yay!" in unison. Laughing loudly at our dorky, unexpected display of public affection, we kept walking toward our treasured cups of coffee. I remember having one of those epiphanies in which you realize abruptly that you are, in that moment, completely happy.
  The lease on Natalie's one bedroom apartment was up about the same time as mine so we decided to get a new place together. We found a two bedroom rat trap on Van Buren Avenue that we could both afford. It was a third floor walkup with no water pressure and no air conditioning, but it was home and we loved it. Natalie had an entry-level position at an accounting firm, and I was living off of student loans and shitty tips from my waitressing job. We were both utterly broke, but we didn't really mind—it seemed like a poetic adventure of sorts at the time.
  At a particularly low point, Natalie and I found ourselves essentially penniless a few days before payday one broiling summer afternoon. The heat index in our apartment had to have been no less than one thousand degrees. We stripped down to tank tops and underwear and sat together on the floor next to the open window in our living room. We were dramatically writhing around and moaning to each other about the oppressive heat and our sad states of being like two injured cats. The air was thick and humid, and our moods were sour. Something about the heat combined with the reality of our new adulthood was overwhelming. We both began to cry silent tears of defeat. We locked eyes and immediately burst into fits of laughter.
  "Look at us," Natalie shouted. "We're the two saddest sacks of shit on the planet right now!" She laughed harder.
  "We've literally hit rock bottom," I wailed. "This is what rock bottom looks like!" I clutched my stomach to try and suppress my wild giggling. "We have no food, no money, we can't even afford a God damned fan!"
  "What the hell is wrong with us? I think we've lost our fucking minds because of the heat. We have to get out of here." Natalie was still laughing as she stood up with a new sense of purpose about her. "Get up! Get yourself together and go put on a cute outfit," she commanded.
  "What? Why?" I groaned. "Where are we going?"
  "It's Wednesday. We're going to Vittucci's for Ladies' Night. I think my friend Brian is bouncing, and I can probably get him to give us a few extra drink tokens, but you have to dress cute. And put on some fucking eyeliner for once." Natalie's head was already buried in her own closet as she rifled through her expansive wardrobe for the perfect outfit.
  "Ugh. Fine," I conceded as I dragged myself to my room to find suitable attire. There was no point arguing with Natalie once she got a plan in her head.
  After trying on at least three outfits each, we settled on the perfect definition of "cute." Before we left, we ransacked the apartment for any money we could find and came up with two dollars and thirty-five cents, mostly in change. We stopped at the grocery store across the street on the way to the bar and purchased four hard rolls for a dollar which we split en route.
  Once we reached our destination we were, indeed, able to score a few extra drink tokens, thanks to Brian and our perfect outfits. Natalie asked the bartender to load our free drinks up with extra olives and cherries to help fill our growling bellies, and he happily obliged. We explained the horrific ordeal we had been through that day, ping-ponging off each other to fill in the gaps and apologized profusely for only having $1.35 left to our name with which to tip him. He didn't seem to mind.
  There was something about that day and night that neither of us forgot. We were these newborn grownups without a clue how to navigate the world or what kind of women we wanted to be—but we were in it together. There was a certain grace to our shared misery. We were both insightful enough to realize that lessons were unfolding in front of us that we didn't quite understand. There is power in finding nostalgia in the moment while your life is marching forward in real time.

*

  The following summer, Natalie and I were hanging out in our apartment while I waited for Tim to pick me up. It was Friday, August 17th, 2001, which happened to be my twenty-fifth birthday. Tim said that he was going to take me somewhere as a surprise, and Natalie and I were having fun trying to figure out what he possibly had in store. He showed up early, and I was nowhere near ready to go. Natalie and I were still in our pajamas, talking at our kitchen table over a third cup of coffee.
  Just then, my phone rang and I rushed to grab it, assuming it was just someone calling to wish me happy birthday. Instead, it was an administrator from one of the school districts with which I had recently interviewed. I was about to finish my Master's Degree in school psychology and had been applying at schools all over the state for an internship with little success. He was calling to offer me a position as the school psychologist at his high school. I hung up the phone and screamed, "I got the job! I got the job! I can't believe this! I have to get in the shower!" I rushed off to get ready for my birthday surprise. Natalie was uncharacteristically silent during my outburst.
  I would find out later that while I was in the shower, Tim revealed to Natalie that he was taking me to Chicago and was planning on proposing that night. He even pulled the ring out of his pocket and showed it to her. He told me that she congratulated him, assured him I would love the ring and then quickly excused herself and ran out the door with some vague excuse about going to buy a newspaper. When I walked back out, showered and ready to go, she still hadn't returned. She finally appeared just as we were about to leave. Her eyes were red and puffy; clearly she'd been crying.
  Months later, Natalie confessed that she had walked around our neighborhood and sobbed out of jealousy and sadness. Within minutes, I had gone from being broke and single to employed and engaged. We were no longer in it together. I was moving on and leaving her behind. While August 17th, 2001, will always stick out as one of the happiest days of my life, I will forever associate it with the day that the first crack appeared and weakened the once solid foundation of my friendship with Natalie.

*

  Almost immediately upon returning from Chicago, my left hand newly adorned with a sparkly marquis cut, my life gave way to the newfound responsibilities of full time employment. To distract myself from the daily fear that I was failing at the career I had spent eight long years preparing for, I planned the crap out of my wedding.
  Natalie endured my incessant wedding-related babbling and the endless piles of bridal magazines that littered our apartment. She seemed to try her best to share in my joy and excitement, but her efforts often lacked enthusiasm. We still had fun together and were, mostly, just as we had always been, but that tiny crack that formed the day of my engagement lingered in the background and very slowly, almost undetectably, grew wider.
  On June 29th, 2002, Tim and I were married. Natalie was there standing beside me among my other bridesmaids in an ill-fitting lavender gown. Between the ceremony and the reception, my aunt hosted my entire wedding party at her house. One of my favorite pictures from that day is one of Natalie, gown hiked up to her knees, cigarette in one hand and a basketball in the other, shooting hoops with the groomsmen in the driveway. The girl just didn't give any shits, and I so admired her for that.
  Tim and I quickly settled into the routine of married life. We moved out to the suburbs together and rented a little apartment all our own. I was so excited to finally make a home with the man I had loved, in one way or another, since I was fourteen years old. Despite being happily in love, the transition into this new life wasn't always easy. My world was completely different than it had been only months earlier. Tim and I were no longer in the city surrounded by friends. We were learning how to live together for the first time among our strange, new adult possessions which now included a wok and waffle maker, thanks to the generosity of our wedding guests. There were times when all the changes were overwhelming, and I was grateful to have Natalie to escape to.
  Natalie eventually broke up with Jake and moved on to new conquests. It was fun to make the drive back to her apartment in the city to visit and live vicariously through her. The life she was still leading so closely resembled the familiar safety of the one I had left behind. We would go out to the same old bars, have brunch in all our usual places, had a weekly date to watch Sex and the City together, and our book club continued to thrive. Things between us felt like they were almost back to normal for the first two years after my marriage. And then, one snowy November day, I found out I was pregnant.

*

  I was hesitant to reveal my big news to Natalie. She made no apologies over the years for her dislike of animals and her ambiguity towards children.
  "They're so unpredictable. They make me nervous," she would say of both.
  We were having brunch one weekend morning shortly after I found out about the baby. I knew I was going to have to tell her right away—it would be no use trying to keep it a secret. In my condition I obviously couldn't drink and the sight of eggs made me dry heave. I knew when I didn't order my usual Bloody Mary and eggs Benedict she was going to know something was up. I decided just to get it over with. As soon as we were seated at our table I clumsily blurted, "Soooo, here's the thing. I'm pregnant."
  Her nearly imperceptible pause gave her away. She quickly recovered and started in with the obligatory congratulatory gushing. But I could see some other emotion in her eyes. Was it sadness? Trepidation? Disappointment? I'm not sure, but the crack most definitely grew deeper that day.
  Over the next several months my belly grew along with the distance between Natalie and me. We spent less and less time together as my pregnancy progressed. It was no longer socially acceptable for me to go out to bars with her, even if I had been able to stay awake that late. There's no bigger buzzkill than an obviously pregnant chick in the corner sipping on seltzer water and being silently judgy about all the debauchery going on around her. As for brunch and the book club, I was too tired and preoccupied with the tiny human I was busy creating. And, frankly, it became hard to tolerate conversation with my childless friends. Their concerns suddenly seemed so self-involved and fluffy to me. Who gave a shit about Coach purses and shades of lip gloss anymore? I needed some solid recommendations on good diaper bags and friends who could empathize with my cankles and heartburn.
  On a hot July afternoon, after twenty-six long hours of labor, my son Zachary Leo entered the world and nothing about anything I had ever known was ever the same. He was a bit jaundiced and cone-headed due to his stubborn reluctance to exit my womb, but I had never seen anything more perfect in my life. He was glorious. I couldn't have been more proud of him or more profoundly humbled by this gift I had been given.
  During those first postpartum weeks I was deluged with cards, gifts, casseroles, and calls from well-wishing friends and family. It was only when things began to settle down several weeks later that I realized I hadn't heard from Nat. It wasn't that I expected a gift, and I knew she couldn't have made a casserole if her life depended on it, but I was disappointed that I hadn't gotten a call. We had always shared everything with each other, and this was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me.
  When Zach was two months old, I was driving downtown with him and realized I was blocks away from Natalie's new apartment. I impulsively decided to reach out to her. We were supposed to be best friends, after all. I called her from the car.
  "Hey!" I exclaimed when she answered.
  "Oh my God, hi! How are you?" She seemed genuinely thrilled to hear my voice.
  "I'm great. Actually, I'm not far from your place right now. Would it be okay if I stopped by?"
  She paused a beat. "Of course!" There was another pause. "Um, are you alone?"
  "Yeah. Well, no. I mean, I have the baby with me. Is that a problem?" I was taken aback by her question.
  "No, no, of course not," she stammered. "Please come. I really miss you."
  "Okay. I'll see you in five."
  I rode the elevator up to Natalie's apartment balancing the baby in his infant carrier on one hip and my overflowing diaper bag in the other arm. I was quickly becoming a pro at this motherhood gig. When the elevator doors opened, Natalie was standing on the other side, waiting for me.
  "Holy shit," she shouted as I was revealed in all my mom-ness. "Look at what's happened to you. You're like a freaking pack mule." Her big eyes were wide as she smiled at me.
  "I know!" I laughed. "Who am I?"
  We made our way down the hall to her apartment. As soon as we walked in I set all my gear down and started to unbuckle the baby from his seat.
  "Do you want to meet him?" I asked. I was no less proud and excited to show him off than if I had shown up at her door with the Messiah Himself. Her body language made it clear that she had no interest in holding him, so I just turned him toward her in my arms so she could get a good look.
  "Oh. He's adorable. He looks just like Tim." Her smile wasn't quite making it to her eyes.
  "Yeah, that's what everyone says." My heart sank a little. It wasn't exactly the big reaction I had been hoping for.
  We chatted for a while and caught up on each other's lives. On the surface everything seemed normal, but there was an underlying stiffness between us. The baby started fussing, so I began to pack up my things.
  "I suppose I should get him home," I said. "He's getting hungry."
  "Oh, okay," she replied. "Well, it was so good to see you. I'm really so happy for you."
  I started to put Zach back in the carrier but then paused and held his tiny backside up to my nose.
  "Oh, boy. Sorry, I'm gonna have to change him before I go," I said as I laid him back down and began to unsnap his outfit.
  "Wait, what? Do you have to do that here?" Natalie looked panicked.
  "Well, yeah," I said. "We have a long ride home and he'll be screaming the entire way if I don't change him first." I started to peel off his diaper.
  "Oh my God! Is that shit? Did he shit his pants?" She was completely freaking out and staring down at my beautiful baby as though he were a vile sewer rat.
  "Yes, he shit his pants. Babies tend to do that." A fire was starting to rise up in my chest.
  "Omygod, omygod," Natalie yelled as she rushed over to open the sliding glass door to her porch. She stuck just her head out into the fresh air. "Are you finished yet?" She yelled back at me.
  "Yup. All done. You can stop losing your mind now." I was so confused by her outburst.
  "Sorry. I'm sorry. Dirty diapers just really gross me out." She kept her head down, like she was afraid to look up in case there was more poop somewhere.
  "Yes, I see that. Alrighty then. I'm gonna go." I briskly lifted my bag to one shoulder and hooked the baby-laden car seat under the other arm.
  "You're taking the poop diaper with you right? You're not going to leave it here?" She started to panic again.
  "Yes, Natalie. The poop is coming with me. It was great seeing you."
  Hurt and bewildered, I left.
  Despite his clean pants, Zach cried the whole way home, and I cried with him. The tension caused by my raging postpartum hormones and two months of sleep deprivation combined with Natalie's weird behavior was just too much, and the dam finally broke. I sobbed fiercely. I was finally accepting what I had known deep down for a long time. My friendship with Natalie was all but over. I just couldn't do it anymore. I was a mother now, and motherhood had unleashed an assertiveness in me that was never there before.
  A realization came to me during that drive home that has stayed with me. I spent years dropping everything for Natalie anytime she needed me. I drove thirty miles once just to go see her new designer bag in person. Yet, after I spent nine months growing a whole entire human whom I then pushed from my body with only half of a working epidural, she couldn't find a way to visit or even ask me how he was. And when I finally brought him to her, she treated him like vermin? Enough was enough.
  Months passed and I never contacted Natalie. Eventually, she reached out to me and we met up for a handful of get-togethers over the next few years. Every time we met, despite hugs and promises not to wait so long to do it again, the time in between meetings seemed to stretch longer and longer until it just gradually never happened again. The dawn of Facebook rekindled our friendship briefly, but it was short-lived. About three years ago she sent me this message that was among the last we've exchanged:

  I think about you all the time and wonder why the hell we lost touch. Without getting too sappy, I miss you so much and our witty banter. I never found that with anyone else in the world and feel like part of my life is empty without it. -Nat

  As I write this, it's been nearly seven years since I've seen Natalie. She rarely posts on Facebook, but occasionally I catch a glimpse into her current life. From what I can tell, she's not married and has no children. There may be a serious boyfriend in the mix but it's hard to tell. She always seems to be surrounded by a group of beautiful, childless people who give off a bohemian vibe and don't really age. The faces change, but the profile of the cast of characters seems to stay the same.
  I believe she works at a pizza joint on the south side, and I've thought of finding a reason to stop in there and see if she's around, but that seems far too stalkerish and desperate. Even if I did show up, I would never find what I'm looking for. I'm afraid that I would find, not a totally-changed Natalie, but the exact same one, only with faint wrinkles around her eyes and better hair. If I could walk through the doors as my twenty-two-year-old self, I would, but that's not reality. The reality is that I would have to drag in this current version of me, the one that's pushing forty and whose life revolves around soccer practice and parent-teacher conferences. It appears that this me and Natalie are out of witty banter.
  It's part of the human experience to have people drift in and out of your life. Not all of them are meant to stay. There are others who've come and gone, but the loss of Natalie has been among the saddest for me. For a brief time, she gave me the gift of true understanding. To be understood—really understood, with grace and humor—I've come to realize, is so very rare.
  Recently, Tim and I were driving on the east side of Milwaukee and passed by Vittucci's. I pressed my forehead against the window and sighed audibly without meaning to. Tim reached over to rub my back and asked quietly, "You miss Nat, don't you?" I turned and flashed him a sad smile and then went back to the window to catch the last ghosts of my youth sail by on the streets of my favorite city. There was no reason to answer out loud. He already knew.






Jennifer Hocevar

JENNIFER HOCEVAR lives in southeastern Wisconsin with her husband and two children where she has worked in public education as a school psychologist for the last 15 years. Despite having her poetry published in The Sheepshead Review back in college and writing her entire life, she has only recently found the courage to call herself a writer. As it turns out, writing is actually what she would like to do when she grows up. This is Jennifer's first published work of creative nonfiction.





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