you & me

Marlene and I: A History of Two Grudging Friends.

I was a quiet girl. Studious and tall for an 11-year-old, I wore two long dark ponytails on either side of my face. Most of the time, I thought it best not to smile. I felt stoic.

Stoic felt good, like something I could hold on to. Inside myself, when I read stories and novels, I smiled and laughed. Or cried, my features mobile and expressive. But I did not show that to the world, if I could help it. Marlene was my best friend. She was shorter than me, and liked to read too. The odd couple.

Sometimes we raced through the same book far into the night, competitive, willing to get further than the other, despite our heavy lids, despite that the words had stopped making sense on the page. She wanted to beat me. I wanted to beat her. And everyone for that matter. And in a lot of ways, I did.

I outlived Marlene, who died when she was only 47. I remember her golden mousy brown hair, and her eyes a deep intense blue. She was a series of contradictions. There’s something about her that reminds me of Eustace Chapuys, the 16th century Imperial ambassador to Charles V, who hated Anne Boleyn. I don’t know why.

In my mind, I, of course, am Anne Boleyn. Misunderstood, so learned and charming, the brightest star in court. Something I was not when I was 11 at Westminster Elementary. And in my life have never been: vibrant sparkle of French culture, quick wit and learned speech of three languages. No, I am soft-spoken, and must make an effort to project to be heard, though my voice and ideas are so loud in my mind.

When I’m 11, a stoic girl, I visit the library twice a week, and do all my homework plus the extra credit. Other afternoons, I go to Marlene’s and sit on the polished stairway of her family’s two-story Queen Anne craftsman house, and watch her practice the piano. Halting crystalline notes hang in the air. I will never play piano, I think.

Hearing her practice the violin is not quite as pleasant. Not sure why she does it. Her bow screeches across the strings. I wait patiently for her to finish, so we can hang out and talk.

Marlene has sort of a scientific fascination for fish. She has an aquarium with neon-looking inhabitants that float amid ghostly green foliage. Frequent visits to Al’s Aquarium are redolent of fish food and dank tank water. I wonder what the attraction is.

When I reconnected with Marlene some 30 years later, we met for coffee. We talked about Martin Luther. I don’t know why. I am interested in history, especially the 16th century. But she brought up Martin Luther whom I know a bit about, his plight and the turbulence of those times. The ongoing quest for people to find God in their own way.

In fact, Anne Boleyn was one of those from that time, who spearheaded the movement, influencing her husband Henry VIII to break with Rome.

Marlene is interested in religion, goes to church every Sunday. I am interested in empty churches, the resonance they hold of so many talking to some higher force. Of goodness. Suspended moments of disbelief. Arc of fingers brought into prayer again and again throughout the centuries, reaching for communion. It’s the reach I am interested in. It’s the freedom to reach I care about. The journey.

Marlene and I converse, at first a bit haltingly, and then more fluid. It feels the same as when we were 11. Our interest in things that other girls our age were not. Inquiring minds, I guess. Observing her from across the small square of cafe table, I take a sip of coffee. We could be friends again, I think.

But sometimes as kids, Marlene was haughty or invasive. It’s what originally ended our association. Her disdain of me at a time when I could not tolerate any more of the world’s cruelty. But now, over coffee, there is no time for any edge to develop in our re-emerging connection.

As a child, I was quiet. And the better student. She more bossy. More confident. But once in a while I’d say something that, I guess, was funny. Some dry observation or slant on something someone said. She peered at me from the side of her eye, turned her chin in my direction, remarked, “You’re funny.” It pleased her. I cracked a twist of a smile, raised an eyebrow.

It became her secret that she told no one: Lisa was funny.

Eustace Chapuys and Anne Boleyn, arch enemies, each represented danger to the other. If such souls can evolve over centuries, maybe they would end up something like Marlene and I. Grudging friends, with enough in common to keep them sparing. In the end a reluctant respect.

Eustace made comment of Anne’s demeanor before her beheading, “No one ever shewed more courage or greater readiness to meet death than she did.” This, from a man whose allegiance resided with the former Queen Katherine and with the “true religion.” This, from a man who consistently referred to the short-lived queen as “the concubine.”

Before Marlene and I could meet again, I received an email from her husband that she had died. Shocking and strange, I found the events hard to compute. I sat looking at the computer screen stunned. Why had we reconnected only to be parted again forever?

That day on the street in front of the cafe, I had stepped forward and hugged her. She hesitated, but then pressed her arm across my shoulder. Brief. But it was there.

Perhaps we meet again only to be given the opportunity to forgive. To reignite hope, to lay the template for peace so that a world which we will not be here later to see, peopled with those we will never know, can have a chance. A good solid chance. And a history.

***

Lisa Marguerite Mora is a novelist, and has won prizes for poetry and fiction. She has been providing literary services, including workshops, since 2002. Her poetry, essays, and fiction have been published — and forthcoming — in Rattle, ONTHEBUS, Literary Mama, Public Poetry Series, California Quarterly, Cultural Weekly, Dandelion Press, Serving House Journal, among many others. Lisa has completed one novel, and is at work on a second. You can contact her via her website.

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