J.W. Young’s essays have been anthologized by Random House, Dzanc Books, and Pinchback Press. Her work has appeared in both print and online journals including The Apple Valley Review, Memoir, and Front Porch. Her recently completed memoir, Blood and Circumstance, recounts the effects of living as the daughter of one of California’s most notorious serial rapists. You can contact her and read more of her work at www.joyousinhell.blogspot.com.
Big Dumb Baby
I was raised by my maternal grandmother who—among teaching me the finer points of smoking non-filter cigarettes and ironing a perfect crease into polyester slacks—made sure I grew up understanding the one true pillar of friendship: “Most friends,” she’d say, the words oozing from her mouth like some fine poison, “wouldn’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” So many times was this phrase repeated that it should have been etched into our family crest and set above the front door.
I knew Grandma to have only two friends. The first, a woman named Linda who was several years Grandma’s junior, seemed to come around only when the two of them were going on cruises to Mexico. Linda owned a pizzeria and as a kid I spent afternoons inside the small restaurant feeding quarters into the pinball machines in the back while the two of them sat at one of the small tables and smoked and laughed over pictures of their latest trip. The last time Grandma saw Linda, I was nearly an adult. We were both invited to her wedding—she was on her fifth or sixth husband by then—and while we were welcome at the ceremony I remember feeling as if we’d crashed the reception. Grandma didn’t know anyone at our table and spent much of the afternoon trying to make her way over to the one with Linda’s adult children. When she finally made it, she sat down next to a tanned young man who looked just like his mother. He seemed to not know who she was, though Grandma spoke loudly, saying, “I used to feed Mark strained peas. They were his favorite.”
Taking her place in the receiving line, ready for a warm response from Linda, all Grandma got was a short hug, a brief introduction to the groom, and a complicit smile. I don’t think the two women ever spoke again. Grandma stopped mentioning her cruises, sitting at captains’ tables, and the fact that a little boy named Mark used to hang on her every word.
The only other friend Grandma had was a German immigrant named Gretta who called our house three or four times a day. Each time Grandma picked up the phone, perhaps hoping to hear from Linda, she’d cheerfully say, “Hello,” and then roll her eyes. “Hi Gretta.” For the next hour she’d be roped into listening to the thick accent, the woman recounting her most recent complaint about her adult daughter or her newest physical ailment. When Grandma hung up she’d say, “God I hate that damned woman.” But she still picked up the phone every day. Eventually, one of Gretta’s many ailments proved fatal and the day after her funeral—where Grandma was the only friend in attendance—the phone rang and Grandma joked, “That’s probably Gretta calling me from beyond the grave.” She picked up the receiver only to find dead air. This happened more than a dozen times over the next month, and I came to believe that when a friendship died, its haunting spirit somehow remained.
Perhaps it goes without saying that for most of my childhood I was lonely. Sure, I had schoolmates and neighbors, but I was only allowed to socialize with one girl, Michelle, whose parents were both teachers. For some reason, Grandma trusted them and so I was allowed on occasion to have a little contact with Michelle outside of school. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I was allowed to accept invitations to her house. Miraculously, the summer before I was fourteen, I spent two weeks with her family in Hawaii. They treated me like a second daughter, allowing Michelle and I entire hours of time on our own that we spent on the beach, exploring sea side walking paths, and swimming in the resort pool. When I returned home, I regaled Grandma with tales of our adventures.
After that trip Grandma went out of her way to keep Michelle from being a part of my life. She moved me to another town. She wouldn’t allow me to talk to Michelle on the phone; I wasn’t permitted to accept any more invitations to her house, even for her birthday. Since both of us were too young to drive, I saw my childhood friend again only one other time. She appeared on my doorstep a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday with a card and a copy of Stephen King’s newest book. I stepped out onto the front porch and sat with her on the cold cement step while her mother waited in the car.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” she said.
“It’s just, I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to be my friend? It’s okay that you live here now. We can still keep in touch.”
I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t realize at the time Grandma had purposely moved me away from my only friend. But I knew that move had made us destitute—house-rich and everything-else-poor. When Michelle showed up at my door that day I couldn’t invite her inside in part because I had nothing to offer her; our refrigerator housed a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes, a head of lettuce, and a jar of mayonnaise. I feared—because Grandma said it—that Michelle would somehow know we were suffering and judge me for it, terminate the friendship. Sitting on the front step, not looking into the face of the girl who’d been my friend since kindergarten, I suddenly felt like a baby whose only response was to cry—my face burned with tears. Michelle looked at her shoes, green Converse sneakers I envied. “I gotta go,” she finally said.
These years preceded email and social media, so we only exchanged a handful of letters over the next few months, letters I received only because I was the one to check the mail each day. One of the last Michelle sent was an essay she’d written in her English class about her best friend, me. She’d made a cover for the essay, a collage of photos of the two of us over the years, and in the essay she lamented the fact that we drifted apart.
As I grew into an adult, I constantly thought of Grandma’s words, “They won’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” But once I’d left home I was able to gain some perspective on our life together that suggested to me I’d forever be hard-pressed to find a healthy friendship. I’d been damaged by fate: Grandma—like so many other single-parents—had developed an emotional dependency on me. She’d been divorced several times, had a hard time maintaining relationships with her own children and siblings, and because she didn’t work was isolated at home for most of the day, her only hobbies were chain smoking and obsessively dusting her antique furniture. I was her sole companion, and if I’d had a relationship with someone else she would have felt threatened. Today this condition is known as Parental Co-Dependency, but when I was young it was simply the way my world worked.
Or maybe Grandma was incapable of maintaining more than one close relationship, as a large majority of adult Americans are wont to do. Based on her track record with Linda and Gretta that seems to fit the bill. Or she could’ve been like the millions of people on the planet who simply use a spouse—in her case a pseudo-spouse, me—as their best friend. Some psychologists argue that it’s only natural for a spouse to become the best friend, while another camp argues such behavior results in an unhealthy marriage of co-dependency. We surely fell into the latter category. Whatever the reason, I wish Grandma would’ve told me what she was feeling so I could’ve tried to understand it, if not somehow grow from it, maybe even learn to be a better judge of character.
As I entered my thirties—the age experts agree signals the plateau of true friend-making—I took a short assessment of my friendships: I knew six people who would pee on me if I suddenly burst into flames. To those close friends, I’d become fiercely loyal. One in particular, Gibb, had earned my respect over the ten years I’d known him. And while I admired him, the longer I knew him, the more I pitied him: he lived alone, hardly left his apartment, his bookcases were filled with Disney DVDs and Playstation games. He spent the wee hours of his mornings in chat rooms. In an attempt to show the world what a good guy Gibb was, I named him Managing Editor of a writing journal when I stepped down.
The following year, my husband Adam and I moved to another state. But we got together with Gibb whenever we could. During one visit we sat around in his living room—movie posters on the walls and scented candles lit on every surface—drinking beer and catching up on each others’ lives. Before we left, he told me, “That’s what I like best about you guys. I don’t have to talk to you every day to be close friends. We just kinda pick up where we left off.” Though I didn’t say it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for years he’d been meticulously measuring our friendship against others he had, weighing me against some criteria for keeping and discarding people.
A few years later, when a position opened at my workplace, I wrote Gibb a letter of recommendation. I put in a good word for him with my boss, telling her how much the two of them had in common, and that I thought he’d really fit in. It didn’t take long for him to get the job. It took even less time for him and my boss to become lovers. At first, I was supportive of their relationship. I helped them keep it a secret from the higher-ups so neither one of them would be fired, and even deceived my fellow coworkers so they wouldn’t be found out. Gibb was my friend. And friends put out fires for one another.
Then I found out about Big Dumb Baby, a sex game they played where Gibb was made to act like an infant called Big Dumb Baby and my boss acted like Mommy, spanking him and telling him what she wanted him to do to her. I’m all for kinky sex, but never have I felt turned on by the idea of intercourse with a baby. Gibb liked Big Dumb Baby enough to marry her. Every time I saw him in the halls, in the copy room, at parties, all I could think about was him trussed up in adult diapers wearing a baby bonnet and sucking his wife’s toes. I imagined him bent over and allowing her to spank him.
A few months after taking their vows, Gibb told me over the telephone, “I unfriended you on Facebook.” Because I hadn’t seen Gibb around the office or at any social gatherings since his marriage, deleting me from his Facebook list was the emotional equivalent of what I’d done to Michelle over a decade earlier.
“You what?” I asked.
“It’s not personal or anything. It’s just, sometimes you post comments about your boss.”
“And? So do a lot of people.”
“Your boss is my wife.”
“She’s not my only boss.” I’d been irate about some policy changes and had posted a few comments about how unjust they were. And while Mommy had started to go out of her way to make my work life miserable, none of my posts were directed at her. “I haven’t posted anything about her,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
My face suddenly got very hot and before I could stop them, my eyes filled with tears. “So instead of talking to me about it you just unfriend me?”
“I’m sorry, but your posts make for awkward conversations around my house. Conversations I don’t want to have.”
Just before their marriage, Gibb told me he and Mommy had never fought, had never had a full-blown, heated argument about anything. Which made me wonder if they even really cared about each other. I suddenly blamed myself for Gibb’s passionless, dishonest marriage where his wife treated him like an infant. But instead of revealing what I knew about him, trying to help him through his embarrassment, I got angry, Grandma’s warning ringing in my head. I’d befriended someone who was simply pissing on me. “This is bullshit,” I said.
“It’s not bullshit. I’m married. My wife and I are one,” he said. As if after his wedding he’d gotten a lobotomy or been plugged into the Borg. And with that, our friendship was officially over. Like me and Michelle, like Grandma and Gretta.
Gibb systematically cut all of his pre-marriage friends out of his life. It’s a common enough phenomenon. Some couples end decade-long friendships prior to getting hitched. But usually, the ties are cut with single friends not married ones. Still, I’m not naïve enough to believe people don’t change during marriage. Compromise is part of a working relationship. But never have I thought during the course of my own marriage that I needed to end a friendship because Adam doesn’t approve. We maintain common friends—most of them other married couples—and our own friendships that came with us before we took our vows.
“I feel so used,” I told another one of Gibb’s toss-aways.
“It’s funny that she still has all of her friends, but he’s had to get rid of his. The people he’s friends with now are people she brought with her to the marriage,” she said.
“I don’t get it. How could he just use me? Just jump ship?”
“It’s the type of person he is,” she said, shrugging. And something in her tone reminded me so much of Grandma’s warning that I shuddered. “But if you really want to know the truth,” she said, “I think he had a crush on you before he got married and was stupid enough to actually tell her about it.”
I didn’t want to believe it. But I immediately recalled an evening at Mommy’s house when I made a joke about how I’d landed my husband. “If Adam hadn’t wanted me,” I’d laughed, “I was going to move in on to Gibb next.” Big Dumb Baby blushed, and Mommy’s smile became a tight-lipped mask. After Adam and I got home I asked him, “Do you think Gibb thought I was serious about wanting to date him?”
“Obviously,” he said. “You saw her face, too.”
“So she hates me now,” I said. “She’ll probably try to get me fired.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Adam said.
Shortly after Gibb unfriended me, I began to imagine him as a prisoner in Mommy’s house. He was trussed up in his Big Dumb Baby garb, drooling and crying for a diaper change. She circled him while slapping a riding crop across his bare legs. No matter how he cried, she was determined to keep him right where he was. I never dropped by their place for fear of realizing their game had gone too far. For fear that I’d failed to help my friend out of a humiliating relationship, failed to put out the flame. I, too, had become the very sort of friend I’d worried myself over.
The end of my relationship with Gibb made me question the validity of every close friendship I still had. Three of my five remaining friends lived hundreds of miles away and most of our weekly interactions took place through social media. I sent cards at holidays, but my ability to remember birthdays and anniversaries was sadly lacking. I loved these friends very much, more so even than family members. But I’m unsure if they really knew how valuable they were in my life, how crushed I’d be if they suddenly cut me out. I contacted each of them, letting them know I’d pee on them in a second, should the need ever arise. And they all assured me they would happily do the same. Without Gibb I would’ve never recognized how miserably I was failing as a friend. For that, I’m thankful.
And I wish I could’ve saved him from Mommy and Big Dumb Baby, though I know that ultimately he made those choices on his own. Still, the more I think about his end to our friendship and those that—despite my shortcomings—are still thriving, the more I relive the moment with Michelle on the front step, her green sneakers, and my desperate, silent plea for my best friend to recognize I was being forced to give her up. If I’d just swallowed my pride, or had the courage to stand up to Grandma, to tell her our relationship isolated me, perhaps my life would’ve been a little less lonely. Perhaps I could’ve grown into a woman who saw strangers as potential friends rather than people who, at the sight of me aflame, would turn tail and run.