I never know how to be fashionably late. That’s Klara’s talent.
We’d picked a place to meet that was about halfway between the two of us. It was a little closer to me, and while in the cab, I savored the small accomplishment of being the one with the shorter ride. But I was early, making it a pointless victory.
The only table available was a small one by the window, really a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. We’d decided on a Blue Bottle, as if being somewhere familiar might make us familiar to one another again, the way chain hotels and restaurants and drugstores design their entrances to all look the same so that when you walk in, you feel grounded no matter where you are or what’s outside. Klara had texted in the morning: We can pretend we’re back in San Francisco! Outside a big brick building was pressed up against another big brick building on a narrow one-way street—nothing you’d ever see on the West Coast.
I didn’t know much about New York then, there for the first time and only for two nights, staying in a $380/night Lower East Side hotel with an absurdly giant granite tub, courtesy of the media conglomerate for which I worked. I was there to report on a languishing tech giant’s new computer-tablet hybrid device if “reporting” was even the accurate way to put it. The tech company had rented a warehouse at one of the piers. They’d built giant structures inside to create a city populated with the devices—pairs going into buildings and shops; several sitting at park benches, staring at one another with their camera eyes; ones riding and driving cabs. The message, maybe, being: These little gadgets, they’re just like us. Buy a new companion today. On a giant stage in another room, product execs touted the thing’s magnesium casing and the “satisfying” clicking sound the stand made when it shut against the said casing. I had a line in my “initial hands-on” report—Sure, the magnesium is smooth, but at the end of the day, metal is metal is cold and dead—that my editor changed to FuseMg feels great in the hand. I was already tired of my job back then. When I’d first started, I thought I was on the path to doing something important and worthwhile. Now, well, I don’t delude myself.
I wasn’t in New York to see Klara, but all day, through the event’s annoying indie-pop soundtrack and the flashing colorful lights that made me worry I’d become epileptic and the long awkward pauses meant for weak applause, the thought of our forthcoming meeting would suddenly intrude my note-taking. I’d think of her, surprised and disturbed. I had convinced myself that I had moved on, gotten over whatever had happened between us, but clearly she had a stronger effect on my psyche than I was ready to admit.
It was starting to get dark. Outside of the Blue Bottle, the sidewalk traffic increased with people heading home or out to dinner, their faces shining with summer sweat. I checked my phone. I was still ten minutes early, so I walked to the counter to order the most expensive item on the menu. A Nicaraguan coffee from the siphon bar accompanied with two toffees turned out to be $15. I added a $6 goat cheese and fig scone to the order. Everything would be reimbursed through my job. I felt I had to take advantage of my extravagant daily allowance, to siphon (ha ha) as much out of the job as possible, to make up for the hollowness of the work. Back to the phone. Messages. Klara’s. I scrolled and scrolled, wanting to go back to the earliest ones I had (six years of history—I hated to delete anything that might mean something to me later), to read through them all, not for the first time, see how the tone changed over the years, when exactly we stopped contacting each other as frequently, who started it, who was more at fault. The earlier texts, full of phrases like “hahaha yes” and “heading over” and “love ya” and “do you have my…” gave way to later ones that started off with, “Hi, Klara. How are you?” or “Sorry, I didn’t see this” and ended with “Hope you are doing well.” I was trying and failing to stop thinking about our relationship in terms of blame.
It had been a year since we’d last seen each other, back in San Francisco, after another year of little contact. Klara had been back in town for a couple days, passing through to visit her old lab and play tourist. We’d met at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant for dinner with our boyfriends in tow. I was tense. The wound of our torn friendship still felt fresh, though I knew it wasn’t, that I had deliberately picked at the dirty scab to let the blood seep out again and again. I wanted to appear happy to see her, to win her back somehow, or at least present a friendly face, one that showed I was OK with where we stood, or better yet, I wanted to appear cold, to show her I didn’t need her, which would somehow cause her to put in more effort, make her want me to need her. But when my boyfriend and I arrived at the restaurant, Klara and her boyfriend weren’t there. For the next twenty minutes I couldn’t stop looking at my phone to check the time, complaining about how typical it was of her to be late to everything. I sat there tapping and scratching the vinyl of the waiting area bench, checking the door and my phone every half-minute.
It used to be a funny quirk, Klara’s lateness, especially if I was there with her, helping her slack. What time is it? she’d ask and I’d say, hurry up, as I watched her put on her makeup, dab the concealer beneath her eyes, brush the foundation across her face, smear stain on her cheekbones and lips, swipe a couple coats of mascara on her otherwise invisible blonde lashes. She would put something on, a pair of jeans and a blouse, change her mind, take it off, put on a dress, stare at herself in the mirror, ask if she looked ok, to which I always tried to respond honestly, which might cause her to change her mind again. She would check her email, lose her phone, find it, then have lost her keys, need to decide on shoes, and so on. Five minutes would turn into fifteen, then thirty, sometimes more, and when it was well past the time she had to be someplace else she’d only just be stepping out the door. I would watch and shake my head. God you’re so ridiculous, Klara. Occasionally she’d just lay down in bed, say, Who cares where I have to be? I’m tired and I don’t want to go anywhere. She’d call or text whoever, make up some excuse—too much work, not feeling well, family shit—and we’d stay in, get high, walk down Telegraph for frozen yogurt or hot dogs, then wander the Berkeley campus, where we would easily find entertainment in everything: fast-walking students with their giant backpacks, a dog pissing on its owner’s laundry hamper outside the Laundromat, a woman on a milk crate calling us devil children through her loudspeaker….I’m a paranoid high, always have been. Klara was confident. Are my eyes white? Can you tell I’m high? I often asked her, drowning myself in Visine. They’re so white, they’re Snow White white, she’d reassure me. Then there was the tickling of grass against our bare legs as we lounged on the quad—it had felt endless, like childhood, and it all ended without my fully understanding when or how or why.
To be on the receiving end of her lateness felt like betrayal. So at the Vietnamese restaurant, when Klara finally walked in with her boyfriend, I wasn’t in a generous mood. The first thing I noticed was how dramatically they had aged since I’d last seen them—she had gained weight and seemed to walk slower. Distinct wrinkles fanned out of the corners of her eyes. She looked lumpy beneath her tight jersey dress. Her boyfriend still had his youthful face and physique, but his long hair was so thin that I was already expecting to see the bald spot at the back of his head. In that moment, the surprise of seeing them older coalesced with my irritation and instead of hugging them and saying hi, as a decent person might, I blurted out impatiently that they were late. Klara’s boyfriend apologized, while she stood beside him, half-smiling and silent, looking down, her hair covering half her face. She wore no makeup that I could tell. What could she be doing now when she was being late? The boyfriend said it was his fault, and because I knew it wasn’t, his tone made me feel guilty. I apologized, told them it was fine, that I was just hungry. As we waited in line, I worried that it was years of enduring my harsh, thoughtless remarks that had pushed Klara away from me. But that couldn’t be right, I thought, as I leaned against my boyfriend, though more conscious of Klara’s presence behind me. I hadn’t been truly harsh with her until I had felt abandoned by her, or so I reasoned then. Had Klara been as concerned as I was? What was she thinking then? That our dinner was an obligatory chore to a bygone friend, somebody who didn’t matter anymore except as a courtesy? Or worse, maybe she wasn’t thinking anything of me at all?
I wish we could have analyzed our fading friendship together. I wonder what we would have come up with if we could have taken a step back and looked at us from afar. It was something we had loved doing to others when we were in college, the social interactions soaked in meaning that we’d spend hours wringing out. I think it had something to do with our growing up outsiders in our adolescent communities, our need to dissect social situations we didn’t naturally understand, in order to get along, or better, excel. She was an immigrant, arriving at ten years old, originally from Ukraine, by way of Denmark. I was the child of Chinese immigrants. We both grew up in sleepy white suburban towns with idealistic, picturesque names like Pleasanton and Walnut Creek, names that made you think of identical beige houses with artificially green lawns, equally spaced out on wide streets, exactly the kind of homes in which we grew up, except inside ours the families shouted in voices the neighbors couldn’t understand, could never figure out if we were fighting or if the language naturally sounded angry. And yet Klara and I were—we still are—so different from one another.
We met at Berkeley, through a mutual friend, whom neither of us spoke to after the second month of college and whose name I can’t recall. By the time I’d met Klara, she’d decided to go through rush week and asked, no begged, me to rush with her. I didn’t want to. I told her the idea of meeting and spending five days with dozens of girls who were trying to impress each other with their high-pitched enthusiasm sounded like torture. What I didn’t say was that I was afraid of rejection, a rejection I could easily divine. Klara somehow convinced me that it would be fun, then day one, first hour, we were separated into different groups and I got stuck standing next to another Asian girl whose right eye wouldn’t stop watering, causing her to look like a sick puppy, not the kind you want to adopt, but the kind you pity, knowing it’s going to be put down. Her eye makeup smeared across the right side of her face as she talked about her first months at Berkeley, how she was scared to walk down Telegraph because homeless people would get in her face asking for money. I looked past the girl, at Klara chatting with others resembling her, confident and cheerful types, their hair either long enough to graze the small of their backs or tied up in perfect buns. There was an Asian girl and a Desi girl in Klara’s pack, and I envied them in particular; they were the ones who knew how to do a perfect cat-eye and were born with the luck of European noses. It was obvious to me that the girls in the top-tier houses chose by looks first—their reputation and relations with the frat houses counted on it. Klara and her new crowd looked comfortable, like they knew exactly where they’d end up. I walked up to my recruitment counselor, a sweet looking girl who had introduced herself as the treasurer of a bottom-tier sorority (she only said the house name, the rest of us interpreted the meaning), and told her I had changed my mind and wanted to withdraw from recruitment. Are you sure? she asked at least four times. We haven’t even started and I know you’d find a good fit somewhere, I can tell the girls in my house would like you. I walked away without saying goodbye to Klara.
Sophomore year, Klara moved into her sorority house (top-tier, one known for having lots of hot foreign girls) and I moved into one of the co-ed, vegetarian co-ops. Still, we saw each other nearly every day, unless one of us was out of town or too sick to leave the house or too overwhelmed with our pathetic workload, and even then we would often see each other at the library or at I-House. We took courses together, courses with names like “Rhetoric of Bitchiness” and “Feminine Sexuality” and “Crisis and Culture.” I talked her into taking them with me, though they didn’t fulfill any of her major (Molecular and Cell Biology) requirements, and did fulfill all of mine (Rhetoric). What are we here for if not to really live this? I once said, naively, waving my arms as if to envelop the Free Speech Movement Café. (Which reminds me of another time, when a student in one of my Rhetoric courses, for a final presentation, dragged the entire class of fifty to the outside of the café, made us surround him as he reenacted Mario Savio’s 1964 “Operation of the Machine” speech while standing on a cement block, and all I could think was that Savio’s actual speech took place on the steps of Sproul Hall, a building located on a different side of campus, not in front of this café that hadn’t yet been built, that was only built to commemorate him, that the reenactment was so far removed from the actual event. That was another time, a time that didn’t involve Klara. But nearly everything from those days reminds me of her, makes me wonder how much of what I’ve replayed of our time together is only an interpretation of what really happened.) Klara and I would talk about our readings, introduced for the first time to thinkers like Laura Mulvey, Adrienne Rich, Slavoj Žižek, and Judith Butler, whose office we stalked outside numerous times, taking photos of ourselves with her nameplate. We never did talk about sorority recruitment again, and I was grateful Klara never brought it up. I’m not sure why, but even thinking back on that day coats me in shame.
Klara used to comment on my looks, too. She would say things like, I wish my skin was as clear as yours. I wish that I was shorter like you, I wish my arms were toned like yours, I wish my hair was thicker, that my boobs weren’t so saggy, that my stomach was flatter. And each time it made me happy to hear that I had something she didn’t, even though I was completely convinced that, in whole, she was more attractive than me, and I said so.
How did I look to her during that long ago dinner, as we ate our pho and bun? My intention going in, after my brief outburst about their tardiness, was to keep quiet, listen to Klara and our boyfriends talk about their respective graduate school programs, which were all in some sort of biological field. I was used to hearing people talk about work I didn’t understand, but for some reason, on that night, I couldn’t handle it. It was PI this and degradation that and intracellular whatever. At one point, my boyfriend asked Klara if she had decided on a lab yet. After putting an entire slice of barbecue pork in her mouth, she said, with her food bulging from her cheek, that she would join the department’s power lab so that she could publish in high-impact journals faster, and therefore graduate sooner, as well as get a more useful recommendation for future post-docs should she choose to stay in academia. It didn’t hurt that the PI had great industry connections with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, too. For some reason, this explanation troubled me, despite the parallels between her decision-making process and my boyfriend’s the year prior, and the way Klara spoke with food in her mouth, again something that didn’t bother me most of the time, made me want to slam the table and shout. Since when was she so eager to impress, so eager to climb the ladder? How disgusting for her to talk like that. When had she become so cold, so success-driven? The restraint I had aimed for earlier escaped me, and I asked, do you even care about the research the lab does? Or is it just about power and reputation? Once the words came out of my mouth, I could hear that same harsh bitterness in them from earlier and immediately regretted having spoken.
It hadn’t always been like this. We used to have these long, meandering conversations about whatever was happening in our lives. It’s easy when you’re so wound up in another person’s existence, so familiar with her life’s ancillary characters, all the small details—when she last went to the dentist, who she last ate a meal with, how often she did laundry, what her plans were for the next day and the day after and the day after—to have a lot to talk about, to speculate and expand on, to never stop. One time, we were studying in her room when she started talking about yet another elective she’d decided to take, on Cuba. (She was always taking classes that she didn’t need, and it impressed everyone who heard that a pre-med student was in History and Rhetoric courses. My mom used to say that Klara was more well-rounded than me. What’s funny is Klara always did better in her electives than the classes that mattered for pre-med.) For her Cuba class, she said she was going to write about the contribution Che Guevara had on the revolution. I love him, she said. He’s right up there with Armin van Buuren and Andrew VanWyngarden. Who? I asked. The Dutch DJ and the lead singer of MGMT, she said. Don’t you know? We were lying beside each other in her bed, and I turned on my stomach to laugh into her pillow. (I remember the smell of her pillows so distinctly, like baby formula and wet skin, musty and sweet.) That makes no sense, I said. It makes perfect sense, she said, fuck Armin and Andrew in the present day and fuck Che in the past. I asked if her professor was cancelling class for the walkout, and she said yes, but only the Cuba class was cancelled; she still had to go to Physiology and Microbio lab. You can’t cross the picket line, that’s just not OK, I said, turning back to her. I was echoing what one of my professors had said, as if I had come up with it myself. (I would see my first picket line the following week.) Klara rambled on about how she knew her professors were going to give quizzes, they didn’t care about the protest or the budget cuts or layoffs or tuition hikes, none of it affected their departments. They only wanted the students in class, and she was already falling behind due to one failed quiz. I really need A’s this semester for med school apps, she said. Doesn’t sound like you’d be someone Che Guevara would be into, I said.
She ignored me and changed the topic. Remember last night when I stepped out with that guy, the one with the eyebrows? she said. We went out to the backyard and made out for a little bit. I lied about it yesterday because I didn’t want you to freak out. While we were making out, the guy lifted up my shirt up, just as the neighbor turned on her back porch light and came out to smoke. The first thing she sees is my bare chest, nipples pointing straight at her. The woman looked for a second, then apologized loudly and hurried back in and turned off her porch light. Eyebrow guy just tries to keep it going, and yells toward the house, Why are people so prude? This woman has beautiful breasts and shouldn’t be ashamed of showing them off!
We laughed, making fun of all the “enlightened” Berkeley boys Klara had encountered. But curiosity, mixed with something else, made me do something I had never done before or since. I turned to Klara and asked if she would show me them, her beautiful breasts, what I called them to mimic the guy, to make it seem more like a joke than something serious. It was, however, a serious request; something in me wanted to see a part of Klara that somebody who didn’t even know her had seen, feeling like it was almost my right as her closest friend, that I should be able to see all of her. And yet another part of me was afraid that I was crossing some boundary of our friendship—we’d seen each other’s body, but quickly and casually, while changing clothes, nothing like what I was asking then. Klara turned her face to mine. We were close enough that I could see each individual thin, bloodshot vein in the whites of her eyes, and for a moment I thought she might scream at me, say no, or push me away, but she just said a quick ok, while lifting up her shirt. I sat up and looked at her naked chest, she wasn’t wearing a bra, and I saw that her skin there was as smooth and free of blemishes as the more visible parts of her. I was surprised to see how small they were as she lay there, how she looked so innocent. Encouraged by her assent, I took another step. Can I see what they feel like? I asked. She nodded. It was strange, that moment, touching her in a way I had never touched her, yet it was fleeting, a gentle press of my fingers against her right breast—again, I was surprised, surprised at how soft she felt, especially compared to my own denser breast—and quickly, her shirt came back down. We looked at each other for a short moment and burst into giggles. After we calmed down, I told Klara I wouldn’t have freaked out if she’d told me about what happened right after. She shook her head. Yes, you would have, you always freak out about things. I flinched. No, I don’t, I said. But I added, You know what? You really shouldn’t cross the picket line for some dumb classes. Klara sat up and stared down at me on her bed. Not all of us choose to live these little idealistic, romantic lives, she said, her voice pinched and high, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Some of us have more practical goals.
Practical goals. I have those now too. This job. Money. It makes sense, but how was I supposed to know anything back then? I wanted more, and maybe I still do.
About her choice of lab, Klara was unsurprisingly defensive. Back in the restaurant, she said she thought the research was incredibly interesting and went on to describe the lab’s focus, almost none of which I can remember, only that it had to do with stem cells and cancer, something Klara had talked often about in our undergraduate days, though more in a medical than research context. At least there was some consistency, I thought. She looked at me only fleetingly, making eye contact mostly with our boyfriends, yet I sat there not taking my eyes off of her, nodding, trying to erase the tension I had just created. I said I thought that she was right, that it was a good idea, what she was doing, it all made total sense. In the early years of our friendship, we used to argue and sometimes even yelled at one another, as friends do, but our disagreements were short-lived. We quickly returned to our happy equilibrium, because we needed it. I wanted this more than anything that night, but it felt like there was something unmovable and complicated in the way, like some tight mesh netting separating us. I could see her, but I couldn’t reach her.
Desperate not to part ways after our dinner, I asked Klara and her boyfriend if they wanted to go sit and chat in a bar, though I knew my own boyfriend would prefer to head home. Klara said sure, a word that I’ve always hated, because it seems so half-hearted, as if the person saying it is doing you a favor by being polite, something I had told her several times before. Maybe she had forgotten? We walked to the bar down the street, and naturally separated into pairs, Klara and her boyfriend trailing slightly behind. When I noticed them deep in some conversation, I turned to my boyfriend and asked if he thought I’d been harsh with Klara. He said I had been a bit impatient. I spent the rest of the walk brooding over whether she would think the same, whether she had noticed, and how to remedy it so that we could part on good terms. Glancing back at them, I tried to find an opening in their conversation to squeeze a word in, but never succeeded.
Klara and I used to take a lot of walks together, like over to her sorority house for dinner after our evening Fem Sex class, through the little woods along north campus, where you could almost pretend you were in the wilderness, with the dense trees and the sound of the creek’s water riding along its rocks. One night she asked what I had thought about the discussion we’d had in class. It had been about masturbation, and the instructor, a graduate student in the Film and Media department, had gone on to talk about the shame that women often feel about pleasuring themselves, about how the shame is partly due to the fact that we don’t talk about masturbation openly with one another, that there are so few mainstream examples in the media of women talking about masturbation together. Some of the women in class scoffed. What about Sex and the City, one said. We were third-wave feminists, beyond even a show like that, far beyond the shame, according to another. The people in class began sharing their masturbation origin stories, the frequency with which they masturbate, their favorite methods and toys, one after the other, often interrupting each other to agree and ask questions. I was fascinated, because though I believed that nobody should feel ashamed about masturbation—it was natural, I had always figured—it was true that I hadn’t talked to anybody or had never been around women who spoke so openly and excitedly about it. I remember looking at Klara in class and seeing that she was flushed, staring at a spot in the corner of the room, refusing to make eye contact. She hadn’t spoken. Neither had I, but that wasn’t unusual for me; I rarely spoke in class any day. Klara was different. She shared. She was naturally talkative in front of others, she fed off of their attention. So as we walked through the wooded area—it must have been second semester junior year, before the protests—I told her that I thought the class had made me realize it wasn’t taboo to discuss masturbation, opening up a space in which I wanted her to know, she could tell me anything. She nodded slowly. Have you masturbated for long? she asked. I told her that the first time I could consciously remember was when I was fourteen, but that my mom had told me that when I was a toddler I’d figured out that it felt good to lean forward, press my crotch up against the strap of my car seat during drives. My mom yelled at me to stop, but I wouldn’t, so she tossed the car seat by the time I was four and let me ride with a standard seatbelt. What about you? I asked. Klara shook her head. She hadn’t ever, that she knew of, had only tried a couple of times since we started taking Fem Sex, but that she wasn’t sure she was doing it right. I was surprised and confused. I asked her to clarify. Again, she wouldn’t look at me, she said she’d never felt anything satisfying, nothing like the way she expected she should, on her own or with another person. I stopped walking and she stopped beside me. I asked her, again for clarity’s sake, if she meant she’d never had an orgasm. She shrugged. I turned around, to go in the opposite direction, away from her house, toward downtown, and said, Let’s go. Where? she asked, following.
I was taking her to Good Vibrations, a local sex shop our Fem Sex instructor had mentioned. As we walked down the hill towards downtown, I felt buoyed by a feeling that I had something to offer Klara, something important. She’d always been more sexually active than me. I’d listen to stories about her fucking guys, as she put it. Guys like the one who took her all the way up to the “Cal” sign in the hills and they’d done it on a bench and she’d gotten splinters so deep in her ass that they were stuck there for weeks. Or the guy from back home who she fucked next to a hot tub, who had sucked her face so hard she showed up back at her house for Christmas Eve dinner looking like she’d been beat up, her mother calling her in Ukrainian something that was an extreme combination of whore, slut, cunt, and bitch. Or the first time, with her high school boyfriend in his bedroom, how it had lasted a minute and how they’d awkwardly cuddled afterwards even though it was summer and too hot. I’d always felt naïve and left out of these stories, because I didn’t have anything of my own to share. None of the same heres that felt so important to our friendship. But now I had something to give Klara, some experience that was beyond hers.
After we stepped into the brightly lit, glass-paneled shop, I walked her in the direction of the vibrators and picked up a small one shaped like a metal bullet. Here, I said, handing it to her. She brought it to her face and laughed. This is all I need? It was only $12, so Klara bought it, and we trekked back up the hill to her house, where we ate a quick dinner, rushed back to her room, and she opened up the package and held the thing in her hand. It looks so weird and small, she said. So just put this on my clit? She coughed out the word and laughed some more, that bright, ringing sound. I know I should say it seriously, with pride, she said, more seriously and with pride. Yeah, well, turn it on too, I told her. Right, right, she said. Got it. I said I’d go to the TV room. She asked that I keep an eye out for her roommate. I mindlessly flipped through the channels until twenty minutes later, Klara walked in. It worked, she said, sitting on the couch opposite me. See, it wasn’t so hard, I said. She laughed and stretched out, then yawned loudly. I can’t believe it’s taken me 21 years to figure that out. Thanks, she said, smiling at me. I told her it wasn’t a problem. I told her I was happy for her. I remember afterwards we spent the evening watching four hours of an MTV The Jersey Shore marathon, taking breaks to go down into her house’s kitchen for hot chocolate and whipped cream, in a mutual, lazy celebration.
I can’t think of another friendship like the one I had with Klara, and I haven’t felt so deeply for a friend since. Sometimes I wonder if Klara knew me better than my boyfriend knows me now. Anyway, I try not to build relationships on need or debts anymore either, because it seems to me that people only remember what they’re owed, not what they owe. Myself included.
The bar that night in San Francisco turned out to be closed. Since it was cold out, we decided to sit in Klara’s car nearby. Within minutes, I could feel the failure of the night on us, and again, desperate not to separate, I tried another tactic, which was to talk and talk, asking Klara’s boyfriend questions about his work, updating them about people from college, complaining about my dumb job, making jokes about all of the science nerds, as I called them, who my boyfriend and I had met since Klara had left town. I wanted to talk forever, to keep them leashed by my voice. I leaned my body forward so that I could be closer to Klara’s in the driver’s seat, though mostly I just wanted to look at her, to compare who she was in the car with the girl I knew from before. Her blonde hair was the shortest I’d seen it, shoulder-length, her cheeks fuller and rounder. She still had the same smile, those deep dimples, and her blue-green eyes glowed in that dimly lit car. The bags beneath them were darker and puffier, but the skin of her arms still looked new and soft. My boyfriend yawned. Klara said they needed to get up early the next day for a family hike in Muir woods. We parted ways awkwardly, all getting out to stand on the sidewalk and exchange hugs, the ones that end in small, stiff pats on the upper back. None of us said anything about seeing one another again. She could have at least offered to give us a ride back to our place, I said to my boyfriend as we walked back up the hill, bitter and defeated.
It’s strange how much that night haunts me despite very little having happened. The times when it does resurface, I become oversaturated in its minor details, overanalyzing each of our moves and words, coming to new conclusions. I had talked too much. I had talked too little. I hadn’t asked the right questions. I had zoned out for too long. Klara hadn’t tried. Klara had zoned out. Klara had been faking it the whole time. Klara came out of guilt because she was the guilty one. I should have tried harder.
I lied when I said I didn’t know how it all ended. I think I lied a little too when I said I hadn’t been harsh in college. People still tell me I’m bossy. My boyfriend says I shouldn’t care so much what other people say, but that’s even harder. You see, Klara crossed the picket line. That was only the beginning. There were so many protests, in September, October, November, December, and then the big one in March. She wouldn’t come with me to any, and I was upset. Over what? I told myself it was disappointment in Klara, that she didn’t care, but really, honestly, it might have simply been that she wouldn’t side with me on this one. She wouldn’t listen to me. I can admit that now. She’d say she had to study, for quizzes, then midterms, then finals, then the MCAT. She went to class, she worked hard, she got A’s, she decided on graduate school instead of medical school, largely because of her poor earlier grades, studied and took the GRE. I wasn’t even that involved in the protests. I would march in some, but never attended the organizing meetings, the many fliers from my TAs and fellow Rhetoric students piling up on my desk, later tossed in recycling. I wanted Klara to go with me, to be there so we could talk about the meetings later, talk about our ideas, critique the student speeches, break down the events, come up with something new. But after she said no a handful of times, I stopped asking, and did the minimum of what I thought I had to—skip class and go to the latest protest with the other co-op kids. Several of my roommates were involved in the December Wheeler Hall “Live Week,” where they overtook the building to host a week of open-access classes and workshops, a representation of what a horizontal, self-governed university might look like. Four days in, the administration shut it down, sending UC police to the building at four am to arrest sixty-six of the students. I wasn’t there. I didn’t go to a single teach-in. But I sent an email to Klara with a link to an article about the arrests (we were still talking, we still saw each other, when she wasn’t studying or I wasn’t brooding, but the protests were now our sore spot, so it felt more appropriate to use a medium that was a little more formal), to which she responded, that sucks for them, but what did they think would happen? It infuriated me. I couldn’t explain myself to her and I didn’t want to; I wanted her to agree easily with me on this, it was political after all, it wasn’t just about us, it was about the younger students, like our siblings, who might have to drop out, it was about future students who’d go into severe debt, worse than ours, it was about UC employees who’d lose their jobs, it was about the humanities departments that would get hit the most by the budget cuts. That’s what I told myself.
Around the same time, Klara dropped out of her sorority. For a couple of weeks between the sorority house and her move into her new place, she was a fish in my co-op, living in a long, skinny room only wide enough to hold a single twin bed. We got along again, pretended like whatever was happening to us wasn’t happening to us, at least for a while. We sat on those stained, ratty couches listening to music and studying for classes until she moved into a house filled with ski and snowboard team members, and that’s where she met her boyfriend, a molecular and cell biology major like her, with long, golden blonde hair, like hers. He was smart, nice to Klara. He was fine. He still is. I know that. But it was harder back then. What annoyed me most about him was that he was worse than Klara when it came to the protests, and it only reinforced her attitude. It’s a waste of their time, he’d say. Nothing’s gonna change, all of the budgets have passed already. Nah, I’m not stoked on it, but Yudof, Birgeneau, and crew are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we don’t have legit power to change it.
I hated the way he talked—that confident snow-bum slang. We argued a lot, in the way only bright-eyed undergraduates can, passionately and with naïve purpose, me versus Klara’s boyfriend, and Klara trying to diffuse us, but of course, she always ended up on his side.
The plan had been to move to the city together, take a year off before her going to grad school, me to do whatever I was going to do—I had this constant image of myself walking through the city, the sound of my shoes clicking against the sidewalks, paper rustling in my bag, Klara often at my side. Even when she and her boyfriend first started dating, we kept up the plan. I said I didn’t mind living with a couple, and Klara joked that her boyfriend didn’t mind it either—we’d even looked at apartments in neighborhoods we liked, and I was in the habit of sending her links to jobs she could apply to, articles about cool places to eat and drink, ads for more apartments. But as the months wore on, it was obvious that we were less and less aligned, not only with what was happening around us, but with our futures. We ventured toward imagining ones that no longer included the other. One night, about a week before graduation, Klara came over to my co-op unannounced, which would have been fine several months before, but by then felt a bit intrusive and strange, given her visits’ infrequency. The house had just finished dinner, and I was in the middle of my dishwashing duties when she walked in. Somebody else had let her in. She smiled at me and said she had been taking a walk and thought she’d stop by, and asked what I was up to. I gestured at the dishes. Have to finish my chores, I said. It was an unusually warm May that year, and I was sweating from lifting trays of cups, plates, bowls, pans—it was an ordeal even with our restaurant-style speed washer. (I still have nightmares about having to do dishes for a house of too many people, the task never ending, my hands turning into shriveled, floppy, muscle- and bone-free flaps of skin.) Klara nodded and said she’d wait for me in the living room. I was annoyed because I thought she should at least offer to help me finish the dishes, showing up without warning like that, expecting me to spend time with her, and I grew more and more upset as I worked. When I finished, I was dirty and impatient. I found Klara sitting on the couch, legs tucked beneath her, looking at some art book on faces throughout the centuries. Every artist interprets a face so differently, she said when I sat across from her. Some make the most basic faces without distinguishing features, as if we all look alike, others choose a very solemn look, and rarer, some artists actually sculpt faces that look happy. Isn’t that weird? she said. Why do you think that is? I stared at her. Why are you here, Klara? I asked. She said she just wanted to hang out, that she had been at the library, but couldn’t get any work done, and wanted to see me. She was wondering if I wanted to get some frozen yogurt or take a walk around the Berkeley hills. I asked where her boyfriend was. And again, that harshness of tone, the one my parents tell me to this day I need to better manage. Klara looked at me for a second, then replied that he was in lab that night. It was the answer I expected, and almost wanted, from her at that moment. She had chosen me because her first choice wasn’t available. I nodded, stood up, and said that I was busy, though I wasn’t, and that we could hang out another time, but that maybe she should text in advance when she wanted to meet, so she wouldn’t have to trouble herself with walking all the way over for nothing.
By the time we graduated a week later, Klara and I hadn’t fully recovered from our previous encounter. We took our graduation photos together, we smiled for a moment and laughed, acting for the occasion, and then we parted ways for the summer. We checked in with each every once in a while, but distance made it difficult for us to find our equilibrium again. It was never through direct words, but it became clear to both of us that she and her boyfriend would live together in the city, and I would find my own place, and so that’s we did. We moved to San Francisco, separately, and managed to rarely see each other in those two years before she moved to New York, though we lived only a few miles apart.
And there I was, in that New York Blue Bottle, waiting for her. Klara was twenty minutes late. A woman approached me and said they were closing soon. I texted Klara, Are you almost here? It’s closing in ten minutes. We can meet somewhere else, closer to you if you want. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed: I’m so sorry! I completely lost track of time and still have experiments running. I don’t think I’ll be done for at least another hour. Maybe we should postpone until tomorrow? Are you still going to be in town?
I imagined Klara in the lab, growing cells, running gels, taking microscope photos, so focused on her work, dedicated in her pursuit to find an answer to whatever question she was asking, a question likely essential and fundamental to the basic units of life, and I realized that Klara was doing something important, and doing it just fine without me, exactly as she’d planned. I spent the next five minutes typing and rereading and editing a text: It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. Good luck with your experiments. I have an early morning flight tomorrow, so I’ll just head back to my hotel. Then I paused and added: Let me know when you’re back in California and we can meet up.
I wondered if she could possibly think the same of me, if I appeared put together and happy, if I seemed like I was doing what I wanted to be doing, busy, traveling here for work. A full life without her. She didn’t reply.