She was the friend you call on rainy Sunday mornings, coffee in hand, the one you share stories, secrets, and laughs with, three states and 250 miles apart. Even in the darkest times, we always found something to hoot about.
Natalya and I adopted our children from the same organization, and our friendship was born along with our daughters. The fact that our husbands were college pals gave our relationship a dimension of comfort and familiarity; Jack and Natalya felt like family. Twenty-five years later, when our husbands died within months of each other, our friendship deepened.
She was, quite simply and gorgeously, there for me.
On weekends, I drove from suburban Philadelphia to her Connecticut farm, where we set off on spur-of-the moment road trips, laughing and talking our way through forgotten hamlets hidden in a fold of time. Often we stopped at a small-town diner that could have been the setting for a screwball sitcom. Not having a road map was part of the fun.
Natalya comes from an aristocratic Albanian family, most of whom were executed or exiled to forced labor camps by the Albanian communist dictatorship after WWII. Her parents managed to escape to France and later to Italy, but the experience left my friend with a jaded view of humanity and Europe in particular. This made a vacation in Tuscany characteristically quirky and unpredictable. As we walked the gentle hills of Siena, she kept up a running commentary.
“Look at that Duomo, it’s all out of proportion. What a piece of shit! They only built it to compete with Florence. This medieval crap really makes me feel claustrophobic. Let’s get some Berriquocoli.”
With its hairpin turns and devil-may-care nature, Natalya’s personality was as much of an adventure as the back roads of New England or the hills of Siena. But what I treasured most was her presence, warm and sustaining as a hearty bowl of soup. She was, quite simply and gorgeously, there.
Differing Views of the Vaccine
While other friends, both liberal and conservative, welcomed the vaccine, Natalya announced her refusal early and emphatically. She saw in the specter of vaccine passports and mandates the menacing shadow of totalitarianism that had destroyed her family and plundered their land.
I saw deliverance from destruction and heartbreak caused by the pandemic.
She saw in the specter of vaccine passports the menacing shadow of totalitarianism that had destroyed her family.
She lay awake at night worrying about government surveillance, medical coercion, and land appropriation.
I lay awake worrying about dying alone in a hospital on a ventilator.
It was as if we inhabited different regions of the mind, worried in different dialects.
We maintained an uneasy détente, tiptoeing around our starkly different perspectives as the virus marched relentlessly on, decimating lives and livelihoods. Although we still spoke almost daily, I missed our madcap adventures and warm camaraderie.
Since I had received both vaccines, I decided to write a renown virologist on a live-stream podcast and ask whether it was all right to see an unvaccinated friend on car trips or in each other’s homes. “She says the vaccine is synthetic,” I explained. “I come from a family of scientists and, honestly, I can’t even go there.”
The doctor chuckled at my commentary but he looked solemn when he answered my question.
“It’s like a bullet-proof vest,” he said. “Are you going to let someone take a shot at you from a 100 yards? They will probably miss. But you may not want to take that chance. I know I would not.”
Months went by as our long season of physical isolation continued.
Natalya jumps at any excuse to travel; she once flew all the way for Florence to retrieve a special implant post for her dentist, who happens to live in my town, and is also my dentist.
A few weeks ago she called me. She sounded happy.
“My crown fell out,” she said. “I think I have a cavity, too. I’ll be down next week.”
For her, the five-hour drive in heavy traffic is a delicious caper, a holiday from the responsibility of an 18th-Century farmhouse in chronic need of repair, and a barn full of rescue horses.
I moved the chairs on my patio further apart in preparation for her visit.
“I’m sorry you can’t stay here,” I reminded her. “But I can see you outside and masked.”
She agreed, and promised to be careful.
Still, I worried. My own dentist appointment was the following day. Sitting in a dentist’s chair with your mouth wide open sounded like an ideal way to catch an airborne virus, but I urgently needed dental work and the dentist didn’t have another appointment for months.
I moved the chairs on my patio further apart in preparation for her visit.
I worried about her daughter, too, as the cases ticked up in our respective counties. Erica lives with Natalya and likes to go clubbing; her three-year old spends the weekends with his dad and grandparents in a neighboring state.
I moved the chairs on my patio even further apart.
The News That Broke Us
The night before Natalya was planning to leave, my daughter, Lily, texted me a copy of the positive Covid test that Erica had posted on Instagram, which was underscored by a one-word expletive.
Red flags were flying in my head when Natalya called a moment later. I picked up right away.
“Lily just texted me Erica’s positive Covid test on Instagram,” I said.
There was a short, stony silence followed by an explosion.
It felt as if she were neatly tying up the loose ends of our friendship.
“You didn’t even give me a chance to tell you!” she said angrily.
Natalya didn’t see Erica’s post as a public announcement, or my daughter’s call as a warning. In her mind, my blurting out the news was tantamount of to a smug “I told you so.” In that moment, her fury over Erica’s test results going public eclipsed her concern about her daughter contracting COVID. To make matters worse I was, figuratively speaking, waving Jessica’s positive test in front of her to prove how wrong she had been in her views.
The air was decidedly frosty as we continued to talk; she said she planned to quarantine. I advised her to get a rapid test, and to go to the hospital if she developed serious symptoms. Then we said goodbye.
I knew when we hung up it was the last goodbye. Natalya tends to hold grudges and doesn’t tolerate what she sees as disloyalty or worse, betrayal. I, and my daughter by relaying the information, had become the enemy she hated and feared–the secret police, the mole, the traitor.
Since then there has been only silence between us. Recently she mailed back a book she had borrowed unaccompanied by an explanation. The book return felt cold and final like a “Dear John” letter, as if she were neatly tying up the loose ends of our friendship. I was sad but not surprised. But at least I knew she was alive.
Sometimes I catch myself replaying our last conversation in my mind. Was the rift in our friendship inevitable? What if I’d been more circumspect instead of blurting out the news, confirming her worst fears about snoops and spies? But there are other “what ifs” as well. What if Erica had not taken a Covid test? What if she had not posted the results on Instagram? What if my daughter had not seen it, and warned me? Would I have seen Natalya that last day, maybe even spontaneously hugged her? These questions haunt me.
Sunday mornings are lonely now. I miss chatting with my friend, three states and 250 miles apart.
Back then, we always found something to laugh about.