Later in life, when they argued as even the closest friends will do, Judith would eventually grab Samantha by the shoulders and whisper “The dress, Sam, the wedding dress.” It was always enough to calm them, the defining touchstone of their friendship, imperishable and binding. It was all that truly mattered.
The girls catch sight of each other for the first time when they are each out with their mothers for a walk in their new suburban development on a humid, dense Saturday afternoon in August. The neighborhood is alive and energetic in the post-war boom, street after street of starter homes for young families. They have both just moved in. The mothers instinctively walk toward each other to say hello.
“Your daughter is really cute”, Samantha’s mother says, “but maybe a little shy?” She extends a hand to the woman whose daughter is carefully hiding behind her skirt. “I’m Dorothy, call me Dot, the white house with black trim on the corner just behind us.” She turns and points a finger at it. “This is my daughter Samantha,” she says, holding out Samantha’s hand as she nudges her forward.
“I’m Florence, Dot” Judith’s mother replies, “and the shy one behind me is Judith. We’re around the corner the other way. Maybe you’ve seen my husband’s landscaping, the ultra-trimmed hedges and rose trellises? I’m a lot messier myself.” She turns to her daughter hiding behind her skirt. “Judith, get out from there and make a new friend.” She coaxes Judith forward with a gentle tug on her dress. “Come on now. Say hello to Samantha.”
The girls are bashful on this day yet also eager, and Samantha is the first to step away from her mother and reach her hand out to the girl whose friendship will blossom into a lifelong bond.
“Want to ride on the whirl-around up at the school?”
“Can we go really fast?”
“Until we’re dizzy?”
Samantha’s index finger dimples her chin while she pretends to think about Judith’s request. She tilts her head back and forth twice before answering.“Sure!”
They each look back at their mothers for permission, and when Dot and Florence laugh and shoo them off with a wave of their arms, the girls race away and never look back. Later, holding hands, skipping along ten yards ahead of their mothers, they can’t stop giggling uncontrollably. They get popsicles at the brightly painted ice cream truck that patrols the neighborhood sounding its chimes every few seconds just as it does all summer long for years. The mysterious alchemy of these first hours together is firmly taking hold. It’s as if the whirl-around with its blurring speed as the girls ran and spun in ever-faster circles and then climbed on for each ride possessed the power somehow to fuse them together. Judith and Samantha. Sam and Jude. Inseparable.
Here they are so many years later, sitting on Samantha’s living room floor together surrounded by the memorabilia of their friendship she had painstakingly collected for so long, now strewn everywhere around them. When Samantha’s health had begun to worsen, her high-spirited and unattached daughter Nicole had put her freelance photography career in the city on hold and returned home to take on the role of caretaker. With Nicole’s help, Samantha had unearthed their treasure trove, a collection of tattered boxes and plastic storage bins stuck away in a dark bedroom closet – messy, cobwebbed, hopelessly disorganized. She was the one, almost from the moment they first met, who would be the collector of the keepsakes that would chronicle their lifelong friendship. So many passages to relive, triumphs celebrated and crises overcome, the memories now helping them face the terrible reality that there might not be many more up ahead. Opening the first box that day, rifling through the clutter of long-forgotten items, their excitement was unbridled.
“Jude, look at these ticket stubs! The first concert we ever went to in the city, remember? Your parents drove us in, they went off to the symphony and we saw PP&M and almost got lost searching for the street where they had parked the car.”
“Sam, don’t remind me!” and then “I’m afraid to even touch these old Globe front pages. I can’t believe the paper isn’t already crumbling in my fingers. Look at how musty and moldy and yellow they are. The assassinations. Neil Armstrong on the moon. Apollo 13. Nixon. Think they’re too delicate to laminate?”
“Here’s one of the classroom notes you passed me, Sam. What, maybe fourth grade? ‘Do you think Jimmy Sheldon likes me back?’ You printed it, your handwriting was so horrible. And you must have spilled something on it. Here, touch this corner, it still has that crinkled feel and the wavy look paper gets when it’s been wet and then dries out.”
“Yeah, well, here are all the letters you sent me the year I went off to summer camp in Vermont. Your writing wasn’t so hot either, Jude. ‘Dear Sam, I hate you right now for being away all summer. I think we’re not friends anymore.’ I was so jealous, Sam. And lonely.”
A second box holds their precious Ginny dolls and the dolls’ hand-made clothing and other belongings they shared when they were in elementary school. Junior high, high school, and college yearbooks, report cards, and diplomas are carefully packed away in a third. But more than anything else what they prize are the photographs – the photographs! – hundreds, maybe more than a thousand, some in scrapbooks, many just loose or organized into small piles wrapped with thick brown elastic bands. Black and white shots from their first Brownie cameras, each one maybe three inches square with a white border and rounded half-moon indentations on all four sides, Polaroids they had smeared with that special fixative after the camera ejected the undeveloped film, higher quality prints when Judith took up serious photography after college. They’re all thrown together in a random mish-mash with no discernible order.
It takes Judith and Samantha several afternoons over the next two months to wrestle the photos into an orderly chronological sequence. There’s one photo in particular – Lleyton Harris beckoning with those bedroom eyes and his sly, knowing grin – that Samantha comes upon and carefully secrets away. She’s still not sure why she kept it. She thinks she ought to take a match to it or just rip it into tiny pieces and trash it. But she doesn’t. After all the years, she somehow still thinks she deserves the punishment of keeping this reminder of the toughest test their friendship ever endured. The merciless residue of guilt.
On the day the sorting is finally done, they share a sense of both exhilaration and exhaustion. Judith pours herself a glass of cru beajolais. Samantha wishes she could join her, but her meds and alcohol don’t mix. Even before they sit down to linger over their accomplishment and begin to pore through the chronology of their friendship, the thought that’s been forming in the back of Samantha’s mind presses forward as if it’s always been there, preordained, a destiny. There will be an album. She knows this with the immutable certainty of her cadenced heartbeat, the involuntary broken rhythm of her labored breathing. When we’re finished and I have the boxes to myself again, I’m going to leave Judith an album.
Samantha hands Judith a fistful of elementary school photos. “What a montage this would make, Sam! Remember Miss Derby in kindergarten? God, she was so tall! Then she got married in the middle of the year and moved away and abandoned us.”
“I sat right behind you that year. Remember those jerky boys who threw things at us? Here they are in this class pic.” She jabs a finger at a blond head with a summer wiffle cut. “That’s Joey Scarpelli.” Jabs again. “Stevie Adamson. We called him ‘Freckles’, right?” This time she grinds her finger into a face and presses down hard, twisting. “Jeffrey Brown. Once an asshole, always an asshole. All the way through high school.”
Judith takes the next photo from the top of the carefully sequenced pile and holds it up for both of them to see. It’s creased on the left side and frayed badly at the corners but the image is barely smudged. “Our first grade end-of-year class photo. Miss Clanahan was so sweet, like an adoring grandmother.”
“Yes”, Sam replies, “but she put the milk boxes on the radiator every day and they were warm and awful. Plus she put you in the Purple reading group and me in the Blue. She separated us on purpose!” They share a hug and a rueful laugh. “We were a handful, even then, weren’t we?”
“Remember Ellie Carroll, the new girl? She kept pulling the suspenders of that boy who sat in front of her. Then there was that day she peed on the floor in the morning and then again in the afternoon. We were horrified!”
“Come on, Jude,” Samantha laughs. “We weren’t horrified. We were thrilled!”
“Here’s the next pic. It’s Mrs. P, you know, after. I wonder who took this one. She was never the same again, was she?”
“Would you be?” Sam says. “Neither were we.”
The school principal delivers the somber news to the third graders in hushed, serious tones on a Friday morning in January.
“The roads last night were icy,” he says, “and a truck driver lost control and hit Mrs. Pantkowski’s car on the driver’s side. We won’t know how badly injured she is for a few days. There’ll be a substitute teacher for awhile.” Samantha starts to scream hysterically and a class crying jag begins. Judith, calm, organized, meticulous as always, goes home to bake cookies with her mother. On the following Monday she begins collecting quarters from the class for flowers and makes sure she has signatures from every student on the get well card she had made that weekend.
Three weeks later, Mrs. Pantkowski returns to school, limping, her right arm in a cast, the left side of her face bandaged and disfigured. “Why is her eye all scrunched up and wrinkly and shut like that?” Samantha whispers to Judith.
“Shh, Sam. Don’t let her hear you. Maybe she’s blind in that eye. My mother told me not to stare at her no matter what. We have to be ‘sensitive’ to Mrs. P’s condition.”
“I may not look it right now”, Mrs. Pantkowski manages to croak out to the class, her hand holding on to her swollen throat, “but I’m still the all-seeing, all-knowing one around here.” She barely gets braced before Samantha throws herself at her with an impassioned hug, the cast on her teacher’s arm be damned.
They’re visiting their teenage years. Heady freedoms. Sacred secrets. Boundaries ignored, the aching, fearsome excitement of romance and risk-taking. Boys. Jealousy. Drama. Heartbreak. Triumph. Their uncontrollable rampaging bodies.
Judith offers Samantha a well-thumbed print. “Look at the back of this one, Sam. It must have fallen out of one of your scrapbooks. The glue in the four corners is ugly brown and it just flakes off when you touch it.” Sam rubs a finger across the upper left corner until the remaining glue is gone. “So what do you think, Sam? Are we fourteen in this one? You were already the looker, weren’t you? Those lush blonde curls you had, your fiery blue eyes. Stacked even then and you knew it!”
“C’mon, Jude, no such thing! Look at us standing side by side here. I envied your straight black hair and that tall, thin look you always had. It’s like you were poured into the dress in this picture. And your legs! Calves to die for.”
“The truth is Sam, they stared at me, but really, they ogled you.” She studies the picture a moment. “I think this was taken the night of the last dance at the end of eighth grade.”
Mike “The Heartbreaker” Calvino spots Judith and Samantha as they enter the gymnasium. “I’ve had my eye on her all year, Dino. The blonde. Time to make the move.”
“Mikey, she’s only in eighth. Leave her to the dweebs. We’re movin’ up to high school next year.”
“No can do, Dino. Got to give it a shot. You know that song? She’s my dream lover.”
“Forget it, man. They’re all scared of ninth graders.”
“And with good reason,” Mike says as he strides cockily across the floor to intercept Samantha and pry her away from her friend.
Judith has a sixth sense for what’s about to happen. She spies the heavily acned, muscular boy heading in their direction and whispers to Sam “Mike Calvino, remember the plan.” A few seconds later he steps directly in front of Sam and says “I’d like to dance the first slow dance with you tonight. I’m Mike Calvino.” He ignores Judith.
“Oh, I know who you are,” Sam says while pretending to look past him over his shoulder, as if she were searching for someone else. “Got a cigarette for me, Mike Calvino? And another for my friend Judith?”
Mike The Heartbreaker is nonplussed. He doesn’t smoke and with all the false bravado he can muster he can only stammer under his breath “Forgot my pack. Be right back.”
“Don’t bother,” Sam says. She flashes him a lethal smile and hikes her skirt well up her thigh as she takes a step toward the center of the dance floor.
“Wait a sec,” The Heartbreaker calls to them. “Let me go grab –“
“No second chances with Samantha, Mike,” Judith says. “Me neither. You blew it.”
The girls grin at each other, knowing, mischievous, and walk away. They are definitely not wallflowers.
Two years later. Sweet sixteen. Driver’s licenses. Their parents allow them to go out on limited dates and think they’re among the good girls of the sophomore class. If only they knew. Judith has gone far with her boyfriend, farther than Samantha. Not all the way yet, Sam, but maybe if my parents hadn’t come home early last Saturday night…Temptation is powerful, and secretly they wonder if they should just give in to it.
Samantha is studying the discolored photo from that year that Judith holds up in the air between them. Orange and brown hues have long since replaced the original brighter tones. Everything – the furniture, the faces, the knotty-wood walls – seems dull and muted, several shades darker than when the image was first printed. Oddly, Judith thinks, the photo’s surface feels dry and rough to her touch, not at all the way it looks, smooth and sticky and oily-shiny.
“Charlie Berry’s basement,” Samantha says. “’I’d recognize that pine paneling anywhere. The turntable in the corner on the floor. Those gross lava lamps. That’s you in the back corner, with your head on Charlie’s shoulder.”
Judith peers closely at the image. “Yup,” she laughs.
“Wasn’t that the night…” Samantha starts to ask.
“Yup,” Judith laughs again.
It’s a small party, deliberately so. Four couples in the basement rec room, indifferent parents out to a late movie. The lights are low and Johnny Mathis is playing on the stereo. “Gina, Gina,” he sings in that velvet voice, “I kissed you once and then…” Whenever the song finishes, Charlie Berry starts it again like an endless loop. No one seems to mind. His arms encircle Judith just above her waist while he presses himself longingly against the length of her body. She clutches the back of his head with both hands and breathes into his neck, her lips a fraction of a second away from the skin just above his shoulder blade. When she kisses him there he startles. He can’t help himself. He pulls back and stares into her eyes, moves his lips to hers. Their mouths open.
Her breath is like nectar, sweet, lingering, sensual. He breaks the kiss, pulls her to him. With their hands clasped together in the no-space between them, his fingers reach out to the rise of her breast, and she shudders. “Someone will see,” she whispers, just before she guides his hand down to a place he has never been. Samantha catches Judith’s eye and with one quick glance knows all she has to know. They’ve been talking about sex for months, dreaming, fantasizing, approaching, avoiding. She steps to the wall switch and flicks off the lights. She and her boyfriend of the moment have their own needs to meet. Clothing rustles in each corner of the room. “Thanks,” the others mutter, a triumphant chorus of hormonal release.
It’s the end of the day and Samantha is exhausted, impatient to finish looking over one last pile of photos. Judith’s fingers flip through them rapidly as if the camera’s in auto-drive: click, click, click, click, click. High school graduation, their faces carefully made up, eyeshade, lip gloss, the wildly popular upturned hairdo of the times. Standing together in graduation robes. Throwing their caps in the air with classmates, tassels flying. At someone’s party in their tie-dyed T-shirts. In San Francisco it was the Summer of Love, and every teenager in America wanted that Haight-Ashbury look. July and August fly by and suddenly they are in college, thrilled to be in Boston together, Judith at Boston University already thinking ahead to law school, Samantha in the Theater Arts program at Emerson.
“There’s nothing from freshman year, Sam.” Judith sweeps her hand at the meager set of photographs waiting for their attention. “Not much from sophomore year, either.”
Samantha stares thoughtfully at Judith for a few seconds before picking up a print that’s been sitting face down on the coffee table in front of them. “Well…not completely true. I’ve been holding back on showing you this one. I don’t know why I saved it, Jude. Really, I don’t. Then I almost threw it out before I said to myself ‘No, we’ll have a good laugh about it. Or maybe a good cry.’” She hands the photo to Judith.
His face has the thin, chiseled look of a rock-hard athlete, aquiline nose, sideburns trimmed high, blond hair carefully combed and falling low across his forehead. His dark blue eyes are intense, staring forward as if they might look directly into the soul of the beholder. His lips are thin, slightly parted and beckoning. If they reached into their memories, Samantha and Judith could still hear the way he spoke slowly and quietly in that distinctive Tennessee drawl they both found so magnetic, sometimes barely above a whisper. Leyton Harris, the worst crisis their friendship ever faced. The heartthrob who turned their sophomore year at college inside out.
“Leyton? Leyton, Sam? You kept a picture of Leyton?” In an instant, something in Judith’s tone has taken a frosty turn, not quite hostile but definitely not welcoming, as if despite all the years that have gone by she might still hold feelings somehow strong enough to evoke resentment. It’s as surprising to Judith as it is to Samantha, and they look away from each other, each wrestling with what to say next. They know it’s long behind them, but somehow a small piece of it remains like a thin, irritating shard of glass lodged in a fingertip that just can’t ever be fully excised. For a long minute, the only sound in the room is the quiet susurrus of their breathing.
“I met this guy last night, Sam”, Judith announces in an excited phone call on a Sunday night in early fall. “Leyton. A junior at you know where across the river. Here he is right now. Leyton, say hello to my friend Samantha.” Suddenly there’s a confident male voice on the line. “Hi Samantha. Are you as gorgeous as your friend Judith? Why don’t you join us? We’re in her dorm room.” Before Sam can say a word, there’s a sound in her ear like the clunk of a phone dropping to the floor and bouncing away. Then Judith’s voice, loud, breathless, excited. “Stay where you are, Sam! Don’t you dare! Got to go!” she squeals, and then “Hands off him!” just before the line goes dead.
Judith delays a month before she introduces Samantha to Leyton. She knows the risks. She lost a casual boyfriend or two to Samantha back in high school, guys she didn’t really care about, relationships that didn’t matter. But we’re in college now, she thinks. Turning twenty. This one does matter. This one does. Still, within minutes, she knows. The conversation between Sam and Leyton quickly becomes animated, playful, filled with a palpable undercurrent of sexual tension. It’s as if Judith is no longer present in the room.
The next day, Leyton calls Samantha. There is no stuttering preamble, no fumbling with words. “I’d like to see you, Samantha. I broke it off with Judith after you left last night.” Without hesitation she agrees to go out with him that same day, and then the next, and the day after that. She finds him smooth, interesting, appealingly direct. She loves his irresistible southern accent. He’s a hunk, and he’s pursuing her. To him, she’s unlike the other girls who have come and gone along the way. He finds her mysterious. Beguiling. A challenge.
Judith and Samantha do not speak for more than four months.
On a late April night Judith sees Leyton with a striking model-thin blonde waiting in line on the sidewalk outside one of the bars in Kenmore Square. A wave of conflicting feelings washes over her – anger, irrational jealousy, and despite what has occurred and its long, painful aftermath, concern for Samantha. She knows it’s time to call.
“Sam, it’s me. Please hear me out, huh? Don’t hang up. I saw him tonight with…whoever she was. So you’re not with him anymore, are you?”
There is nothing but silence for a long while, then the soft, snuffling sound of quiet tears. “I’m a jerk, Jude, you know that? Fell for that swagger of his, that pretty-boy smile. All he wanted was another bedroom conquest and it was on to someone else. I should have known. I was too ashamed to call you. I hate what I did to you. I hate what I did.” A weighted pause. “I really miss you.”
“He’s a guy, Sam. We were both jerks. They think with their dicks, you know that.”
“Nothing special about his.”
“I’d give it a C.”
Samantha laughs loudly, the kind of deep belly-laugh they used to share only when they were alone and running down their classmates or a guy’s misplaced advances. “OK, Jude. You win!
Get on the subway and come over here, will you? I miss you too. I miss us.”
“Jude.” When at last Judith turns to her, Samantha raises an eyebrow and gestures weakly, palms-up. “I found it stuck in there at the bottom of a box under a scrapbook we never moved. What do you think? Rip it up? Let the guys down at McGill’s tack his face up on the dartboard and slowly bleed him to death?” She offers a rueful, diplomatic smile, an unnecessary but sincere gesture of apology. “It was so long ago, in that galaxy far, far away.” Judith grins back and whispers loudly “Undernourished!” The reference dissipates the lingering undercurrent of tension in the room as quickly as it came, and Judith laughs and breaks into song. “You just call out my name, Sam. Just call out my name.”
Nicole pores through the now well-organized boxes of photographs, handing her mother one photo after another as Samantha painstakingly creates a chronology of her friendship with Judith: childhood, their teens, the college years, adulthood. She labors over the way the photos are set on the pages, some with just one mounted dead center, others cluttered with overlapping images. She insists that there be white space left for writing; the album will go to Judith with notes, comments, captions.
For hours Samantha annotates, fighting exhaustion. She scrawls a caption here, a phrase there, sometimes just a word or two, sometimes an entire paragraph. Her handwriting, once elegant and easily readable, has deteriorated badly. Only after she completes the final page and works her way through the album does she realize that she has failed to include the wedding photos. The album will mean nothing without the wedding dress.
She is frantic to find them. Hers are stored in a collection of proofs from the wedding photographer, Judith’s piled high in a stack Samantha herself had taken, first in the bridal room, then again at the post-wedding celebration. She had criss-crossed the banquet hall in her bridesmaid’s dress, camera in hand, snapping dozens of close-ups and candids. How could she have left them out? She knows she and Judith had seen them just a few weeks earlier.
With Nicole’s help she finds the photos quickly. Just a box they had somehow overlooked. She claws her way through the photos, flinging away one after another until she finds the two she wants. No photos of family, bridesmaids, groomsmen, the tables, the band, the dancing, the cake-cutting or anything else are as important to her as these. Right now only the solo bridal photos matter. Judith, perfectly posed in her wedding dress, holding a bouquet of white roses, her face silhouetted in dramatic soft light as she looks to the left and bows her head slightly. Samantha, three months later, in exactly the same pose.
Nicole inserts two additional pages into the album. Samantha wants the two photos facing each other, Judith’s on the left, hers on the right. When the pages are complete, she props the album in her lap and studies them for a long while. Finally, she decides on a caption.
Later, she takes the album to bed with her. It’s bulky, hard to maneuver. Her fingers struggle to grasp the corner of each page as she turns them slowly, pausing occasionally to pull back the thin plastic overlay so that she can write in the margins or directly under a photo when space permits. Her concentration falters when she nears the last pages, but she fights through it. When she’s finished, the pen falls away from her hands and the album drops from her grasp.
In the morning, she tells Nicole “Give it to her right after the funeral.”
She hasn’t had the energy yet to give the album the time it deserves, though as soon as she calls Nicole, that will change. There’s a page at the end she remembers clearly, and when she finds it, her eyes remain fixed on the single photograph centered there so precisely.
She’s having trouble making out the caption written in Samantha’s shaky handwriting. The photo is the last one Nicole took of them together, their faces slightly blurred, their coloring pale and indistinct. In it, they are sitting on Samantha’s faded family room couch with their shoulders pressed gently against each other, the sides of their foreheads barely touching. Judith’s gaze is turned away from the camera toward Samantha as if pleading for her to meet it, while Samantha stares vacant and unfocussed into the lens. It’s another of Nicole’s distinctive black and white images, the emotions it conveys a tribute to her unerring photographer’s eye.
Samantha’s face, to the left and an inch or two in front of Judith’s, appears pinched and grey, her eyes red-rimmed as if she had been the one crying. The slight smile on her lips says otherwise. It was Judith who had done the crying, her anger acute and penetrating, her feelings of helplessness about Samantha escalating beyond her control. It was Judith’s face on which a careful observer could trace the lines of tears, the lightly smudged make-up, the quickening of a dull black streak under her eyes. Ironically, Samantha had been the one doing the consoling, Judith the one consoled. The only thing Judith remembers about that day was how much they had talked about the wedding dress. The memory is powerful, meaningful enough to at last bring Judith to a decision she’s been circling around for a long while now, like a hawk slowly spiraling above its wounded prey, closing in, gliding away, diving down out of a bright radiant sky for a better look, rising up again before striking with finality.
She heads upstairs to the closet in the spare bedroom where she and her husband keep the things they rarely use. She hasn’t seen the old oversized storage box she’s looking for in nearly twenty years. When she finds it, she wrestles the cover off and glances inside for assurance that what’s supposed to be there is still safe. There’ll be plenty of time to unwrap it later. She sets the box on the bed and replaces the cover carefully, making sure that every corner is secure.
She picks up the phone to call Nicole. Retrieving the box erased the last vestige of lingering uncertainty. She’s decided yes. There was really never any doubt in her mind. She’s actually been thinking about it for years, long before Samantha walked into her internist’s office with a few vague symptoms and a week later walked away from the pulmonologist, stunned by the sobering ferocity he conveyed in a single spoken paragraph: “rare”, “only a possibility” and “pulmonary fibrosis”.
Nicole checks the Caller ID, picks up on the second ring. “Judith, I’m so glad you called. Are you okay? I’m really not coping too well over here.”
“I’m alright, Nic. No. That’s not true. Lots of crying, not much sleep. I’m not going back to the office yet. I think I still want some time off, you know, I don’t know, to decompress. And Steven’s away again.”
“It’s the same for me, Judith. It’s funny, you know? We were beginning to get a little closer, mom and I, maybe starting to turn a corner. We’d been drifting apart for years, I’m sure you knew that. Not that much in common, different views of the world. She thought I was aimless, I thought I would find the right things for me eventually. We loved each other, we still did, but in a quiet, distanced way. I didn’t think I’d feel like I do now, numb and helpless and trying to make sense of all the thoughts floating around in my head. It’s like I can’t feel any part of my own body.” She coughs twice, chokes off the sound of muffled sobs.
“Nic, will you be home tonight? I’d like to come by if you’re up to a visit. There’s something I’d like to show you.” Dinner together is pointless, they won’t have the appetite to eat anyway. They agree on 8 PM. Now she can return to the album.
It’s the college years she wants, and then the bridal photos. That shot of Leyton Harris is in the album somewhere, and even though she knows Sam wanted her to have it, she intends to cut him into shreds and gleefully cart him off with the newspapers for recycling. But when she finds the photo of Leyton glued down in the exact center of a page entirely by itself and sees what Samantha has done with it, she laughs so hard she thinks she’s going to fall off her chair and wet her pants. There’s a bright red circle drawn around the photo, now bisected with a light gray slash about half an inch wide. The slash cuts across the entire photo, as if to say “No Leytons Here”. Underneath, a wordless caption: a sketch, in charcoal, of a shriveled, stubby penis. Somehow Samantha’s surprising porno-comedy lifts Judith’s spirits in a way she didn’t think was possible.
The wild ride of their junior year when political protest reached a crescendo over Vietnam seems almost anticlimactic. Samantha in outlandishly eccentric clothing with every hair color imaginable. Purple. Orange streaked with blue. That ridiculous rainbow. Here they are together – Omigod! What have we done – bald! A year later, they are sane again. Graduation photos with their proud, beaming parents, others with their boyfriends who, remarkably, have become their fiancés.
Judith savors the knowledge that the bridal photos are next. The thin see-through plastic sticks to her fingers and briefly attaches the two pages to each other before she gently pries them apart. These two pages are the highlight of the album. She’d like to spend forever staring at them. Samantha’s caption means the world to her. It’s their secret declaration to each other: “I am she as you are she as you are me and we are all together. Goo goo g’joob!” It’s stolen from the Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, the album they fell in love with soon after they started college. That indecipherable song “I Am the Walrus”. “Goo goo g’joob?” What was Lennon tripping on when he wrote that? For four years, Samantha’s caption was the mantra of their friendship, something they found a way to say to each other nearly every day.
Long after midnight the record finishes playing for the first of several times. In the midst of a Humboldt Gold high, Judith and Samantha can’t stop laughing – about the music, the lyrics, their clothing, the way each other look, the chips and cookies and half-eaten sandwiches scattered around the room. “John Lennon is a genius!” Samantha cries. “He’s all mine! He’s going to be mine!”
“It’s us he’s writing about, Sam, don’t you see?” Judith shouts at Sam. “You are me! You are me! That’s us! That’s us for all time!”
“And you are me, Jude! You are most definitely me! And we are all together!”
Looking at the two bridal photos, it’s impossible to miss the similarities. It’s not that they struck the exact same pose, nor that they were about the same height and weight, the same build and carriage. No, it was something else entirely. The wedding dress. Look carefully, and it’s easy to see that Samantha is wearing Judith’s wedding dress.
They are out together shopping for Samantha, Judith’s wedding a month earlier fresh in their minds, anticipation for Sam’s at the end of summer building quickly. She has already looked at a dozen dresses, and she’s beginning to wither under her mother’s strengthening drumbeat: Find Something Now!
“Nothing’s right, Jude,” Samantha despairs, walking out of yet another dressing room empty-handed. “The arms bother me, the neckline, the feel of the fabric, the train. My mother’s freaking out. What I’m looking for is something like yours. I really loved everything about it. You looked great, like I haven’t told you that about a hundred times already. You looked just great.”
Judith starts to say something, then stops, her voice suddenly trapped in her throat as the idea occurs to her. Leaning forward with a smile that lights her face from ear to ear she takes Samantha by the shoulders, looks directly into her questioning eyes, and begins very slowly nodding her head up and down until comprehension dawns.
“No,” Samantha says when she realizes Judith’s thought. “No! I couldn’t. I mean, I want to, I would really really want to, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, it’s yours, it should be the most special thing you ever wear. Wouldn’t it be bad luck or something if we did it? It would be a bad luck thing.”
Still smiling, all Judith says is this: “It’s already special, Sam. Think of how much more special it will be for both of us if you wear it too.”
Samantha knows her resistance is completely false. The decision had been made the instant Judith reached out for her. “Oh God, Oh God, I’d love to!” They are jumping up and down together, hugging and laughing again and again. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Judith arrives at Nicole’s promptly at eight. She clutches the box awkwardly under her left arm, keeps the album of photographs wedged between her right arm and hip as she walks up the front steps. She’s dressed in an old sweatshirt and jeans and hasn’t bothered with make-up or lipstick. She knows Nicole won’t mind.
Nicole offers a glass of wine and they relax for a few minutes, not saying much. Two thin green cylinders of oxygen lie on the floor under the end-table on the far side of the room, clear plastic tubing wrapped around the valves. Unwelcome reminders of Samantha’s last months, waiting for the medical supply house to reclaim them. Judith’s gaze is drawn there briefly before she forces herself to look away. Nicole has deliberately kept the living room dim. When Judith glances at her in the soft low light, when she takes in her pose sitting on the well-worn leather couch in a roomy sweater with her legs crossed and loafers dangling to the floor, she cannot help but see how much of Sam there is in her.
Nicole glances at the old, oversized box Judith brought. She knows Judith will tell her about it when she’s ready. Right now she needs to talk. “We were too far apart for too long, mom and I. I didn’t tell her very often how much I loved her, even when she needed to hear it at the end. I think she knew, but I wish I had been able to say it more often.” Tears form in Nicole’s eyes. She doesn’t want a cry-fest. She forces a half-smile, coughs into the back of her hand. Time to change the subject.
She gestures at the album of photographs sitting on the coffee table in front of them. “I helped my mother put that together for you. She was very meticulous about the photos she chose, the space she wanted on each page for the thoughts she would write in later. She never let me see it after the photos were set. Then she insisted that I seal it and wrap it while she watched. And she almost forgot to put in the wedding photos. She had a real panic about that. You guys were so young then, so gorgeous in your wedding gowns.”
Judith looks up, raises an eyebrow quizzically. Does Nicole not know? Didn’t Samantha ever tell her?
“Did you ever look closely at those photos, Nic?” she asks, opening the album to the two bridal photos.
Nicole glances down at the two photos. She sees what she has always seen. What her mother wrote beneath them doesn’t mean much to her. “Well, what’s to tell, Judith? You struck the same pose. Why not? Two peas in a pod, like always.”
“No, no, that isn’t it at all. That’s not what matters. You don’t know, do you? Sam never told you. Take a closer look at the photos.” And as Nicole bends down to the coffee table to peer more carefully at the images of the two brides, Judith tells her. How the idea came to them. How both of them had been so excited to see Samantha in Judith’s wedding dress. How much it meant to them.
“She never said anything, Judith.” Nicole finishes her wine, pours herself and Judith another glass. “I never knew.”
Nicole watches as Judith reaches for the box, opens it, places the cover carefully aside. As she gathers out the dress, Judith is momentarily breathless. All these years, waiting to see if Nicole would fall in love, plan a wedding. Quietly harboring the idea, thinking how special Samantha would feel to see her daughter in their wedding dress. Judith is certain beyond doubt that she’s doing the right thing, for reasons that are only now becoming clear to her. She places the dress in Nicole’s shaking hands.
“It’s for you, Nicole. I told you I wanted to show you something tonight, but that wasn’t exactly true. I wanted to give this to you.” She squeezes Nicole’s hand briefly and steadies herself. “After your mother wore it, she packed it away and we promised ourselves that I’d get it cleaned and then we’d take it out every year, have a drink, celebrate. But I never got around to the cleaning, and we never did take it out again. So your mother was the last to touch it.”
Nicole finds herself unable to speak for several moments. She’s overwhelmed with, what? Thanks? Joy? Loss? The sheer, luminous surprise of this unexpected connection with her mother? She stands up, hugs Judith fiercely, folds the dress over her right arm. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you.” It seems completely inadequate. “Hang on a minute, Judith.” She heads upstairs to the room she’s been using. “Let me put this away. I’ll be right back.”
Nicole places the dress carefully on the bed and then takes off everything she’s wearing, even her panties and brassiere. She imagines her skin, every inch of it, touching her mother’s here in the same embroidered sleeves, the same satin bodice Samantha wore the day of her wedding, and Judith before that. She thinks they must have helped each other dress, and she can almost hear them talking, both nervous, both trying to joke around to calm the other. “What a marvelous empire style you’ve chosen, Jude”, Samantha might have said. “Ahm-peer, my dear” Judith would reply, “Don’t be so unsophisticated! Ahm-peer!” “Oh yes” Samantha would have mimicked, “Ahm-peer!” She tries to imagine her mother standing in the dress, breathing quietly in and out just before the ceremony begins, waiting alone in a tiny foyer just out of sight of their guests who are all seated and expectant as they turn toward the doorway where the bride will soon appear. She sees her take that first step forward, trying to steady her hands as they grasp the bridal bouquet tightly.
It’s a struggle for Nicole to get the dress on by herself, but she does, everything except the closures for the back. There’s a full-length mirror in the bedroom and she stops for a moment to admire its timeless qualities, the high neckline, the elbow-level veil, the chapel train, the intricate brocade and embroidery with all its tiny seed pearls. She wonders if Samantha ever forgave her for the difficulty of their relationship. She knows she’ll never know. Perhaps she’s beginning to forgive herself.
The curtains in the living room are not yet drawn and Judith is standing at the front window, staring out at nothing in particular when she hears Nicole’s footfall, the sound of fabric trailing softly down the stairs. She remains at the window looking outward until she hears Nicole say “Can you help me fasten the back Judith?” Only then does she know for certain what Nicole has done, and she turns to look at her.
“Samantha,” she says. She knows it’s Nicole, she knows it, but the mother-daughter resemblance is strong. Wearing the dress, Nicole conjures for Judith a more powerful memory of Samantha than any of the photographs in the album will ever evoke.
Judith steps around Nicole and takes up the first of the small white loops that fasten around each button from the bottom of the spine up to the base of Nicole’s neck. There are twelve.
“Your mother did this for me,” she whispers. “And then I did it for her. Each time, we counted them out loud together.” And together, Nicole and Judith begin.
It’s very late when Judith drives home, bone-tired, overcome by the evening’s emotional fatigue. She pours herself a sherry and sits on her favorite loveseat, the album of photographs in her lap.
On the last page of the album, not the last page of photographs but the page after that, Samantha has written a note to Judith.
You know everything important about me, Jude.
You’re the only one who does.
Make every day magical.
Goo goo g’joob…
Judith sits quietly on the couch for a very long time, sipping her sherry, thinking about the nature of friendship, its delicate fragility, the ability, sometimes, for two human beings to weave themselves together in a tapestry of such intricate, uncommon balance that it will not unravel no matter what occurs to test its strength.
She thinks about the gifts of the last few days, those given, those received. The memories Samantha bestowed on her in the photo album. The unexpected, surprising intimacy with Samantha that she hopes she has given Nicole. The closure she has given herself.
The moon is a high white beacon in the night when the empty sherry glass slips from Judith’s fingers and falls without a sound to the soft carpet at her feet. She drifts off into a deep, generous sleep. She will sleep without dreams, soundless and unmoving, long into the morning.
– For Caryn and Jane
Stan Lee Werlin‘s short stories and poetry have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, Sheepshead Review, Prime Number, Glassworks, Futures Trading, Soundings East, Saranac Review, Bacopa Literary Review, Zone 3, Gargoyle, Reunion, The Write Launch, Waymark, Blind Corner, Dark Elements, Free Radicals, Perceptions, The Louisville Review and Roanoke Review. His humorous children’s poetry has been published in numerous children’s magazines and anthologies. He is a Harvard graduate and received an MBA from The Wharton School. Stan enjoys competitive singles tennis and is a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins. Twitter @natsnilrew