About this title:
THE BEST FRIEND WHO BROKE UP WITH YOU. The older girl at school you worshipped. The friend who betrayed you. The friend you betrayed. Companions in travel, in discovery, in motherhood, in grief; the mentor, the model, the rescuer, the guide, the little sister. These have been the friends in Susanna Sonnenberg’s life, women tender, dominant, and crucial.
About the Author:
Searing and superbly written, Sonnenberg’s She Matters: A Life in Friendships illuminates the friendships that have influenced, nourished, inspired, and haunted her—and sometimes torn her apart. Each has its own lessons that Sonnenberg seeks to understand. Her method is investigative and ruminative; her result, fearlessly observed portraits of friendships that will inspire all readers to consider the complexities of their own relationships. This electric book is testimony to the emotional bonds between women, whether shattered, shaky, or unbreakable.
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of Her Last Death. She lives in Montana with her family.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She Matters Annabelle Upstairs
Annabelle was fierce about what was right. Letters were right, and invitations were right, and confidences and emergencies shared. She was soldierly about friendship: It must be like this, it will be like this. She sat me on her settee and leafed through the gilded album of pictures from five months before, explaining the Southern traditions, the rituals of weddings, the habits of her family. She was the third Annabelle in four generations on her mother’s side. I went along, pleased to have instruction. She had a way of letting me know I had the right things coming to me.
Here’s how we met: my boyfriend Jason and I were fairly new tenants in a modest Boston apartment building, slightly run-down, affordable. We noticed the couple at the U-Haul. Usually, we heard arguments in front of our living-room window, which was eye level with the sidewalk. The neighborhood was like that, a bit rough, and scraps of yelling would drift in, the sounds of car brakes, mad kids, doors slammed, so at the sight of two healthy people standing close together and smiling, we paid attention. He towered over her, but—their hair the exact same brown and their telegraphed understanding so complete—at first we thought they were brother and sister. A few weeks later the woman and I said hello by the mailboxes. I was on my way out, but I’d been hoping to run into her and we stopped a minute. She said they were newlyweds. I must have mentioned my birthday. The next week, on the morning I turned twenty-one, I opened my front door to find on the floor a tin of muffins with a tiny pot of jam. The note on heavy cardstock read
For your Birthday.
The strawberry tastes wonderful while the muffins are still warm.
Love from Annabelle Upstairs.
I’d never been above the first level of our building. Their door was ajar, and as I approached Annabelle pulled it open, holding coffee, one hand clasping at her white robe. “Dear Susanna!” She urged the mug forward, pressed my hand around it, and I was awash in celebration. Sunlight spilled across her tiny living room, but we didn’t stop. She led the way. Her husband reclined in their bed, four spindled posters almost to the ceiling; mounds of white linens, tatted edges visible, and him in a white robe, too. She introduced us. “Peter, this is Susanna.” She climbed up, piled her body against his, a look of such infinite gratitude and satisfaction on her face, it made me love her and hate her.
She gestured to the end of the bed, patted the duvet. I stayed in the doorway, only inches from them. Downstairs, her tin was on my kitchen table, our daylight gray, and Jason preparing to leave for the law library. She’d baked this morning, for me. I hardly knew her. Seeing me uncertain, she was gentle and laughing, “Come on, sugarfoot!” I struggled with this warmth, all this cozy invitation, drawn in and cautious. Annabelle regarded me from her delirium of marriage, of beginnings, of a pronounced and beguiling heritage.
• • •
Our friendship exploded, rampant and promiscuous. I was in my last year of college, gearing up for larger academic responsibility, but Annabelle was thirty, had earned a doctorate, had had the wedding. She knew no one else, in Boston because of Peter’s medical residency. She had the bare knowledge she needed, her axis of home, hospital, work, where she was isolated with monotonous data entry. Daily, she urged me, “Come upstairs, come to our apartment,” and up I went, into the foreign reaches of my own building. I was happy to take a break from my senior thesis, and from Jason, month four of living together in our off-campus apartment (“Do you think you could make dinner tonight?”). Her stately furniture was antique, all the way from Charleston. Although the pieces were absurd in our cheap building, I was clouded by envy I had to beat back, how she belonged to these objects and through them understood her own belonging. The cherrywood pedestal table, chairs to match, art, a breakfront, and a sofa with curving lines all cramped the rooms. She had a framed photo of herself in a wedding dress with her mother beside her.
In our first weeks—no, days—we confessed to adoring Hemingway, although as women we’d been trained to resist him, object. But we knew he mattered more than a temporary feminist argument! We found masculinity delicious and essential! We handed each other outrageous secrets, told what we liked in bed, or hadn’t yet dared, raw details of Peter and Jason spilled freely at my kitchen table, frank sexual expression that I’d never shared with a friend so easily before. I loved her greedy whisper as she said “fuck” or “fucking,” her plain revelry. She’s like me, I thought. We explained the important women and sisters, described the scotched friendships, disrupted by rivalries, breaches, unmeant treacheries. Yes, yes. Our pure, driven intensity was too much for most people, we agreed. We were too much, we knew it—so we could be that way together. We shared our confusion about our powerful mothers, mutual permission to say the worst. Annabelle, intrepid topographer, had considered the daughter’s dilemma and seized the power of distance and geography, and I felt allowed in my inarticulate ambivalence. She left Faulkner outside my door, a vintage cloth edition with no jacket, and collections of Keats and Ashbery. Her serpentine inscriptions began, “O dear Susanna,” like proper letters, making the most of the endpapers.
We didn’t see much of Peter. Weekday evenings, Annabelle flew upstairs and cooked a real dinner, which she sealed in containers and took to the hospital. Her generosity was fueled, to my astonishment, by consideration. Jason and I competed, sought ways to score. We loved fucking, but out of bed we waited to see who would do something for whom. Sometimes, returning happy from her quick trip to the hospital, Annabelle tapped at our door. She whispered the day’s delights in my ear, her pride at Peter’s success, as she waved to Jason in the room beyond. I wondered that this smart woman carried on this way, but I began to see that the duty gave her meaningful solace, compensation for Peter’s daily absence, nightly absence. She went to sleep in that high bed, and he returned at three or four. They made love right away, she’d told me, or before she dressed for work. Once, from the stairwell, I heard them, a marvelous violence and oblivion from their apartment. I heard a rougher, more animal Annabelle, even more persuasive.
• • •
When we were together, Annabelle, Peter, and I, we were noisy, a heady unfurling of adventures, of tenor and soprano laughter. This movie, that book! Were you listening to the hearings? Isn’t Greece wonderful, the honey, the ouzo, the lamb? Jason had since moved out, our intermittent nastiness finally full-blown and unlivable, and often, often, I went upstairs for Sunday breakfast, tea at dusk, wine in their pretty goblets. Passing behind Peter’s chair as he talked, Annabelle would lean over and slide her arms down his chest until her chin rested on his shoulder. Her cheek pressed to his, both of them facing me, his long bangs fell into her hair, mixing chestnut and chestnut. I felt them, the force field and mutual possession, and her magnetic reach to gather me, although I wasn’t clear whether I was friend, sister, or charge.
Alone, Annabelle always wanted more of me. I’d finish an answer, but she’d bend to me, one bare foot tucked under her on the settee, and say, “Tell me the rest.” She made me think I had more, and in the beginning I was flattered. Then I felt I should have more when I truly didn’t, and this wearied me. My answers weren’t right. She’d chide me, pull nearer, her hand flattened at her chest. “I know what’s in here, dear Susanna. You can show me.” I groped for safety, reached for the edges. I wanted the ecstatic game and party, but also—Show me the invisible and the silences. Show me the complex task of belonging.
• • •
We walked together down Newbury Street. Peter had a rare day off, which Annabelle turned into festivity. Nobody but Peter made her laugh with freedom and mischief, and she was very giddy. Their divine flame lapped at me. We’d gone to a place they loved for a late breakfast of eggs Florentine. Now we walked in the sun, Annabelle in the middle, holding my arm while her rhapsodic gaze greeted her husband. Sexual franticness was always between them. We stopped into little shops, a makeup store, where I let the saleswoman dab shadow over my eyelids while Annabelle and Peter browsed with aimless pleasure, hand in hand. I owned hardly any makeup, and festive and expansive myself, I bought it.
Outside Annabelle said, “Well, sugarfoot. That’s not a good color on you.”
“No. You should wear more pinks. Don’t you think, Peter? Plums and pinks on our glorious Susanna?”
“The woman in the store liked it,” I said.
“Well, she’s paid to say that, isn’t she?” She pulled me closer by the sleeve, firm possession. “Never mind, we’ll find you the right color sometime.”
Once home I left the coppery pressed powder in the bag. Then the bag went into the cabinet under the bathroom sink. When I moved I packed the unopened shadow, and it traveled from one life to ...
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