In Charlottesville, Virginia, humid late August 1977, two girls met in a shared suite in a dorm at the University of Virginia.
That was me and Molly, forging a friendship that was, for a time, like two people wearing the same sweater. There was the closeness of oneness and the parallel discoveries and experiences of a lifetime. First love, first hangover, first bong hit, first writing workshop, first apartment, first sex, first predatory professor, first job – all of it shared together if not in words, then in simply showing up.
Eventually I got Molly a job at the place I worked – she became barmaid in the dance club behind the restaurant where I waited tables downstairs, and men we found easy to fall in love with worked upstairs inside a golden circle, or behind the bar, shielded by cigarette smoke. There was not much we did not do together at first, and as we split off to live our own lives, nothing really changed about loving each other. She had a perfectly expressive face, animated eyes, eloquent long fingered hands. She wrote poetry and was learning Chinese.
She loved to eat and drink at bars with me, or sit at coffee shops imbibing hideous coffee and smoking hideous cigarettes as we talked about everything from Modernism to sexy guitar players we had a thing for. Molly represents the period in my life when I was figuring out who I was (or starting to), choosing my path, taking risks (as she puts it so lovingly) with my heart. Then she moved to Taiwan and I never saw her again. Until three weeks ago.
In Charlottesville, Virginia winter of 1982, two young women met in “The Cave” – an interior space in the bowels of Cabell Hall that served coffee and snacks.
I was introduced to Anne, a young MFA student, a poet, a girl with thick black hair held back by a barrette. Soon enough, she was coming to the little cottage in town that I shared with a mutual friend, Bridget, for pot luck dinners and round-robin back rubs. This friendship grew gently. It was allowed to do so because we were both settled, secure in our circles of friends, ready to get to know one another and we had time to do it.
I remember those years. There was so much time. Always enough time, to sit and be, go to work, go to class, write lots of papers and stories, hang out with other people, play silly games on bar napkins, dance till 3 a.m. and walk home sweating and alive only to have more time the next day. I remember showing up to meet Anne one day at the Virginian. I had just left the woods where I had been picnicking with my boyfriend. The strap on my shoe had broken. I saw her at the bar and I walked up, holding one sandal in my hand. She laughed. That was a perfect moment.
Her earnest, joyful, loyal friendship has seen me through … a lot. Her lush, alto voice is sure to help me feel centered, no matter where I am, or how I’m doing. We were in each other’s weddings and then…. For years, as we raised families and started careers, we rarely saw one another, but at some point I was reminded that, for me, Anne is a lodestone. Now, I see her whenever I can.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, fall semester 1983, I met Sarah in one of two classes we, by chance, were taking together – a seminar dedicated exclusively to George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte (I know, heaven, right?), and a Lit Crit class.
Sarah had just moved back into the town. She had grown up and attended high school in Charlottesville, and now returned to finish up her college credits at UVA. I was still where I’d been since 1977, finishing up my college credits. And now, we got lucky – fate brought us together.
To say that my young twenties were fraught with some painful passages (some the usual kind about a broken heart, and some less usual, involving being stalked by a mentally ill parent), would be a glib sidestep, but that’s what I’m going to say and leave it at that. Sarah was the North Star smiling right into my face as I tried to put my head down, determined to get my diploma. We used to joke that we had parallel lives, and in some ways we did. We certainly were drawn to the same writers, and we both had “difficult” mothers. Sarah was the person who, no matter what was going on, would reach out to me. Years after I’d left Charlottesville, when she saw my missing-for-months mother wandering a street in Bethesda, MD, she called me immediately, knowing how much it would mean to me.
When something hurt me, or I was holding on too tight to my control, it was Sarah’s level gaze that would gently ease me into recognition, out of denial, and it often involved copious, painfully-relinquished tears. Sarah has remained my external hard drive, holding onto memories about my life that I have unwittingly let go. She can summon anger at a man who hurt me, or a job that demanded too much (like when I had to constantly cover for the coke-fiend diva who employed me), when I cannot because I have pushed things down too far. Sarah will hold me accountable to the events that transpired in those last years in my favorite town where so much good and bad happened.
None of these three women were friends with one another. Anne and Molly took a poetry class together at one point early on, and may have crossed paths through me. I used to love to open my house up to everyone I knew for pot-luck parties that had as much insanely good conversation as shitty wine and yummy food. We don’t think Sarah ever met either of them until she met Anne at my wedding in 1986, then, years later through me again, in Charlottesville. All of us had our circles of friends, and like a typical Venn diagram, there was some overlap. But in the Venn diagram of me, Molly, Anne, and Sarah, the little piece in the middle just had me.
These women were, like others I was fortunate to know in those formative and exciting years, absolutely central to my life and are intricately woven into who I am.
A few weeks ago, because Molly was going to be in the states (Richmond, VA to be exact) for a vacation—all the way from Taiwan—I drove down to Charlottesville with my daughter. Molly drove up from Richmond. We were pulled to reconnect for the first time in 30+ years. Sarah and Anne, who live in Charlottesville, Molly, my daughter, and I, gathered for dinner one night. Four sets of memories, four ways of knowing me, four versions of my past… and The Past. And I knew each of them in a particular way, at a particular time. We had found one another for particular reasons.
I think of certain women, scattered across my life, as my chosen sisters. Or my found sisters. Whether we come together to fulfill a pact made in a past life, or to continue helping one another grow on a continuum that predates and will postdate this lifetime, or by chance alone, it doesn’t matter. For that weekend in Charlottesville, January 2015, I was content to be the hub connecting these women to one another at this time and that place.
We met for dinner and we were just four women and a daughter. As we sat together around the table, sparklers twinkled at the edges of my vision. Was this a magic trick? Or life so sweet? Was it simply as it was meant to be? Yes to all.