Today is Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday. I’d rather write about Doreen. I am staring at this picture of her, framed in silver, on a shelf next to my desk. The actual picture is four inches by six inches. Doreen was 5’ 10.”
In 1965, the day before freshman orientation at Western Reserve University, Doreen and her mother walked into the Howard Johnsons across from campus where I was eating breakfast with my parents. Other kids, flanked by parents, looked anxious. Doreen, with a spark in her eyes, stood out. We smiled at each other as she passed our table. Our outfits were almost identical: navy sleeveless mock turtle neck shells and madras plaid A-line skirts. Hers was taller.
“That one towering over her mother is pretty,” my father said.
Pretty. Inviting, Warm. Later, as I was moving into my dorm room, I saw her unpacking in a room down the hall and got excited by an already-familiar face and possibly a friend. That night for our floor meeting, most of the girls appeared in jeans or cut offs. Doreen shuffled in wearing furry bedroom slippers, a head full of rollers, and pink man-tailored pajamas, like the kind she bought me for my birthday almost four decades later. I motioned for her to sit next to me. As the dorm mother announced the dorm rules, I turned to Doreen and whispered, “You look like a giraffe.”
At that moment, our 41-year giggle-and-gab-fest began.
On Saturday evenings, she shuffled around in her rollers, slippers, and pajamas, as most of us got ready for dates. Too tall and shy for most boys, she said she wasn’t even sure how to accept a date. The year before in high school, a male classmate called and asked if she wanted to go to the senior prom, she said she did, but no one invited her. “That’s what I’m doing,” said the boy.
She claimed it didn’t bother her that she stayed in. “That’s the way it is,” she said.
But in the middle of our sophomore year, she transferred to NYU and lived at home with her parents in Hewlett, Long Island. When I got accepted to NYU on a junior year program, her father urged her to room with me in the dorm. He thought I was perky and sociable so she’d probably meet people. He didn’t mean people. He meant a guy.
In September 1967, Doreen arrived at our dorm, Rubin Hall; with her mink paw coat and her fall. We went everywhere together: to class, Chinatown, shopping, museums, the East Village.
In our room, after or instead of studying, we gabbed and laughed the night away. Doreen was a math major. She didn’t study much. She got it. And she got me. No judgments. No rigidity. Doreen was accomodating. Kind. Each time I quit smoking and went back to it the following day, she’d go ‘bumming’ cigarettes for me from the girls on our floor so I wouldn’t be the only pest.
She was Felix. I was Oscar. She put her papers and clothes away. I acquired clutter. And a law school boyfriend. I suggested we fix Doreen up. He brought his roommate, Phil, to our dorm for dinner one night. Doreen and I laughed. The following week the four of us went for Chinese food. Doreen wore her fall. She and I yukked it up again.
The following week, she and Phil went out without us. Doreen took off her fall. She and Phil took off. That was that. Talk about smitten. Talk about head over heels.
Two things about Phil put Doreen off: his sweaters with the reindeer on the front, and his hair: he forgot it was supposed to be washed. She pinned notes on the reindeer with a hair-washing schedule, bought him plain crewneck sweaters, and eventually got rid of those with the antlered creatures.
That was window dressing. Doreen and Phil were the real thing. Before we graduated from college, I was her maid of honor. She and Phil moved to Portland Oregon where they raised two great kids. Doreen became a much sought-after lawyer.
We saw each other several times a year and spoke on Sunday nights. She was still my spiritual big sister and my unofficial shrink. When my first marriage ended, Doreen listened and counseled me. “You’re fine on your own. You don’t need a man. Your life is rich and full,” she’d say.
When my demons came out, no matter the hour, I’d call her. The summer before my daughter left for college and I worried about my emptying nest, Doreen sent me a plane ticket to Oregon for my first week alone. For my 50th birthday, she took me to Canyon Ranch in Tuscon. When her daughter got married, she had a luncheon the day before the wedding for the bridesmaids. I was Doreen’s only friend there.
In November and early December of 2006, we didn’t speak as often as we usually did. She was sick. Exhausted. She thought she had some kind of flu. She didn’t call for several Sundays and when I called her, I’d either get her machine or she’d say a few words, but was too tired to stay on. Then Phil called me one day to say Doreen had a strange form of pancreatic cancer and it looked grim. I asked to speak to her.
Before I got a word in, Doreen said, “Don’t cry. Shit happens. I’ve had a wonderful life and you had something to do with it.”
Our final conversation took place a few weeks later from her hospice. Her son phoned. “Mom wants to say good-bye to you.” He put Doreen on.
“You’ve been an amazing friend,” I told her.
“Thank you, Nancy.” She sounded tired. Weak.
“What can I do for you, Doreen?”
“Look out for Phil. I’m worried about him.”A pause, then, “Take care of little Nancy.”
That last conversation took place in January exactly five years ago.
I check on Phil regularly. We e-mail and we speak. He comes to New York and we spend time together. He was at both my daughter’s and my weddings.
But Doreen is with me every day. On Sunday nights between 8 and 9, the time she used to call, I stand in front of her picture and talk to her as I do each morning before I sit down at my desk. I look at her laughing face and I smile. Then I start with “Hello Giraffe.”