Chapter One -- A Departure from the Script

A few decades of friendship are like a few decades of marriage: you get to know a person inside out -- her good points and her not-so-good points. So when Lois drained her third glass of Chardonnay as she, Natalie, LaVerne and I enjoyed our monthly "ladies lunch," I knew she was ready to let loose with one of her zingers. What I didnít know was that it would be directed at me.

"Can I ask you a question, Sheila?" Lois always prefaces her queries like that. Never once does she leave a single breath's pause for an answer. "What bothers you more? Jeffrey converting to Catholicism or Jenny telling you she's a lesbian?"

I nearly choked on a mouthful of "Chocolate Decadence," which served me right. Iíd promised myself to stay on my diet -- had ordered tossed salad with dressing on the side -- but by the time the waiter wheeled up the dessert cart I was feeling so deprived that I couldnít resist that rich, dark chocolate that caressed my taste buds like a lover's tongue. Lois forged blithely ahead, supplying her own answer since I was still sitting there, mouth opening and closing like a goldfish that's been dumped from its bowl. "It's Jeffrey converting. Am I right or am I right?"

There were maybe two seconds of silence before LaVerne shrieked, "Jenny is what? Girl, I don't believe it! I just don't believe it!" and Lois realized she'd told the secret I'd warned her was for her ears only.

"Oh, I didn't meanĖ" she began. "I totally forgot." She tripped over her tongue as if it was a foot.

I'd intended to tell the other two, of course. They were two of my oldest friends. And what are friends for if you can't share with them? But I'd wanted to wait till the first shock was over, till I could give them the news in a tone of voice that demanded their acceptance and their support. Now that Lois had forced my hand, I had to pull myself together. I might still be in shock, but not so much that I would stand for any negative remarks about my daughter.

"Well, it's true," I told LaVerne. "Jenny told me just last week that she thinks she's a lesbian -- no, not thinks, that she's known for a while. So what? She's still the same wonderful girl that all of you have known since our kids were making mud pies together."

So they had no choice but to respond in kind, falling over themselves to reassure me that it didn't matter. "Just so long as sheís happy. Thatís the important thing," was the way Natalie put it, with LaVerne nodding in agreement.

And before anyone could ask any more questions that might reveal my actual state of mind, the waiter arrived with the check, LaVerne started digging in her purse for her calculator and Natalie glanced at her watch and gasped, "I had no idea it was so late. I have to teach class in an hour." So I was given a reprieve until next month's get-together -- or until either Natalie or LaVerne caught me on the phone.

Seeing the four of us at our monthly lunches, you would peg us as stereotypical middle-aged women with a little time on our hands, enough to keep up a friendship and indulge in the kind of exchange-of-feelings conversations women crave but so often don't get at home. You might also wonder what we all had in common: Lois and myself with our New York Jewish accents, her looking like she's just walked out of Nordstrom's on her way to the Kennedy Center, and me looking more like a refugee from Wal-Mart on my way to Weight Watchers; LaVerne, stunning in auburn cornrows that highlight the copper tones in her mahogany skin, wearing a power suit and sneakers, her good shoes stowed at the office, and Natalie -- I still think of her as Natalie, though it's years since she changed her name to Natalya -- dressed in her typical uniform, black from neck to toe. Basic stagehand is how I think of it, garbed in a pretense of invisibility as if to carry props on and off stage in the darkness between scene changes. As always, Natalie's basic black was set off by something from her vast collection of colorful accessories. This afternoon she flaunted a sumptuous vest of hand-crocheted ribbon that hung halfway to her knees over her black turtleneck and tights. I try not to envy Natalie her thin body -- not since she confessed to us her bouts with anorexia -- but I still envy her sense of style. Whenever I outfit myself in basic black I look like what I am -- a butterball of a woman who's fallen hook, line and sinker for the women's magazine line that wearing black will magically take ten pounds off your figure. This afternoon I was wearing navy slacks and a colorful, vertically striped tunic that I had liked until my husband, Dan, told me it made me look like an open beach umbrella.

Despite these stylistic differences, we'd maintained our friendship ever since weíd met, some thirty years earlier, at Parenting First -- a group that taught watered-down Lamaze method to expectant mothers. Our kids had long since outgrown the weekly play group we'd started for them, but the four of us had kept up with each other at our lunchtime gabfests ever since.

Now I air-kissed Natalie and LaVerne good-bye. "Let's go," I snapped at Lois. Ever since the time she pulled into her garage without bothering to raise the garage door first, it had been tacitly understood that I would be the designated driver for future lunches.

"So I made a mistake. So sue me," she said, once we had left the District of Columbia behind and were heading down I-395 to Springfield, Virginia.

"Freud says there are no mistakes," I retorted, but weakly. I could never bring myself to hold her big mouth against her for long. I know why she drinks too much and looks for a bit of diversion from her own worries. And the troubles she's had, I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

"Freud was an anti-feminist sexist pig," she fired back. "And you surely weren't planning to stay in the closet about Jenny forever."

"A week," I said. "One week is not forever." Which was all the time it had been since Jenny had told me. Had come out to me, as she'd put it. I suddenly found myself crying, tears blurring my vision so that for a moment I was afraid I'd have to pull to the shoulder. Instead I sniffled hard once or twice and managed to blink my eyes dry.

Lois gave me a look. She appeared to be sobering up a little, frightened perhaps by the possibility of a tear-induced crash. "Well you need support to deal with this. Thatís what friends are for."

Some friend, I wanted to retort, who can't even keep her big mouth shut. But I had to keep my mind on my driving: I was approaching the construction zone at the "mixing bowl," where, for years, vehicles exiting I-395 had played dodge'em with two lanes of cars and eighteen-wheelers barreling onto the highway from the Capital Beltway. It had always seemed a miracle to me that wrecked cars didnít litter the spot like broken eggshells.

"From someone who knows what I'm going through, that's who I need support from," I said instead, once I'd heaved a sigh of relief at having made it to the Springfield exit. "Not from friends who are about to plotz from shock. And I told you, Jenny gave me the number of a support group."

"So when are you going?" she demanded.

"I don't know. I haven't had a chance to call." I wasn't so sure I was ready for a support group, though I thought better of mentioning that to Lois.

"I wouldn't put it off if I were you," she said. After thirty years -- thirty and counting, if the truth be told --she knew me.

"Who says I'm putting it off? But I want Dan and me to go together. So I've got to wait until he's ready."

"You know how long that could be?" As usual, she didnít wait for an answer. "You could be in a nursing home by that time."

"It's only been a week," I protested. "Give him time."

"Well, fine. But there's no reason for you to wait. Look, if he wonít go with you, I will. Just let me know when it is, and Iíll clear my calendar."

I had to admit that was a generous offer from a Realtor in the frantic tag end of the spring selling season. I told her so.

"So what are friends for?" she asked. "Youíll give me a call and let me know the time?"

"I'll give you a call," I promised. "Unless Dan is willing." So one way or another, I'd boxed myself into going.