Big Dumb Baby
I was raised by my maternal grandmother who—among teaching me the finer points of smoking non-filter cigarettes and ironing a perfect crease into polyester slacks—made sure I grew up understanding the one true pillar of friendship: “Most friends,” she’d say, the word oozing from her mouth like some fine poison, “wouldn’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” So many times was this phrase repeated that it should have been etched into our family crest and set above the front door to keep out would-be friends.
I knew Grandma to have only two friends. The first, a woman named Linda who was several years Grandma’s junior, seemed to come around only when the two of them were going on cruises to Mexico. Linda owned a pizzeria and as a kid I spent afternoons inside the small restaurant feeding quarters into the pinball machines in the back while the two of them sat at one of the small tables and smoked and laughed over pictures of their latest trip. The last time Grandma saw Linda I was nearly an adult. We were both invited to her wedding—she was on her fifth or sixth husband by then—and while we were welcome at the ceremony I remember feeling as if we’d crashed the reception. Grandma didn’t know anyone at our table and spent much of the afternoon trying to make her way to the one with Linda’s adult children. By the time she got there, sitting down next to a tanned young man who looked just like his mother, he seemed to not know who she was. Taking her place in the receiving line, ready for a warm response from the woman who’d accompanied her on so many vacations, all she got was a short hug, a brief introduction to the groom, and a complicit smile.
The only other friend Grandma had was a German immigrant named Gretta who called our house three or four times a day. Each time Grandma picked up the phone, perhaps hoping to hear from Linda, she’d cheerfully say, “Hello,” and then roll her eyes. “Hi Gretta.” For the next hour she’d be roped into listening to the thick accent, the woman recounting her most recent complaint about her daughter or her newest physical ailment. When she hung up she’d say, “God I hate that damned woman.” But she still picked up the phone every day. Eventually, one of Gretta’s many ailments proved fatal and the day after her funeral—where Grandma was the only friend in attendance—the phone rang and Grandma joked, “That’s probably Gretta calling me from beyond the grave.” She picked up the receiver only to find dead air. This happened more than a dozen times over the next month, and I came to believe that when friends died their spirits were haunting.
Perhaps it goes without saying that for most of my childhood I was friendless. Sure, I had schoolmates and neighbors, but I was only allowed to socialize with one girl, Michelle, whose parents were both teachers. For some reason, Grandma trusted them and so I was allowed on occasion to have a little contact with Michelle outside of school. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I was allowed to accept invitations to her house. Miraculously, the summer before I was fourteen, I was allowed to spend two weeks with her family in Hawaii. They treated me like a second daughter, allowing Michelle and I entire hours of time on our own that we spent on the beach, exploring sea side walking paths, and swimming in the resort pool. When I returned home, I regaled Grandma with tales of our adventures.
A year after the trip, Grandma moved me to another town. I see now that she went out of her way to keep Michelle from being a part of my life after that. She wouldn’t allow me to talk to her on the phone, I wasn’t permitted to accept any more invitations to her house, even for her birthday. Nor was I allowed to invite Michelle to our new home. Since both of us were too young to drive, I saw my only childhood friend again one other time. She appeared on my doorstep a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday with a card and a copy of Stephen King’s newest book. I stepped out onto the front porch and sat with her on the cold cement step while her mother waited in the car.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” she said.
“It’s just, I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to be my friend? It’s okay that you live here now. We can still keep in touch.”
I didn’t know how to explain something even I didn’t understand. Or tell her that Grandma was behind it all, or if she’d even believe me—Grandma had always been so nice and cordial to Michelle and her family, buying extravagant gifts for them at the holidays, offering to drive me and Michelle to school. Sitting on the front step, not looking into the face of the girl who’d been my friend since kindergarten, I suddenly felt like a baby whose favorite toy had been taken away. I had no response but to cry.
Michelle looked at her shoes, green Converse sneakers I envied. “I gotta go,” she finally said.
These years preceded email and social media, so we only exchanged a handful of letters over the next few months, letters I received only because I was the one to check the mail each day. One of the last Michelle sent was an essay she’d written in her English class about her best friend, me. She’d made a cover for the essay, a collage of photos of the two of us over the years, and in the essay she lamented the fact that we drifted apart.
Grandma kept a close reign on me after that so by the time I left for college I didn’t know how to make or keep friends. By observing the relationships around me, I came to understand that trust was at the core of every good friendship. But I constantly thought of Grandma’s words, “They won’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire,” especially as I witnessed petty betrayals and meaningless arguments caused by gossip and revealed secrets. And I certainly didn’t understand how not lending another girl a pair of shoes or inviting one friend but not another to a party was cause for jealousy and cruel acts of revenge. Or worse, for simply cutting someone out of the loop. It seemed better to simply be friendly with everyone so as not to commit a faux pas that would surely end badly.
But one boy, Lucas, was immediately nice to me as soon as we met. He made it clear he was homosexual, and that the interest he showed in me wasn’t physical, so when he stopped by for dinner or freshman calculus study sessions, I knew he didn’t have an ulterior motive. For a year our friendship was a good one, then suddenly he began calling on me only when all of his other friends were busy. Our friendship fizzled when I was stranded on the side of the freeway with my stalled car and he refused to come and pick me up, citing that he was right in the middle of watching an episode of Iron Chef with his roommates. Though I was hurt, I never confronted him. I knew for sure I put too much stock in his friendship.
So I attempted to diversify, and told myself I’d hold fast to at least three good friends, one more than Grandma’s allotment. But I lacked the ability to make small talk. This probably stemmed from the fact that I’d never been put into a social setting outside of a classroom. Most people my age could walk up to a stranger in a coffee shop, at the laundry, in a restaurant and begin a light and witty conversation about something they seemed to have in common—a certain blended drink, fabric softener, or pasta dish. This sort of spontaneity was at the core of making friends. But my childhood had strictly forbid spontaneous interaction; Grandma would never have allowed me to surprise her with a neighbor coming over to play or a last minute invitation. Plans had to be made weeks in advance, outfits chosen, and behavior rehearsed. More than likely these sorts of things were simply met with, “Like hell you’re doing that,” and so in my adulthood I had to attempt to break free of this behavior. I told myself the way I’d been treated by Lucas was an exception to the way people generally treated one another, not an example of Grandma’s golden rule.
As I entered my thirties—the age experts agree signals the plateau oftrue friend-making—I took a short assessment of my progress at making friends: I knew six people who would pee on me if I suddenly burst into flames. To those close friends, I’d become fiercely loyal. One in particular, Gibb, had earned my respect over the ten-years I’d known him. And while I admired him, the longer I knew him, the more I pitied him. He lived alone, never left his apartment except to attend classes, our meetings, or drive to visit his ailing parents. His bookcases were filled not with the requisite books of the authors who visited our campus, but with DVDs and Playstation games. He spent the wee hours of his mornings not partying with the local writers but in chat rooms.
In an attempt to show the world what a good guy Gibb was, I named him Managing Editor of the University creative journal when I stepped down. The following year, my husband Adam and I moved to another state to take teaching jobs. But we got together with Gibb whenever we could. During one visit we sat around in his living room—movie posters on the walls and scented candles lit on every surface—drinking beer and catching up on each others’ lives. Before we left, he told me, “That’s what I like best about you guys. I don’t have to talk to you every day to be close friends. We just kinda pick up where we left off.”
At the time, I didn’t think much of it except I couldn’t shake the feeling that for years he’d been meticulously measuring our friendship against others he had, weighing me against some criteria for keeping and discarding people.
A few years later, when a position opened at my workplace, I wrote Gibb a letter of recommendation. I put in a good word for him with my boss, telling her how much the two of them had in common, and that I thought he’d really fit in with the faculty. It didn’t take too long for him to get the job. It took even less time for the two of them to become lovers. At first, I was supportive of their relationship. I helped them keep it a secret from the higher-ups so neither one of them would be fired, and even deceived my fellow coworkers so they wouldn’t be found out. Gibb was my friend. And friends put out fires for one another.
Then I found out about Big Dumb Baby, a sex game they played in the bedroom where Gibb was made to act like an infant called Big Dumb Baby and she acted like Mommy, spanking him and telling him what she wanted him to do to her. I’m all for kinky sex, but never have I felt turned on by the idea of intercourse with a baby. But Gibb wanted to be humiliated in such a way. He liked it enough to marry Mommy.
Every time I saw him in the halls, in the copy room, at parties all I could think about was him trussed up in adult diapers wearing a baby bonnet and sucking his wife’s toes. I imagined him bent over and allowing her to spank him.
Grandma took to her grave the mystery of why she put an end to the friendship I had with Michelle. Now that I’m an adult, I see that she—like so many other single-parents—developed an emotional dependency on me. She’d been divorced several times, had a hard time maintaining a healthy relationship with her own children, and because she didn’t work she was isolated at home for most of the day. I was her sole companion, and if I had a relationship with someone else she would have felt threatened. Today, this condition is known as parental co-dependency, but when I was young it was simply the way my world worked.
Or maybe Grandma’s motive was one she didn’t realize; perhaps she was incapable of maintaining more than one close relationship. Based on her track record with Linda and Gretta, that seemed to fit the bill. She might have found it difficult to maintain more than one close relationship. Or she could’ve been like the millions of people on the planet who simply use a spouse—in her case a pseudo-spouse, me—as their best friend. Some psychologists argue that it’s only natural for a spouse to become the best friend, while another camp argues such behavior results in an unhealthy marriage of co-dependency. We surely fell into the latter category. Whatever the reason, I wish Grandma would’ve told me what she was feeling so I could’ve tried to understand it, if not somehow grown from it, maybe even learned to be a better judge of character.
“I unfriended you,” Gibb told me one day over the phone. We hadn’t spoken in months, hadn’t seen each other socially in nearly a year. And though we worked together, the only indicator that he was at work was Mommy’s car in the parking lot.
“It’s not personal or anything. It’s just, sometimes you post comments on Facebook about your boss.”
“And? So do a lot of people.”
“Your boss is my wife.”
“She’s not my only boss.” I’d been irate about some policy changes and had posted a few comments about how unjustly I was being treated. And while Mommy had started to go out of her way to make my work life miserable, none of my posts were directed at her. “I haven’t posted anything about her,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
My face suddenly got very hot and before I could stop them, my eyes filled with tears and I felt the same way I had years before as I sat with Michelle on the front porch step. “So instead of talking to me about it you just unfriend me?”
“I’m sorry, but your posts make for awkward conversations around my house. Conversations I don’t want to have.”
Just after their marriage, Gibb told me he and Mommy had never fought, had never had a full-blown, heated argument about anything. If they didn’t fight about anything, did they even really care about each other? Were they ever really honest with each other for that matter? I suddenly blamed myself for Gibb’s passionless, dishonest marriage where his wife treated him like an infant. “You know this is bullshit, right?” I said. He was damned sure going to get some fight out of me. I deserved what I’d never gotten before: a real reason for the end of a friendship.
“It’s not bullshit. I’m married. My wife and I are one.” He was completely serious. As if after his wedding he’d gotten a lobotomy or been plugged into the Borg. And with that, our friendship was officially over. Like Grandma’s mysterious sudden dislike for Michelle, like her dysfunctional relationship with Gretta that only ended in death, I’d been cast out into the ether.
A few weeks later, I stumbled upon the fact that Gibb had systematically cut all of his pre-marriage friends out of his life. It’s a common enoughphenomenon, some couples end decade-long friendships prior to getting hitched. But usually, the ties are cut with single friends, not married ones. Especially married friends like me who rallied for them for years.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that people don’t change during marriage. Compromise is part of a working relationship. But never have I thought during the course of my marriage that I needed to end a friendship because Adam doesn’t approve. We maintain common friends—most of them other married couples—and our own friendships that came with us before we took our vows. I wanted to believe Gibb had maintained some ties and I just hadn’t made the cut.
“I feel so used,” I told another one of his toss-aways.
“It’s funny that she still has all of her friends, but he’s had to get rid of his. The people he’s friends with now are people she brought with her to the marriage,” she said.
“I don’t get it. How could he just use me and instead of talking to me? Just side with her and jump ship?”
“It’s the type of person he is,” she said, shrugging. And something in her tone reminded me so much of Grandma’s wisdom that I shuddered. “But if you really want to know the truth,” she said, “I think he had a crush on you at some point and was stupid enough to actually tell her about it.”
I didn’t want to believe she was right, but I immediately recalled an evening at Mommy’s house when I made a joke about how I’d landed my husband. “If Adam hadn’t wanted me,” I laughed, “I was going to move in on to Gibb next.” Big Dumb Baby blushed, and Mommy’s smile became a tight-lipped mask.
After Adam and I got home I asked him, “Do you think Gibb thought I was serious about wanting to date him?”
“Obviously,” he said. “You saw her face, too.”
“So she hates me now,” I said. “She’ll probably try to get me fired.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Adam said.
Because Mommy was my boss, I couldn’t confront her about the tension between Gibb and I, which made the situation even more infuriating. It was as if she’d simply taken him into her house and locked the door, forever keeping him only to herself. I never dropped by to see him, suspecting from his comment years before that a surprise visit to Mommy’s house wouldn’t be welcomed. We’d end up on the front stoop, pussy footing around why he no longer valued me, never getting at the fact that he’d spent the majority of our ten year friendship somehow keeping stock of what little time he actually had to spend on me for him to benefit.
I’d spent much of my adult life trying to disbelieve, disprove even, that Grandma was wrong about friendships. But I couldn’t shake the stirring belief that since Michelle’s departure so many years before, I’d been stunted. And that deep down I was still the child Grandma had raised to distrust and misjudge. Perhaps I’d surrounded myself not with people who’d put out a fire, but those who would simply piss on me when given the opportunity.
More hurtful than anything Gibb had done was the fact that the end of our relationship made me question the validity of every close friendship I still had. Three of the five remaining close friends lived hundreds of miles away and most of our weekly interactions took place through social media. I send cards at holidays, but my ability to remember birthdays and anniversaries is sadly lacking. I love these friends very much, more so even than family members. But I’m unsure if they really know how valuable they are in my life, how crushed I’d be if they suddenly cut me out.
The more I think about Gibb’s end to our friendship and those that—despite my shortcomings—are still thriving, the more I relive the moment with Michelle on the front step of Grandma’s house, her green sneakers and my desperate need to tell her that she was my best friend and I didn’t want to have to let her go. If I’d just had the courage to stand up to Grandma, to tell her how our relationship isolated me, perhaps my life would’ve been a little less lonely. Perhaps I could’ve grown into a woman comfortable making small talk with strangers, seeing in them potential friends rather than those who, at the sight of me aflame, would turn tail and run.