2018 Annual Short Fiction Contest Runner-Up: "Invitations"

        What was most evident about Miriam when she was a child was the gloom that enveloped her. Perhaps it was her unhappiness swathing her like fog, more than her small, squinting eyes or doughy skin that made her appear homely. Decades later, when she sent me a photo of herself as an adult without glasses, her hair fashionably cut, I saw she was attractive. I am not sure why, as a child, I saw her as dowdy. But like a dog that can sniff out illness on a sick person’s breath, a child can sense when something is not quite right and will want to steer clear of it.
        I invited Miriam to my third-grade birthday party because my mother made me. Miriam wore a dress made of grey satin. Perhaps it was one of her mother’s dresses remade for her. What child wears grey satin? She was always smiling, always careful to say what she thought people wanted to hear and because she tried so hard, classmates avoided her.
        In fourth grade, she made hand-drawn Valentine’s cards for everyone in the class, a heart with glitter surrounded by forget-me-nots that she drew as well. Many of these cards were left at school when kids went home. What was it about Miriam that made children want to keep their distance?

        Like most of us in our elementary school, Miriam was Jewish. She was an only child, but there were others in the class who had no brothers or sisters. Miriam’s parents were both doctors and that was unique. But two girls in the class had fathers who were doctors and they were in the popular crowd. Miriam’s parents were from Germany. Did her foreignness isolate her? Perhaps her parents were Holocaust survivors, but I never heard if that was so.
        I don’t remember her having any friends. Once you were labeled unpopular, the classification rarely altered. So it was a shock when a friend told me that Karl made out with her.
“He doesn’t really like her Miriam, he is only using her,” the friend said. “She lets him feel her up.”
        Karl was popular. He could make out with anyone. Why had he chosen Miriam? Did he think that even having the urge to make out was embarrassing and he wanted to keep it secret?
        After grade school Miriam and I lost touch, though we went to the same high school. But at our thirty-year high school reunion there was a flurry of emails and I received one from Miriam. That’s how I learned she spent her days resting in her home and had a full-time nurse.
        I was sad to hear this. There are those you find unappealing because they are desperate and lonely, and when you suspect you might see yourself reflected in them, or that you might have anything in common at all, you cannot forgive them. Now the distance between us was geographical as well as emotional. I thought we’d exchange one or two emails and that would be that. I told her I lived in Victoria B.C. This was the email she sent back:

Dear April,
        I found my photos of Victoria. My boyfriend Al was born there and took wonderful photographs of the city. Several taken of the houseboats on Fisherman’s Wharf, I especially love. Victoria is one of my favorite places.
        I visited him in Victoria 5 times in two year and he came to NY 3 times. I was ready to marry him -- but alas he was married to his job!
        Needless to say I was heartbroken for a little while!!
        It was for the best that I did not marry him. My son needed a Mom and getting involved and marrying would not have worked at all.

        So, we had both been single parents. I too made excuses to myself and others why it was better I’d remained single as long as I had. Then she sent more emails.

Dear April.
        I'm not allowed to travel out of the country unfortunately, but I'm hoping to begin a collection of photos of places I’ve been. I had a nursing degree and worked in home care for 17 years. I suppose I was good at what I did though it was not my career of choice. I worked a total of 20 + years. Enough.

        What would have been her career of choice? I remember in grade school Karl said Miriam would come home from school and draw. “Because she has no friends,” Karl had said.
“What would she draw?”
“I don’t know. Oh yeah, her room,” he’d replied after he thought about it.
I imagined her drawing her room, over and over.

        In fourth grade she sent me an invitation to her birthday party. It was cowgirl themed and she’d drawn the card herself, a girl on a horse throwing a lasso. She must have drawn each card by hand. I told her I wasn’t able to come, without quite knowing why I said no. Now I think Miriam could no more hide the burden she carried than she could have hidden being anorexic had she stopped eating. Her unhappiness entered every room with her.

Dear April,
        The program I'm in is Hospice at Home. All the staff are wonderful. I don't have any family nearby so it is so helpful to have all these people make my life comfortable. Everyone that knows me says that after all the care I did for others over the years I deserve it. I agree. I took care of my father since I was 9 years old. I always took care of other people. I worked as a Hospice nurse for a while but that was not my thing.

        I figure if the sun ever comes out again.........I can jump out of bed !!!!. But for now...............resting is the best and it is what my nurse tells me to do.........He's the best. Better than all the doctors I've been to.
With luck I will see you and other friends very soon.

        I never met her father. I never went to her house. I wondered if, by taking care of him, she meant he was despondent and she’d tried to cheer him up. But I didn’t feel I could ask. Her mother would pick her up from school every once in a while. She looked like Miriam. She’d nod and smile at the children in the schoolyard and I remember thinking she seemed like she was on stage, remote and sad and continuously smiling as she surveyed an audience. Even though I was young I could feel how strained she was and could not stop looking at her. Now, after receiving Miriam’s email about Hospice at Home I asked why she was in hospice care and she emailed back.

Dear April,
In high school my father was concerned because I was depressed. I’d been depressed for a while. Lithium was a new drug at the time and thought to be helpful for mood swings. He had me participate in an experimental program. I was a human guinea pig. I've been part of research projects for 35 years. Now my kidneys are too damaged for dialysis.

        She sent me an email saying she’d remarried. Harvey, her second husband was a sickly man with a cardiac condition. He was 19 years older than she was and she took care of him for years before he died. Now she was eligible to collect social security benefits from him but had not yet applied. She was having trouble managing daily household tasks but her son, who would be 24 that year, had been handling her finances and making sure the bills were paid.

        I hoped that was true. I remember, in grade school, asking Miriam if she saw Karl outside of school, though I knew the answer. Why had I been eager to catch her in a trap?
        Miriam had said, “He comes by and we draw together.”

Dear April,
        My Hospice Nurse thinks I'm doing better this week. The swelling on my legs and feet has gone down.......(GREAT NEWS) and when I asked my nurse how I was doing he said as long as I keep my spirits up, I'm doing really well.
        When I worked Hospice, doctors of cancer patients thought that they could predict the future. I soon learned that they didn't know everything; I started not to trust doctors so much.
        Anyway.........time for me to get more rest.........(UGH) that's all I do is rest........................where is the sun??

        When Miriam asked for my phone number and said she wanted to talk, that she had something important she wanted to know, I was hesitant to give it to her. I was preparing for a concert my string quartet would be giving in New York and though I loved the Beethoven pieces, which were intense and personal, the opening movement of Opus 131 was difficult and I was behind in my practicing. But I told myself not to be selfish and I emailed my number. I wrote that the quartet would be giving a recital in Manhattan in May and invited her. A few days later she called. We talked for a few minutes. Then she said, “Say something.”

        “What do you mean?” I asked.
        “No, just keep talking. Say anything.”
        We were both silent. “What are you talking about, Miriam? What did you want to ask me?”
        “I want to know if you have an accent. Keep talking.”
        “That is why you called?"
        Then Miriam spelled words and asked me to pronounce them: “Say the word a-b-o-u-t. Say b-o-r-r-o-w. How long have you lived in Victoria?

        I answered the question then told Miriam I had to get off the phone. How annoying to have to babble like this when I had to practice. All of a sudden, I remembered why I was never friends with Miriam.

        You can be linked to someone that you’ve scorned, even more than to someone you admire. Disdain can imprint someone in your thoughts for life. It was fear that linked us. I saw how easily our fates could have been switched; that it was simply chance circumstances made our lives turn out differently.
        A few months later, I got an email telling me that she had good news. Her health had improved, and she was able to go off Hospice. She said she was planning to come to my New York performance. The only problem was that she tired easily. If she was too tired to come, was she hoping that I would visit her. She’d like that.
        My quartet performed in Manhattan and several friends from New York came but Miriam was not there. She sent an email a few days later saying she was disappointed she couldn’t come but she’d had a cold and thought it best that she rest. She hoped the concert went well and that we would get a chance to see each other in the not too distant future.
        I sent a casual reply. I did not express concern for her health. I took myself very seriously— my concert was an occasion not to be missed. I thought she should have made more of an effort to get there. Since she’d written that she was no longer in hospice, I thought she was recovering and was no longer in danger. So it came as a shock when I got an email from an old friend on the high school reunion committee:

        Not sure you heard. Miriam passed away. It was about two weeks ago--her son wrote on facebook to all her friends.

        When I allowed myself to think about her situation, I knew I should not have been surprised. But as in the days of our childhood, I refused to recognize the reality of her life. I remembered an email she’d sent a few weeks earlier. She said she’d been writing and editing her story for 30 years, exploring her health and mental difficulties. She hoped to finish the memoir soon. She said she’d already been approached to have it published. Now, more than ever she was eager to complete it. She was planning to put it all together by the summer. She wrote, “I finally know how it will end.”

        It was like we were in grade school again except now it was not merely a party Miriam received no invitation to attend.

Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry, two collections of short stories and two picture books. She has been nominated for The Governor General's Award in Poetry, The Atlantic Poetry Prize. and the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction. Her book, Doing Time, about giving writing workshops in a prison, has been accepted for publication and will be available in Fall 2019.