Larissa is waiting for one of her longtime friends to meet her for brunch when her mind drifts to the table next to her. The open-air dining bistro of the restaurant allows conversations to float in the air like driftwood on the sea. She doesn’t want to intrude, but the contrast of their merriment of a lunch together and her anger that is pressing on her like the wave of an impending storm isn’t lost on her. Their laughter and chatter is infectious and their words slip into her ears as she politely eavesdrops.
Polite is the best that Larissa can muster. Her own friend is considerably late and was not considerate enough to drop her the thoughtfulness of a text, voicemail, email, social media message or a smoke signal. She has been waiting long enough that the serving staff is starting to look at her with pity and conciliatory looks. She wants to explain to them that she hasn’t been stood up, but she knows it will only amplify their reaction.
Her annoyance laps over the surface when she recognizes one of the diners at a table near her. Larissa slumps lower in her chair in embarrassment. She doesn’t want the notoriety of sitting alone in a restaurant waiting on someone she isn’t sure how to excuse. She looks away as though engrossed in something across the street, but she knows the voice that was singing in her ears.
Samaira. Her brother’s girlfriend. She had met her once or twice and now she is sitting just a few seats away. Samaira’s table is full with ladies that Larissa had never seen before. From the sound of the conversation, Larissa guesses there is a work connection. They must all work at the same place or in the same field. Larissa has no comradery with her co-workers and a lunch scene on a Saturday afternoon is foreign to her.
Larissa isn’t sure if Samaira saw her or, if she has, if she would be able to place their common connection. The angle Samaira is sitting at, in relation to Larissa, makes it hard for either to get a straight view of the other without strain. It was only in a stretched glance over her shoulder that Larissa confirmed Samaira’s identity.
The other faces at Samaira’s table are different from the ones that occupy Larissa’s everyday life. Black and brown faces intermingling with paler counterparts with ease and familiarity is contrasted by the monochromatic friend group that drafted Larissa in high school. Growing up in New York City gave her plenty of opportunities to experience other cultures, but once she settled into her alliances, shades of color seemed to fade away.
Larissa’s brother used to be her ally. Growing up, their 2-year age gap made them prime for playmates. Their gender difference on occasion caused issues in types of play, but they managed to work through the worst of it. In high school, they started to drift apart. He moved into civil action groups, planting trees and leading food drives, while she moved into circles where boys, shopping, and makeup drove conversation. In her heart, she sympathized with the causes her brother promoted, but her friends shamed her to abandon open participation. To them, those things were beneath them.
Their upper-class New York City upbringing made charity seem novel and self-serving. Their world was about preservation. They work to keep the familiar as a constant presence in their lives. What most people consider Larissa’s closest friend, Andrea, is over an hour late. Larissa knows if the roles were reversed, Andrea would be livid. When Andrea arrives, Larissa will be expected to act as nothing has happened. It is the congenial response to keep the status quo.
The best friend dynamic is echoed by Andrea, but she never had a context to understand what defines a healthy friendship. Andrea is used to people wanting to be around her for her wealth and importance. Her father is an executive and a national news network headquartered in New York and her husband is being groomed to be his eventual replacement. Andrea’s mindset has been affected by their prominence and she treats people like her presence is doing them a favor. She hasn’t changed since high school. Her privilege bleeds through her being and spews out with every breath.
What little Larissa knows of Samaira is from a half of dozen conversations at holiday functions before she stopped attending. Her fiancé preferred they spend their holidays with his family in posh beach houses or extravagant homes decked to the nines. While her family matched his wealth, he viewed her relatives as second rate in their quaint notion of quality time. Larissa acquiesced to his will not because she agreed with him, but because she knew that an argument was moot. He would use his power of persuasion to contend that his family had the superior celebration model and she should be delighted that she had the privilege to be a part of it.
Listening to them talk, Larissa wished she knew Samaira better than she did. She knew that Samaira had a strained relationship with her family but did not know much past the surface. She assumed the relationship soured when Samaira chose her non-Muslim brother as her mate of choice, but had no evidence beyond stereotypes from television and movies. Larrissa was wrong. The men in Samaira’s family who should have been her allies instead occupy separate prison cells upstate. Her mother cast the blame squarely on her shoulders for the testimony that put them there.
The violence in Samaira’s past motivated her to reach out to women who could relate. A helping hand lead her from violence and shaped who she would become. When she reached an age when those in her community asked what she wanted to do, helping others like her overwhelmed any other option. The shelter she works for is staffed by women and men from an array of cultures, making it a logical first step for women and families who need help navigating the English language or come from a culture that values women differently.
Larissa hears the ladies talk about her how there are no more beds available in their system, but they have been finding ways to accommodate more. She hears how they have been reaching out into their network to continue to take people in need. They are finding homes for Muslims, and Hindus, and Burmese mixed with Americans and Latinos and African Americans. She hears them talk about the crisis in other countries, but she can’t follow all the events. Her normal hang outs don’t require knowledge of current affairs. At one point, she knew the oppression suffered domestically and abroad, but when she found those conversations with her friends lonely, she stopped keeping track.
Larissa feels a pang of guilt when she thinks about her apartment that is barely occupied. Most of her nights are spent at her fiancé’s house and her rent controlled apartment stays empty. Should she offer it? Should she break the sacred code of dining and acknowledge she was listening? She thinks about how many people her apartment may be able to house and starts to turn around.
Before she can turn far enough to see Samaira, her mind finds the fear that lingers on the side line of her almost gesture. It is Andrea’s voice. Her form is not here, but the weight of her judgement is. Andrea likes the traditional. A woman should stay home. A woman doesn’t make a scene. A woman’s job is to support her man. A woman’s job is to be less important that her man. Andrea hasn’t said those words exactly, but she doesn’t have to. Her actions demonstrate her values perfectly. Andrea can be quite outspoken, but she stands behind her man publicly and plays the part of a doting wife to keep her social standing intact.
Larissa knows Andrea would not approve of having strangers in her apartment and would use it as leverage in her shame game. Andrea would admonish her for even thinking it. What if they broke something? What if they lied and weren’t who they said they were? What if they were terrorists? She can hear her tone. Condescending slathered with awe of the stupidity of the suggestion.
She knew Andrea’s words without her having to be there. Andrea didn’t approve of anything that wasn’t her idea. Andrea claimed it was for her protection, but she knew it was for Andrea’s own protection. Anything that shook up her world was soul shattering and had to be removed. The concept of strangers in her house would make Andrea uncomfortable ever existing in that space again.
Larissa thought about her fiancé. His level of willingness to empower her was as pathetic as the looks the wait staff gave her. She picked a man that wanted the values that Andrea preached. She picked a future husband who didn’t want more for her. He was good to her in his own way, but looking at the ladies next to her, she’s not sure she wants the goodness he offers. He provides for her financially. He buys her clothes. He even picks them out for her. He makes sure she has everything she may want or need. Normally this was comforting. Knowing that everything was taken care of for her and not with her sinks into her mind maybe for the first time. He takes care of her so that his opinion will overpower hers. Larissa thinks of the tiny things he decides for her every day and it starts to feel stifling. What to eat for breakfast, what clothes look best on her, restaurant to dine in, television shows to watch. She is embarrassed at her minimization in her own life.
Her self-description is laughable next to the Samaira’s accomplishments. Loneliness crashes into her. She feels false. Her friends know a version of her that they molded her to be. They guilted out of her the parts they didn’t like until all that was left was a shell of who she was raised to be. She can see herself as a child picking Samaira as a friend and she feels ashamed for drifting so far from that person. Larissa can only guess the divergence from her chosen path to the one that would have put her at Samaira’s table has something to do with the company that still has not arrived.
Larissa listened as they continued to talk about the overcrowding problem. She can’t see their faces, but hears their words and the gravity of the problems they are facing.
“Have you thought about asking Mrs.DeBerg?” one of the ladies asks. “Rumor has it she has connections to several shelters and has supported refugees in the past.”
Another responds she has been contacted and Mrs.DeBerg opened doors for 6 more families and paid the sponsorship fees.
“Has anyone contacted the city for potential temporary locations?” A different lady pipes in.
“We have. The time frame we would have to place people out of the temporary shelter is too tight.” Samaira answers.
Another lady chimes in on behalf of the mothers and wives that are stuck in tenuous situations with the influx of refugees in the city. The new arrivals are welcomed the best they can, but the trade-off is leaving some of their most desperate clients vulnerable.
“Are there partner organizations we could contact? Something that can buy us time to find a more permanent solution?” a voice from the table asks.
Samaria answers the question. “We’ve pressed for acceptance of refugees for months and now that we are finally bring them in, we are losing space for our own clients. I guess we could have worse problems.”
“We could still be petitioning for refugees!”
Larissa hears their concerns and a wave of jealousy washes through her again. It was ingrained in her from Andrea, her fiancé, and her monochromatic friends that women didn’t need jobs. Women didn’t need to succeed. Women needed to stand behind their men. Women need to care for the children. Women didn’t need to seek powerful positions. Women should be at home. Her friends spoke louder and more frequently than the family that encouraged her to find her wings. Her friends degraded her when she wanted more. They made her feel like she was betraying her gender by wanting a career. They made her feel like she was a failure for not wanting to stay home when she finally had kids.
The ladies at the table behind her sought and found everything that Larissa was told was undesirable. They succeeded in being strong women with careers, and none of the threats imparted on Larissa came true.
She hears the ladies chuckle at an election joke and knows the same words would have fallen flat in her circle. She can feel the distance growing from her own friends. She doesn’t want to be the person they created. She wants to find the moment that everything changed and go back to being that person. She knows it will be a journey that slides between what she wants to be and what she has learned to be. She has learned how to be the person Andrea, her fiancé, and her friends want her to be. She doesn’t know how to be the person that Samaira is. The person she has forgotten how to be.
She wants to be at the table with Samaira. She wants to be able a part of their conversation. She wants to be a part of the solution. She doesn’t want to be a bystander to tough problems. She wants her ideas discussed and launched into action. She wants to be a part of something bigger than herself.
The life she wants is sitting in front of her and every moment that she sits and watches the possibility of capturing it, it slips away. Not because it becomes less conceivable, but because her nerve to pursue it wanes. The voices in her head, the voices that she’s heard coming from the mouth of Andrea and innumerable other people in her life over the years, speak louder with every passing moment. They tell her she can’t do this. They tell her that people will judge her. They tell her that no one will like her. They tell her that people don’t like bossy women. They tell her that people will call her a bitch. They tell her that no man wants a woman more powerful than him. They tell her men won’t accept her. They tell her that she will not be welcome in their circle. Andrea tells her that this will be the end. Her fiancé will break up with her.
The need to make a decision hangs in the air. She knows logically that there is nothing significant about this moment accept the burden that she has placed on it, but the necessity of it is palpable. She can sit here and conform to the path her life is on or she can get up from her table and choose something different. She knows that any motion away from this small bistro table she is sitting at would be an improvement for her life.
Walking away will show that she values herself. Walking away will show she will not be disrespected. Walking away will show that she is not going to be taken advantage of. Walking away will show that she desires better. She hears Samaira’s table burst into laughter again and plucks ups the courage to walk away. She smiles as she stands up. She turns to grab her handbag when she sees Andrea strolling up the sidewalk.
Andrea’s pace is quick, but she doesn’t show remorse for her tardiness. She is too preoccupied with her own busyness to concede her rudeness. She looks flustered, but at something that is beyond the present situation. She prances up the sidewalk without acknowledging Larissa or a looking her in the face, which is stuck between alarm and relief. Andrea hurriedly sits down, dropping her oversized handbag on the ground, and grabs a menu. She hasn’t seen Larissa’s posture or expression, nor does she care enough to give it any credence.
Larissa’s face falls as Andrea curtly apologizes for being late and waves off any rationale for it. Larissa stands in front of her chair gauging her options. The accommodating part of her wants to sit down and forget this entire scene, but she can’t ignore the wave that has washed over her and swept her old self away. She’s still holding her handbag and looks down with disdain at her longtime friend. She sees a world of privilege and she knows how the story will play out for her. A wave has pushed her forward to a world of uncertainty. The uncertainty would normally stop her, but she has been pushed to a point where it feels liberating rather than daunting.
“Excuse me.” Larissa says side-stepping away from the chair.
“Yeah, that fine. I’m going to go ahead and order. I’m famished.” Andrea responds. She still hasn’t looked at Larissa.
Larissa steps away from the chair and heads towards the sidewalk when a thought dawns on her and she turns on her heels to face Samaira’s table. She takes a few steps towards them and says “Hi, I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Rus’ sister.”
“Larissa, right?” Samaira says enthusiastically.
“Yeah” She says through a smile.
“I didn’t see you sitting over there. Do you want to join us?” She motions to the others surrounding the large round table.
“I’d love to.” Larissa notices there are no empty chairs and says, “Let me grab an extra chair.” She walks back to the table she vacated. As she picks up her now empty chair, Andrea finally looks up from her self-absorption with revulsion. “You’re not expecting someone, are you?” Larissa asks.