A man has a lifelong female friend.
I remember seeing Stella for the first time on a Wednesday in October of 1950, we were both eleven and in the 6th grade. It was lunchtime and she was sitting alone in a corner of the school yard not eating. In the next few days I’d see her eating crackers sometimes, but she never had anything to drink until we went back in and she’d spend a long time at the water fountain.
Everyone who brought lunch got to picnic when the weather was okay and we gathered into groups with our friends. I didn’t have any real friends, I was the school nerd, so they only talked to me when they needed homework done. In our junior year in high school I bought a 1937 Plymouth Roadster Deluxe convertible with a rumble seat. It had seen much better days before sitting under a tarp in a barn for 10 years. I started trading homework for car work and wound up with a cherry, robins egg blue roadster.
Over the following days when I saw her she was always alone, like me. I watched, listened when I could, hearing the other girls make fun of her clothes, hair, glasses, and anything else they could think of. Most of the boys joined in too and I never thought any of it was very nice. She was pretty, but dressed differently than the other girls, wearing Levi’s and button shirts like boys. Not usual for an eleven year old girl in 1950.
She was shy and never talked to anyone, just hanging her head and looking at the ground when they made fun of her. I told my mom and she told me, “Her mother died from cancer and her father has trouble raising three kids alone, she has two brothers, one older. The father doesn’t make a lot of money and our church group tries to help. He buys most of their clothes at our thrift store and he doesn’t know how to shop for a young woman.”
I made my own lunches and it was always chunky peanut butter and strawberry jam, one carton of milk and whatever fruit we had on the counter, pears were my favorite. My mother always said it wasn’t a healthy lunch, but it was mine and eventually she just gave in.
Friday of the second week I stopped at her bench. “Hi, I’m Jake, I’ve seen you around. Can I share the bench? What’s your name?”
Her right shoulder jerked up in response. I spread the paper lunch-bag I always used between us then tore my sandwich in half putting it on the bag with the milk and the pear. She glanced sideways, but didn’t say anything and continued looking at the ground.
She always sat with her hands in her lap, but being close I noticed she picked at her finger nails, bit them too. They looked like mine. I started eating half the sandwich and she did the sideways glance several more times.
“You can have the other half if you want, I think I made it too big, I can’t eat it all and old PB&J sandwiches aren’t very good. It’s strawberry jam and chunky PB. They’re a gooey mess.”
“No thank you,” was her muffled response.
“C’mon, it’ll help me because my mom gets mad when I waste food.” Another mumble I thought was “No thank you,” and more glances. She looked up at me several times, but I kept chewing and smiling back and some minutes later she grabbed the other half and ate it faster than a starving dog. I caught one pale glimpse of it as it disappeared into her.
“Thank you,” was mumbled through a mouthful of half chewed PB&J sandwich, you can not eat them quickly. My mother had taught me manners so without staring I watched her tongue digging out the gooey mess for several minutes while I did the same.
When I finished my search for leftovers I took several sips of milk then held it out to her. “Here, drink some, you can’t get the peanut butter out without cow juice.”
“No thank you,” was stronger, but said around peanut butter residue.
I said, “Just drink it, I’ve had mine,” and held it out. She looked at the carton and I remember thinking, She really wants it, before she took it and gulped it down.
The lunch became a daily occurrence, but a lot slower, and I started making the sandwich with three slices of bread and taking two milks, until my mother caught me.
“Why the extra sandwich and milk?”
I couldn’t lie to my mother, “I share with Stella, the girl that doesn’t have a mom, she never brings lunch. Is that okay, mom?”
“Yes, Jake, it is. You are a kind young man. Why don’t you make two sandwiches, I’ll get more milk too.”
“Thanks, mom. I like her a lot, she’s as smart as me too so I’m not the only nerd any more.”
I made two sandwiches for a week, but she said she liked the sharing so I always made two with different jams, and started carrying my pocket knife to cut them and we shared both. There wasn’t a big issue with a pocket knife in 1950.
It turned out she was three weeks older than me and we played with that for years. She used it to win arguments and I used it to get away with a lot of things. Somehow we both survived high school and because we were the Nerds we got the only two fully paid scholarships. There were several upset students and parents over that.
We met Gail early in our junior year and she and Stella became good friends so we hung out together and she joined our shared lunch, but Stella drew back and I wound up dating Gail. We had gone to a movie, Ben Hur, and in the middle Stella excused herself as sick and insisted we stay to finish then I’d take Gail home. Over the next few months that happened often and Gail and I saw more of each other than Stella.
With Stella begging off for one reason or another by the end of junior year it worked into just Gail and me. Gail was kind of standoffish for a short time then it wound up with us dating and moving in together. We were a couple through our senior year and Stella started hanging with us again. By graduation we were a triplet, Gail and me, with a partner, Stella. I’ve wondered about that, but never understood it. Two months after we graduated Gail and I married and Stella was her bridesmaid.
Gail had a degree in business related things, economics, political science, accounting and others. She had an interest in retail sales and talked about high-end women’s clothing. Stella went for accounting with specializations in auditing, tax and forensic accounting. She became a recognized expert quickly and could get work anywhere so when we moved she followed. We always lived within a few miles of each other.
I was into engineering, I wanted to work on/with/anything computer and wound up an EE, Electrical Engineer, or computer-geek to many. I wasn’t into programming, I wanted to understand the physics of computers; I wanted to design the next break-through computer, something beyond the PC. Several others beat me to that.
Gail and Stella opened a women’s clothing store which became The Place to shop. Stella did contract work in tax and forensic accounting and I went back to school for a masters and specialized in digital design. Digital was the future and there were simulation programs that did delay timing and I wanted to be a part of that. I graduated and got an offer to work on control computers for ultra high-pressure pumps and valves. Very difficult to do at a hundred thousand pounds of pressure.
The dynamic-duo that occupied a lot of my life sold their boutique and we moved across the country. I loved the work, I was learning a lot and advancing their program. The Duo opened another store which became a success and a few years later when it was time I moved on to more challenges we repeated the process. We did that five times before deciding we didn’t want to do it any longer.
Gail and I had four children along the way, three girls and a boy, and Stella was always part of our family. Over the years I would wonder how it all happened, I never understood how we became the triplet we were. But it never seemed to matter enough and my thoughts would move on to other things. Stella and I kept having lunch together at least twice monthly. I asked Gail if it was appropriate to have a close female friend when your married and she said, “Absolutely! We’ve all been friends for years. It’s a good thing so keep it up.”
We have stayed close emotionally and physically, never living more than a few miles apart for the last sixty Years. Sometimes it felt like I had two houses because if I wasn’t fixing mine I was fixing Stella’s.
Our daughter, Petra, with her two kids moved in with us last year when her husband was killed in the Middle East. She’s hasn’t expressed interest in another husband and we love having them because the kids make us feel young.
When Stella turned eighty she could no longer live alone and had to go into a nursing home. She had never married, no kids or other family, The kids and grand kids visit her frequently when they’re around. I see her several times weekly, Gail too, but sometimes they seem to have said everything and don’t need words.
Last week with our PB&J sandwich and milk, I started to cut it in half and she said, “No, you eat it all, I have trouble swallowing it now. I would like a sip of Cow Juice though.” I helped her sit up and held it for her two small sips, she has trouble with her hands. “How many years has it been, Jake, I can’t remember.”
“Seventy, love. I shared that first sandwich with you in 1950. When I think about it time seems to warp and it feels like it was last week.”
“For me too, but I don’t remember well now. Thank you, Jake, you’ve been an anchor for me for all these years. I wouldn’t have survived them without you.”
“Yeah, you would have. You are one tough woman, but you should have married me the first time I asked.”
”We were 15 the first time you asked.”
”What about the other 10 times?”
“I asked again just after we met Gail.”
“Yes, you did and I said no. You had asked every year and I was always afraid a yes would ruin our friendship. When you married Gail I worried that the last no had driven a wedge between us.”
“Gail never had a problem with our friendship, in fact she insisted I shouldn’t stop.”
“Gail has been very good for you, Jake. A lovely woman. I’ve been happy for you since you married her.”
“Yes, she has.”
“I’m tired, Jake, I think I need to sleep for a while. Do you mind?”
“No love, I don’t mind, sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow with another sandwich and cow juice?”
“That’s what you’ve called it since the first time. Thank you for being my friend for all these years. I love you, Jake.” She gave me a beautiful smile and when I leaned down to kiss her forehead she took my face in her trembling hands and kissed me lightly on the mouth saying, “Thank you, Jake, for everything. Good bye my love.”
I spent the time it took Petra to drive us home thinking . . . why good bye? slip of the tongue? confused? . . . but she’d seemed quite aware.
My phone rang at 3AM, “Jake? It’s Molly, I’m so sorry, but Stella just passed. She rang for me and when I got there she said to tell you she’s been happy for you all these years, but she did wish she’d married you, then she shut her eyes and was gone. I’m so sorry, Jake, everyone here loved her.”
“Thank you, Molly, I appreciate it. Thank you for taking care of Stella. I’ll be there shortly, please don’t let them take her away before I get there.”
“I won’t, Jake, I promise.”
When I hung up I fell apart, a huge piece of my world had just left. I burst into tears, shaking with wracking sobs. Gail knew what happened and put her arms around me crying as hard as me. We clung to one another for minutes calming down. Gail finally got her speech back and said “I’m so sorry, love. She’s been a friend all your life. I’ve always been grateful she pushed me at you.”
“What? What’d you say?”
“In college she convinced me I should go out with you. I thought you were a dunce, but she told me that was a defense to keep most people away, a habit you’d developed in high school.”
“I never knew that. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“She asked me not to. Said you’d never agree if you knew. She was a smart woman. Now get ready and let’s go say goodbye to your first love.”
“I’ll wait a bit, I don’t think It’ll be safe for me to drive right now.”
“Petra will drive us, she’s awake. We’ve been expecting this call. Stella told us two weeks ago she didn’t have much longer and we said our goodbyes.”
“What? She told you what? Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Because she knew you would turn it into a big production and she wanted a soft exit with few tearful goodbyes. She said she wasn’t sure she could say goodbye to you.” That brought on more tears and I shouted, “God damn it Stella, you should have told me!” Then Gail folded me into her arms and I cried until all I had left were little hicks of breath.
We buried her where we’ll be buried, next to mine and Gails plots. I had the stone mason change her name to add ours hyphenated. We were the only family she ever admitted to.
Been 8 years now and Gail passed last January at 84 so she’s with Stella.
I’m 88 and think I’ve pretty much run the course, I can see the finish line and I think there’s someone waiting for me. I’m tired. Ive said my goodbyes to all my kids and grand kids and tried to get them to ask any questions, other than a few friends and visiting Gail and Stella for a chat there’s not much left in my life. The arthritis is bad and the pain makes me want to end it. I’ll say “bye for now” to my two loves then start some serious giving up next week so I can join them in whatever happens next.