by Candice Kelsey
My head is the lawn of a country manor overrun by horses released on a fox hunt. I press a thumb to my occipital muscle with the rhythm of a gallop. Tally ho! the corpuscles scream as I manipulate the pressure point. I notice the screen above the mantle flashing Are you still watching? I select Yes, of course. Although this sixth episode of season one of Murder, She Wrote is evidence I am not watching at all. Lynne Redgrave and Angela Lansbury fill the silence three days after Christmas while my family travels. My anxiety forbids me to leave the house.
Which is, I believe, where it all started.
“Ella, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m not coming to Chicago because my anxiety is at an all-time high. The idea of walking through LAX and getting on a plane is overwhelming for me. I really do want to be there for your daughter’s bat mitzvah. Please forgive me.” At least that’s what I wanted to tell her. Instead, I sat on the back step of my patio, listening to the chaotic chimes of the 405 Freeway twenty feet from the back fence. The aloe yucca tree calms me. Its silhouette of Spanish bayonets against the neighbor’s waffle-thatch fence are almost as striking as the ornamental Los Angeles sky on nights like that one. Sometimes the LAPD choppers join the chorus, but not that night. The only spotlight was the blue glow from my cell phone as I cowardly texted Ella not to bother picking me up at O’Hare the next morning as planned.
Im just super overwhelmed. Pls forgive me. Rly sorry.
I never heard back from her, but I repeatedly liked the beautiful pictures she posted on Facebook a few days later. I ate the cost of the plane ticket but still managed to send a generous gift. I also made a point to watch the full three-hour video of the temple service and the reception out of sincere interest and joy, and a little penance. I texted the group chat that I was two hours in, and that I was really enjoying the video; I made specific references to her daughter’s speech as well as to Ella’s outfit among other festive details. There were seven of us on the group chat at that point— seven women over fifty who had been friends since junior high school.
Ella laughed. Oh Candice, are u still watching?! Why??? I haven’t even watched that much of it. She was always a pro at shaming me. I was a foolish and prodigal friend, apparently, for taking interest in her daughter’s bat mitzvah. After all, I had no right to care since I ghosted the event. I took this one on the chin. It’s amazing how well anxiety manipulates me into becoming the enabler in our relationship. I don’t have anxiety; it has me.
When the seven of us met up for a Zoom happy hour, something was different. As the only friend on the West Coast’s PST, I wasn’t drinking wine yet. But that wasn’t it. There was an unfriendliness that felt architectural; beyond the geometrics of the screen, a new shape had emerged, amorphous and cold. I was now a silhouette watching the conversation spill out, wondering what was being privately chatted, and sensing the grip of my anxiety’s fingertips pulling me out of focus.
“Candice, what was the name of that history teacher you had a crush on all through high school?” Ella asked abruptly.
Taken by surprise, I responded, “Let’s change the subject.” My heartbeat accelerated as it always does when I feel vulnerable and unsafe. She was trying to humiliate me. There was so much more to talk about, so much more of substance to enjoy during the happy hour Zoom. I know now that toxic friends often weaponize memories, especially embarrassing ones. She had been wielding a bayonet for decades, and I had watched her do it. I was still watching. Only now I noticed how it affected me.
A few hours later, I received a long text message from Ella. The soft-edged rectangle of grey on the screen betrayed her vitriol. Not sure who u think u r. holier than thou as always Candice. Telling me to change the subject. How rude. u always were too sensitive and i guess i forget that about u. but i don’t want ur drama so bye.
Three months later our annual Elfster gift exchange evite appeared. For several years we had done a makeshift secret Santa. It never worked out. Never. The six of them gathered in person, in the same time zone, sipping wine and enjoying Christmas decorations at one of their homes while I FaceTimed from my car. In between pick-ups and drop offs, traffic and tutoring sessions, I tried to join the festivities. Without fail, the gift I sent never made it in time or ended up at the wrong house. Without fail, I was the only one sober. Without fail, I had to field endless When are you moving back to Cincinnati? ad nauseum.
This year, considering the Ella incident and the consequent apathy from the group thereafter, I chose not to be an elf.
When lightning makes a direct hit on a person, the heat burns the skin badly, but the electricity cuts through the cardiovascular system, stopping the heart from beating. The damage is instantaneous and often fatal unless CPR is immediately engaged. Often bystanders do nothing but watch.
My self-declared recusal from the Elfster exchange singed whatever gossamer ties remained between me and these lifelong friends it seemed; it stopped the rhythm of a forty-year heartbeat. I was removed from the group chat.
We still watch each other’s lives, however. Facebook makes that possible. Until it doesn’t.
After a harrowing week of watching the Supreme Court arguments of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization this December, I posted a sign parodying the In this house, we believe format on Facebook. Only this image boasted:
IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE:
FUCK THE SUPREME COURT
WE ARE HAVING ABORTIONS
F O R E V E R
THEY WILL NEVER STOP US
Within seconds, I received a message from Jenna, one of the seven original friends. Missing the play on the political signage aesthetic, she wrote Let’s talk about murdering babies and put it in a cute colorful Pinterest template. She then continued to berate me, declaring I’m really horrified by this, Candice. Crossed the line for me.
Sometimes the urban coyotes would jump our fence and piss on the trunk of our Japanese Pine; sometimes they would rub their faces on the gnarled stems of the aloe yucca tree. It was common practice to alert the neighborhood on the Nextdoor app. Coyote sightings generated a certain amount of commotion. In a sense, we had transformed from residents to animal control officers, and we had better keep watching.
I remember reading a strange urban coyote story from “The Daily Dish” in The Atlantic many years ago. The writer had found dead house cats on her lawn; their bellies had been sliced down the middle, and all the organs were placed to the side. The carcass had been licked as clean as a bowl. Or an empty womb. It seems my friendships have been sliced, rearranged, and licked clean from the bowl of my life, small, feral sphere that it is.
And it’s not an opinion, it’s a belief of Christianity, so a fact for me. Will have to unfriend. We are just way too different. I have many friends with differing opinions and religions, but this is disturbing. Take care. Jenna proceeded to block me. Then Kit. Alicia. Robin. Toni too.
I imagine these two years playing out on Netflix. Right about now, I see the screen asking, Are you still watching? My anxiety grabs the remote and selects Yes.
Candice Kelsey teaches writing in the South. Her poetry appears in Poets Reading the News and Poet Lore among other journals, and her first collection, Still I am Pushing, explores mother-daughter relationships as well as toxic body messages. She won the 2019 Two Sisters Writing Contest for her micro story about cancer and was recently nominated for both a Best of the Net and two Pushcarts. Find her at www.candicemkelseypoet.com