The phone rings with a number I don’t recognise.
“Hey girl! It’s me, Vonnie! Whatcha doing?”
“I’m at work, can’t talk right now, but I do have things to tell you. Let’s catch up tonight.”
“Ok! Dinner, my treat.”
Vonnie is a five-foot-and-shrinking tornado, a dried apple doll in a t-shirt dragging a suitcase behind her everywhere. She sleeps in the mammoth Cadillac she’s owned for a few years now, since she refuses to stay put for more than a few months at a time. She tells me it’s because she’s a journalist and needs to document the realities of poverty and houselessness. I figured out a while back this is the lie she tells herself to make it all right.
After work I hop to the post office to mail my sister a parcel for Christmas, and Vonnie calls again. I meet her just as the sun’s going down on the east side.
I park on a side street and we go to the restaurant where the waiter ignores us and the kitchen belches out vinegar fumes every time the doors open for a server to emerge. We decide to go downtown.
“You’ll have to drive,” she says casually. “My license is suspended.”
The car is dark turquoise, and in the December evening it’s almost invisible. We walk the streets for some fifteen minutes, and she gets more and more frantic, name-calling, angry. I throw up my hands. “YOU try finding a specific Volvo on Hawthorne!” I shout.
Finally we find it and head to the restaurant. We’re chewing the same fat we have for the last seven years, telling stories of politicians we’ve worked for, of the evil sisters who poisoned her with lye and stole her inheritance, of the never-ending lawsuit against them, of her three ex-husbands, each worse than the one before; of that time that Blair punched me because the candidate she was in love with hugged me and not her, or when the teapot-shaped Congressman leapt onto the rickety card table to rally the troops with a speech in the party office. We chew the fat till it becomes soap in our mouths, till it burns our tongues to speak. She asks me how I’m doing, how home life is, and what my news is.
I tell her, because she’s my friend. I tell her, because she has told me everything and I have listened and held it close for her. She goes silent.
We get to the restaurant, and make a small mountain of Chinese food disappear.
“Why didn’t you just tell me on the phone?” Vonnie asks.
Because not everyone knows yet, I want to say. Because they’re ashamed of me.
Because I’m ashamed of me. Because I thought you wouldn’t want to visit me after all.
“I thought you were pregnant,” she says. “I was hoping it was that.”
“I’m in no shape to carry a child right now,” I say, though this is just a gut feeling more than anything else. It’s another five years before the tests confirm that I was right, that my body was a miscarriage machine.
I drive her back to where she parked, as she tells me about her former friends who don’t want to see her anymore. The list seems to get longer every time we meet.
The ancient Caddy is gone from its parking space.
“This is your fault,” she says, gritting brown teeth.
“I don’t see how,” I say. “It’s got a big NO PARKING sign and towing stuff written underneath.”
“But it’s after hours!”
“All Days, All Hours,” I read from the red and white sign that’s right in front of where the Caddy was. “They towed you. Couldn’t you see that?”
“I’ve got cataracts!” she cries. “I can’t see that far ahead.”
She calls the impound number and finds out they towed it 20 minutes after she parked.
“It’s still your fault,” she says, fuming. “If we’d just stayed at the first restaurant this wouldn’t have happened.”
I drop her at the house where she’s staying, with the relatives she loathes, who she excoriated gleefully over cashew chicken. I know she’s only there because she has no one else left.
I head home, talk to my sister, and decide that maybe it’s time for me to make some space from Vonnie. Strange thing to say in a friendship that is marked by long periods of silence – but at least in the silence I have the illusion of her concern.
Before I can make a move, it’s Christmas Day, and the husband’s phone is ringing with an unfamiliar number. He answers.
“No, I can’t talk right now,” he says, and hangs up. She calls again, and he turns the phone off.
A few days later I notice the red light blinking on the phone.
“You have seven new messages,” the robot voice chimes.
Vonnie’s voice pours out, a torrent of hatred and anger, a warning to the husband.
“She is an evil, horrible liar-”
“-cheating on you-”
“-made me eat horrible food and it was expensive too-”
“-got my car towed-”
In the fifth message she addresses me directly.
“You had no right to tell me that filth. I didn’t want to know.”
“You are breaking your parents’ hearts-”
“-sticking your head up a girl’s butt-”
It goes on for three more messages, each message is a good ten minutes long. I delete them all. I still loathe voicemail, years later.
She spent half an hour on Christmas Day to berate me from afar.
She spent her precious phone minutes to tell me I was evil.
I can smell smoke as somewhere a bridge burns up.
When she comes through town again, with that tattered suitcase full of mysteries, where will she go?
I follow her sometimes online, tracing her steps till I hit the inevitable paywalls. I can see her heading south on a bus, to her only child, back up to the storage locker that somehow hasn’t been cracked open for auction yet, down to the homeless shelters, and then…nothing.
The trail goes cold, but it’s littered with ashes. Everyone she meets, everyone who loves her, everyone who tries to help –
This is how Vonnie fell out of the world.
Everyone in this story is real, though the names are fake. The real Vonnie spent many days on my spare futon throughout the course of our friendship, I’m not a heartless monster. I still don’t know what happened to her, but I still hope she’s all right.