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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Handguns and Healing:

After twelve years and one bullet to the heart, a friendship attempts renewal

by Jona Jacobson

         As there are guns for making war, guns for keeping peace, and guns for unleashing havoc, there are friends with whom you are frequently at war, friends with whom life is peaceful, and friends who join you for a drive to a reservoir in the dark predawn hours of a high school day, sunroof open and cigarettes blazing.
         For a long while I knew little of such distinctions and complexities.  I had few friends. I was gloomy, put myself down often, and glared my way through whole days to keep others at bay.  Through my Junior and Senior High school years, I practiced that glare in the mirror. Few had heard of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in the 1980s, so the only explanation I could come up with for why I was so terrified of people was that I was a misfit and unworthy of friendship. So I decided, as the teen mind is so uniquely qualified to do, that it would be easier if I scared people away proactively.
         But in high school, one person saw through my glare and befriended me. We met our sophomore year. Quickly we became close friends: I was fat, she was slightly plump and we bonded over talks on the front steps of Poky High. Discussions of our fat oozing out to fill cracks in the cement created unification as only two thick girls can achieve. She meant the world to me—which in later years I realized was an unfair position to put someone in—and I happily embraced her as a sister. Neither of us knew I had SAD. I only knew I needed her. She only knew I clung to her like a drunk grasps a bottle.
         Over the next few years she lost weight and gained a social life while I clung desperately to a friendship I could feel slipping away. She’d have unsafe sex with someone I disapproved of and my anger resulted in months of not talking. Possessive? A bit. Then we’d start talking again, slipping smoothly back into our routine: me at her house with her family, or in her bedroom, sitting in the open window even in the freezing winter months, smoking. We’d talk.  We’d laugh.
         We’d go to parties. But my social anxiety would rear up and I’d prop in a corner, glaring, while she laughed and mingled. I hated myself for going. I hated her for being able to do what I could not. I suspect she hated me. Friendship with me cost too much.
         At Idaho State University this pattern of hanging out and not talking would continue for a few years. Then, years later, over one summer break, the month of our ten-year high school reunion, she headed off for vacation with her husband. The day before she left she told me, “I’ll call when we get back.” This may have been her way of communicating the Hollywood-esque blow-off: “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”
         In the meantime, I went to Seattle for my own mini-vacation. A terrible thing happened there that left me bruised and broken. I wanted nothing more than to cry on the shoulder of the friend I had counted on for so long. When we were both back in Pocatello, however, instead of a friendly shoulder, I had the door to her house closed in my face by her husband with a gruff, “She’s not home.” A cold shoulder reception if ever there was one.
         Silence reigned. I am not proud to admit I called repeatedly and I stopped by repeatedly and I left copious numbers of notes. I was desperate and I stopped just shy of stalking her. Or not, I suppose. Over the next few years of not knowing what had happened, I did what came naturally: I blamed myself. And what blame is complete without punishment? So I cut myself with scalpels and knives and bits of broken mirror. I burned myself with curling irons and sugar caramelized on the stove top.
         The more I tried to cling to remnants of our friendship, I suppose the more she may have backed into her home and into the corners of her life, hoping I would go away. Physically, I am intimidating to many, though I never thought I was to her. Perhaps I was wrong. Clearly, I’ve been mistaken about a number of things. Perhaps with each letter she received, she felt a chill of foreboding.
         What could drive a friend to hound another friend so? Desperation. But why? Days before I stood in her entryway and had the door and the friendship shut on me, I was bent over a car on a dark quiet street near Volunteer park in Seattle and raped. And when I came home, I needed my friend.
         I survived. Both the rape and the loss of friendship. But the two events became entwined. No longer can I think of one without thinking of the other. And the blame I heaped on myself for both situations was nearly intolerable.
         Eventually I stopped. Stopped the stalking, stopped the self-blame and the punishment. I went so far as to major in anything but English (writing having been my chosen path as a teen), because she was first a student then a lecturer in the English Department. I wandered from Occupational Therapy to Sociology to Art to Accounting. And the years passed on.
         More years passed, some twelve years since that day I knocked on the door looking for support. And then I was shot.
         My 17-year-old nephew stood beside me in my mother’s home on what would have been my parents’ 50th Anniversary had my father not died four months earlier. He was eager to look at his grandfather’s handguns. I began checking the weapons for ammunition; something I ought to have done already. But with dinner to be cooked and a symphony to attend after, I was rushed and didn’t feel I had a few minutes to spare.
         He watched me clear a gun, and picked one up in imitation. When he removed the magazine, I said, “Better be careful, in case Gramps left a round chambered.”
         He remembers silence. It’s possible speech formed in my mind, but the two puffs of air that hit me prevented it from passing my lips. Instead, I fell back and my world became a thing of fuzzy cold and distant words. Words like, “You’ve been shot!” and “Does she have a Living will?” And cold like you can not believe unless you have been “in extremis”—near death.
         Then silence. Just as I had not heard the gunshot that rang out in a small room, I stopped hearing the doctors and nurses and family members present in the Critical Care Unit. Silence replaced the disjointed words as shadows moved in the periphery. Silence that reminded me of the silent streets I walked after I was raped. When I pushed myself off the hood of the car I’d been bent over and I walked back to where I’d been staying, not a single dog barked. No tires crunched stones on pavement. No birds tweeted. No cats in romantic interlude yowled. Not even the wind whispered through the myriad drooping rhododendrons and bloom-less magnolias lining the sidewalks I walked without my booted feet making any sound. Silence and cold in Seattle. Silence and cold in the hospital. And a few ghosts wandering about in the shadows.
         The first words to come from the silent darkness were two days later, “I’m going to remove this tube now.”
         And I was alive again.
         Seven days after my fortieth birthday, a .38 hollow point entered my body and split, passing through my left lung. A fragment stayed there, one in my liver, two in my myocardium and the largest plowed in to settle in my interatrial septum. A gun misfiring led to miraculous events: the cross-top hollow point didn’t mushroom out as it should have; the bullet fragmented prior to entering my heart (which wouldn’t have survived a whole or exploding missile); and a one-time friend returned to my life.
         Out of the depths of darkness that was two days of drug induced amnesia, I awoke to the beeps and bright lights of a Critical Care Unit. I was browsing Facebook in a slight morphine and freshly-infused blood fog, surprised to read a message from my former friend, who wrote, “Good god, woman--I'm astonished by the grit that allows you to (1) survive a bullet wound) and (2) take a self portrait IN THE ICU and post it on FB—you're an Internet superhero.”
         She added, “Scary rumors were flying Friday night--I'm glad, very glad, you're still among the living.” She asked if she could visit.
         Could she come visit? I was in shock, not just from the five bullet fragments lodged in three of my major organs, but from the message and its apparent import. Three fragments in my heart, and there I was in a hospital bed, getting what felt like another shot to the heart. I couldn’t tell if this one was good or bad.  A cardiologist tells me, “The heart doesn’t feel pain.” But if you believe you’ve lost a friend, the hurt is real enough.
         Aside from a few passing greetings at the local coffee shop (“Jona,” from her; “Morning,” from me) since I returned to Idaho in January 2009, we haven’t spoken much for a dozen years.
         My shooting made top spot on TV news and front page headlines, but perhaps a mutual friend told her.  Despite my years of thinking about this potential reunion with prepared responses such as, “Why don’t you continue to do what you do best and leave me alone,” I typed, “Yes” and hit send.
The next day she stood beside my bed with latte in hand and a mutual friend in tow (could she not face me alone?), saying, “We’ve only just started talking again and you nearly die on me.” We spoke only a few minutes because, well, I was recovering from a gunshot wound and hadn’t even sat up on my own yet. We hugged awkwardly when I was too tired to visit longer.
When she left I knew we’d be on shaky ground—and indeed since then our conversations have been stiff and cumbersome—but I was thankful for surviving the bullet that entered my heart, giving me another chance at friendship. One not tainted by clinging neediness.
         A few days more passed and I received another Facebook message, this one accompanied by a friend request. In the message she basically said friending me would be fair, because then I’d have as much access to information about her as she had to me (presumably through mutual acquaintances) but if I didn’t want to friend her, that was okay too. She wouldn’t be hurt. She’s a tough cookie, this one. That, or she just didn’t care. But then, why initiate contact after all these years?
         Although the pain of the loss of her friendship had faded, it was like a deep bruise that, if I moved just so, would flare up and hurt again. Hoping this would mend the hurt, hoping this would make the rape not have happened, and despite my fear that it would only make things worse, I hit “friend.”
         That was in April of 2009. We got together once in September of the same year. Other than that, our interactions have been limited to Facebook comments and occasional in-passing greetings at the coffee shop. I invited her to a few functions—not too many, I didn’t want her to feel suffocated by me or my friendship. Friendship should not be something one feels is a burden or feels obligated to attend to. So I didn’t press.
         Over the last several months, however, I admitted to myself that with every status update or comment she made on a mutual friend’s wall, but not on my own, I hurt. Each icon and “like” eroded my self worth just a teensy bit and pained me slightly more than the last. Finally the realization came that Facebook would not be the place our friendship might have a chance.
         Why did I react in such a hurt manner to this common Facebook activity? With each Facebook post the self-blame returned: My fault I was raped. My fault I lost my friend. My fault. Is it fair to be angry with her because I was raped? No.
         Is it fair to be cut off from a friendship without even a “Go Away!”? No. The rapist’s parting words  were cruel. My friend’s lack of parting words, though, somehow cut more deeply. In a moment of determination, I did what in real life is so hard to do, but on Facebook, so easy. I defriended her.
         Then she started a knitting group. She sent me a message wondering if I’d defreinded her because she’d noticed she couldn’t include me directly on the invite list, and if I didn’t mind her prying, “Why?” She wondered if she’d done something to hurt me—unintentional as it may be—because she often felt she was hurting me. She commented that our conversations, short and infrequent as they were, always seemed off kilter.
         Through Facebook messaging I explained that I felt I was walking on eggshells whenever I saw her, not knowing if it was okay to engage her in conversation or if the standard greeting was the maximum I should employ. As gently and unobtrusively as I am capable of doing, I intimated that perhaps knowing what I’d done—or what she thought I’d done, years ago would help our interactions now.
         I had defriended with hope. Within the social, spatial, and temporal confines (boundaries set by her, for her comfort) of a knitting group, we spent one evening together.  Other attendees were shocked to discover we’d known one another well over thirty years. She sat facing forward, I sat slightly twisted away from her—partly to protect myself, partly as an attempt to keep from crowding her. I’d done enough crowding over the years. But I’ve also done enough evasion.
         Within days of this knitting group meeting came a message in response to my delicate probing into what had happened fourteen years ago, my inquiry about what may have brought an end to our friendship. She was not ready, she wrote, to delve into the past. In fact, and in no uncertain terms, I was told that day would probably not come. Ever. Furthermore, Facebook, she wrote, was not the place to discuss such issues. Not that she could think of a place or time such things should or could be discussed. But, she wrote, the relative safe parameters of the knitting group, surrounded by several intelligent women knitting, would be the best I could hope for, as far as interacting with her might go.
         Intentionally or not, she hurt my feelings; I’d known it would happen. Heartache had prepared me.  But I am not a girl practicing my glare in the mirror anymore.  Friendship is more complicated than Facebook allows and defriending isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Perhaps if we can get past this awkwardness, a knitting group filled with ‘neutral’ knitters will indeed be a better place to (re)start.

A substitute teacher in Blackfoot, Idaho, Jona is known at one school as "Avatar" and at another as "The Teacher Formerly Known to Have Tattoos." Due to one parental protest ("She'll recruit our children into tattooed legions!") she has to cover up from head to toe and now teaches in "WhiteFace." When she isn't dealing with cosmetics or children, Jona lives with her NonHusband of fifteen years, their two cats, and hordes of tree-eating elk and deer