When Chloe saw Susan walking toward her, she felt some relief and took her first deep breath of the morning. Positioned at the entrance to the mall’s large, centrally-situated cafe, she watched Susan navigate the throng of window shoppers.
Chloe could not remember a time in her life when she had not known Susan. They met when Susan’s family moved into the house down the street from her family home in the summer of 1974. They were both three years old and immediately became fast friends. They attended the same local public schools until they selected different colleges and found themselves separated for the first time in their lives. They remained close, though, visiting each others’ campuses on weekends and spending breaks together back in their home town. When Susan married, Chloe served as the maid of honor and was thrilled when Susan asked her to be the godmother to both of her children. And when she divorced, Susan moved back to their home town to raise her daughters in close proximity to her large family.
Chloe dropped out of college during their junior year and, although she attempted several times to resume her studies as a night student at the local university, she had yet to remain enrolled for a full semester. A series of jobs, most of which paid little more than minimum wage, had culminated with her current employment as a clerk in the mall’s music store. Unfortunately, her fellow employees were all much younger and more knowledgeable about the customers’ musical tastes so she had yet to reach her quarterly sales quota. In fact, during her first three quarters of employment, she had not even come close to meeting the store’s goal and was sure that this quarter would be her last in the music business — which only intensified her stress and anxiety.
As Susan reached her and they silently hugged each other, Chloe was, as always, thankful for her ever-supportive friend.
“I’m glad you could meet me,” Chloe said.
“Me, too,” Susan smiled. “Fortunately, I had time this morning since I hadn’t planned to volunteer in Jacob’s classroom today. They’re working on art projects today, so Sarah’s mom is assisting.”
“The usual?” Susan asked.
“Please,” Chloe responded, handing a five dollar bill to her friend. “I see one empty table. Why don’t I grab it while you order?”
“Sure,” Susan agreed, taking her place in the short line leading up to the counter. As she waited to order two cappuccinos, she thought about how many times over the years she had agreed to similar meetings with her good friend. The news delivered over cappuccino was never good: Another job lost, a relationship breaking up, a relapse . . . She had a good idea what Chloe would tell her this morning. The moment she’d seen her, Susan recognized the familiar signs.
As Susan arrived at the table, the bags under Chloe’s eyes were readily evident. Setting the cups on the table, she sat down and removed her coat. The pattern was well-established. They would make small talk for a few minutes, during which the details of Chloe’s latest crisis would become evident.
“How’s the music business?” Susan asked cheerily.
“Still not going so well. I just don’t know enough about what’s popular now. I try to keep up with it, but there are so many different kinds of groups,” Chloe explained. “It seems like just when I figure out what’s hip, it’s not. Those young kids I work with are totally clued in, so they swoop down on customers when they come in and I don’t have a chance. They send me the customers who come in to shop for ‘oldies’ from the ’80’s and ’90’s. Of course, most of those people don’t shop in the mall. I’ll never make my quota this quarter, either, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to fire me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Susan said genuinely. “And Craig?”
Her query was met with silence as Chloe studied the now half-empty cup.
“I take it things aren’t going so well with Craig, either,” Susan said softly.
Chloe took a long, slow breath and looked up into her eyes. “As of this morning — about two hours ago, to be exact — there is no more Craig.”
“When I got up this morning, he was packing. He said he just can’t handle it any longer and he’s moving out. He took most of his clothes and personal items. He plans to come by this weekend and pick up his furniture.”
“I thought the lease was in his name,” Susan asked.
“It is. He’s going to talk to the landlord about transferring it into my name. Of course, they’re not going to agree to that when they see my credit history. Even if they do, if I get fired, I won’t be able to afford the rent.”
“So what are you going to do?” Susan inquired gently.
“I don’t know.”
“Hhhmmm,” Susan nodded. “What is it that Craig ‘can’t handle any longer’?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer. When Chloe did not respond immediately, she added, “You’ve relapsed,” matter-of-factly.
“Yup,” her friend confirmed without emotion.
“I see,” Susan replied. “How long ago?”
“It’s been about . . . oh, four or five months, I guess.”
“How bad?” Susan probed.
“Pretty bad,” Chloe said evasively.
“Where?” Susan pushed. “Arms? Legs?”
“Yeah,” Chloe acknowledged. “A couple of new places, too.”
“Where?” Susan continued the familiar pattern of questioning.
“Upper thighs, on the inside. Abdomen.”
“Does your mother know?”
“No. I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks. I didn’t feel up to it,” Chloe explained.
“Any infection?” Susan knew that she would have to take Chloe to be examined. Over time, her relapses had been increasingly serious, as evidenced by more numerous and progressively deeper cuts on wider areas of her body, some of which became infected because, rather than letting them heal, she compulsively re-opened the wounds.
“I’m pretty sure that a couple on my upper right thigh are infected because the seams of my pants rub on them,” Chloe declared with shockingly little inflection.
“O.K., then we need to formulate a plan,” Susan resolved, pushing her empty cup toward the middle of the table.
Chloe rested her chin on the palm of her left hand and stared vacantly at the table. “I thought I could do it this time. I really did. Things were going so well with Craig. I agreed to move in with him because I thought he was the one.”
“I’m going to call Suzanne and arrange for her to pick the kids up from school today. Then we’re going to the doctor. You have your group health insurance coverage through the store, right?”
“Good. Then we’ll get those cuts taken care of and talk to the doctor about getting you into the inpatient program,” Susan said in her usual take-charge manner. “You have to go back into treatment.”
“Do I have to?” Chloe asked.
“You already know the answer,” Susan said calmly. “That’s why you called me. We’ll also ask the doctor to send the necessary paperwork to the store so that you can begin a medical leave of absence. Now what about your mother? Do you want me to call her?”
“No, not yet. She’ll come rushing over and want to go with us to see the doctor. I can’t deal with that,” Chloe said without meeting her eyes, as she continued leaning on her elbow. “Not yet anyway.”
“All right. We’ll deal with Mom later. Let’s get going then,” Susan said, standing and putting her coat back on.
“Susan,” Chloe inquired, still seated and continuing to stare at the table, “you knew what I was going to say before you got here today, didn’t you? You always do.”
“Yes, hon, I did,” Susan confirmed gently. “I hoped things would work out with Craig. I’m really sorry that they didn’t. But he’s obviously not the one. If he were, he would have called me before things got so out of control again and he’d be here with us now instead of wherever he is. So screw him. You don’t need him. Good riddance. Come on now. We’ve got things to do.”
“One more question.”
“How many more times? I’m so tired of doing this. How many more times are we going to do this?” Chloe asked, her voice breaking.
Susan walked over to the other side of the table, knelt down, and put her hand on Chloe’s right arm. “This is the last time. I believe that. If you believe that — really reach down into your soul and believe that — it can be. Now come on. You’ve got some serious work ahead of you.”
“Sus, I’m sorry,” Chloe whispered tearfully. “I’m so sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about, hon,” Susan assured her. “I’m your friend. This is just what friends do. I’m glad you called me. Let’s get going.”
Chloe rose, put on her coat, and walked arm in arm with her one true friend out of the mall.
Inspired by the Sunday Scribblings prompt: “Do I have to?” and A Thousand Words: Prompt Number Six.
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