Ritual Confessions

February 10, 2008

My friend Jen

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 7:28 am

We met during our senior year of college; we were in the same literature course (American Gothic) the first semester, and then the same writing course (Advanced Fiction) the next. It was on the first day of the Gothic class that I decided I wanted to be friends with her. She had asked a question regarding some aspect of the professor’s policies, in a tone that betrayed what she thought of it (not much). I don’t remember what she asked, but I remember that she’d voiced what I was thinking. The room was crowded and she was sitting on a radiator, leaning against a wall. Her body was angular and spare and she had a witchy beauty. I always thought she looked like Lynda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman in the seventies.

We were the same height and we both had long, dark hair. From the back, one of us was often mistaken for the other. Once we met in a bar and we were each so taken with the other’s outfit that we went into the women’s room and traded for the evening. We both wanted to be writers and we both wanted adventure more than we wanted any conventional kind of career track. After college, we both ran away with the same circus, where she was an admin and I sold concessions. We didn’t care what kind of menial jobs we had to do; we wanted to live in a sleeper car, travel with the show, and experience circus life.

We became weekly writing check-in partners; that is, we met once a week, exchanged the writing we had done over those seven days, drenched each other’s drafts in red line edits and comments, and then talked about each other’s work. We did this weekly for more than ten years. We knew each other’s novels as well as we knew our own; we knew whenever the other had changed a single word.

During our twenties, we had terrible catfights and on several occasions we stopped speaking for many months. Our worst rift lasted nearly a year. Months into the silence, I was walking in the East Village when I saw a photograph hanging in a gallery window. The model was Mike Wilson, the tattooed man from the Coney Island Sideshow, who had a very meaningful cameo in Jen’s novel-in-progress. The chapter she was happiest with was a tribute to him. The photo was black-and-white and featured Wilson above the shoulders (where every inch of skin, including that of his eyelids, was tattooed). Though you could tell he was otherwise naked above the waist, he wore a black bow tie and was tipping a black top hat. The most compelling part of the photograph was his gaze, which was direct and ironic, a little courtly, a little rakish: every inch the showman, and yet somehow evincing glimmers of the (resigned, isolated, damaged) human being beneath the ink.

Although we hadn’t spoken in months, I knew that Jen had to have that photograph. When it turned out to be far more than I could afford — $350 for a limited-edition print — I wrote down the photographer’s name and looked him up in the phone book. He offered me a beautifully framed print in exchange for a 3-hour modeling session. I posed for him and then stashed his work of art in my closet for the next several months. I wasn’t yet ready to resume my friendship with Jen. But I never doubted, even for a minute, that the day would come when I would be.

She called me today in tears because the print was damaged in transit from New York City to her new home in Los Angeles. As hard as it is to believe, we haven’t gotten together since before Charlotte was born. By the end of the call, we’d planned a visit in Portland/Vancouver toward the end of this month; now that she’s on the west coast, this was amazingly easy to arrange (all flights should be like this: non-stop, dirt-cheap, leaving California after 10:00 a.m. and arriving in Portland before noon).

It will be so good to have her here.



  1. The durable, volatile fabric of friendships between women is one of those phenomena I observe wonderingly from a safe distance. I know many women who have these relationships that are inextricable and yet historically explosive … they amaze me.

    I’m glad that Jen is able to come to PDX to see you and meet Charlotte. And I love the story of the photograph.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 10, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  2. Poor thing! That photo probably means the world to her. It’s wonderful you’re able to get together.

    Comment by Shawn W — February 11, 2008 @ 5:27 am

  3. I found this entry while looking for information on Michael Wilson. Did your friend’s novel ever get published and if so, what is it called ? I would love to read it.
    Also, I would like to ask if you remember the name of the photographer who took the Michael Wilson photo ?

    Comment by Stella — February 25, 2008 @ 11:13 am

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