A friend at the Presbyterian church I attend, I’ll call her Natalie, talked me into it–into registering for a week’s stay at Ghost Ranch. She needed a roommate and insisted that it wouldn’t be hot, which proved only half true. July mornings were pleasant, but the afternoons were killers, and air conditioners were nonexistent.
Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian getaway, a retreat and education center covering 21,000 acres of central New Mexico where the open-minded go to study and explore church, world and environmental issues; worship, socialize, and have fun.
I brought along a copy of the children’s novel I wrote, Bunny’s Wish. I had hopes that Natalie, a retired high school English teacher (and “North Western graduate”), might show an interest.
She did, to a degree.
Three nights into the retreat, I made the on-the-spot decision to bring up an issue that was bothering me. I had already read two chapters of my novel out loud to Natalie the day before on the road while she drove. And she read four or five more to herself while I drove.
My uneasiness was Natalie’s lack of comment. Nothing that she’d said, but a lot of what she hadn’t. In my opinion, she mirrored a reaction similar to reading last week’s weather report.
“I’m hurt because you haven’t commented on my novel–haven’t shown any emotion. Good writers strive to affect their readers emotionally,” is what I remember saying.
“But I haven’t finished it yet, Nancy. How can I react emotionally to something I haven’t finished?”
Easy. You’re halfway through… react to the first half.
“Do you like Bunny? Do you think she’s well-written?” I continued, aware that I was groping, lowering myself.
“So far I find it well-written,” she answered. Then it was back to, “But I haven’t finished…”
Obviously, the woman wasn’t going to budge.
Then it was on to the Ghost Ranch.
“This is my friend, Nancy, who writes stories for children,” she’d say. Then it was on to what was important. Talking about Natalie and what interests Natalie–church politics and affairs, previous travels and the simply wonderful past experiences she’d had with her children and grandchildren at Ghost Ranch. At one point she slid my dinner tray, which I had only seconds ago set down, to another location so she could sit across from two highly-respected Ranch administrators with whom she obviously wished to converse.
Our first night there, Natalie made quite a fuss about finishing Bunny’s Wish. She removed herself from our tiny room with its two-by-four exposed walls, trekking up to an unoccupied meeting area, manuscript in hand.
“I think it’s your title,” she announced, swinging open our screen door close to eleven p.m. “You need a different title. That’s why you haven’t had any luck with publishers.”
“And Gabby and Mrs. Vanderpool are by far your strongest characters.”
“Oh, that’s stupid. We’ll just take my car.” These words stormed out of Merle’s mouth, a middle-aged recently-ordained Presbyterian minister who’d known me a total of three minutes. She gazed through dark glasses and across a shaded picnic table at Natalie and myself.
It was mid-week and Natalie asked me if I’d like to drive into Santa Fe with her and Merle, a member of her Israel-Palestine class, and visit a distinguished folk-art museum. “Sure,” I innocently answered. “Sounds interesting.”
While Merle had initiated the outing, she made it clear that she didn’t want to drive–seems she’d already made several trips into Santa Fe. To complicate matters, earlier in our trip Natalie had misplaced the gadget that locked and unlocked her Prius. This left her months-old vehicle free for the stealing. Merle’s “Oh, that’s stupid” comment, followed my suggestion that we purchase, or try to borrow, a Club to attach to Natalie’s steering wheel.
Perhaps it was stupid?
Natalie and Merle picked me up (in Natalie’s Prius) after morning classes. We drove to Santa Fe where our first stop was a small Native American museum and gift shop. Inside, Natalie immediately began to converse with the salesperson behind the counter, while Merle and I stood admiring a display of baskets. “My guest room is decorated with Native American baskets similar to these,” I said. “My mother collected…” But soon I realized I was talking to the air; the reverend had silently-sauntered away.
Lunch went okay. I recall hearing about Merle’s daughters, their accomplishments and PhDs. Leaving the restaurant, though, walking towards the folk-art museum, she turned to me and asked, “So why’d you come along, anyway? Did you have extra time on your hands?” This Merle-ism even sparked a reaction from Natalie. Not that she came to her roommate’s defense, but I did note a shocked, wincing expression on her face.
We spent a good two hours browsing the folk-art museum, and on our way back stopped at a tourist outpost as Natalie had her heart set on purchasing a steer’s skull to compliment her desert atrium. This left Merle and me alone in the car. Recently divorced, Merle asked me about my dating life. I was between boyfriends. We talked about the pros and cons of living single, and she appeared surprised to hear I’d been alone going on eighteen years.
We missed dinner at Ghost Ranch, so we stopped at a KFC. Back in the car, I mindlessly leaned towards the front seat and asked, “So who’d you go to Italy with, Merle?” She’d hinted earlier that she’d recently spent time in Europe, specifically Italy.
“My youngest daughter.”
“You went to Italy?” exclaimed Natalie, making eye contact with Merle, expressing vivid and complete astonishment before returning her eyes to the road. And, yes, my innocent (polite) inquiry was all it took; the two of them were off and running, spending the rest of the way home chatting about Rome, Florence, Michael Angelo and the pleasures of overseas travel; oblivious to the fact that a warm body existed behind them.
I need to own-up to the fact that on the way home from the Ghost Ranch, I experienced what can only be described as a minor… okay, a “major meltdown.” (The fact that my Prozac had stopped working weeks prior, didn’t help the situation.)
“But you don’t know what I said to people when you weren’t there, Nancy.”
“Nothing. That’s what you said, Natalie, nothing. You said, ‘Nancy writes books for children’ and then you talked about yourself!”
Eventually I calmed down, apologized to Natalie and she apologized in return. I dried my eyes, blew my nose and helped with the driving.
Fortunately, we parted friends. What bothers me, though, is Natalie is rarely quiet in church when it’s time for members of our small congregation to share “Joys and Concerns.”
It’s August, the hottest month of the year, attendance is low.
Why doesn’t she mention Bunny’s Wish?
Say something positive…
Even if she has to lie.
Written by Nancy Lee VanDusen – Palm Desert, California
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