Scripture of the cynic

She doesn’t believe in God anymore, she tells me. We sit in cracked plastic chairs, hard as diamond-face, on a dusky summer evening, torrid as the tropics, my frizzy hair escaping the ponytail, my attitude chomping at the bit, my attention on the leash with my willpower at the other end, digging in its heels, shame on the brain. God? I’m as godless as they get.

Conversation takes everything out of me; I put impossible pressure on myself to deliver not just a good response, but the best response. The optimized response for this woman, this situation. But my success rate is low, and the despair resultant from failure, great. The daylight long having circled the drain, our conversation has yielded easily to the darkness. Do I have it in me to answer this? I hold my breath. It’s the weekend, and anything can be said. I keep my eyes on her face. I get it, I tell her, though I don’t. I have never understood what it means to believe in God.

Throughout the phases of my life, multiple moons of friendship have waxed and waned. I will take the blame for the deterioration of conditions, for the dozen eclipses. But can anyone inflict pain and not live to regret it, in some form? I have mourned, more deeply than I can convey, the loss of the spirited, affectionate relationships of my adolescence, and, in particular, the soft-hearted, girlish blessing who eventually matured into a woman who wanted nothing to do with me.

I do try to be less hard on myself. I try to think about the circumstances outside my control. I try to be at least as compassionate toward myself as I am toward others. It doesn’t escape me that self-inflicted punishment is fruitless, and just one shade off the purpling hues of narcissism. Nevertheless, I am determined not to lose another friend the way I lost her. I am determined not to cut off the blood to any more plummeting stars.

[The cynic in me, reclining on a velvet divan placed, improbably, in the delectable maze of a fruit garden, rolls her eyes. You would have tired of each other eventually, she says. She separates a sour pebble of a grape from the vine and drops it into her mouth. Eyes closed, chewing slowly, the cynic says: She just pulled the trigger before you could. You just wish you’d been first to leave.]

I squirm in the chair. I keep the muscles of my face locked in place. I am:

Trying too hard!

Caring too little!

Being too much!

Refusing to let anything go!

I’m sorry you’re experiencing this, I say. In choosing my words, in directing the amateur theater of my expressions, I am laboring at the bench, carving, out of an ordinary block of olive wood, the version of me that I want her to see across the table. Poised, but human. Articulate, but approachable. Enviable, but not envied.

[The cynic, head lolling, looks up at me through her eyelashes. You can’t expect vulnerability and then be unprepared to offer it yourself, she says, lightly enough, though she means it, as she means everything, as a rebuke. The tragedy of your relationships is you want to be revered like the main character of a movie. You want your flaws rewritten into virtues. She sits up and, selects a fruit from a bowl without looking. The skin of the apple is glossy with spit where she bites into it. You want to be everyone’s therapist, and then complain about it. You have the temerity to be disappointed in everyone. Don’t you know nothing kills a relationship like judgment?]

I am:

Giving up!

Forgiving nothing!

Forgiving everything!

Cruel to myself, and cruel to everyone!

Judge, verb: Balancing the shining scales. Standing over the penitents who kneel deeply, foreheads pressed to the wine-colored stone. When they look up, faces ochre-yellow in the flame, their eyes brim with tears. Judgment, noun: Something generally under God’s command and in God’s province but that I have always claimed for my own, as a protective amulet, as a particular talent. I’m a good judge of character, I like to say, though this is based purely on my own estimation of myself and not any third-party verification. True to the scripture of the cynic, an ability to judge has won me nothing but enemies. I’ve even made a true enemy of myself.

I don’t say this to many people, she says. Uh, I reply, scrambling for a response. In overthinking how to make a friend, I have spent too much time trawling the swamp of my emotions, trying to fish out the appropriate reaction. I am ignoring, in direct contradiction of my mission, that someone waits, hands folded over her stomach, on the other side. Her expression is obscured by the dark, dense boughs of foliage that the wind has not strength to shake. I stare at her shape, already ready to surrender, to renounce any claim I have to friendship, to launch myself into the churning, gray waters around me and let them drag me into the shadows of fate. But some red-eyed pearl of expectation inside me refuses; it cries out in hope that she might step out into the light, might extend her hand, might call out my name—and then I could finally let go of everything I carry and weep from relief.

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