Katie had always been a big girl. She had been born large (over ten pounds) and all of the relatives and neighbors had exclaimed about what a big beautiful baby the Evanses had produced. Mr. Edward (Ted) Evans, Katie’s father, might have preferred to produce a big boy for his firstborn, but he only had to live with his disappointment until little Edward (Eddie) Evans was born about thirteen months later. Of course, it would have been gratifying to his father if Eddie had weighed in at more than six pounds. And it would have been nice if the new baby boy had looked as hale and hearty as his big sister, but little Eddie made up for all these inadequacies with his male appendage, and Mr. Evans was content.
Katie’s size was a recurring theme in her childhood. When she was only four months old, her grandmother taught her to raise her arms and stretch when the question was asked “How big is the baby?” The answer (supplied by the adult in an extended falsetto) to this question was (of course), “S-o-o-o big!” and, on cue, Katie would raise her arms and smile. Katie always smiled on cue, and made little fuss even while her new baby brother was keeping up everyone night and day. Katie was an intense but quiet baby – often hungry, but easily satisfied – and learned to hold her own bottle very early on. Her dark curls framed a round face lit up by light brown eyes and asymmetrical dimples.
At about the time that Katie’s mother realized that she was expecting Eddie, there was another baby girl born in the very same hospital that had facilitated Katie’s arrival into the world. This was a very little girl, indeed, not even quite five pounds. And she was the youngest child born into a family of four brothers, all of whom were so very used to sharing the inadequate attention of their parents (Alice and Kramer Wicks) that the arrival of a new baby evoked no jealousy. The boys were curious, however, and their final judgement was that the new addition was exceedingly small. In fact, all of the nicknames that the new baby received (and the four boys are good at nicknames and other forms of fraternal teasing) had to do with her size. The baby’s name was Lila, but she was almost always referred to as Little Lila or Bitty or Teeny Weenie – all of which were fine with the baby who liked the attention of her older brothers in any form. No one taught Lila to raise her arms when asked “How big is the baby?”, but she did learn to flatten herself against the nearest floor or wall when her brothers came thundering through the room. Lila had no curls, nor did she have dimples. Her very light hair was thin and wispy and her eyes were the palest blue. She would have had a very faded appearance except for the fact that her cheeks were always bright pink – even when she was sound asleep.
Both girls grew up in satisfactory ways. Katie was good in school (without working very hard), always healthy, and smart enough to stay out-of-the-way of her spoiled and demanding brother. She had an active imagination that she mostly kept to herself at home, but which she let out to play when away from her parents and little brother. This situation often caused Mr. and Mrs. Evans to be mystified at the descriptions of their daughter they received at parent-teacher conferences. Katie ate a little too much and was never thin (but not quite fat) and tried not to call attention to the fact that until she was nineteen years old she was at least a head taller than her brother.
Katie and Lila graduated from different high schools in the same year. Katie was the salutatorian of her class; Lila worked hard at school but still did not do quite as well as Katie. Both girls enrolled in the same small Catholic college. Katie wanted to become an elementary school teacher, and Lila thought she would like to be a high school English teacher. (English was her best subject.) It was at Our Lady of the Elms that the two girls met. They had been assigned to be roommates.
When Mr. Evans saw the two girls together for the first time, he dubbed them Mutt and Jeff. Neither Katie nor Lila had ever seen the comic strip he was referring to, but they knew he was making an adult jest on the difference in their sizes. Katie was large, over five foot ten inches, and more than adequately filled out. She had a head of abundant dark brown hair; in fact, everything about Katie was abundant. Her chest was larger than her mother’s – larger than almost any other member of the freshman class – and her face was round and dotted with the evidence of prolonged adolescence of acne. Nevertheless, Katie seemed to wear her chest and her face proudly, almost defiantly. Lila was short (five foot one inch if she exaggerated), and while her complexion was flawless, her features were thin and she had lost the red spots in her cheeks that had brightened up her face as a baby. When she smiled, she was almost attractive, but she wore an habitual worried expression that included the hunching of her shoulders, which made her seem even smaller than she was. Her hair had darkened throughout her teens and was now an ash brown, and very straight and wispy. Her mother had insisted on a new haircut for college, and it had not been a success. After it had been washed once, it was hard for anyone looking at Lila to know what the hairdresser might have had in mind.
None of this made Lila and Katie very much different from the two hundred and two other freshmen women at Our Lady of the Elms, and no one would have predicted it would lead to a lasting friendship, except for the random fact that they were assigned to be roommates. But that was enough. Neither girl was overly social, and both were glad to rely on the judgement of the Sisters of St. Joseph as to who their best friend should be, even as they lived with their differences.
Lila worked slowly and methodically, studying consistently through the semester, while Katie crammed and wrote entire term papers hours before they were due – often typing the final copy and composing at the same time. Lila was extremely neat and well-groomed, making her bed every morning and doing laundry on the same day every week. Katie rolled through the week with matted hair and spotted tee shirts, let laundry pile up to the point that she had nothing to wear (and could not fit into any of Lila’s clothes), and then spent a passionate twenty-four hours cleaning and organizing, terrorizing Lila with emptied drawers, searches under beds and dressers, and an insistence that every item in their shared room be moved and cleaned and re-evaluated. But they got along. Neither girl had ever had a sister (the Evanses had had no luck after Eddie and the Wicks had decided that five children were enough even for a good Catholic family), and so they did not have a habit of fighting with their roommates. Despite their differences, they found an easy companionship with each other blighted by almost no sense of rivalry. (Katie did envy Lila’s skin and Lila admired the way that Katie’s hair looked nice even right after a shower, but these were minor matters.)
Both girls dated on and off during college (Katie falling in love on a regular basis and losing her virginity in her sophomore year, Lila only a little sad when someone she like did not call again and hanging onto her virginity until after graduation), but nothing serious developed, and they were both single when they graduated and received teaching certification. They found jobs in neighboring towns on the Massachusetts side of the Rhode Island border and shared a small apartment. Lila was soon dating Dave, a loud and vigorous young policeman whom she met at the deli on the first floor of their apartment building. Katie was just beginning to resent her Saturday nights at home alone when she got a call from Andy, whom she had vaguely known in high school and recently encountered behind the teller’s window when she was cashing a birthday check from her parents. Andy had studied accounting and had just entered the training program at the bank. Soon, no one was home on Saturday nights except the gray tabby the girls had adopted when Lila’s grandmother died. Sometimes the friends double-dated – but usually not. Dave had little use for Andy, with his suits and ties and his boring talk about what went on at the bank, and Andy found Dave’s boisterousness and politics offensive. None of this interfered with the friendship between the two girls. People who knew them thought it was interesting that the more passionate of the girls ended up with the accountant, and that Lila ended up with the emotional Dave.
Katie got married first. Andy was eager to get out of his rooming house and even more eager to get the marital rights that he was scrupulous about reserving (despite Katie’s willingness) until they were legalized. Lila served as the maid of honor, and she and Dave became engaged a week after Katie’s wedding. (Although he was an officer of the law, Dave had been less concerned about prenuptial proprieties and thus was less in a hurry to tie the knot.) Katie was Lila’s matron of honor. The two girls planned their weddings together, shopped for furniture in tandem, and endlessly discussed the minutiae of married life. They were as close as ever.
Then, a year later, Lila became pregnant and vividly blossomed as she swelled (in the way that colorless girls often do). Katie was thrilled for her and knit sweaters and blankets which she assumed would be passed down to her own babies. Lila had a girl, and then – fourteen months later – another girl. Katie still was not pregnant, although she and Andy had been trying hard and had even been to the doctor once. There seemed to be no reason for the failure, no reason she was not pregnant, but good logic does not make a baby – much to Andy’s perplexity. A chilliness started to creep into the friendship between Katie and Lila. Katie could not tolerate talk about babies, could not bear to be in Lila’s house which seemed to overflow with the sounds and sights and smells of babies. Lila understood, but her life had been completely taken over by her children; she no longer taught school or did much of anything that was not related to her two girls. In addition, Andy and Dave had never gotten along well. The two women started seeing each other less often.
It was at this critical point that the two women fell into the habit of touching base with each other once a week by telephone. Lila’s girls were almost always in bed for the night by eight, and Dave was on the second shift most weekends, so they got into the habit of calling each other just after eight on Sunday night. This pattern held whether or not they had seen one another during the week, although they were seeing less and less of each other. And growing further apart. Katie and Andy still had no children, but because they had two incomes and fewer expenses, they had been able to buy a lovely cape in a suburban neighborhood. So now Lila, still living in a cramped four room apartment with two children, had a reason to be jealous of her old friend and avoided visiting the new house.
Being sensitive to each other’s feelings, Lila seldom discussed her children and Katie avoided the subject of her new house. They chatted about other things: things that happened to Katie at school, recipes that Lila had tried during the week, tales of parents and in-laws. They talked about what kinds of moods that they had been in and what they were reading or had seen on television. They talked about clothes and the unexpected difficulties of marriage. Because they communicated so regularly, much of their conversation involved the activities and ideas generated over just the past week, and – although neither woman realized it consciously – they each went through their week evaluating things that happened to them from the perspective of whether their friend would be interested. If Lila had a difficult conversation with her mother-in-law, her first thought on hanging up would be “Wait until Katie hears about this!” – which, of course, was a more pleasant reaction than “How terrible, how unlucky, to have such a nasty mother-in-law!” If Katie forgot where she parked her car at the shopping center and had to spend an hour looking for it, she could look forward to making Lila laugh (and neglecting to share the tale with Andy where it would be more likely to provoke a lecture than a chuckle).
Eventually, Lila did get a house, a tract ranch in a crowded sub-division. It was not as nice as Katie’s, but Lila was happy with it and the friends started talking about their gardens. Two weeks after Katie and Andy made an application for adoption, Katie found out she was pregnant, and seven years after Lila’s youngest was born, Katie delivered a big baby boy. Although they could now share the bond of motherhood, their lives had already diverged widely. Lila had new friends in her new neighborhood, her children were already in school, and she had taken on a part-time job. Katie was home doting on her only child and helping Andy rise through the ranks of the local bank. But, they still spoke every Sunday night for almost an hour. Almost always.
There were some unwritten rules about these calls. First of all, they never started before eight nor were they initiated on any other day of the week. The women took turns initiating the calls. If – and this happened seldom – there were some reason that one of the women could not talk, the call was sharply curtailed or simply cancelled until the following Sunday night. On the increasingly rare occasions when the two friends did see each other, the calls were never referred to. Each woman talked on the telephone (pink princess phone for Katie, white standard model for Lila) while lounging on her bed behind a closed door, secure that no one could overhear and hopeful that no one would interrupt. The two husbands soon got used to the routine and realized that it meant that they got an hour of peace and quiet on Sunday evenings. No harm seemed to come of it, and (at one time or another) Andy and Dave each realized that if their wife had been testy that day, she was considerably less testy after the phone call. “They cry on each other’s shoulder,” Dave told his patrol partner. “Although God knows what either of them has got to cry about.”
In fact, they seldom cried into the telephone receiver. The calls were certainly emotional at times (Katie lost her father, Lila had to have the gray tabby put to sleep). They listened closely and tried to give each other good advice. These young mothers often found that just letting a problem stew until Sunday night and then telling her friend about it (after the raw emotion had been blanched out of the situation) helped tremendously. Katie would often stop in a fit of pique about some persnickety thing that Andy had done and wonder what Lila would say about it. She would bite her tongue and smile at his silliness and wait for Sunday. Lila was often frustrated with the antics of her youngest daughter, who was moody and disruptive. In the midst of terrible tantrums, she would make a mental note to ask her former elementary school teacher friend whether she thought there was something she could do, whether this was normal behavior for a six-year-old. Or she would quietly listen to one of Dave’s emotional outbursts, concentrating on remembering just what he said so she could repeat it to Katie. Lila had a good memory, but Katie took to keeping a cryptic list of things that she wanted to talk to Lila about. “Cheese ball” might just be a reminder to share a new recipe. “Church?” might remind her to ask Lila if she and Dave still went to mass. (Katie had lost interest in church and disliked the new priest at their parish, but Andy insisted that all three of them attend on Sunday mornings.)
Each of their husbands had had problems over the years. Dave drank too much and while Lila could never do anything about it, his chief finally read him the riot act and Dave joined AA. Lila constantly suspected Dave of cheating on her, but could never really pin anything on him except unexplained absences and missing money. Andy worked hard and followed all of his own many rules and prescriptions until he was about to hit forty, and then had a brief period when he started to misbehave in unexpected ways. These indiscretions were followed by the need to confess and atone, and Katie fussed and fumed and moved out for two weeks and then accepted his apologies. She knew he was sorry and he would never do it again. The miracle was that he had done it in the first place. The reconciliation added some fleeting spice to their married life, but it soon drifted back into routine and boredom. Hearing about Dave’s excesses, however, made Katie more tolerant of Andy’s settled habits; hearing about Katie’s frustration and boredom with a life that never changed made Lila realize that Dave’s emotional ups and downs at least had their ups.
This went on for many years, and the day after Lila’s twenty-first wedding anniversary, Dave went off the wagon and shot himself in the head sitting in his car in the garage under the master bedroom. Katie went to the wake, which was wall-to-wall cops and where she knew no one except Lila and the kids. The hunched-over widow paid no attention to her old friend. The funeral was on a Saturday morning, and Katie decided to stay home. On Sunday night, however, the phone rang at seven o’clock and Lila poured out her heart to Katie, who listened and reassured her and made no mention of that fact that she had been at the wake and had not been at the funeral.
Lila was different after that though. For one thing, she found religion within a few months of losing Dave. She had always been a practicing Catholic, but now she abandoned St. Cecilia’s for the Church of the Risen Christ of the Forest, a mega-church outside of town that had long intricately scripted and choreographed services on Sunday and groups for almost every purpose – groups for grieving widows, relatives of suicides, single mothers, older single adults looking for a Christian relationship. Lila became passionate about, as she termed it to Katie, her “personal relationship to Christ,” and as well as her relationship to some of the men she met at her groups.
Lila also started to spend a lot of money. Katie had never asked whether there was insurance or a pension upon Dave’s death, but Lila seemed to be doing well – and, in any case, she did not seem to be worrying about finances. Lila went on a cruise and then splurged on a trip to a spa in North Carolina. On neither occasion did she invite Katie along, although Lila did tell her all about it. Lila still told Katie about everything, and in those days she had much more to tell than Katie, who was trying to be busy doing volunteer work, missing her son who was away at college, and keeping life on the even keel that meant that Andy could keep sailing without incident.
Life lurched from Sunday to Sunday in this way for another decade, and even when Lila moved to Arizona, nothing really changed. The phone calls continued. Lila had a permanent boyfriend these days and Katie had a scare with a breast lump. They both lost their fathers and then their mothers. Their children married and unmarried. Lila had two grandchildren and Katie had one.
When Andy had given his notice for retirement and he and Katie were about to spend a week in South Carolina looking at retirement properties, a Sunday night came (Lila’s turn to initiate) with no phone call. Katie called Lila’s house when 8:15 arrived without contact, but there was no answer. This was not entirely unusual. There had been times before when emergencies had arisen – or outages with telephone lines – but Katie had a bad feeling. She tried again on Monday, and reached Brad, the boyfriend, who told her that Lila had had a stroke on Saturday and was in the intensive care unit of the hospital where he had been all night. Lila could not speak and the prognosis was not good. Katie did not think that Brad sounded properly upset, but she hardly knew him and it was obvious she had wakened him. When another week went by with no contact, Katie called again and got one of Lila’s children. The funeral had been on Wednesday. The voice on the phone seemed to have only the vaguest idea about who Katie was.
Katie’s life seemed to lose all structure. Events seemed to have lost their meaning; it was hard to make sense out of anything. She tried talking to Andy, but he looked perplexed and was busy dealing with his own angst about leaving the bank. She went through the day with her habitual sense of saving up thoughts, events, epiphanies – for something. For Sunday night. And then Katie would realize that there was no reason to hoard these treasures and so she would let them go and watch them drift away, losing all their value as they went. Katie lost weight without trying for the first time in her life and seemed to start to age more rapidly. Andy hoped that his retirement and the move south would help her, and Katie hoped so too. It did not.
Finally, one Sunday night about three years after Lila’s death, Katie sat down at the computer (which Andy had brought home and which her grandson had insisted she learn to use in order to keep in touch with him) and started writing e-mail to her old friend. Lila@Sundaynight.com. The first Sunday night she wrote for hours. Of course the message bounced back to her, but Katie just deleted it and wrote another message the next Sunday night. It took her a while to catch up on all that had happened, all she experienced, since her last conversation with Lila, but soon the messages were current, focusing primarily on the activities and emotions of the previous week. Katie missed Lila’s half of the conversation, but she often just made some assumptions about what Lila would say, answered questions that were never asked, commented on opinions that were never offered. It was not the same, of course. But the contours of her life were back, and Katie spent Sunday nights at the computer for two more decades before her life hardened into its final shape, until there were no more new events that needed to be noted and understood and shared and absorbed into the evolving form of a life.