Ring and Rabbit
Eliza sat on the carpeted bedroom floor, her hand outstretched in the lamplight. A silver band encircled her finger, and mounted on the ring was a single pearl, pure and gauzy white.
I sat on the creaky twin bed—the guest bed, which I had been told to sleep in even though technically we were both guests and it was Eliza’s birthday. I’d been invited along with her family on a trip to her aunt’s farm in Kentucky, where we celebrated Eliza turning 18 by roaming the foggy, February-brown hills and helping her aunt with the horses.
The ring had been her birthday present, a family heirloom that was first her grandmother’s, then her aunt’s, and now hers. A coming-of-age gift, a grown-up gift. She slipped it carefully from her finger and put it back in the velvet ring box, which snapped shut like a cartoon oyster. She set it on the bedside table and clicked off the lamp.
The moon cast a soft glow into the room, just enough light to see shapes. I could see Eliza lying in her sleeping bag, staring up at the ceiling.
“We’re growing up,” she said, in a voice like someone looking up at the stars. “I’m an adult now.”
“Yeah,” I whispered back. “And I’ll be one next year.”
I was 11 months younger than Eliza. Our moms were friends, and I’d known Eliza since my birth. I might have even heard her voice babble out the beginnings of words while I was still in the womb.
“We’ve grown up together,” she said.
She sounded so serious. I realized that she meant it; she saw herself as an adult now, surpassing me.
Eliza had so far been first to cross every threshold: first to ride a two-wheeled bike, first to get a bra. One day I’d come over to her house to play, and I could feel the stiff straps when we hugged hello. She showed it to me later, in the basement; both of us sat on the counter in the laundry room and she pulled up her shirt. She’d been first to get her period, although she called it her “lady’s day” and made what I thought was an overdramatic show of being exhausted and secretive whenever it came.
With each new phase she entered, she ushered me to follow, doling out to me the same corrections she’d recently been given. We played sword-fighting and I fell backward, splayed on the ground. She swooped over and pushed my knees together. “Keep your legs closed,” she said.
I once brought over a soft doll to play with hers, only mine was a witch—green face, pointy black hat. I named her Witchy and I loved her because I loved Halloween; I’d been a witch three years in a row. Eliza took the doll and locked it in a cat carrier. “She has to be in jail,” she insisted, when I tried to take Witchy out. “Witches are evil.”
When we were little, I told Eliza that I had a pet rabbit. She asked where it lived because she’d never seen it. Immediately I replied that it lived under my bed. The next time Eliza came to play at my house, she crawled under my box spring.
“I don’t see it,” she said.
“There’s a secret door in the wall.” As I said this, I could picture it: a small, square cut-out of plaster.
I heard her scratching at the wall. “Where?”
“It’s sealed with special tape.” I thought: yellow, invisible, seamless tape, to match the paint.
From the darkness, Eliza said, “Un-tape it.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want my parents to find out.” I smiled as I imagined my very own little black-and-white rabbit, safely hidden in its secret hideaway; imagined how, at night, I would let it out and let it run in circles around the room.
But the next time I saw Eliza, she crossed her arms. “My mom said you’re lying about the rabbit.”
I felt hot from head to toe. Lying, making up a story, playing an imaginary game—all of it was the same, I’d thought. But I must have crossed a line with the rabbit. I’d been too convincing. And now Eliza was mad at me, reprimanding. I wanted to earn her approval back, to make her like me instead of see me as a liar. She’d put Witchy in jail—what if she saw me as evil, too?
In the years that followed, I listened to her advice, imitated her in the hopes of doing everything right. I dressed in a way that could never be construed as “show-offy”, danced in a way that couldn’t be seen as “seductive”. I never mentioned the books I read, the music I liked, or the other friends I had whose lives fell outside of her view of correctness.
But at 17, I felt like I’d gnawed my little world down to the bone. I wanted more. I decided that I would say yes to anything, that I would start taking risks, that I would actually do things and see things and have experiences. Besides, I was about to graduate high school by taking my GED the next spring.
Eliza mourned the end of high school, but she was eager to go to college. She wanted to major in dance and theology. At her kitchen table, she and her mom spent hours researching Catholic colleges around the country, discussing affordability and student loans and potential future jobs. They traveled for tours. Eliza settled on a college in Kansas, and the summer leading up to her freshman year, she gathered stuff for her dorm and ordered books for her syllabus and talked to me about how she was striking out on her own, entering the next phase of her life.
“I don’t really want to go to college,” I told her, and anyone else who asked. “I want to be a writer, and you don’t need college for that. You just need to write.”
Eliza’s mom butted in. “If you girls are going to be artists,” she said, “you need to marry businessmen.”
Eliza nodded. “Someone to take care of the money.”
“Sure,” I said, although at the time I was crushing on a guy in my church youth group who spent most of his free time playing Xbox.
“And he’s gotta be classy,” Eliza said.
Her mom looked at us coyly over the top of her reading glasses. “Oh, like the guy at the festival?
“What guy?” I asked
“This young man was flirting with Eliza,” her mom said. “He was probably, what, 21? Maybe a little too old yet.”
“He smoked a pipe,” Eliza added. “Very old-fashioned gentleman.”
By Thanksgiving, she had a boyfriend at college. She came home from break and taped a love letter he’d written her to the wall above her bed. He was taller than her, she said, and studying to be an engineer. They were already dating seriously, talking on the phone every night while separated on break. Eliza and I sat on her front porch one afternoon and she told me that she thought she might marry him.
“Really?” I asked. “How do you know so soon?”
“You’ll understand,” she told me, “when you meet a man.”
He visited over Christmas break. He was a skinny white-bread kid from Minnesota. He and Eliza constantly occupied the same amount of space meant for only one person; they sat nearly on top of each other on the couch or at the kitchen table, and when they stood, she wrapped her arm around his flat waist, or he put his big bony hands on her shoulders, on the back of her neck.
This, I thought, was a man? I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet one, actually.
But outside the world I shared with Eliza, I had met people. I’d volunteered with a guy four years older than me, and since our jobs were only to sit around and occasionally fill out paperwork, we spent most of our time together talking about music and books. He had a scruffy beard, and he read me “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” off of his phone, leaning back in the office swivel chair to keep getting a wifi signal. When I told Eliza about him, about how he and I were going to exchange letters, she said, “Oh, letters. That’s good, you can get to know each other, but he’s willing to wait for you to grow up.”
She also told me she’d gotten a lecture from her mom, the essence of which was that all the touching she and her boyfriend had done over break had to stop.
Eliza said, “You know, it was a hard talk. But she’s right. If we’re always touching… I mean, it’s like lying. You’re lying with your body.”
I was good at lying. Around Eliza, it had become second nature to me.
I lied in the way I dressed and I lied by omission. When I did tell her things, I often left out details or shifted the story. Not a real lie, I told myself. Even in my diaries, I didn’t write everything I thought or felt—what if someone were to read it? Some things are just supposed to be private, I thought. I knew that if I wanted to be Eliza’s friend, I had to like all the right things, agree with all the right opinions, and never ever let her see me deviate. We rode our bikes to the library together, and I picked out some books of poetry.
“Yeats?” she said when we got home. “You have to be careful what you read.”
I didn’t dare let it slip that I’d read the Beat poets or that my mom had recommended me books by Toni Morrison. I thought about my own writing—Why had I ever told Eliza that I wanted to be a writer? Now she would be one of my readers. What kind of stories could I write that she wouldn’t find fault with?
Eliza called me from Kansas that spring. “We broke up,” she said. Her voice sounded shaky, but she wasn’t crying.
She’d explained to her boyfriend that they couldn’t be so physically affectionate anymore. He had to ask permission to kiss her. He’d broken the rules a bunch of times, pushed her to change her mind. So she’d walked up to him in the cafeteria that morning and told him that it was over.
“Wow,” I said. “Well, good for you, for sticking up for yourself.” And I meant it. I admired her stubbornness, her confidence in her convictions.
When she came home at the end of the semester, she tore his love letter off of her wall.
Around that same time, I graduated from high school, and so did another of my friends, Annie. I wasn’t close with Annie, but she invited me to her graduation party. My mom watched as I combed my hair before the party. She nodded approvingly at the vintage sundress I’d decided to wear. “Put on some perfume and mascara,” she said. “I’m sure there’ll be lots of boys there.”
“Yeah, Annie’s brothers,” I said. “No offense, but I’m not really into any of them.”
“You never know,” she sang, teasing.
As it turned out, Annie had a lot of male cousins. By sunset, the party crowd had split into the older relatives in the front yard and all the young people in the back. Annie led me around and introduced me. I started talking to a cousin named Patrick. He was a senior in college and several wine coolers deep. “You’re a writer?” he said. “That’s so cool.”
By the end of the night, I’d set my sights on him. As he stumbled away from the party, he shook my hand and said, “Good luck with the writing.” I told Annie to get me his number.
I told Eliza all about it, except for the wine coolers part. When I saw Patrick again at a festival that summer, I called her the next day to update her on my love life saga. I got invited to another cousin party and Patrick hung out with me the whole time.
“Wanna shoot BB guns?” he asked. I said yes and he led me to the basement, where empty cans lined one wall, and a few BB guns and airsoft rifles leaned opposite. “Which is your dominant eye?”
He stood behind me and guided my arms to hold the gun and aim. He smelled like sweat and beer and I liked it. I shot down can after can. Later I drove him to the gas station to buy more beer.
These are the parts I left out when I talked to Eliza.
Patrick and I started dating. Eliza went back to school. I rode in Patrick’s beat-up car all around the city—to parks and festivals, to his college campus downtown, to the bar where I could sneak in before they started carding, to a pier over the lake after dark. I didn’t update Eliza about much of it, even though we called and wrote to each other with the same regularity as the year before.
The more time I spent with Patrick, the harder it was to squeeze myself back into the mold I needed to fit into around Eliza.
Fall break was coming up, and Eliza told me she’d be staying on her mostly-empty campus instead of coming home, so I decided to visit her for a few days.
She picked me up at the airport and we drove the long, two-lane road toward campus. Fields stretched out endlessly on either side of the car, the monotony only broken by a smoldering power plant in the distance.
We stopped at the library and rented a few movies. That night, we climbed into the top bunk in Eliza’s dorm, a bowl of microwaved popcorn to share. We’d both showered and dressed in pajamas, and we snuggled close together, our wet hair draping across each other’s shoulders. On her tiny laptop screen, we watched Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who runs away, gets a pixie cut, rides a Vespa, and dances on a boat with Gregory Peck. At the end, she goes back to the embassy and resumes her royal duties. Gregory Peck stares up at her, allowed one last handshake goodbye thanks to a journalist pass.
“Wow,” we both said when the movie was over.
“I can’t believe she didn’t just stay in Rome with him,” I said.
Eliza swooned backward onto her pillow in one graceful move. “She wanted to have an adventure,” she said. “So she did, and it was beautiful. But then she knew she had to grow up.”
Two years later, Patrick was my fiancé and Eliza was my bridesmaid. Actually, she was a bridesmaid in two weddings—mine, and for another friend of ours who got married a few months before me. I watched Eliza walk into the church hall reception, arm in arm with a groomsman. Her hair was curled and coiffed, and she wore a pearl necklace to match her pearl ring. She looked elegant, like a lady. At the bridal party’s long table, she toasted and sipped champagne.
I sat at a table with my mom, Eliza’s parents, and Patrick. When the dancing started, Eliza joined us. We all danced until we couldn’t breathe, and then Eliza sat down at the table and pulled me onto her lap. She held me like she was holding puppy or a lover, my skirt splayed over her knees, her arms around my back and my thigh, holding me close against her chest.
Patrick walked toward us from the bar, holding a beer in each hand. One was opened, and he set the other on the table. “Anyone want this?” he asked.
Everyone said no. I tried to detangle from Eliza’s grasp. She’d always been bigger, taller, stronger than me—she’d been a ballet dancer since early childhood, and she was sturdy and broad as a grand wardrobe. I was a head shorter and built like a scarecrow. “You’re just so cute,” she said.
She stood, still cradling me, spun me around and set me down on my feet.
I laughed, a little uncomfortably. “Thanks.”
Patrick stood next to me and put an arm around my shoulders. I leaned into his chest.
A few days later, Eliza called. “I have to talk to you about something,” she said.
I sat down on my bed and got comfortable. “Okay.”
“I talked to Mama about it, and she said I should tell you. As a friend. You’re my best friend, and I love you, and that’s why I’m telling you this.”
My heart started to pound. Possible infractions scrolled through my head. What did she know? Had I let something slip? “You can tell me,” I said, as if it were casual, a given. As if we told each other everything.
So she did. She said that she’d had concerns about Patrick from the beginning. She said he seemed boring, that it was weird he didn’t seem to like her, my best friend. But she’d kept it all to herself, she said, until she saw him with the two beers. “I think he might be an alcoholic,” she said.
I almost laughed. “Oh,” I said. “I don’t think…”
She continued with the rest of her points against him. “I know you,” she said. “I’ve known you your whole life. You’re adventurous. You want to travel. You want to write and make art. You’re creative. He’s an accountant. He’s making you settle down.”
The conversation went on for two hours. I must have stopped listening at some point, or zoned out, thinking while she went on talking in the background. I stared at the maps I’d hung on the wall across from my bed, tracing them with my eyes while she went on talking in the background. The muffled noise from the TV downstairs sounded clearer to me than my own voice as I said “okay” and “yeah” at the appropriate times. By the time we hung up, my elbow was stiff from holding the phone to my ear.
I walked out of my bedroom, dazed. When my mom asked what we’d been talking about, I couldn’t really explain it. “It’s fine,” I said.
Eliza had to leave my bridal shower early. She skipped activities with the rest of the bridal party. She was costume designing for a play and would have to leave the reception early, too, she told me. I was almost surprised when she showed up at the wedding.
That morning, the bridal party gathered in the church basement. There was hugging and distributing of flowers and last-minute hair fixing. Then Eliza spoke up. “Can I pray over you?” she asked. Her round face and her delicate eyes glowed with the same expression I’d seen illustrated on women’s faces in saint books and holy cards: a pitying softness, a gaze that looked both into and past me, but not at me.
I sat on a metal folding chair, and she placed her hands on my shoulders. I bowed my head and closed my eyes as the rest of the women gathered around me in a circle. I don’t remember her words, only the smell of everyone’s hair spray and perfume. We all said amen.
Almost five years went by before I really saw Eliza again. I’d seen her in passing, sure, but I didn’t even have to try to avoid her. She didn’t reach out, and we’d long stopped running with the same crowds. I moved across the country and back, traveled across the Western states with Patrick in the meantime. She moved home after college and pursued her dancing and stagecraft career. I struggled to write and to tell anyone the whole truth, about anything, about myself or about my thoughts, both significant and trivial. Sometimes I missed her. Sometimes I couldn’t stand prayer books or old movies, because I could only see her in them. I didn’t know if I wished we were friends again or if I hated her.
Then I saw her at a Christmas gathering. I stopped in to say hello to my mom and a few other people, and there was Eliza. She hugged me, squeezed me, her saint medals clicking under our embrace. We talked. I didn’t suddenly tell her everything; there was no heart to heart. Mostly, I talked about my pet rabbit—a little brown bunny I’d adopted two summers before. “She roams the house pretty much freely,” I said. “She’s trained.”
“Ooh, that is so cute!” Eliza gushed. “I’ve always wanted a pet rabbit.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
Hannah Williams studied creative writing through Literary Cleveland and Lighthouse Writers. Her work in the form of zines was selected for the Ohio State University’s Thompson Library zine collection, and was recently featured in HEAPS Magazine.