For more than 30 years of ups, downs, marriages, kids, divorce, acclaim, rejection, and one scary illness, Susan Miller (a playwright who sometimes performs) and Kathryn Grody (an actor who sometimes writes) have been laughing, arguing, teasing, advising, encouraging, pulling each other up short, and keeping each other going. Here they take turns answering the question. What are friends for?
By Susan Miller & Kathryn Grody From: O Magazine (December 2004)
SUSAN: Kathryn walks through the door of the restaurant, just like the first time we met. Her arms akimbo, reeling off her story. why she’s late. Why she’s angry at someone I don’t know. What her son has to write for English class. Why her other son’s social studies teacher doesn’t understand him. Her husband. Her cousin. Her brother. Her audition. Her life writ large. In the telling. As large as her holiday dinners, her novel, her unfinished lists, her outrage at the world’s ills, her embrace, her laugh at her own expense. She’s invited me to lunch to celebrate my Guggenheim fellowship, but 15 minutes in she has not stopped talking. Finally, I must speak. “Who would you be without your narrative?” I wonder. It stops her cold. Possessed, she gets up without a word. Walks out of the restaurant, comes back in, and starts over. This time she raises her coffee cup. “To you!” she says. And turns it over- the morning, the reason we’re here, the dialogue. We change direction and revise. Why are we friends? This is why.
I AM SITTING IN STARBUCKS. I CAN’T WRITE. I take my coffee and walk the streets. I call Kathryn. Her cell phone picks up but she doesn’t hear it. She doesn’t hear me shouting, “I can’t write! Where are you?” I hear her and the conversation she’s having with someone else, not me. And there is no way to leave a message. I call her home phone and tell her how frustrated I am. She calls me back. she has no idea I’ve called. She’s standing in line at Verizon. I find her there and we walk up Broadway and she says, “Tell me where you’re stuck.”
“KATHRYN, YOU’RE STUCK,” I TELL HER the day before we walk up Broadway. She’s just called me. “What should I do about my life?” She says. I say, “Write it down. Write down the things you want, the things you need. Keep it in your pocket. Memorize it. Say it out loud. Or. Or don’t need anything. Don’t want anything. Stay stuck. Watch the shooting star that is you. Watch it vanish burn up stay behind.” Kathryn says, “Read what you’ve written.” I tell her, “Act what you know.”
S: Do you ever talk about me in therapy?
S: Me, too. Should we leave it at that?
K AND S: Let’s leave it at that.
S: Suffice it to say my therapist is on familiar terms with your name.
K: What haven’t we done together?
S: Never gone to a spa.
K: Do you like spas?
S: Not particularly.
K: Me neither.
S: We don’t go horseback riding. Or mountain climbing.
K: Do we hike?
S: We walk. [There follows a spitting mocking sound from Kathryn indicating my idea of a hike is not her idea of a hike.]
K: We’ve never exchanged recipes.
S: I’m going to give you one today. My brownies or black miso cod?
K: Oh, definitely the brownies.
S: Have you ever seen me cook?
K: Actually, no.
S: I’ve made you a sandwich.
K:You put out fixings.
S: I make you coffee.
K: And I love you making it for me.
S: I am a mother. I did once have to cook something. Didn’t I?
K: I believe you. We never slept in a tent together.
S: And never will.
K: We might end up having to flee with our houses on our back.
S: You mean, the way things are in the world.
K: And we might be happy to have a tent while we’re escaping.
K: If I have to run, you have to run with me because I can’t imagine escaping without you. Maybe that’s why I want you to work on your aerobics.
S: What have you done with other people that you haven’t done with me?
S: You’ve gone rafting. That makes me want to think of what I’ve done that’s dangerous and reckless and thrilling that you would never do.
K: You write.
S: May I remind you that so, now, do you.
KATHRYN: I pretty much never fail to remind my friend Suz that we first met in our late 20s when I auditioned for a play of hers in which she made the fatal decision not to cast me. Here is who I remember we were at the beginning. Cute. Very very cute girls. No doubts on her part that she was the real deal, an honest-to-God, daring, one-of-a-kind playwright. No doubts on mine that I am a born thespian with unique comedic gifts. No doubts that everything was indeed going to come up roses, because our parents told us so. I have no other friend who was so equally adored by her parents and no other friend who grasps so completely how shocked I still am that the world did not stop spinning to welcome me to it.
SUSAN: We are standing on Barrow Street, in the West Village. We’re 30-something. Kathryn asks me if I think she should have children. I have one. So I say: “You? You must have children.” I dance at her wedding. She takes my 6-year-old to the top of the World Trade Towers so I can attend a reading of my new play. In college my son makes a movie of her two boys. The first time I understand what it will be like to put myself in my son’s hands, he takes the wheels of our rental car to drive home from Kathryn’s house in the country, where we have spent the day watching our children grow.
S: Do you know you never looked at my scar? After my mastectomy, I asked you if you wanted to see it and you said you weren’t ready.
KATHRYN: I had no memory of this moment and was instantly ashamed, even 24 years later, at the thought that my friend could have survived this loss and that I was too frightened to even acknowledge it. Until I realized that what I knew all those years ago was that I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it, and looking at that scar would have brought me too close to the possibility that I might have lost her at our very beginning.
K: What’s worse than not looking at your scar is the fight we had on the corner.
S: Well, not a fight.
K: A large disagreeing. A taking to task.
S: Okay. It felt like a fight.
K: I wanted you to move on. Stop being stuck in regret or sorrow. I didn’t want you to waste time on what people didn’t give you or how people weren’t honoring you appropriately.
S: That’s you! You are talking about yourself. You can’t tolerate my—
K: Because I completely identify
S: I was going to say—darkness. You can’t tolerate my pain and worry over my son’s pain and worry. You don’t stop and let the other person’s world take space. You’re too wrapped up in your own circumstance. You who are totally uncontrollable in your panic at any disruption of your own family. That’s what the fight was about for me.
KATHRYN: I get impatient with Suz when she’s a “dark thing” because I don’t really get being a dark thing. And I want to “fix it.” I am sometimes a sad thing and often a hysterical thing. I’ve sobbed on every couch in every apartment my friend has lived in, and she’s listened and held me, but she doesn’t try to fix it. She is wise enough to wait until it passes, which she always assures me it will.
K: I want us to live like we have two minutes left.
S: Okay. But then you’ll have to stop talking.
SUSAN: Okay. This is my story of the blanket. Simply, I saw it. I picked it up. Kathryn saw me holding it. She said, “Those are my colors.” I said, “Well, they’re mine, too; that’s why I’m buying it.” And we were suddenly 6 years old. Mine. No, mine. How about, I’ll give it to you on your 50th. (Though when the time came, I tried substituting another blanket. It didn’t work.) She gave it back to me on my 60th. It folds over the arm of my couch, which, it isn’t hard to notice, has the same colors as the blanket!
KATHRYN: Okay, this is the truth about the blanket. We were in Virginia because I got Suz a job performing her play. I believe we both spotted the blanket. I remember saying that the pale pinks and fifties greens were my colors. I was stunned. How could she not see that it was meant to live at my house? And she would never have found it if I hadn’t helped her get this gig! As consolation, she promised to give it to me (its rightful owner) on my 50th birthday-until her 60th. I assume she’ll know exctly what to get me for my 70th.
K: I just had an image of us walking to the children’s hippo park with our first grandchild. Mine’s a girl.
S: Mine’s a girl, too.
K: Remember the day I walked into a restaurant and you said, “You are either pregnant or having an affair.” I couldn’t believe how well you knew me. Contemplating an affair. And you wrote me a letter warning me of the dire consequences and I took it to heart.
S: I was more worried you were having a baby.
K: We don’t really talk about plastic surgery much, do we?
K: Would you ever get it?
K: No, I just want you to tell me I don’t need to get it. And mean it. Don’t you hate the little skin tags? I can’t find a way to love them.
S: I have so many things I cannot love.
K: I haven’t looked at myself naked in ten years. That’s just not a kind thing to do.
S: Come here. In my closet. I want to show you something.
SUSAN: I show her a picture, of me naked on a raft, just slightly hidden. “That is so you,” she says. “Artful, eloquent, subtle. Thinking. A naked writer.” Some days later, Kathryn unveils her naked picture. She looks like a fifties starlet. Her back arched. Gorgeous. Posed. An actress. “Showoff!” Even in our naked pictures, we’re in character. Kathryn never edits. Susan edits too much.
K: I don’t think I’ve ever spent time with you without bursting out in great guffaws. Even after sobbing.
S: That makes me want to cry.
K:You have this burst laughter, this relish of laughter. I love hearing you laugh. I love making you laugh. I love laughing with you. I can count on you for laughter.
S: We help each other get over ourselves.
K: We do.
KATHRYN: Here are some boldfaced differences in who we are. Suz is delicate. She is a tiny thing and I can practically circle her wrist twice with my comparatively enormous hand. She is delicate inside and out, and I am a Russian peasant. She has one breast. I have two (knock knock). She was married to her high school sweetheart for ten years, had intense love affairs, and has been with Lida for ten. I have been married (so far) to the same husband for 26 years. She has never been fat.
S: Once, when I was 11.
KATHRYN: Suz has the very best taste and is never wearing something that I don’t covet and often ask for. Only recently did she tell me where she buys her T-shirts, and truthfully she regrets sharing the info. She does not like gyms. She does not like my reminding her of the importance of exercise, though she loves to dance and does so often all by herself all around her apartment. I agitate for weight-bearng exercise and vitamins. This is an old argument. Years ago when we took ourselves to the Plaza, she opened a small vial, and I congratulated her on finally taking her supplements. she still can’t get over the fact that I could not tell the difference between a vitamin C and Valium.
SUSAN: Kathryn is my first audience. I never write a play without reading parts of it to her first. In those moments, the world goes away. She is mine entirely. I never finish writing anything without Kathryn’s love of it. And-she always remembers my lines. Need I say more.
KATHRYN: I eventually did manage to win a part in a play Suz wrote called Cross Country, and sometimes I think the role of Lois spoiled me forever. She was funny and smart and complicated and truthful. I am simply nuts about my friend’s plays. I have crushes on them. I compare all others to them and they always fall short. When I was performing in D.C. this past winter. Suz called and asked me just how important it was that she come down. I shocked both of us by bursting into sobs. I’m there, she said. And she was.
SUSAN: The first time I performed My Left Breast, at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kathryn flew out to be with me. She mixed up a magic potion for my hoarse throat, unused as I was to taking the stage. She slept on the couch in my hotel room. And beamed from the audience. It more than made up for the time she announced after seeing a play of mine that it would work better as a piece for The New Yorker.
K: Can you remember the longest period that we haven’t talked to each other?
S: A week?
K: If a week’s gone by, I start to think, Are we in one of those places where you need to tell me something?
S: And I think, What don’t you want to tell me?
SUSAN AND KATHRYN: Sometimes it’s not wanting to be so intimately observed. To be caught. Because we’re onto each other. As many times as we vow there’s nothing that could rend us asunder, still the anxious space between when something bothers us and when we express it to each other is enormous and scary. We both have permission to be anything, to say anything. We know each other’s fragile places. And are tender with them.
K: You’re one of the few friends, Suz, whom I walk arm in arm with. We don’t do it always, but sometimes. And I think the only other woman I’ve done that with is my mom.
S: So what’s the future of us?
K: That you finish three or maybe five more fabulous plays. That I get to be in each and every one of them. That we dance at our grandchildren’s weddings. That we wake up joyful and actually sleep through part of the night. and that we get to become the two older women we can’t believe we’ll be.
S: Walking arm in arm to the movies in the middle of the afternoon. Continuing the conversation.