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  • Julie found me on the Web through a profile I didn’t know I had on “Linked-In.” Part of the beauty of computers is they make it impossible to run away and leave no trace of yourself behind.
    Julie and I met in second grade. We lived on the same street. We walked to school together every day. We had the same piano teacher. We dammed gutters and got in trouble for wrecking our clothes. Few days passed when one of us was not at the other’s house.
    Last winter, I thought of Julie for the first time in over two decades, and googled her name. That was all. Just looked it up to see if I could find out what she was doing.
    The next day, her email arrived.
    I’m not much of a believer in karma. But some sort of cosmic vibration must have been bouncing through the universe that day.
    I’m mistrustful of anyone who hails from my childhood, a childhood I tried for years to erase. Childhood, however, is as ineradicable as malaria.
    I’d always been convinced I was completely on my own with my family secrets. Well into adulthood, I believed that no person on earth had any inkling of what was really happening inside the house where I grew up, behind that impenetrable scrim of upper-middle-class 1950s style materialism. Art, culture, and swimming lessons. Hebrew school and Barbie dolls and alcoholism and violence.
    As far as I was concerned, nobody knew; furthermore, if they’d known, they wouldn’t have cared. My family’s meticulous image of normalcy had hoodwinked the entire world.

    Julie and I both remember fourth grade. Julie has come home with me after school and we are rummaging around in the kitchen looking for snacks.
    She opens the freezer, and sees the frozen Snickers bars, the Milky Ways, the Three Musketeers bars my mother stashes in there for my brother, who is small and slight, and does not share my sisters’ and my tendency to put on weight.
    She reaches for one.
    “Don’t take that,” I say.
    “Why not?”
    “I’m not allowed to have them.”
    “If I take one, who will notice?”
    “Julie, it would be okay if you had one,” I say, “but my mother will think I ate it.”
    “Tell her I ate it.”
    “She won’t believe me.”
    Julie is headstrong. I’m really afraid she’ll take the candy and I’ll have hell to pay.
    In an email, Julie writes:
    “There were mixed messages in your house, for example the ongoing concern about being thin, while the pantry and fridge were loaded with treats my mom would never buy.... while my dad was present/absent-mindedly, your dad kind of scared/repulsed me. I think it was his gregariousness, that he always engaged me in conversation, and just his sort of intensity. He seemed too interested. I don't think I trusted him... I probably acted friendly and made conversation.... I just remember he was usually joke-y, but it seemed like a veneer.”

    At first, Julie and I exchange email. She sends me pictures of her children. I tell her about my marriage, my divorce, my move to New York. I send her pictures of my dog. Then we abandon the formalities we’ve assumed a quarter-century gap ought to have created and start talking regularly on the phone. Julie remembers the Three Musketeers bars in my mother’s freezer, but she doesn’t remember sixth grade, the year all her hair fell out and she wore a wig. It was the same year I had my first migraine.
    When I press her to tell me more about what she remembers she writes:
    “You carried a bitterness and a more suspicious outlook on life as a child than I did...When I was older and you would allude at times to the damage your parents had done... it worried me so to think that you had suffered alone and never asked for help.”
    I’ve had ample time and opportunity to face my bitterness – that little cyanide-laced kernel I’ve carried with me from childhood, the feature I dislike most intensely about my own character, which has threatened at times to suffuse my life, and ruin everything.
    Then I realized one day after one of our conversations, I’ve been telling myself a convenient lie all these years. I’d chosen to believe I was entirely on my own, but the truth is, I wasn’t. If I’d experimented a bit, reached out, applied some of the creative energy to my life I’ve applied to work, somebody might have helped. I’m certain now the reason I didn’t was because, at the time, I got some kind of ego-bolstering mileage out of my isolation.
    The lie of separateness is a cowboy lie, a true-west, romantic desperado-riding-fences sort of lie. Telling myself I was entirely alone in the world dissolved the possibility that I’d had choices. Alone and apart, I became special – an out-there-loner who one day would do something Very Incredible, and people would notice. Lots of years have passed. I haven’t done the incredible thing yet. I probably never will. I don’t really care. Now all I care about is connection.
    One evening as we’re signing off, Julie tells me she’s always felt guilty about me and our childhood.
    “Why?” I asked.
    “Because I knew you were in trouble, and especially as we got older, I could have done more to help you and I didn’t.”
    “It wasn’t your responsibility,” I say.
    “I know,” she says. “But it was really troubling that you never asked. I still wish I had done more.”
    Inside myself, I can feel the almond shaped kernel starting to disintegrate around the edges.
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