***Please note that names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Part 1: Magical Phone Pal
Soon after I returned to Cambridge, MA after a year of research among Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Hasidic teenage girls, I found an email that would shift my life in profoundly good ways before it all exploded in weirdness. It was a call for papers about girls around the world, from cultures most mainstream Americans don’t know much about. I didn’t know the sender at all. She wanted to edit an anthology of essays on this topic by all different writers.
On most days, I would have passed right over this message. It was sent to everyone in a women’s studies email list, and I normally paid little attention to correspondence in that list. But I had some extra time that afternoon, and I spotted it.
Inspired by my Hasidic friends, I wondered whether this was some kind of mystical coincidence that allowed me to find something that could help me enormously. For once, my work was perfect for a project in the academic world. This was the ideal push to start writing my dissertation, which I’d been putting off for weeks. I’d had an idealized image of the final product I’d create, but, whenever I sat down in front of my computer, anything I thought of writing seemed shallow and meager compared to my dreams. Since arriving back in Harvard Square, I’d spent most of my time wandering around the neighborhood and whining with my friends about how much we hated academia. But now someone — a real person who existed in the Midwestern suburbs and taught at a university — wanted a paper about girls from unusual communities. I got to work.
I was amazed at how quickly things went once I got started, and, when I read over the final product, I actually liked it. It captured the diversity of the girls I met, my research methods, and the spirit of the community I’d explored. And I managed to sneak in some humor and fun even though it was an academic essay, which greatly pleased me. A motivation to write a relatively short piece was exactly what I needed at that time. Starting a whole book felt too big. Writing an essay that would stand on its own was doable: I’d done it before. From there, I could expand on my thoughts for my dissertation and, later, the book I had planned.
When I emailed my essay to Anna, the woman who’d sent out the call for papers, I felt a pure sense of delight, and gratitude to her for initiating a project that so clearly valued my current work. Of course I realized that she could reject it, but, somehow, I knew that wouldn’t happen.
About a week later, Anna called me. I wasn’t expecting a call; I just assumed this would all happen over email: she’d accept my submission in a businesslike way and that would be that. A strange, happy shock overtook me when Anna started telling me how much she loved my essay. “It’s wonderful. Just gorgeous. The community is so, so fascinating, and the writing… oh, just marvelous. It truly is a wonder.”
I was so overjoyed! I wished I could freeze the moment and replay it again and again. In a few minutes, I went from abject fear that I’d never wind up writing anything worthwhile about my year in Crown Heights to stunning hope and confidence. Anna didn’t want many changes, just a few little things. And she praised exactly what I saw as my trademark: the spark, humor, and personal spirit I always included, even in work that was supposed to be academic. Some of my graduate school professors had criticized me for that; they wanted dry, scholarly pieces packed with citations and devoid of personality. Anna was a scholar who appreciated my style. This was healing and even thrilling. She gave me a sense that I had a place in the world where I’d found myself. Before, I’d felt like a Ph.D. student who was in graduate school because I couldn’t figure out what else to do with myself.
We spoke for quite a while. Anna was truly interested in me: where I grew up, what kind of family I came from, what sorts of things interested me, etc. My graduate school advisers were extremely busy and didn’t have time for this sort of discussion. When I hung up with Anna, I felt content, valued, and heard. They were all alien feelings for me most of the time at that point in my life, so I was elated.
I figured I’d just make the few edits Anna wanted, send the essay back to her, and wait for the anthology to come out. That one conversation was enough to carry me through and allow me to start my dissertation work; I wasn’t looking for anything more. But, often, when you seek nothing, you find a universe.
The next time I checked my email, I found a long note from Anna. She told me our conversation was a “rare treat,” and said I was “delightful.” Always susceptible to compliments, I was thrilled. Very briefly, the thought that this was a bit much passed through my mind — we’d only just met, and our conversation was friendly and warm but nothing super-deep — but I was mostly just excited that I’d made such a fantastic professional connection.
I had some friends and acquaintances who became very close with their graduate school advisers: spending long evenings with them, traveling with them, babysitting for their children, and, occasionally, some other stuff that probably shouldn’t be mentioned. I never had any of that: somehow, I always wound up with some distance between me and my professors. I kind of wanted it that way; I felt strange about becoming intimate with people who had a professional connection with me. Yet, I sometimes felt kind of wistful when people in my program talked about meeting up with their advisers during vacations, and spoke with authority about nuances of their professors’ personal lives. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe I wasn’t fully living my life, taking the chances I should in order to develop the kind of relationships I’d need in order to grow in fantastic ways. If Anna was pursuing me like this, I figured I’d run with it and see where it led. She was all the way in Illinois; it’s not like this would become overwhelming. She wasn’t actually my professor: she was just someone compiling an anthology, several states away.
A few days later, she called me again. “I’m still thinking about your essay and I just wanted to chat a bit,” she said. She told me that her mother was very ill with lung issues, and Anna and her sister were caring for her. “It’s hell, nursing someone all day, every day,” she whispered, and started crying. I asked what sort of illness her mother had, and she told me, “She’s just always had very weak lungs. It’s not cancer.” I tried to comfort her and wish her luck moving forward with her mother’s health problems. Somehow, I could tell that they would be fatal. It was clear that Anna was extremely close with her mother, and that her mother had validated her key life choices: pursuing a Ph.D. in English and moving to suburban Illinois, despite her distaste for the area’s conservatism, to pursue the tenure track job that came up afterwards. After a while, Anna thanked me for talking and said she had to get back to her mom.
I did find it surprising that she called me, of all people, during a rare break from caring for her dying mother, but then I told myself I was degrading my own worth. Why not me? Who else was Anna supposed to call?
She and I were developing kind of a rare bond. She resonated with my work in ways that were deeply meaningful to me, and I was able to talk her through this traumatic time. Both of us led nontraditional lives. I was single and uninterested in having a partner; she was a lesbian who had recently separated from a partner. We were close buddies. The world was moving forward, reaching beyond the times when physical closeness was necessary for deep friendship. We could talk any time, on the phone or online, no matter where in the universe we were. It was amazing and freeing.
As a child, I often thought about how bizarre and chilling it was that the perfect people for me to know — people who could become my intimate friends — could be far away from me and never cross my path. Even kids who lived two towns away were mostly inaccessible; how would I ever get to know them if I didn’t happen to take lessons or something with them? The barrier of space felt profoundly wrong. Since that time, the world had opened up. It was truly spiritual and soul-based: personalities could connect while the bodies that housed them were oceans apart. People could find like-minded souls through online groups, like with Anna and me, or even just from Googling around. My friendship with Anna was special: a sign of our world’s increasing interpersonal possibilities and mystical evolution. Or so I thought… because I was desperate for meaning, and because my relationship with Anna felt beautiful even though we’d never met in person.
We spoke many times over the phone throughout the next several months. Nearly always, Anna called me. This was kind of typical of me: I often let “real-life” friends take the initiative for planning events and inviting me since my natural state was to hang out alone. When people invited me to gatherings, I was almost always happy to join in, but I often had trouble initiating plans that would force me to give up my alone time.
In all those upcoming months, I never remember feeling even slightly annoyed or disappointed to be pulled out of my alone time when Anna called. We went deeper and deeper in our talks. I told her how different I felt from other people, how I’d never found my true clan. I also confided that I really didn’t think I wanted to be a standard academic, and she got upset, telling me that she was sure that world had a place for me. She had an answer for all my reservations, even telling me that I could get by in a small town as a non-driver if I was determined enough to make it work. Her voice became harsh as she made her various arguments. I was slightly irritated that she would try to foist her own goals onto me, but I was mostly just flattered that she cared enough to try. She was a busy person, the author of several women’s studies books and a dedicated professor. How amazing that she got so worked up over me, someone she’d never even met in person.
She called me that Christmas, figuring I’d just be hanging around, and cried because she missed her deceased mother and had nowhere to go. We spoke for many hours. I explained that Christmas for me was just an annoying day when most restaurants were closed, and that made her feel a whole lot better. “You can go out for Chinese food like all the Jewish Christmas exiles,” I suggested, and she laughed: a rich, energetic laugh that seemed to release her loneliness and pain, and heal her. “I love talking to you,” she said. I was famished by the time we hung up — she called in the morning before I’d eaten anything and it was mid-afternoon by the time we said goodbye — but how could I be angry or even miffed, when Anna was so openly appreciative?
One morning Anna called and struggled to say my name and introduce the phone call. “Ste-ste-ste-ste…” she stuttered, her voice high-pitched and gasping. I’d noticed the stutter from the very beginning, but she tried to hide it most of the time. She spoke carefully, enunciating every sound, and, if she began to block on a word, she’d change it (“I need to go t-t-t- uuuuuuum meet with my students”). But this time she got caught on the very first word of a phone call and couldn’t work around it. When she finally got my name out, I said hello very warmly, and I felt like something lifted at that point: the nervous, walking-on-a-tightrope feel she often gave as she spoke gave way to something more honest. She spoke a little more naturally at that point. Her secret was out. One of them, anyhow.
Anna shared touching stories about her life with her mother during that conversation, offering much more nuance and detail than usual. She also told me that she was shy and often had trouble meeting people: something she needed to do now that her mother was gone and her girlfriend had left her. I felt like that discussion was a watershed for us: Anna no longer had to come across as the perfect, well-put-together academic.
Because the whole situation felt strange and beyond explanation, I only discussed Anna with a few of my “real-life” contacts. I put her in a kind of separate category, like our talks were part of a parallel life. I never mentioned Anna when people asked me about my friends or people I was close to. I did feel close to her, but in this “other” way that I feared people wouldn’t understand. And then she came to visit.
She mentioned a conference in Boston, at Northeastern University, and started hinting that she needed a place to stay. I was living in a studio apartment in Harvard Square at the time and pretty much never had overnight guests. To this day, I prefer to avoid them. I don’t keep any food in my place; I never make coffee or tea for myself; I have enough trouble getting myself together for my daily life and hate feeling responsible for other people’s comfort. But this was different. This was Anna. I told her my place was small and I didn’t even have an extra bed, and she said: “I can sleep anywhere a lil cat sleeps.” That’s a direct quote. It made enough of an impression on me that I remember it years later. “A lil cat.” So I offered to let her sleep on my old air mattress that I didn’t even know how to blow up.
We had a few weeks between that conversation and Anna’s conference, and I was keyed up, anxious, and excited throughout that time. Two worlds were colliding — “real life” and that bizarre Anna-based alternate life — and I wasn’t sure I wanted that to happen. But now I was stuck, and I had to go along with it.
Part 2: We Meet In Person
I worried about the first moments of our meeting — that I’d get a weird look on my face that would pollute any future time with Anna, that she wouldn’t like me in person, etc. — but it went well. She arrived at my building all smiles, and I shot back genuine smiles in return. In person, she was wiry and athletic-looking, with short, light brown hair. Her clothes were androgynous: hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and bright orange sneakers. I suggested going out somewhere and she said she had already eaten on the plane. I didn’t want to get stuck in my little apartment with her all night, so I mentioned Café Algiers as a place where we could just get coffee, tea, or a small snack.
We had a nice time chatting and laughing, though the intimacy we’d reached over the phone didn’t come back since we were out in public and the atmosphere wasn’t so conducive to deep discussions of alienation, loneliness, and existential crises. Anna got a strawberry frappe and wasn’t crazy about it, said it wasn’t “special.” I liked that she was honest and didn’t just tell me she loved it because I had chosen the place.
The next morning, Anna headed off to her conference, and I was too worked up to get any writing done, so I just kind of wandered around and talked to a friend while she was gone. When she returned, we had dinner with an old friend of hers named Sue, at a now-folded Chinese restaurant in Cambridge’s Inman Square area: a stretch filled with restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. That went well for a while, but then Anna asked her friend how much money she was earning these days. Her friend was a librarian at a nearby university, and I guess Anna was curious, but I found the question very forward.
I went to the bathroom before I could hear the answer, and, when I returned, Anna and Sue were still talking about money. Anna switched the discussion to graduate students she knew who had started businesses and such while still in school, clearly wanting me to overhear. I thought maybe she was hinting that, by this point in my life, I should be able to afford something other than a studio, but maybe I was reading too much into it. Regardless, I didn’t like her trying to sneak into my financial life, and stayed silent throughout the conversation. I did have enough money, at least for my needs at the time, and that was all anyone needed to know. I could feel a tense energy: Anna was miffed that I refused to engage with her on this topic or offer any information about my finances.
Finally, the focus switched, and Anna starting asking Sue, who lived in Inman Square, about lesbians in the area. Both of them were single lesbians and I had a hunch that Sue was kind of into Anna, but Sue was considerably older and Anna didn’t seem interested on that level. (At that point, Anna was in her late 30s, and Sue was maybe 50ish.) “Oh, the lesbians are everywhere,” Sue laughed. They began talking about where to go to pick people up, and Sue mentioned a “lesbian pizza place” in the area. I knew and liked that pizza place, and kind of figured the owners were lesbians just based on appearance and demeanor, but wouldn’t have thought of it as a “lesbian pizza place.” The notion went against me a little; why can’t people of all kinds just move through the world, owning pizza places or whatever they want, without having their businesses labeled? But clearly I was missing something. These two wanted to pick people up, and certain establishments were amenable to that.
I had no interest in picking anyone up and stayed pretty much silent throughout this topic too. Years before, I’d wondered whether I might be a lesbian since I had little sexual interest in men and, very occasionally (like once every 5 years), became intrigued with a woman I’d met somewhere. But I didn’t want sex of any kind with these women; I honestly wasn’t even sure what I wanted. A good friend of mine and I spent many intense hours trying to figure out what I did seek with my “fascinations,” and we never really arrived at anything concrete. I certainly wasn’t like these two, scheming about where to meet people for romantic connections.
Later that night, Sue returned to her home, and Anna’s identical twin sister and her girlfriend came to visit Anna and me at my apartment. The girlfriend was tall, blonde, and Nordic-looking, and the sister looked like Anna, of course, thought she was a little heavier. It was surreal. Anna’s sister, Nancy, stuttered too, in a way that was similar and yet all her own. She, too, spoke very carefully and tried to avoid overt difficulties that would clue people into a problem and create awkwardness. Nancy actually seemed a little more aggressive than Anna in person, and I had the bizarre thought that maybe Nancy was the alpha twin, though I had no idea if that was any kind of a real thing. Nancy was a professor at a Boston-area school — a more prestigious one than Anna’s — and she already had tenure, while Anna would be coming up for that soon.
The mere fact that this was the sort of thing that came out in our discussions bothered me a bit; I would have greatly preferred more internally based chat — what we were thinking about on a deeper level of life’s inherent meaning, spirituality, etc. — but these two were very much about particular forms of academic success. And that was OK and even interesting to a point, though I was starting to feel sure that I would be relieved when Anna returned to Illinois.
I began to realize that Anna and I didn’t really connect in person. But the worst was yet to come.
The next day, Anna became quite abusive verbally. She criticized me for usually spending time in Harvard Square instead of the other areas in Cambridge and for not wanting to wake up at the crack of dawn to collect garbage on the street and throw it out with her. My lack of enthusiasm for this plan made her glare at me and say, “You don’t do enough for other people.” We went to a nearby café for breakfast, and, when I chose a lemon scone, she made a face. “You always choose such gussied up food. With plain food, you can really enjoy the flavors.”
She decided on a brioche, which she said was plainer and better because it didn’t have icing. As we ate our pastries, I told her my parents liked the idea of my returning to Cambridge to write my dissertation rather than staying in Brooklyn. She threw me an angry look and said, in a harsh, authoritative tone, “They don’t want you too close to them. They tried as hard as they could, but they probably want some distance from you. Cambridge is that much farther from New Jersey.” It felt like she wanted me to think my parents hated me because I was inherently awful to be around.
By the time she left, I pretty much despised her. At the same time, I wondered whether this was my fault. I thought maybe I just wasn’t likable to her in person, which made me really doubt myself. I certainly didn’t start any arguments with her, and I tried to be a decent host, though I’d warned her in advance that she wouldn’t have any coffee or tea or anything in my place since I went out for pretty much everything, and that her bed situation would be pretty makeshift. When she attacked me, I didn’t defend myself; I just kind of ignored her comments: typical for me. So I can’t imagine I’d legitimately riled her up in a way she could define.
Part 3: Aftermath
Anna and I weren’t in touch for quite a while after her visit, and then she tried calling me. She seemed upset and in need of a talk, but the mere sound of her voice unnerved me and I was pretty cold. That was the last time we communicated. When I hung up, I was haunted by my coldness and wished I had been more open to her, but I told myself I didn’t need to talk to someone who had been abusive to me.
After that, I didn’t think much about her, though at times she would pop into my mind, always with an undercurrent of profound disappointment. Anna’s introduction to my life had felt magical — she was the close mentor I needed, the person who pushed me to value my work enough to throw myself into it, and I met her seemingly by accident, despite considerable geographical distance. And then she became stunningly awful. The opposite of magic.
Last summer, I started wondering about her current situation and decided to Google her. I found her obituary: she had recently died at 49. The obituary gave only the basic facts: dates of birth and death, and her final residence in Los Angeles, near the area where she’d spent her childhood. There were no anecdotes, no warm remembrances, no survivors listed.
I was shocked. When I knew her, Anna had been supremely fit and energetic. She often spoke of her hours-long bicycle rides and the gyms she enjoyed. A bit of digging uncovered that she had died of Huntington’s Disease. I did some more searching and discovered that a fan of her writing had set up a Facebook page honoring her. When I read through the various posts on the page, I found that she was very debilitated in the Los Angeles area for quite some time. Someone on the page found her in terrible shape in a coffee shop there, and Anna told her that she was struggling because of an accident. Someone else from this Facebook community replied that it wasn’t an accident; it was Huntington’s, though Anna had been in a serious bicycle accident years back and never fully recovered because the Huntington’s kicked in at that time.
I looked up Huntington’s and learned that psychiatric illness is a common symptom: it develops as the disease begins to creep in. At that point, I had a strong hunch that the illness might have caused Anna’s cruelty. It’s possible it was starting to manifest right around the time she visited Boston. This really threw me. All my thoughts about hating Anna and blaming myself for the weird awkwardness might have been pointless; it all might have been caused by a serious, fatal disease.
Another chilling factor: apparently, she was very alone at the end of her life, and without resources. The person who ran into her said she was staying in some kind of group housing, and Anna told her she was begging her brother to let her live with him (he lived elsewhere in CA) so he could take care of her. I Googled the brother and found that he had committed suicide not that long after Anna died. No one knew why. Maybe he discovered he had the Huntington’s gene (he had a significant chance given his sister’s fate). Or maybe he turned Anna’s plea for care down and was haunted by it after she died. When I knew her, she was completely estranged from her brother. She said he was homeless but a genius, and my Googling suggested something similar. He didn’t seem like someone you’d want to be caring for you, but I think Anna was really all alone. She always gave the impression of a successful, self-sufficient person, but her end was far different.
Often, when I learn someone I knew has died, I feel a crushing sadness, and a desire to connect, reaching whatever aspect of self might have survived this transition. With Anna, I had an intellectual curiosity to figure out what happened, but little wistfulness. After making this discovery, I went about my day normally, focusing on the tasks at hand. It was strange, like I’d completely outgrown her. I tried reminding myself that the cruelty I eventually saw might have been an artifact of her disease, while the warmth and support of earlier times had pushed me forward at a stage when I desperately needed a boost. But I couldn’t muster up much emotion. I was done with Anna, which was wonderful in a way since, for once, my sense of things matched the world’s.
Still, her overall story horrified me, particularly the end. Like Anna, I have no partner and no children — no obvious people to jump in and help me in my final time of need, assuming I outlive my parents. I do have other close family members, but so did she: where was her sister? Maybe she was also ill with Huntington’s; they’re identical twins, after all, and if one got the gene, the other was virtually sure to have it, unless there’s some complexity to their situation that I’m not aware of.
I do have resources — not a big fortune, but I am very mindful of the possibility of needing to pay for care one day, and save with that in mind. This little, awful piece of me at one point thought: “Ha! You tried to make me feel bad about my financial life, but look what happened to you… forced to live in a group home and unable to pay for proper care.” But I really have no idea what happened. Maybe Anna didn’t want live-in help or to end her days in a medical facility, even if she could afford it. And maybe she made those comments out of caring for me, knowing her own situation and not wanting me to fall into similar straits.
Ultimately, I find myself thinking about our larger culture that abandoned Anna during her short life’s final stage. We live in a world that expects people to make their own way, creating or maintaining family ties or developing intimate friendships to draw from in times of disaster or extreme stress. Though she had many professional successes and contacts, Anna didn’t have much social capital when it mattered most. It also seems likely that she didn’t have the resources to care for herself, and there was no safety net to shield her.
My fond memories are clouded over with negative ones, and it’s very possible I’m not the only one who was turned off and uninterested when Anna most needed assistance and love. I don’t feel guilty. I had no way of knowing what was happening, and, even if I had realized, I lacked the skills and resources to help in any major way. Anna shouldn’t have needed the likes of me. She should have been cared for just because she was a human being born into our world through no choice of her own. And it should have been someone’s job to write her obituary, to share more than the dates and places of her beginning and end on this earth, in case someone else (like me) wanted to connect with her life.
I don’t miss her. But wait…I just wrote that, and now I’m hesitating; I feel mournful for the first time. OK, whether I miss her or not is irrelevant. Anna should have been helped out of this world just like she was helped into it. I’m sad about how her story ended, even though the story of her and me had fizzled long before.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.