Excerpt from Making Change: Mercurial Tales of How Life Can Turn on a Dime, a work in progress by Mervil M. Paylor
A Change of Mind
A story about friendship, the delicacy of life and the complex miracle that is the brain.
I am not a writer, but I have a story to tell. It can't be called anything but a love story. It is about me and my best friend Becky — friends for so long I can hardly remember a time when we weren't. Often we have been like one mind in two bodies. And then one day, things changed in an instant and it was possible that she might not survive the night, and if she did survive, she might not bring her half of our collective mind with her.
Chapter 1:
Historical perspective: The meeting of our minds
Shown below: My buddy Becky on a relaxed afternoon together in Portofino, Italy, September, 2000. Little did we know then that her brain could have blown at any moment.
It all started on a bet.
It was the summer of 1980 and I was just finishing the tenth month at an architectural firm during what was originally supposed to be a six-month work engagement. The firm had hired me to complete the design and production of an elaborate 80-page, magazine-style marketing brochure that a freelance designer had been unable to bring to fruition. I had been working on the project with Marilyn, a writer the firm had commandeered in a similar temporary arrangement.
Marilyn and I became close friends during the short months we worked together. Over that time, in spite of the sheer joy of working with me, she came to realize the need to escape from the architectural asylum that employed us. By early winter she had moved to Boston, chasing both love and a more urban existence than Charlotte offered.
I was happy for her, but not altogether thrilled with the hole I suddenly found in my social schedule. And then a change occurred. Becky began working at the firm.
Becky (and her husband at the time) had owned several retail gift and high-fashion clothing stores that had just gone belly up, and they were struggling to get back on their feet financially. After a brief and a comically hapless attempt at a career in real estate, Becky joined us as receptionist and office support person.
Becky first became peripherally aware of my existence when she saw my name on the employee phone list. When she spied, "Mervil Moye Paylor," she was absolutely certain her secretarial predecessor had totally butchered some poor man's name. "Never seen so many typos in one name in my life," she said. I had news for her, not only was I not a man — the spelling was correct.
I am sure Becky and I were actually introduced face to face at some point, but my first clear memory of her is after she had been there for a few weeks. My desk was right around the corner from the receptionist area and secretarial pool. One day I overheard a momentary conversation the girls (as they were called in those primitive years before political correctness) were having about how to spell "masquerade." As usual, I was scanning the office for any excuse to stop doing the work I was supposed to be doing, and this conversation seemed like the most interesting, or at least the closest, diversion.
With uninvited zeal, I bustled into the reception area and joined in on the conversation by announcing that I was not sure how masquerade was spelled, but I was sure it wasn't any of the ways they were spelling it. For some unknown reason I turned to Becky, someone I barely knew, and bet her a drink that her spelling was incorrect. For some other equally unknown reason, Becky, who is the least competitive person I know — and shy to boot — accepted the bet. Turns out, for once, my spelling intuition was right. She owed me a drink.
If I knew then what I know now I would never have made the bet in the first place. Becky, owing to years of doing crossword puzzles and reading voraciously, is an excellent speller. I, who learned to read during the read-by-phonetics Sixties and devour a book a year if I am lucky, can't spell shitt.
But fate will be fate and the bet was on. Several weeks went by, and then one afternoon one of us, probably me, initiated the idea of collecting on the bet after work that evening. We decided to meet for a drink at a restaurant, not too far from either of our homes, with a bar that was a nice after-work watering hole.
Trying on a new friend is a bit like dating; it doesn't always work out. I was open to a new friendship, but if we ended up not clicking I would just have mentally filed her in a "Work Acquaintances" folder and gone on.
But that didn't happen. A conversation began that night that has continued for years. Some combination of how our minds worked just fit. From the beginning, we understood each other on several resonating levels: humor, logical thinking; and as I was delighted to find out, art.
I had no idea Becky was an artist. She has tons more formal training than I do, having studied art in Charlotte, Boston and Italy. She told me she was a painter and invited me to follow her home that evening to see some of her work. Frankly, I tried to get out of it. I was afraid she was going to show me some tedious little still-life paintings with the skewed perspective of a fun house mirror and I would have to smile and choke out something to say. I had high hopes I may have been making a new friend here, and I didn't want to spoil the illusion on this first night.
Eventually she persuaded me to take the risk, and I followed her the half dozen or so blocks to where she, her husband and 14-year-old son lived. The minute I walked into Becky's house I thought it was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. The living room had white walls, three white Haitian cotton loveseats, a white Flikoti rug, a collection of glass animals on the mantle and a beautiful and compelling canvas of a huge white O'Keeffish rose bloom nearly four feet wide.
"Who is the artist?" I asked, genuinely interested.
"That is one of mine," she replied.
I was simultaneously relieved and enthused. Looked like this friendship might just work out after all.
Shown below:
The first painting I saw that first night. Acrylic on canvas, 47 x 45 inches.
Becky gave me a little tour of the downstairs of her house, and in the den there was another painting of a rose that I liked even more.
"I don't really like this one much; I never got the center right," she said. I told her that I loved it, and she said I could have it. Just like that. Of course, I hemmed and hawed and said it was too much, etc., but that next weekend, sure enough, Becky and I threw that painting on top of my Honda Civic and slowly drove it over to my house, holding onto the crossbar of the frame through the sunroof. That painting still hangs in my bedroom today, bad center and all.
That first night has moment by moment, laugh by laugh, tear by tear, turned into decades of constant and abiding friendship. For reasons I still don't completely understand, but am ever grateful for, we have been thick as thieves ever since. We have stood by each other through weddings, funerals, relationship troubles, career shifts and the million other things that weave two people together over many years.
The odds were not necessarily even in our favor to meet, much less be best friends. For starters, Becky is eleven years older than I am and we come from completely different backgrounds. Other than people we both knew at work, we traveled in different social circles, and while Becky is somewhat introverted by nature, I am, to most casual observers, a wide-open extrovert. Our greatest contrast may well be our difference in personal styles. Picture Catherine Deneuve befriending Peppermint Patty.
Becky has always looked like a million bucks, but in those days, just coming out of life in the world of fashion, she looked like a million plus interest. Her clothes were perfect, her hair and makeup always flawless, and her breeding and gentle manner made her a sensory delight to be around.
I, on the other hand, wear my hair long because I figure more is better when your head is red. Plus long hair is a snap to take care of, giving me plenty of time for my makeup regimen, which pretty much consists of washing my face. Try as Becky and others might to convince me of the value of lipstick, it has always made my lips feel like I have just finished eating fried chicken. I can't get that greasy stuff off my mouth fast enough. Add to that the fact that for all intents and purposes I was born practically lipless in the first place, and lipstick drops right off my list of priorities.
Our shoe preferences alone were enough to keep weaker personalities from becoming friends. At work Becky usually glided around in heels. At play, she wore espadrilles or some elegant flat of Italian kidskin leather with the kind of slick leather soles that if I had worn, I would have busted my butt on the first carpeted surface I hit. Even when Becky wore white Keds, she looked like Grace Kelly. I have never seen anything like it.
In sharp contrast, my shoes of choice in the early days were Earth Shoes, which Becky lovingly described as two-by-fours strapped to my feet. I have since graduated to Birkenstocks, for both casual and formal functions. When I have tried on the odd occasion (stress on the word odd) to walk in high heels, at best I look and feel as if I am playing dress up in my mother's clothes, and at worst it appears to the general public that I may have some sort of serious neurological disorder.
Shown below: Becky, right, at a business function during the first year or so of our friendship; and me, wearing an outfit I feel sure Becky made me buy.
Somehow Becky was able to overlook my signature "Glamour Don't" fashion approach, and we settled into our new friendship both in our free time and at work — and let me tell you, the girl definitely needed a friend at work.
Becky was initially baffled by the new array of office equipment she needed to master, but to her credit, this didn't stop her from giving things the old college try. For example, presented with a dictation system, she immediately assessed the situation from the perspective of her area of expertise — fashion and accessories. Instead of correctly wearing the dictaphone headset hanging below her chin, stethoscope style, she mistakenly intuited that it should go on the top of her head much like a tiara or decorative hairband.
This arrangement might have worked except for the fact that the cord attaching the headset to the main machine hung down the middle of her face. To add insult to injury, the weight of the cord was not conducive to keeping the techno-tiara up there, so Becky kept swooping her head up and down trying to stay under the weight of the headset in a bobbing motion not unlike those capillary action glass birds that perpetually drink water from a glass.
According to office legend, someone eventually took pity on her and came over to suggest the headset might be more comfortable if she wore it lower, possibly even under her chin as it was intended. Becky immediately saw the wisdom of this advice.
Becky continued to commit other office faux pas including, more often than not, announcing the four partners' names in the wrong order as she answered the phone. It was like saying "Crosby, Nash, Young and Stills," or "Paul, Peter and Mary." Close, but no cigar.
It didn't take me long to realize Becky was not cut out to be a receptionist, and I decided it was up to me to liberate her from clerical support staff prison. Soon, a plan was hatched.
The brochure project I was working on had gotten sort of bogged down since Marilyn left, and I came up with a convincing story about how I needed some help to get the darn thing finished. It was clear to me that Becky, with her training in art and graphics and her familiarity with the firm, would be just the right person for the job. I don't remember what I said, but somehow I persuaded the principals to let Becky work with me every day during the afternoons. What were they thinking?
Let me say right now, in case any of my current or future clients are reading this, that I truly am one of the hardest working people I know, when left to my own devices. But put me in a confined situation, say, perhaps, an actual salaried job for instance, and immediately I am in the running for the Employee From Hell award. Unfortunately, it is not just work that brings this out in me. Try to contain me in any structured function, and I am practically guaranteed to misbehave. The devilment just comes over me like a sunrise, and before I know it, I am stirring up some badness in whatever lecture, class, seminar or possibly even funeral I find myself in.
My 10th grade Home Economics teacher had me pegged perfectly. After gratefully receiving a definitely-better-than-I-deserved conduct grade on my report card, I sheepishly inquired why she had not given me a worse mark. "You are not a mean person, Mervil, just mischievous," she pronounced. What an insightful woman.
So imagine my delight when I found myself, an experienced serial scamp, careening around in the confinement of a job with Becky, my new co-conspirator who fully appreciated my Puckish ways. Misbehaving alone is like a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it — dull. But making rascality and tomfoolery a group sport is great fun. We had long lunches, sneaked out of the office for supposed project-related errands, laughed until we couldn't breathe and just generally had fun. Somehow, even with our bad behavior, the first brochure got finished, as did a second follow-up brochure and tons of other work for the firm. Eventually, there was enough to do that Becky left her ill-suited receptionist duties behind her and came over to the graphics area full-time.
I know for a fact that I possess a strong work ethic deep within the marrow of my bones, because I have relied heavily on it as I have been building my career in the years since those carefree days. Granted, it was a long time coming during those early years, but eventually I began to notice that just getting by and causing good-natured trouble was not as satisfying as it once had been. I was becoming less and less content with my professional situation and was in need of bigger challenges and more serious attention to my craft. I was really struggling about what to do. That decision was made for me on January 23, 1982.
Late that Friday afternoon I got a phone call at my desk from one of the principals who asked me to come to his office. As I walked by Becky's area, I caught her eye and drew my finger across my throat in a "this could be curtains" fashion. It was.
I was fired, more or less. Since I was only supposed to work there six months and I was well past my two-year anniversary, this shouldn't have been too much of a surprise — but I have to admit it shook me up a bit. Not to mention, I now had to face the fact that unintentionally I had just trained my replacement — Becky, the old bag.
Getting fired turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. The day I got canned is the day I began working for myself, which is exactly what I was born to do. I already had some freelance work, and I just got up the next day and did what was in front of me as I have done for the decades since.
I am glad to be out of the employee environment, but never for a minute have I regretted working at the firm. If I hadn't, I probably would never have met or gotten to be friends with so many great people — Marilyn, Rodger, Gerry, Billie Sue, our dear friend Eleanor who has since passed away — and of course Becky.
Even though we no longer worked together, Becky and I continued day in and day out to be best friends and share in each other's lives. Through Becky, not only have I been introduced to new worlds of thinking and a deeper understanding of the word "friend," but I also have met many of the people who are still my best friends today, most notably members of The Sushi Group — six women forever forged together by the fire of the crisis that was to come.
A Word About the Sushis
Shown below, The Sushi Group, circa 1995. Clockwise from top left, Lynne, me, Holly, Becky, Glenna and Missy. This photo was actually taken on the back steps of Becky's house, but I dropped in the background to give it that Alpine Feel for some holiday placemats when it was my turn to host the Sushi Christmas Party.
Becky and I belong to a loosely cobbled (although we did get tanked at the 1996 Christmas party and write some bylaws in the group scrapbook) small group of women we refer to formally as The Sushi Group and conversationally as The Sushis. The group's members in good standing are Becky, Becky's sister Holly, Holly's best friend since childhood Missy, Becky's good friend and former business associate in the clothing biz, Lynne, Glenna, whom everybody just seems to know somehow, and me, also known as the group mascot.
The group first came together in the early 1980s when one of us (we don't remember who) decided to put together a girls night out at a Japanese restaurant located in the Days Inn Motel on Independence Boulevard. I realize that on the surface this setting sounds less than auspicious for such a hallowed first meeting, but at the time, as far as I know, it was the only sushi place in town and not really as cheesy as it sounds.
We had so much fun we decided to do it again several weeks later. And again, and again up until present day. And no, we don't always eat sushi. Sometime the Sushis go Italian or Vietnamese or to each others' houses for some fabulous home cooking. We never meet on a planned schedule, just one day, one of us gets the hankering for sushitime and after a flurry of phone calls and emails, a date is set.
Early on, we did not realize how precious and exclusive our corps was intended to be, and we would cavalierly invite other women for cameo appearances. This invite-a-friend policy was carefully reconsidered when word got back to us that one invited guest reviewed her Sushi Group evening by declaring us amoral. Hells bells, if good food and drink, serial husbands (the five sushis not counting me have collectively bagged 14 of them), and spirited conversation is amoral, well, drag us on to hell with the rest of America, and let's stop by a bar and a Las Vegas Wedding Chapel on the way!
The absolute clincher that permanently caused us to pull in our ranks was when one guest invitee invited another guest invitee who — rumor has it — was bulimic, and what's worse, cheap. This is a bad combo, let me tell you. After the meal — which she complained about taking too long to come and remarked repeatedly about how small the portions were — and then eating like a horse with no tomorrow I might add — she excused herself for a private, but mysteriously long, visit to the bathroom. Up until this point we all would have met her situation with compassion, but unable to leave well enough alone, she came back to complain about her share of the bill. The irony of this was lost on no one.
What she didn't know is the one cardinal sin for a Sushette is quibbling over the dinner bill. We do not discriminate financially between the person who had a bowl of rice and the one who had a side of beef, nor, except in their behavior, who had one glass of iced tea and who had five martinis. No matter what any one individual orders, the bill gets divided equally. Even if one of us is on the wagon (as some of us are from time to time to keep our girlish figures or our minds), you pay your equal share of the party. There is no whipping out of calculators to figure out the tax split at a Sushi meal. Instead, what usually happens with the bill is that I put everything on my credit card and the other Sushettes all throw wads of cash at me. Overall they seem to like the convenience of this arrangement, and I have found it to have its benefits too. Not only have I not been to an ATM in my adult life, but I am racking up big frequent flyer points on my charge card for all the tempura and smoked eel the other Sushis have packed away.
Occasionally, however, there has been some speculation that maybe I am coming out too good in these late night calculations. For instance, there were some particularly probing questions the first night The Sushi Group met after I had purchased my 100-acre estate in the NC mountains, but with some fast thinking I was able to divert their attention elsewhere by complimenting them on their hair, make-up and new shoes.
Eventually, after we amorally weeded out the Bible-thumping Carrie Nations, the California Roll chuckers and all of the other unqualifying interlopers, we boiled the core group down to the original five: Becky, Holly, Lynne, Glenna and me plus the only guest attendee to ever make Sushi Group-lifer, the fashion-plated social upstart Missy. What started as a group of women getting together for dinner has evolved into a long-term, loving and supportive organism in which we function as individuals and as a whole — sort of an Amoeba Amigas concept.
At any rate, over the years, The Sushi Group events have occasionally included weekend trips to the beaches and mountains of North and South Carolina. The one year we were boldly expanding our horizons with plans to venture all of the way to exotic Florida for a short girls' weekend, we ended up taking a much wilder trip that lasted what seemed like forever and plopped us all in uncharted and dangerous territory.
Chapter 2:
Day One: High Noon
The Saga Begins
It was the middle of the day on Thursday, March 8, 2001, and The Sushi Group was preparing to head to Florida to visit Lynne at the luxury condo her significant-other, millionaire, dullard, comb-over boyfriend had purchased in Longboat Key at Lynne's bidding. Holly had to work that weekend and could not make the trip, and our gracious hostess Lynne had flown down a few days before to work on her tan and get the ice and glasses ready.
I called Becky that morning, as I called her, or she called me, almost every morning. We both had a million things going on trying to get out of town, so I inquired about her luggage selection in a rather clipped, answer-me-quickly-because-I-am-not-even-packed-yet kinda way. I wanted to know if she was taking a carry-on, or if she planned to check her bag, and what she thought Missy and Glenna would be doing. She said she was planning to check one bag and really had no idea about the others. Knowing Missy, I said, she would probably bring four bags and a valet.
We said a few more words, but I was hassled with last-minute office and packing details. I remember thinking as I hung up the phone that I had been a little short with her. No matter, I thought, I will make it up to her when she gets here. Becky and I have rarely walked on eggshells with each other. We tell each other the truth, and so far we seem to love each other unconditionally. We both have so many positive investments in each other's emotional bank account that even if one of us is momentarily less than kind (usually me), there is a huge reserve to draw on. Nevertheless, that clipped conversation still haunts me.
After I spoke with Becky, I finished up a few things in my office, went over those last-minute details with my trusty design comrade, Chris, and headed home. I lived in a duplex. One side was office and one side was home, so my commute involved walking down the steps and through a door into my home side to finish packing.
The week prior to our Florida adventure, Becky's delightful older sister Marnie had come to Charlotte to visit from Florence, Italy, her home for the past 40 years. I happen to own two cars, and I had loaned Marnie one of them to tool around town during her visit. This is not as altruistic as it sounds, since Marnie has been very hospitable to me on several trips I have made to Italy, and I live in constant hope of going back to have her be hospitable to me again.
Marnie had left the day before, and the plan was hatched for Becky to drive my loaner BMW to pick up Glenna and then go by and see Missy's new townhouse. After the home tour, they were all to come to my house for a quick toast before the four of us headed to the airport.
Spirits were high on all accounts. I had sent what I deemed to be a prudent online selection of organic fruits, vegetables and flowers to Florida via FedEx as a hostess gift for Lynne. She had called me just minutes before Becky and the girls pulled up to say that she had needed a hand truck and two pool boys to get the boxes of produce upstairs. After telling her that the produce was a bonus, the real gift was the pool boys, we hung up laughing, saying "See you in a few hours" — but that was not to be.
Just a few seconds later, a couple of minutes after noon, I saw Becky, punctual as ever, pull up in my car with the girls in tow and park on the street. As the self-appointed historian of the group, of course I had my video camera rolling as I stepped out on my front porch to greet my travel companions. Glenna and Missy rolled their bags up the drive together, and we exchanged hellos and comments on the amount of luggage Missy was taking on a casual weekend visit with the girls. Then I panned the camera to record what I anticipated would be the delight on Becky's face at our upcoming trip. Through my camera's viewfinder I saw her standing in my driveway with her hand to head. Knowing Becky to be neither a complainer nor an alarmist, I knew right away something was really wrong. I don't remember turning the camera off, but I must have done it instinctively. Both filming and life as we knew it stopped at this point.
Shown below, Video stills from that fateful day. Total elapsed time from when the first image was recorded until the screen went black was 21 seconds — 21 seconds that kicked off one horrific event after another for what seemed like an eternity.
Please check back from time to time for the next installment of A Change of Mind, or if you prefer, we can send a notice when it posted. (I feel perfectly comfortable offering to take the time to send notices because I figure other than the Sushi girls it will be a pretty miniscule group who will have the patience to read this far. If you are one of that small – no, I believe I prefer the word "select" – group I really appreciate it.)
By the way, just in case some of you may wonder, this story is absolutely, completely true.