You think the poor people on that island are confused?

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Laura, a co-worker, asks if I ever feel survivor guilt. I have no idea what she is talking about.

"I don't mean the real thing, like you survived a plane crash or a war," she says.

Right. So, what did I survive?

"Dating, the single life," she says. "Remember those days?"

"Oh, that plane crash," I say.

"You've lived to tell the tale," Laura says. "You got out. You moved on. But what about all the people you left behind?"

I tell her I never thought about it that way. We're at the photocopiers. I don't really know Laura all that well. Campus is pretty empty this time of year, and she and I are here catching up on paperwork, so, naturally, we're talking. She's married, I'm married; this seems to be our connection point.

"I'm in a wonderful relationship; I have two loudmouthed kids; and sometimes I can't even feel happy about it," Laura says. "Because my single friends are miserable. It's survivor guilt! Don't you ever feel that way?"

Um. No. Is something wrong with me? "My single friends aren't miserable," I point out.

"Oh, yes they are," she says.

"No, really!" I say. I mean, some are, some aren't; the distribution is probably the same as it is among my married friends. I don't know that the circumstances of life determine the amount or even the intensity of loneliness you feel.

"There's always at least one that gets to you," she says. She tells me about her one. Laura went to college with her. They were inseparable and even moved to the same city after graduating, where the friend went to medical school. "High drama," Laura says. "Everything back then was so intense, and most of the intensity was about trying to figure out guys."

"I hear you," I say.

"The battleground," she says.

"Honey, you are singing my song," I say.

"Plane crash," she says. We laugh. We are mixing metaphors. We both teach in an English department, and this is summer and we are off-duty, and so it's kind of a thrill. (Trust me.)

She tells me her friend never found Mr. Right, and eventually gave up. She adopted a kid. When the baby came, the friend moved into a condo next to her aunt, who is widowed and who agreed to be the full-time babysitter. "So now she has her son, and her medical practice and her aunt. That's it. That's her life. She doesn't even have a garden."

"Lots of people like an orderly life," I say, making the point that maintenance-free living with a full-time babysitter and a career in medicine does not sound so tragic.

"She's so lonely," Laura says. "She wants a big family. Her son has his soccer banquet tonight. Families buy whole tables. It's a big deal. And no one is going to see her son accept his trophy except her. She wants me to go. I go to everything. But I have my own family. I can't be her family!"

"No," I say. "Of course not."

"I was going to go, but then I canceled," she says.

"I'm sure she'll understand," I say.

"I'm not going!" She punches the "copy" button with more force than necessary. "I'm just . . . not."

"Right," I say.

Laura tells me that her husband wants her and the kids to help him weed the vegetable garden tonight. No big deal. Hardly an important or urgent task. "But that's what I'm choosing to do, rather than go to this banquet," she says. "My friend needs me, but I am choosing him over her. And that fills me with shame."

I have no idea what to say. My photocopying task is complete, but I don't feel I can just walk away, so I'm straightening my papers more carefully than I normally would.

"My life is complicated, and I can't do everything," she says. "Do you know how many of her son's soccer games I've gone to? If I don't pull back, I'm just going to end up resenting her."

"Sounds like you already do," I say, stating the obvious.

"No, I just feel survivor guilt," she says. "You sure you never feel this way?"

Um. "Sure I do," I say, even though I'm not sure I do. But this, for me, is an untried battleground. Being a married female isn't just about being a good spouse -- it's about still being a good girlfriend, and it's about being a supportive married female to these, your fellow soldiers. Hey, women support one another. It's a promise embedded in the chromosomes.

We are interrupted -- by a man, of all things, who needs to use the copier. "Are you finished here?" he asks me.

"Yes and no," I answer honestly.

"Um," he says, moving forward, then back. "So that's a maybe?"

"No, that's a yes," I say. "Just not quite." Laura laughs. I laugh. The nonsense eases the tension. "Hey, are you married?" I ask him. "Do men ever feel survival guilt?"

He looks at me, then at Laura. "Okay, I've really stepped into something here, haven't I?"

"Yes and no," Laura answers. "But it's not your fault."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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