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The Honest-to-Goodness Friend

We all have a friend like her: the one who tells you what you need to hear, even when it hurts. The author recalls an unwelcome gift and a tough conversation―and the unexpected blessings brought by both.

By Elizabeth Berg
Photo albumJames Merrell
I live in Chicago, and one of my best friends, Phyllis, lives in San Francisco, so we aren’t able to see each other as often as we would like. The times we do get together, we like to live it up, and for us, living it up always involves chowing down. So last January, when Phyllis sent me an e-mail saying she was coming for the weekend, I knew exactly what restaurant I wanted to take her to. It’s called Tom’s Steak House. Most of its customers have been coming for decades; the waitresses have a good-hearted, cigarette-scented toughness about them; the steaks are the size of Cook County; and the salad dressings are served from a twirling “carousel,” so that you can legitimately play with your food. It’s the kind of place that’s frozen in time, where you just have to order a Rob Roy. After Phyllis arrived, I told her where we were headed that night. “You’re going to love this place,” I kept saying, and Phyllis, in turn, kept saying, “Oh boy.”
 
But as the hour approached, a kind of lethargy set in. It was freezing outside, and we were so cozy inside, dressed in comfortable, slouchy clothes, listening to good music, turning on lights against a darkening winter sky. I asked Phyllis if she would mind if we stayed home. “We can have martinis and I’ll cook, OK?” I said, and she readily agreed.
 
 What to make? I wondered. Suddenly I remembered that my neighbor Suzie had given me a recipe, saying, “I really liked this, and I think you will, too.” It was for a sausage and bean ragout, and when I read the list of ingredients, I thought, Hmm. This does sound good. It’s easy to make and even low-fat. I’m going to make it! Then I never did. But now Suzie’s recipe seemed just right for the occasion, even though neither Phyllis nor I, experienced (and good) cooks both, knew exactly what a “ragout” was.
 
I mixed up some martinis, put a CD on the stereo, cranked up the volume, and tied on my apron. While I browned spicy turkey sausage and onion and garlic, Phyllis sang along with the singer-songwriter Duffy and danced around the dining-room table. It is one thing to see your friend dance around a table when she’s 25, quite another thing to see her doing it when she’s 62. I love a 62-year-old woman who doesn’t shy from thrusting her pelvis out all over the place; I couldn’t stop smiling.
 
Then Phyllis lowered the volume on the stereo and came to sit down at the kitchen table. “I need to talk to you about something,” she said. I stopped chopping basil and looked over at her. “It’s very embarrassing for me,” she said, and I saw tears well in her eyes. Phyllis is an extremely honest person, often quite blunt. For the most part, I truly appreciate that kind of honesty, and so I’m willing to suffer whatever consequences may come along with it. But I got a little nervous. I stood still, waiting. I thought she was going to criticize me, and I hoped that I could listen with an open mind and heart. Instead, what she said, in a very small, tremulous voice, was “I don’t think you liked what I gave you for your birthday.”
 
Read More About:Life Lessons

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