Commonplace Covenant

By Dyana Herron

I am scraping a long waterfall of blue wax from my friends’ wall. First I try with just my fingernails, but when that doesn’t work, I use a butter knife, careful not to gouge the paint. This wax is from a candle that sat on top of their bookshelf, the bookshelf we just loaded into a truck, just like almost everything else they own. They are moving. Tomorrow. Across the country, from Seattle to Tampa.

Jillian squats down beside me to put something in the trash bag. “I’m sorry I’m so quiet tonight,” she says.

Looking down, I remember the first time I saw her, at the orientation for new students and their parents at our undergraduate university. Her hair was even shorter then, dyed black, and she had a nose ring and wore a leather cuff. My mom noticed her too: “Look at that girl,” she whispered to me. “She just wants attention.” Jillian had my attention after that. I wanted to be her, confident, wearing red shoes, drinking gin straight.

Jillian’s now-husband, Jake, also stood out from the crowd of tidy, evangelical freshmen at our school. He too had piercings, wore tight jeans and wife beaters, slicked his hair back in a pompadour, and boasted a tough-looking scar on his upper lip. Because he looked so different, and because I only ever saw him in the cafeteria, I assumed he wasn’t a student in our school at all, but was a food service worker for Marriott. I thought, “Who’s that James Dean wannabe at the salad bar?”

Flash forward. David and Jake become close friends in college, and develop a legendary drinking game called Jeoparty. Jake and I study at Denny’s for a philosophy final, over a plate of greasy fries. After my tiny wedding, Jake and Jillian blow bubbles as I wedge myself laughing into a car. For their wedding, I buy Jillian a porcelain bride doll, and make sure they leave nothing behind at the reception hall. David is Jake’s groomsman.

Then, of course, there come darker times, for us and for our families. Divorce, illness, and death. Periods of separation, and periods of silence. Things one might think only families survive, if even they survive.

Then forward further, to now, to Jillian a middle-school French teacher, and Jake defending his psychology dissertation on Somali refugees. To no noserings, nor any sign of them. To us living down the same street, far from the small Tennessee town where, ten years ago, we casually met.

To now when Jake, along with David, are driving furniture to leave at another friend’s house while Jillian and I scrub the newly-empty rooms. We’ve been trying to keep the mood light, but as we grow exhausted, it becomes difficult. I move to wash the baseboards while Jillian loads everything from her refrigerator into a tub for us to take home.

“Do you want to sort this?” she asks. “No,” I say, thinking I’ll just sort it out later. There’s too much: we’ll just sort it out later.

I think of Jonathan, one of my favorite Biblical figures. Jonathan was King David’s friend back before David was king; he was the son of Saul, and saved David from his father’s murderous rage. Jonathan tipped David off to the danger by shooting arrows into a field and shouting a coded phrase, then David runs to him for a tearful goodbye:

“And David…fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded.

“And Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of Lord, saying, The Lord be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed forever.” (I Samuel 20:41-42).

I always felt bad for Jonathan. David had everything: the good looks, the good luck, serious skills on the lyre. Jonathan should have been king but would instead die in battle. And even what he has, his love for his friend, his grief at their parting, is one-upped at the end, when “David exceeded” in his crying.

Our parting doesn’t take place in a field, it takes place in a parking lot, amidst dumb jokes. And it isn’t forever, and none of us are going to die in battle, and we don’t make a spoken covenant before the Lord about our seed. We do not kiss.

In our grief, as in our love, we do not exceed one another. Our covenant isn’t made of words, or tears. It isn’t even fully formed, but will continue to be built while we stand on the wet pavement, and when later they drive away, and when whatever comes next comes.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.