Naomi: My name is Naomi. Do you have a friend?
Dudley Pippin: No, we just moved here. I don’t have a friend.
Naomi: I don’t have a friend, and Irving Gland, who lives across the street, doesn’t have a friend either. We play together.
~”Dudley Pippen and the No-Friends’ Club,” Free to Be, You and Me, children’s record supplied by hippie parents everywhere
“And I would have gone crooked but for you.”
~Diane Cluck, “The Turnaround Road”
I woke up this morning with this song by Diane Cluck lodged in my brain. The past few days have felt like:
[blink] Here’s my dog, playing in the yard with
[blink] this amazing man who is my husband
[blink] here are these new friends that I’m tentatively beginning to feel like might be more than barroom acquaintances.
I’m taking this mental breath right now, and there you all are. Here it all is; dare I trust it?: a new, good life. And it’s taken this long.
And it’s been so long since I’ve posted—and I need to be careful in my wording here, because a number of good things have definitely happened in the past couple of years and definitely in the past few months. In large part, however, it’s felt like one of those irritatingly almost-satisfactory phases that characterize eras of transition. You know what I mean? When the realms of work and friendship and general happiness are almost good, but not quite great? Everything kinda felt that way. And I couldn’t bring myself to write about that time’s quotidian workings.
But now that’s changing. Maybe.
Here are a few of the signs.
In a dream two nights ago, I climbed the stairs up to my old floor in my old dorm in Chapel Hill. I was my present age, but going back for a new undergraduate degree. I had left my life in Atlanta a second time—broken away, quit my job and friends and everything—to start over, yet again. This dream was no nostalgic idyll, though I’ve traditionally been susceptible to these. It was a nightmare. There was the usual confusing paper roster of courses I was supposed to be attending but whose first classes I had already missed—that old trope.
Worse: Why had I opted to live in a dorm room with an 18-year-old chosen by lottery? How had this been an idea at all, let alone an idea deemed the best of all possible ideas?
I spotted and grabbed the one other continuing ed student, a woman about ten years my senior. She stood firm and said vague, wise things I don’t recall now as I wept to her: I had made a terrible, terrible mistake, agreeing to live separately from my man, two states away for four more years, quitting my job again and leaving my dog and my incipient life. I had really screwed up royally.
Weirdly, I awoke not to a day of dread, but to one of those exceedingly rare days in which you just crest from high to high. Writing. Enterprising radio stories. A deeply stirring visit to talk with palliative care professionals for an upcoming story. I worked late and drove home feeling tired but not weary. Marshall was out with friends and the house was quiet.
At home, this package leaned up against the usual detritus on the bar by the kitchen. There was no return address, and my name—the name old friends and family call me—was written in green marker in a beautiful hand. My heart leapt; I knew at once, or at least hoped I knew, what this was: no mail bomber or crazy anti-public radio screed, but the opposite of those things.
It was the Ten Dollar Art Mystery. Someone or someone/s calling themselves Narrative Urge has been sending out these mystery letters all over the country, to people involved in literary endeavors. The packages seem to hail from right here in Atlanta, and they contain a ten-dollar bill, a slip of paper with an excerpt from a short story or essay, and a letter, encouraging the recipient to “[u]se the hints. Find Me!” I looked up my literary excerpt; it was from an essay by my friend Gina Webb (who has since written about this phenomenon on her own blog.)
Of course I jumped online and spent the next days reading about others’ clues and speculating with friends and acquaintances about the whole thing and who the sender might be.
The letter says in part, “We’re all parts of each others’ stories. Let’s create more!” There’s something especially marvelous about this project in this age in which electronic and incorporeal is the standard. We tend to interpret unfamiliar physical mail as intrusive at best and a potential threat at worse; we trust communication much better when it doesn’t actually touch us.
But this letter waited for me in my kitchen. In the days since, I keep picking up its various components to consider it, both in terms of its mystery and what it happens to mean in my own life: the feeling of finally being a part of something again. It’s a feeling that’s been a long time coming, here in Atlanta.
But maybe it’s back.
A new friend wrote me the next day. He’d ordered a package of cheese curds from the Midwest; did I want some? Well, hell yes, I said, and then promptly forgot about it with the rush of the day. That night, our doorbell rang.
Our doorbell never rings.
Back in my MFA program a few years ago, the doorbell was always ringing—or rather, friends were always knocking on our kitchen door, since my roommates and I lived in a mansion from the 19-teens whose actual doorbell was a noisy old antique thing that clanged ear-splittingly through the house.
People were always dropping by. The introvert in me didn’t really like this in the moment when it happened; it felt something like intrusion, but the lonely soul in me loved it, craved it, in fact. After my far more socially-adept roommates arranged potluck dinners, board game nights and informal hangouts out on the veranda, I’d wander out from my cubbyhole of a writing office and join them for a beer, and though I was never really good at taking the initiative to make such events happen, the actual moments struck me with gratitude again and again.
I was 31 when I came back from grad school, and by then, I’d pulled up my roots and broken my own life apart so many times that, except for Marshall, I lacked the kind of friend who actually lives in your state whom you can just call out of the blue to complain about your day or invite over to cook supper. And Atlanta is a sprawling city instead of a small coastal town, we’re a couple of introvert/extravert mixes, and people don’t drop by. They text. Or they Facebook. And usually, that’s it.
So I started a nonfiction reading series.
True, I did this because I wanted to get involved with Atlanta’s social literary world. But here’s the real truth. I did it to make friends. I can pretty this fact up, and I have. I have used the word “network” as a verb in describing why I started “True Story!”. But really, I wanted to meet people who’d mean more to me than hip gastro-pub small talk about the relative merits of the latest Errol Morris documentary. I wanted to meet people who would drop by the house every now and then, and maybe stay for dinner.
Then the new friend with the cheese curd windfall dropped by. After the doorbell rang, Marshall and I looked at each other. The people who ring our doorbell are: Jehovah’s Witnesses, UPS, and men offering to clean our gutters or cut our grass. And then there was this week’s neighborhood warning: Not to trust any kids who claimed to be selling candy bars for their school: They were really casing your house to burglarize it.
All this flashed between us in that moment. LulaDog began her low growl-bark. (This dog is so un-used to our having people over that she doesn’t trust it at all.) I ordered her to her crate, where she marched, tail between her legs. Then I walked to the door.
And there stood our friend with his cooler of cheese curds.
“You’ve never been here before, have you?” I asked as he came in.
“No,” he said, looking around, taking in, I imagined, the chair opposite the door, piled with junk intended for the basement, and the dining room table covered in mail and magazines and my gear bag from work. “There was talk of a cook-out earlier this summer, no?” he remarked. “But…”
“Yeah, we never got around to that,” I said.
He set his cooler down on a chair and opened it up, bootlegger-style, then brought out small, dripping sandwich bags of cheese curds.
Our conversation was relatively short; soon he was gone. A cheese curd Santa Claus, we joked. A cheese curd dealer! Or, as I said, the moment the door shut, A friend.
And I woke up this morning thinking of how I need to hurry up and do something nice for him, for Mr. Cheese Curds, lest we come across as thoughtless new friends. And that I need to call up my public radio friend to arrange a follow-up to our sushi and crispy duck roll date last week. And that I also need to make a dent already in our book group’s book before we meet next week. And that all these things mean: friends. Maybe. I hope.