Too Long

“It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said.

It was one of those cold gray days that would be miserable come February but that in November still carried a sort of crisp promise of the impending Christmas season.  The perfect sort of day for long conversations over cups of espresso. We settled in accordingly, curling up on sofas and armchairs, nibbling on sweet-spicy, cinnamon candied almonds.

We knew one another well or barely at all.  The guys had been friends for a long time. She and I had as well, though our friendship was recently renewed after years apart. I’d met the others  just this weekend.

But this morning we’d shared bread and wine in the bare sanctuary of the little Evangelical church, and this afternoon we’d shared bread and wine (and pasta and soup and home-made tiramisu) in the cheerful sanctuary of the homey kitchen.  And shared worship and shared family time make for quick familiarity even with the barrier of a foreign tongue.

Now, with our hosts busy about their afternoon business, the other young people spoke English for my sake.  I envied their easy fluency in two languages, but was thankful not to be straining my ears and my memory to follow Italian.  In English, our conversation could range from the church service to our travels, from plans to anxieties.  We discussed loneliness and the desire for belonging as comfortably as we speculated over international population density and the materials of home-architecture in different parts of the world.  Ideas and opinions about music and art and literature, philosophy and government and theology, all flowing into one another through that near-mystical association that sometimes arises so spontaneously in the “right” mix of personalities.

And in the conversation I was happy.  But the joy was edged with sorrow, with a knowledge that we all live so far apart, that this perfect fellowship between the four of us would last only a few hours, would probably never exist again.  There is something, in such moments, that highlights the loneliness of so many other moments, moments of being alone, or worse, not alone but still outside.

But then, “It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said, and I saw that the others were thinking the same.

And I realized, the pain of the joy also is shared. Here, at least, I was not being admitted into a world of fellowship that was common to the others. I was not the only one who felt more often out than in. And somehow that made the loneliness less lonely.  It had been too long. It would be too long again.  But it would not be forever.

For each of us there would be other moments, in other places, with other people where we would again think “it’s been too long.” We can’t hold on here to that easy feeling of belonging, but someday we’ll know it again.  And for this afternoon, at least, that hope is enough.

Tea and Rain

I arrive ten or fifteen minutes early. It will be awkward if my hosts are still settling in after work. But the steadily falling rain precludes the possibility of a stroll and ten or fifteen minutes is a long time to sit in the car. Enter the ubiquitous corner Starbucks.

It is not quite 8 pm but the little shop is already closing (this is obviously not the neighborhood for exciting night life). The door is still unlocked, however, and the boy at the register looks up welcomingly enough.

“What’re you having?” he asks.

“Well . . . I was just gonna get a hot tea, but now I’m not so sure.”

He grins, “Get something more fun than that. It is raining after all.”

Anywhere else the justification would have ben a non sequitur, but this is Los Angeles. Rain is as novel and exciting for Angelinos as the first snow day of the year is to 6-year-olds or warm sunshine is to Seattleites. I laugh and let him talk me into a spiced tea latte. He charges me fifty cents – “we’ll call it a refill; we’re closing up for the day and have poured the milk already anyway.”

I accept the small gift and his light flirtation. The other barista is slightly older with a dark scruffy beard and joins in as he makes my drink. They are charming and attentive, and though I know their efforts are as much a good-natured competition between them as any tribute to me, I’m not in the least immune to their flattery.

All three of us are in high spirits because of the rain, all three of us quite happy to have something to fill what had looked to be a boring quarter hour, all three of us quite willing to suspend our disbelief – to accept the concern and interest of the other without question.

So we talk about rain and disasters and earthquakes. “Did you hear,” offers Scruffy Beard, “about the lawsuit in Italy a few years ago, against scientists who failed to predict an earthquake?” This leads to a discussion of Italian government and politics, which leads to a discussion of travel. We share anecdotes about our experiences overseas as if we had large repertories to draw from, politely avoiding any attempt to disillusion ourselves, to discover that the others’ experience may be less impressive than it sounds.

It’s an exchange like a hundred others each of us has had, completely insignificant in its own right. We each, no doubt, have more important things to think about – friends we care deeply for, romances realized or hoped for or lost.

But in the midst of navigating the high stakes of life, there is something comforting in the attention of strangers. It is something to feel that you aren’t always alone in the crowd, to connect and to care, if superficially and momentarily, with strangers, not as abstractions but as individuals worth knowing.

Verona

You found that you slept in later in Verona. Perhaps it was the soft, November light, filtering through a sky that was not sunny nor cloudy but simply grey.  Perhaps it was the coziness of blankets and the coldness of tile floors, or the way your friend left so quietly without waking you and there were no sounds of conversation or traffic to let you know it was morning.

But eventually you did wake up and then there was rich espresso in a tiny mug and a slice of a traditional Christmas cake for breakfast and time for reading and time for prayer and when that was done a city to explore. You had your own key and turned it four times in the lock and walked down the stairs and onto the street which was old and led across the bridge to the medieval church and from there opened into other narrow, cobbled streets between ancient buildings past frescoed chiesas and through crowded piazzas where street vendors sold roasted chestnuts and cups of fruit and cheesy souvenirs of Romeo e Giulietta.  And in the morning it was fine to be surrounded by the people you could not talk to and to listen to the flow of a language you did not understand, and eventually to make your way to a coffee shop and shyly order a ciocolato calde.  Then you were overwhelmed by the barista offering flavor options in Italian and you ordered caramello not because you love caramel, but because you understood the word, and when you shyly asked “e panna, por favore?” you were relieved, when you got the steaming mug, that it did come with a generous serving of whipped cream. 

But when you were done with your thick chocolate you began to feel a little lonely in the crowds of strangers and then it was good to walk home and to find, when you turned your key in the lock that someone was already opening the door from the other side, and there was your old friend to welcome you back and years of conversation and silence to catch up on.  Long ago, you had lived together in a crowded dorm with many other girls and the conversations and pranks and tears and whispers had been taken for granted. Now you each lived on your own in quiet apartments that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes lonely and for this week you were both glad to have a roommate again. 

In the afternoon you wandered out together through the city and now you were not lonely in the busy streets because you had a friend and because your friend was also your bridge to the rest of the people. She could explain to the man behind the counter that you were Americans and where you were from and could translate for you the flavors of gelato or the items on a menu and would order for you when you were not sure what to say. And when you were tired in the evening you would wander home together and sip tea or Prosecco and nibble on dark chocolate as you read together silently and companionably, but then again the silence never lasted long, because what you were reading would remind you of something and you would read it aloud and then you would be an hour into a conversation that had meandered across years and continents and subjects. And sometimes you would have no response and the conversation would fade to silence and other times you interrupted her and other times she interrupted you but that was okay because the interruptions were as good as the silence and the silence as comfortable as an answer.  And around midnight you would go to bed and whisper together a bit more before you fell asleep, like children at a slumber party, and then you would say goodnight and sweet dreams and she would say sognid‘oro and you would sleep well and soundly and wake up the next morning to begin again.

Two Blocks Away

“So how do you guys know each other?”

I want to just say “life,” because at this point the real answer is complicated and a bit absurd and really slender. Something about my old roommate and a campaign and somehow, despite the fact that our school, church, work and career circles don’t overlap at all, they are close enough to family that making the comparison seems to slightly mis-state the case. As does saying, well, they live two blocks away.

I think the number of cups of coffee I’ve had in their kitchen is close to a thousand.

I’ve placed panicked calls of the “please come help me decide what to wear” variety and also lots of “are you around? can I come see you?”

I’ve been laughed at and with, including, recently, for laughing at the laughing scene in Mary Poppins.

They say that after you get out of college you are supposed to learn to take yourself to the airport, but I’ve lost count of the times it’s been one of them on the BW Parkway in traffic or absurdly late at night.

And being friends with two now means being friends with two more and learning so much by watching them go from crawling to walking and from small words like “doggy” to the sort of sentences that stick in your head in their wisdom or clarity. (Least we get too sentimental, the meltdowns are also good for me; don’t just learn to gloss over your inner toddler, realize she is still there and deal with her.)

But that’s all just quick sketches of a moving picture and this is really about the sort of friendship that is as vital as a cool glass of water on a really hot day, except the glass keeps going and the hot day is this crazily difficult thing we call life.

Because I’ve also held their children when I needed somewhere to hide my tears and been greeted with a high five followed by sound advice when I confessed doing something foolish and sat on their couch talking out my complicated overthinking until way too late at night. Also, there is the bonafide pleasure of someone just to sit with on a porch on a pleasant afternoon.

What this might not quite articulate is the way hearing “Emmy’s here!” followed by running when I let myself into their kitchen grants me a sense of belonging in a place I was sure would never feel like home and how this is part of the essential strength needed to choose to live a life that would be so much harder all alone.

The Feast

Often she finds going to her parents’ rural church an exercise in extreme self-consciousness. She feels herself a poorly constructed appendage of her familiar family, showing up for holidays and occasional longer trips, but having been gone for far too long really. After the service, everyone gathers for coffee and baked treats. Here are the kind, inquiring faces from childhood, who assume things about a life in a city, about jobs. Another explanation that, yes, she was still in school seems almost unbearable. There is the embarrassment of trying to justify obscure study in a blue-collar world.

And yet, such discomfort seems self-involved, even in the moment. The “Sister” who hugs her and casually mentions (as she has for the last decade) what her grandson is up to, has known her for her whole life and genuinely means the set cultural phrases of greeting: “It’s good to see you.”

There is an old phrase for this still common practice of eating together after gathering for worship: a love feast. Here is it is humbly translated into mediocre church coffee and pretty good brownies or coconut bars. There is the buzz of voices, male and female, darting children, routine conversation about the week ahead, and sometimes continued prayers or tears.

And just before, in the adjoining room, there has been another meal, one that joined them all together past the awkwardness and the routine chit-chat. They had each gone to the front, one by one, and eaten and drank of that mysterious food, which presented in tangible form the highest love. And each face, some tired, some much worn by the world, some youthful and innocent, had encountered that love. It reached down into the despair of addiction, the pain and terror of abuse, the isolation of arrogance, and all of this ordinary, sometimes unpresentable humanity.

The words spoken, so familiar, so radical, recall a broken body and spilt blood. Which made communion between all these many people.

One More Sleep

As  often happens at a small university, we knew each other for several years without really knowing each other at all. We floated each at the periphery of the other’s social circle, meeting occasionally in study groups or at small parties, sharing the occasional meal with mutual friends in the dining hall, passing the occasional note in class.  Such were the limits of our intimacy. 

It was not until after she graduated and we were left, alone of our respective groups, in the same city for a summer that we became friends in our own right. 

CS Lewis says friendship is born in a moment when one person says to another “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!” I don’t remember the first such conversation, but once begun, the discoveries of self in the other were endless.  We shared common interests, of course – a love of literature and poetry, delight in the same music.  But there were other discoveries, deeper, more startling – realizing that here is another who weeps over the same unanswered questions, is spurred by the same hopes, paralyzed by the same fears.

“I would hate you,” she says when I tease her, “but I am you.”  

Even so, we argue. Usually over the most innocuous or esoteric issues, growing genuinely frustrated over the smallest disagreement.  Lovers expect occasional quarrels, conflicts of passion and the ubiquitous miscommunication between man and woman.  With a friend it comes as a shock—an almost physical blow – that in even a small way she could not get you, not know you, after all.  These are some of life’s loneliest moments.  But they are fleeting: easily forgiven and washed away by the next waves of laughter. 

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I moved across the continent. Separated by 3,000 miles, we still find tremendous comfort in the other who understands, who will talk into early hours of the morning even if the voice on the phone is incomprehensible through the tears of a broken heart.  In the careful navigating of other social interactions, it is a relief to check my cell phone and have  four or five missed calls in a row and a voicemail grumbling that I must hate her because I refuse to answer my phone, delighting in the knowledge that nothing could be further from the truth.

This is why, as I go to bed tonight, I’ll struggle to fall asleep every bit as much as I did on Christmas Eve as an 8-year-old.  One more sleep ’till her visit.  One more sleep ‘till our conversations are not interrupted by dropped cellular service.  One more sleep ‘till we are able to enjoy not only the sounds of companionship, but the easy silences as well. One more sleep.  And two big cups of coffee.