I was in LA for work, a friend lived there. She occupied the peculiar space of someone who I called a friend without having ever spent much time talking to, the person who is in the periphery of your life long enough that you start to mistake continuity for closeness. I was visiting her city and there seemed to be some kind of unspoken obligation to meet up. I remembered her to be somewhat crude and abrasive, but this is the way I think everyone from the midwest describes everyone from large coastal cities, not some specific moral failing on her part. There are inverse descriptions of the sloppy lethargy or timid, dopey efforts those city dwellers might associate with flyover states.
I walked to a grocery store and bought some waters and a container of pre-cut fruit and we met at a park near my hotel. I love city parks because I like how people are less prissy there than everywhere else, letting their shoes slide off and enjoying the sun and the dirt on their bare skin for a bit. They are places people connect to their bodies, an intentional rarity in the urban world.
She arrived breathless from across town and launched into a life update that I could tell had been rehearsed and repeated many times, a play acting of a social custom. The ‘how are you’ was perfunctory, she expected me to say ‘good’ or ‘fine’, which was okay with me, to start. But I was anxious to drop the pretense. I was on what felt like a vacation and I wanted to have a vacation type conversation. We were almost strangers, in a way, I wanted to open up the curious way you can with someone you see only between lengthy intervals of not speaking.
But it didn’t happen, between the two of us, for whatever reason. We lasted about an hour, grasping for anything that felt like a connection, any way to feel like we were speaking the same language for a short time. What I offered felt weak, some soft subjects she wasn’t interested in. And I felt embarrassed about the hardness of the conversation, a vulgar litany of the skeletal structure of her outward life. I heard about her job and how much money she makes and the famous people she’s met and all the other companies that are offering her jobs. I felt deeply ashamed about her mistaken belief that these were tokens she needed to offer me in exchange for my attention or reverence or affection.
When she left her seat and joined me, supine in the grass, I felt a flare of hope. But, she handed me her phone and asked me to take some photos of her so she could post one on Instagram. It was strange to try and capture the aesthetic of the afternoon we didn’t have: a casual bout of relaxation, dressed down, in close contact with our biological status as animals. We went through several rounds of her instructions and my inept attempts at influencer photography. I wasn’t good at getting what she wanted. I was awkward, guilty for the part I was playing in an act so devoid of exactly the human element I was craving. I looked later, she didn’t post any of the photos.
After she left I stayed in the park, cross-legged in the grass. I tried to shake the feeling that I had disappointed this girl. I hadn’t known how to be a captive enough audience for her fraudulence. I hadn’t been able to take a decent picture, the sort of receipt that would have indicated the afternoon had been well spent.
The previous summer a friend I hadn’t seen in years and didn’t know well to begin with was in my city for a family wedding. We met up and had a drink and exhausted all the things we had to talk about or catch up on over that hour. We walked to a dock at the lake by my apartment and laid on it and enjoyed having our feet in the water and the sun on our faces and eyes closed — listening to the boat sounds and the people sounds and being quiet together. I felt understood in all that silence in an inverse way all the talking with this girl had made me feel alone, like falling asleep on the train and waking up far from where you intended to be, perhaps in a place where your language is no longer spoken.
I don’t want to write about how this friend is mean or bad or a worse person than me because I don’t believe that. But that afternoon I was trying to press my soft body up against something hard and rough, industrial but wearing human skin. I became aware that this was a thing, a normal way of being in the world and that I was the odd one, the one who needed it to be something more. The one who couldn’t be fed by the standard fare. I became aware of the ways I didn’t fit into the exchange of currency people offer themselves as, not here, out of my element. I couldn’t provide, I couldn’t be provided for.