Weird Non-Friendships Mean Something Too

Note: This story is fiction. It draws from actual situations, but nothing happened as described. The narrator is kind of me, I guess. The other characters are imaginary creations, though they resemble people I’ve encountered. A relative who read this story assumed it was nonfiction even though I’d mentioned that it was fiction. It all felt very real to her. So I thought I’d clarify to avoid any confusion.

Also… if you don’t know what a “hot Chanie” is, you will soon learn if you read this story. Hope you’re curious enough to check it out. Enjoy!

Part 1: Bus Ride

Some weird twist of fate or chance — I’m open to both — put me right behind Kendra Feld on the New York to Boston bus. Kendra Feld: it’s the kind of name that jumps out, unusual but manageable, and very memorable. She had one of those big Mac laptops, so I could read her name as I glanced ahead and saw her email on the screen. At that point, I wasn’t being nosy; I just caught her name as a matter of course. Once I saw, the memories hit immediately, and I started scheming. Usually I’m not much of a schemer, but, somehow, my reaction to winding up right behind Kendra Feld was to scheme.

I’m almost embarrassed to explain what she meant to me, why my reaction was so intense. On one level, I had nothing to do with her. This was the first time I had ever seen her in the flesh. But, three months earlier, back in February, she ruined me.

It was nothing overtly major. She didn’t destroy my health, make me lose my job, or interfere with any of my important relationships. She ruined me — she and a bunch of people who followed her lead — for maybe two days, and then I got over it. I wound up more cynical and wary, less open to the possibility that strangers will be good, kind, and wise. But I got past it, for sure, and I love to tell the story. It’s amazing how many people relate to it. They laugh and say it’s easy to think you’re the only one, but, in today’s world, this sort of thing happens all the time.

I published a poem, about spiritual seeking, depressed children who ran through their sprinklers and picked fights with each other, teachers who failed their students because they didn’t like how they hid their faces with their caps, and orange crème brulée. It was the first poem I’d shared with other people since high school, and it meant something far beyond the fun of seeing it on the website. It gave me a thrill I hadn’t felt since middle school, when a poem of mine was published on the very last page of our yearbook.

I shared this new poem on Facebook, making it visible to anyone who came on the site. This made me feel a little silly, like I was saying: “See what I wrote, because of course it will interest you.” You know what I really needed? Someone to tell me they loved the poem in a way that seemed sincere. That did happen before long, but I couldn’t enjoy it until later, after I had calmed down a bit about Kendra.

She jumped onto my page even though I didn’t know her. Because of some past online discussion about a local Jewish event, we’d become Facebook friends, so this made sense. I welcome Facebook friends from all over, since going beyond my small circle of true friends and family often means richer discussion. We both lived in Cambridge and had a few acquaintances in common, though no one I knew well was at all close to her.

Despite our points of connection, Kendra wasn’t looking for friendship: “Orange crème brulée. You can’t be serious. No one will take your lines about education seriously if you ooze with that kind of privilege.”

I told her that the orange crème brulée from the poem was free: the waiter gave it to me because he was sorry about spilling water on my pants. It wasn’t true, because the orange crème brulée didn’t correspond to one particular dessert from my real life. But I liked my comeback all the same.

Then Kendra shared my poem on her own page and wrote: “THIS. IS. UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE. Orange Crème Brulée. LOL.”

A friend of hers jumped on and said: “The orange crème brulée is part of a much larger problem. This writer knows nothing of the real world. Believe me, I teach, and when students pull their caps over their faces, it signals that they’re tuning out. It’s just a fact. How can this sad excuse for a writer not realize that?” I clicked on her Facebook page and found a stylish 40-ish redhead with pictures of herself drinking tea and eating sandwiches on her porch with a gnome-like guy who was probably her husband.

I wrote back and explained that, first of all, the baseball cap was just a metaphor, and, second of all, teachers shouldn’t assume the worst of their students. I said that I knew what I was talking about because I’d been teaching college students for many years. I also told them that I lived in a small apartment, didn’t drive, and frequently took two-hour walks because I didn’t want to pay for a ride. “To me, privilege is knowing how to drive to the suburbs,” I explained, and I thought that was a good one.

Several more of Kendra’s friends replied. They continued to pick apart my poem, and then one of them wrote: “Would you just look at this so-called poet’s expression in, like, all her pictures? The way her mouth twists. It’s outrageous. The arrogance just oozes.”

And the clincher: Kendra wrote back, “She is the kind of person who frightens me, and I tend to be very brave.” I’m not sure why, but that felt like the worst thing anyone could possibly say about me. Like she had looked into my soul, found the center of it, and cringed. And, worse yet, shared that reaction with all kinds of people who had never even met me. Her friends seemed like mostly Cambridge and Boston types, decently articulate, with elite educations and jobs in academia or engineering. I would have preferred otherwise, but it was what it was.

And now Kendra was right in front of me on the New York to Boston bus: the Go Bus, an inexpensive service that didn’t actually stop in Boston, just nearby Cambridge and Newton. It was one of those coincidences that seem to sneak up on me once in a while. Sometimes, they make me think there just might be a God. Other times, they make me lose all faith in anything other than random disaster.

Kendra Feld opened a little bag of almonds, slowly ate three of them, and zipped the rest up in a Ziploc bag. She sat up straight and smoothed her hair, twisting it into a neat bun. She looked very young, but I had a sense that she was much older than many would guess. From my perspective, she seemed weathered somehow, not in appearance but in action. She could have been 25 or 55 or anything in between. She had a thin body that could appear youthful or frail, depending on the angle and your frame of mind when you spotted her. This comforted me somehow. Kendra Feld, of all people, was ageless. Given that, maybe age and time were not quite how they seemed. Maybe it was all a surface nightmare that gave way to something grand once you knew what was really happening.

People told me that I was ageless, that my short stature, general appearance, and casual, androgynous clothes made me seem like an all-purpose human: I could be any age, any gender, any demographic. Kendra was taller than average and very much a woman, but she, too, had her indeterminate side.

Her hair was curly, which bothered me, because normally, curly hair gives me a feeling of lightness, of happiness. I love curly puppies, curly sheep, and, often, curly people. My younger brother is curly, so maybe curly hair reminds me of childhood, when even a simple quality of my own brother’s hair could inspire fascination and curiosity about the differences people showed just by developing however they were meant to develop. Most people I knew had straight hair, but his was curly. Why?

OK, I was a strange kid, but questions like that brought me deep pleasure. So, weird as it may sound, I was annoyed that Kendra Feld had curly hair. She should have had fine, non-descript hair, but that’s not how it was. She sported thick, dark, curly stuff, along with pale skin and a careful way of moving. I couldn’t see her face from my vantage point on the bus, but I knew what she looked like anyhow. Pug-like nose, believe it or not, and hazel eyes that seemed surprisingly warm at first glance. Then you got the truth. I did, anyhow.

The bus was half-empty on this Wednesday morning, so I didn’t have to employ any of my usual tricks: speaking loudly on my phone or feigning sleep to avoid a seatmate. I could just watch Kendra and figure out how to pounce.

Pouncing seemed necessary, given the situation. Winding up right behind Kendra on this bus felt like an incredible gift on a gorgeous platter. It struck me as fate, or even manifest destiny. I was proud of myself for thinking this way. I rarely defended myself in person against attacks from other people. Though some spiritual types might argue that I was slipping — that the truly big thing would be to let it all go — I sensed otherwise. There’s a time for stepping up and defending your soul when you feel it’s been trounced.

On a February morning filled with icy rain and sour moods, Kendra had struck, and now, months later on a bright spring day, I wanted to strike back. She stood up and headed towards the restroom, and I figured my moment had come. I considered all I knew about her and marveled at my bounty of knowledge, even though we’d never met in person and she almost surely didn’t recognize me. In this world of ours, it’s astounding how well you can know someone you don’t know at all.

She was an Orthodox Jew, for one thing. The irony there was both chilling and delicious. She had been engaged at least two times but, for some reason, the weddings had been cancelled. Her parents raised her and her younger sister as Reform Jews in a Boston-area suburb. Shortly after she graduated from college, Kendra discovered Chabad Hasidism through some friends, and started making her way towards Orthodoxy.

She was punctilious in her observance, frequently seeking advice from rabbis and friends who had grown up Orthodox to make sure her diet was completely kosher, her clothing completely modest, her ritualistic behavior completely within the framework of Jewish law. She’d post on Facebook with queries about whether she should trust that certain foods are kosher, or whether a certain style of skirt was modest enough for an Orthodox woman. Though we’d never seen each other in physical life, I knew all this. Between social media and simple Googling, I discovered quite a lot. Yes, I cared enough to do this research. What can I tell you, I am a sad case.

A big picture of her modeling a skirt in a dressing room would appear on her Facebook page, and friends would weigh in on the modesty question. Debates would get heated and serious. “It’s long enough, but the cut makes you look like you’re trying to be a hot Chanie,” an acquaintance of mine commented on Kendra’s recent dispatch in this genre.

Kendra didn’t want to look like a hot Chanie. She wanted to strike that perfect balance of seeming perfectly modest and sweet, but still attractive. Hot Chanies gave off an air of danger that Kendra didn’t want to approach. The skirt returned to the rack.

I even knew that Kendra hesitated to switch over to her Hebrew name for common use (a typical step among people moving towards Chabad) because it happened to be “Chana” — “Chanie” as the default nickname — a hugely popular name among Chabad women. “Is it wrong to want to retain a certain measure of individuality?” she asked in a late-night Facebook post. And those earnest friends of hers weighed in on the power of Hebrew names vs. the drive for independent recognition.

I’d probably been seeing this stuff for quite a while and passing over it, but in February, for obvious reasons, it began to strike me. I’d see one of her posts and think: “Kendra. That Kendra” (not that I knew any others) and feel a wave of horror mixed with fascination. That was one odd piece of all this. I wasn’t just horrified; I was also a little bit intrigued. More than a little bit, in all honesty.

It even interfered with my actual life — the real one where I interacted with people’s bodies — on a few occasions. I’d become so engrossed that I’d almost forget to head over to my university to teach, or to meet a friend for coffee. I say “almost” because it was OK: I realized on time and raced over to my obligation. But the danger was real.

Remembering all of this was necessary to figure out my move. When it came to me, it felt clear, obvious, and even meant to be. A brainstorm hit me: I even had the perfect ammunition. I always stay with my parents in New Jersey when I visit NYC, and, during this trip, my mother gave me a little gift: a pad of paper featuring an exuberant Snoopy and Woodstock, jumping, all smiles, towards the sky.

At the time, it just seemed like a tiny, casual gift: the kind my mother is always offering. One of her friends sells tchotchkes and fun little presents, and my mother bought this pad from her, thinking of me. She figured I always have use for a compact pad of paper, and boy, was she right, particularly if the pad has happy cartoon characters, and I wind up behind Kendra Feld on the bus.

I wrote: “Much more important to treat people with kindness than to avoid hot Chanieness. Rethink your ways” in big block letters on a piece of Snoopy/Woodstock paper, and slipped it onto Kendra’s computer’s keyboard. A few minutes later, she returned from the bathroom and sat back down. I kind of locked my face into a bored, expressionless stare, to avoid giving myself away if Kendra turned around. I was excited, and embarrassed for myself for feeling that way.

Since I wasn’t Orthodox at all (I had some Orthodox friends because I wrote about religious communities), my appearance wouldn’t give me away unless Kendra recognized me. My jeans and short-sleeve T-shirt were nothing like the long skirt or dress I’d have on if I were the usual sort to know from hot Chanies. It gradually dawned on me just how funny the whole thing was. Kendra would be so confused. This was fabulous. For once in my life, I was slick and smooth.

I could see at once when Kendra had read the note. She arched her back and kind of shivered. I smiled inside and made sure my expression was frozen in nonchalance. Kendra looked at the seats across the aisle from her, but no one was sitting there. Then she turned around and looked at me.

Lately, I don’t have much to be proud of, but this was a shining moment. I was impressive. I gazed back at her with poise and slight curiosity. “Why are you gaping at me when there’s no reason for it?” my lightly closed lips and wide-open eyes asked. I didn’t seem nervous at all.

Kendra turned around and started folding up her Snoopy/Woodstock paper. She placed it on the seat next to her — the one by the window — and stared at it. Then she ate two more almonds and headed to the restroom again.

I have a weak bladder myself; I well understand the need to use the bathroom frequently. But most people go an entire 4 ½ hour trip without heading back there. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s a fact. So… Kendra’s frequent need for the bathroom felt like part of the miracle.

While she was back there, I remembered something new: Kendra’s attempts to seem wealthy online. I hadn’t seen anything like this from her in a while, but the tendency had once been intense. She once posted a picture of herself standing beside a sky-blue Mercedes convertible, smiling in green-tinted sunglasses as she waved to no one in particular. Occasionally, she posted about first-class lounges as she waited for flights, bemoaning her fate that the delicious-looking snacks weren’t kosher. “If I can stick to my guns while staring down delicious-looking lobster en croute as I wait for my flight, I know I’ve made it,” she posted, maybe a year before this bus ride.

I tore off a piece of Snoopy/Woodstock with a flourish and wrote: “She who must turn down lobster en croute in first-class lounges does not normally travel with Go Bus.” I read it over and started grinning: a true, spontaneous smile that came upon me with ease. I’m not sure why this made me so happy. Whatever it says about me is probably something I should try to transcend. But I’m not much of a transcender, usually. I’m lucky enough to find true, easy joy however and wherever I can. This did it for me — this simple act of writing to Kendra Feld about lobster en croute and Go Bus on Snoopy/Woodstock paper.

She was gone longer than the last time. I hoped she wasn’t stinking up the bathroom, because soon I’d need to use it. Then, of course, she returned. My excitement almost alarmed me, but not quite, because I understood myself here. I headed back to the restroom myself, figuring I’d enjoy this all the more if I made myself comfortable. I was getting braver. I’d drop the note off while Kendra sat in her seat, in a moment when she was looking out the window or something.

I returned to find that she had moved over to the window seat and was leaning against it, probably trying to sleep. Perfect. Just the kind of small but enormous good fortune that had been powering my day ever since I’d discovered Kendra Feld here on this bus. I slipped the note onto the seat next to her. She didn’t notice. Her eyes were probably closed, though I couldn’t see for sure.

She slept or rested or whatever she was doing for at least 15 minutes, and I started feeling antsy. Then she sat up and turned towards the aisle seat, and I got ready for some fun. I hated and loved myself in one quick rush of emotion, but mostly, I felt pure anticipation. Something intriguing was bound to happen: something caused by my own actions.

Kendra picked up my Snoopy/Woodstock tidings and stiffened. She didn’t look around this time, or back at me. I felt like she didn’t want to catch anyone’s eye. I wanted to poke her in the back with a pen or a comb or something, but that would ruin everything. I had to stay subtle here.

I looked out the window for the first time and noticed the highway restaurants we passed: fast food chains, diners, seafood joints. We were already in Connecticut, which seemed bizarre. Time was speeding up, collapsing, even. Soon we’d be in Massachusetts. The trip would end, and… what? Would I get my resolution or victory or whatever it was I was hoping for?

Kendra stretched and turned around. I stared at her in a way that I hoped was haunting or at least thought-provoking. She stared back. In a quick but seething moment, I realized she knew I was the note-writer. But did she remember harassing me over my poem? If she didn’t, I’d seem like the jackass here.

When she stopped looking at me, I wrote another note: “How ironic that someone who posts pictures of herself next to fancy cars would pick on my free crème brulée.” Not smooth or classy, I’ll admit. But I had an opportunity here, and I didn’t want to blow it. My one-in-a-million jackpot was slipping into obscure failure.

I stuck my arm over the seats in front of me as she watched, and dropped the note onto the seat next to her. She ignored it at first. Ten minutes went by. Was she being passive aggressive? Cute? Vengeful?

Finally, she picked up the new sheet of paper. I saw her mouth kind of drop: she hadn’t put all this together before. She didn’t turn around. Maybe she was mortified, but maybe she didn’t want to face someone who scared her on a gut, intuitive level. I wanted to find the second possibility funny, and I did, in a way. But the thought made me shiver too.

The bus kept driving along; the trip was smooth and easy. Soon — so soon it was chilling — we were heading into Cambridge. Both Kendra and I were still on the bus: she hadn’t gotten off in Newton. I had to strike somehow. The thought cracked me up, which was fabulous: I needed to get my humor back. I needed to keep seeing this coincidence as a great gift.

Kendra whipped out her phone and called someone named Jacob, letting him know that she was close to home and planned to stop off at Café Pamplona in Harvard Square before doing anything else. “Want to meet me there?” she asked, and she didn’t say anything after his response, just ended the call and breathed deeply.

I live very close to Café Pamplona, maybe a 3-minute walk away. The magic continued. But now I needed to make something happen, though I had no idea what I meant by that. Kendra seemed resolved to show up there with or without Jacob, so I figured I’d do the same. Would I seem like a crazy lunatic stalker? Should I pretend my showing up was a coincidence? I figured I wouldn’t worry about it; I’d just pop over there and do whatever felt natural.

I went to Café Pamplona all the time. If Kendra did too, it was a wonder I’d never bumped into her there before. Though… it’s possible we’d been there at the same time before our disaster and didn’t think about or notice each other. When people aren’t on my radar, I often overlook them and focus on my own tiny universe of concerns and perceptions. Amazing how random the world is, with people wandering around minutes or even seconds away from each other and never connecting: people who really should connect. But then the world closes in on itself, and we see so much more, if only we can absorb those moments when they come.

Part 2: We Arrive… Or Do We?

We reached Alewife station and Kendra stood up as soon as the bus stopped. She’d already packed her computer and phone up in her knapsack, and checked all around her seat for stuff she might forget. Everything about her was neat, clean, and well organized. None of it seemed to fit the person who had slammed into me online, and yet, when I thought about it in just the right way, opening myself to all the levels and dimensions that comprise a human mind, I caught a glimpse into how it all might work.

Together, all this evidence led me to one overarching impression: fear. We can never know anyone. The clean, neat, well-organized type can be a soul-killer. So we were even, Kendra and I. I feared her and she feared me.

Kendra and I both headed inside the station towards the subway. I had that moment where I have to switch into Boston mode, looking for my Charlie Card and not my MetroCard for the NYC subway. Kendra was faster than I was, finding her Charlie Card lickety-split in a pocket of her knapsack and rushing towards the tracks below. She raced down to make the next train, bolting on seconds before the doors closed. I could have been wrong, but I thought she was running away from me. I giggled and kind of beamed a thought bubble towards her: “Just wait a few minutes and you’ll have unexpected company at Café Pamplona.”

This made me laugh so hard I had trouble carrying my small suitcase downstairs to the trains. I shook as I laughed, and a tall teenage boy with shaggy red hair asked if I needed help. “I think I’m OK, but thanks for asking,” I managed to say in the midst of my hysterics, and the boy started laughing too. We were both still cracking up as we boarded the same car of the train. I wished life could be like this more often, though I couldn’t decide how best to make that happen.

Harvard Square and Café Pamplona were just a few stops away. I stepped out into mid-afternoon sun and 70-degree air, and figured Kendra was probably at one of Café Pamplona’s outside tables. A little band of 30-ish men played country songs on their banjos, and the dude who spray paints by the subway entrance was out, with a small crowd who watched as he worked. The day was happy and vibrant: the perfect container, maybe, to resolve my anger towards Kendra.

I didn’t even drop my suitcase off at my apartment; I just headed over to Pamplona, hoping Kendra would be there. Sure enough, there she was, alone at one of the outside tables lining the street. I chose the one facing her. If I were a different type of person, I would have winked at her, just to freak her out. But I didn’t go that far. I just sat down and looked straight at her. Even in the bright sun, I had no idea how old she was, and her mood was completely hidden. She was half human, half mystery.

Why was I even bothering with her? She noticed me, shuddered a little, and angled her face so she wouldn’t be catching my eye or connecting with me. She handled my appearance well — too well, actually. Maybe she figured out that I had heard her discussing Café Pamplona, and that I wanted to continue our little adventure. At this point, nothing I did could shock her.

For the first time, I noticed her shirt: an ugly button-down thing with a pale yellow base and a flowery design that seemed to be the color of dying grass. It hung long over her skirt and fit her perfectly, of course: this was the sort of detail Kendra would get right.

The waiter arrived at Kendra’s table, and she ordered seltzer water. She couldn’t eat anything here since she kept kosher; clearly she came for the atmosphere. I knew the waiter, an amiable young guy who worked at Pamplona so he could pay the bills while he perfected various art projects.

Clearly, Kendra knew him too: “Steve, I was kind of hoping that Dennis would be here now. Isn’t he always here Wednesdays around this time?”

Steve stood quietly for several seconds before answering. Then he said in his soft but clear voice: “Dennis died. I guess it was maybe two weeks ago. There’s actually a little sign about it inside. We were all wondering about a memorial service, but we haven’t heard anything.”

He stood silently by her table. Kendra said nothing. I had a strong hunch that she wasn’t able to speak: she might have started crying if she tried. Finally, Steve said: “Sorry to have to tell you that. We were all really upset” and headed back inside to bring out some orders.

I wasn’t surprised about Dennis’s death, but I was amazed, if that makes sense. He seemed like the sort of person who would always be around: a fixture in the café atmosphere. Dennis was maybe 70, a chain smoker who sat outside even in 50-degree weather if the chairs were out so he could keep hopping across the street to smoke a cigarette. Café Pamplona had been his main social life for many years, probably for decades. His clothes were dirty and tattered: a lumberjack shirt and baggy jeans in all weather. He smelled, mostly of cigarettes, but also of unwashed clothing and a clear aversion to the shower. Un-groomed gray hair covered his face — beard melded into mustache. He did cut the beard; it wasn’t that long, but it was knotted and matted at the bottom.

One recent afternoon, I overheard a few of Dennis’s Pamplona friends say that Dennis had been very ill with all kinds of problems. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but it registered well enough for me to remember it now.

When I started graduate school, Dennis was already hanging out at Café Pamplona. I was there during my first week, complaining to a friend that the amount of required reading for my classes was virtually impossible to complete. Dennis walked over to our table. “Let me tell you something, my friend. You don’t have to do all that reading. Do what interests you and skim the rest.”

I told him I appreciated the advice, but my classes were small and completely based on the reading. The other students kept referring to specifics, and I had to appear at least minimally competent. “I don’t want to flunk out and be forced to get a job before my time,” I said, and he laughed so loud the entire café (just a small room) stared at us.

Dennis pulled a chair over to our table and said: “Here’s what you do. You just kind of thumb through the book, and if you hit on something you like, you make a note of it, including the page number. Find at least 4 or 5 passages like that in the book. When discussion comes up, you can be like: ‘I just loved this passage on page 85,’ quote it, and spout off a little BS about it… and you’ll seem golden. Class goes by quickly — even 4 passages is overkill, but you want to be safe. When other people share things, just nod knowingly and smile if you don’t know what they’re talking about. You can probably get through a 300-page book in a half hour using my method. And then you can use your free time to hang out here!”

Well, I won’t say I used Dennis’s method to a T, but I often followed it more or less. I got through many a class where I hadn’t read the book… and I always thought of Dennis when it worked out well enough. Dennis may have preserved my sanity and happiness during those years.

I didn’t speak to him much after that. His smell was unpleasant to have up close while I was eating, and he often counted on whoever was at his table to pay for him. Dennis always ordered the same exact thing — chocolate milk with a shot of raspberry syrup. He never got food, and the one drink must have been just a few dollars. But I didn’t want to deal with it, especially since other people were very happy to host him at their tables.

A wave of empty sadness kind of pummeled my stomach and traveled throughout my body. I probably missed out on a lot with my cheapness and squeamish dislike of his smell. Now I’d never make up for it.

I looked over at Kendra, who was staring off into nothing, or so it seemed. She gave the impression of zoning out completely. This wasn’t like her at all from what I could tell. Well-organized Kendra who limited her almond intake to 2 or 3 at a time probably did not make a habit of staring at nothing at all.

I called over to her table: “Kendra, did you know Dennis?” Her shoulders stiffened, and she glanced at me for the first time since I’d sat down. She looked away and then looked back. I had the sense that she was trying to determine whether I was sincere. I did have a precedent for mockery, after all.

“You know, I’m not even sure how to answer that. He sure knew me. I told him about my last breakup, and he listened to every detail. Gave fantastic advice too. He made this one comment — I’ll never forget it — he said: ‘Your own company is the best company, but only if you don’t have anyone else who’s dragging you down. If you have a dragger on your hands, even your time alone is poisoned by it because you can’t ever forget.’ Then he patted me on me on the back and made me promise him that I would move on.”

She gave me a sharp look. “The pictures I posted of those fancy first-class lounges were from when I was with my last fiancé. He was all about that stuff. Dennis helped me move on. I got sucked into all that for a while, but now I can’t quite believe it.”

I was skeptical. It seemed a neat, easy way to get out of my attack. For that matter, I found nothing wrong with flying first class if you could afford it; I just bristled at her show-off-y tone and her maddening branding of me as clueless and privileged in light of all that.

She seemed to be reading my mind, because she continued: “After we broke up, I was particularly turned off of anything smacking of wealth. I wasn’t brought up that way, you know.”

I wanted to point out that orange crème brulée did not smack of wealth when you got it for free, and it wasn’t that expensive even when you paid for it. But I refrained, and felt fine about it. I also decided against saying to Steve, in a very loud voce: “I’d love to get the guava and cheese sandwich, but do you think that would be embarrassingly fancy of me, even though it’s only $5.95?” I had planned on that, and looked forward to it with excitement so intense it almost seemed alive. Somehow, the thrill disappeared — as did a quick urge to mention that most Chabad-leaning women I knew did not travel with their fiancés: engaged couples in those circles largely went their separate ways until the big day. This could have been an outstanding dig, but I really didn’t know the circumstances. I also didn’t want to ruin the small bridge that had opened between us.

Instead, I nodded and forced out a weak smile. “I was similar to you with Dennis, but on a much smaller scale. He helped me through grad school with one suggestion that often carried me through. I thought about him even when I got my diploma. I only really talked to him once, but it was a huge discussion for me.”

She nodded back at me. Nodding was all we could do, really. I thought about this world of ours, where people we don’t even know can haunt us, terrorize us, enlighten us, and save us. We all dangle together from a web of interconnected meaning, on the verge of falling but then, somehow, catching each other and ourselves.

You know what? Kendra still annoyed me. I didn’t like the way she carried herself — so stiff and proper — or the way she tried to get out of my Snoopy/Woodstock attack. I was no saint and neither was she; I couldn’t imagine we’d ever become friends. But I finally saw her in a deep sense of seeing, and she did the same for me. I could feel it as her eyes met mine. We converged on a crossroads of hurt, mourning, and hope, and we’d probably never forget each other. This was more than I could say for most of the people I encountered in that quick, brushing past kind of way: casual Facebook friend I’d never seen in person, or random woman in front of me on the bus. Kendra and I had intertwined, and that was much more than OK.

 

Image Credit: “The Maldivian Gang,” by man’s pic, January 25, 2008, on flickr.com