A few years ago I was living in California, recently gutted by and separated from my boyfriend. I had a few good, old friends in the area, but planning around hectic schedules and sometimes overwhelming personal and fiscal responsibilities was a challenge. The Bay Area traffic was the biggest deterrent; the bridges, bumper-to-bumper traffic and the San Francisco Bay effectively disconnecting us.
It wasn’t like Missoula, where most of my friends live within a mile of downtown and getting together is simple, uncomplicated, and rarely impossible. Long before Portlandia, Missoula was described as a place where thirty year olds go to retire. Sure we have responsibilities in this easygoing college town, but we maneuver around them instead of letting them get in our way.
Our jobs usually allow for pre or post work hikes. The babies can join us at the brewery without a single eyebrow raise. There is no traffic. When school gets out there are more cars on the road, but this is not really traffic, this is just cars on the road, people.
There are more husbands among us now, but they’re often off doing their own thing—hunting, biking, bobbing in the river—and rarely, if ever, stop the girls from getting together. They’re happy to meet up for beers and backyard grilling while the girls eat four-course vegetarian meals and sip champagne.
The camaraderie in this sweet place is straight up palpable.
I’ve known for a long time that the friendships forged in Missoula are as special as the city itself, and that to compare anything else to it would not be done on a level playing field. During the year I lived in Marin County I made wonderful, lifelong friends at work, but I longed for the simplicity of a friend down the block. My suburban San Rafael neighborhood brimmed with lovely people, they just didn’t seem like my people. Then I met Liz. (*not her real name.)
Our mutual dog walker saw similarities and connected us. “Trust me,” she told us separately, “You’ll love her.”
Liz had been a massage therapist for years—so we immediately related on that level—but she’d moved on and was working toward her doctorate. She was smart and clever. We liked the same restaurants. We loved to walk. It seemed we’d never run out of things to talk about.
Sometimes we went for early morning walks on Stinson Beach, but other times we walked the neighborhood for hours in the evening. We leashed up our dogs and tracked enormous loops and figure 8s as we talked and talked and talked. The similarities between our lives made the hairs stand up on my arms. She’d say something that would stop me in my tracks; I’d divulge something and she’d say, “Stop it! No way! Me too!” Then we’d do another lap.
She gave me a book for my birthday called Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. She wrote the sweetest note on the inside flap and the message was clear: she gets me.
Liz had tapped into the small segment of the Marin County demographic that is neither uber-rich nor uber-hippy, and she was more than happy to include me. It was hard to resist any of her ideas—she was persuasive, charming, and fun— so when she asked me to join her and a friend at singles night at the local meditation center I was hesitant, but game. I trusted her.
When the time came to go I was exhausted. I wanted to stay in bed reading. For ten whole months I slept on an air mattress because I was that reluctant to commit to life in Marin, and the fact that my aerobed was more appealing than a night “out” spoke volumes.
I pulled myself together and kept it simple by dressing like me—jeans, a t-shirt, and moderately cute shoes—and not some idealized version of me. I walked over to Liz’s house and sensed from the stoop that I was getting myself into something I was probably not prepared for. My hunch was confirmed when I walked in the door. Music played, sweetly scented candles burned and the girls were getting ready. (NOTE: I’ve never really understood “getting ready.” I mean….you shower, you get dressed, you go. Right? No, sometimes you agonize.) Liz applied mascara to individual lashes and Heidi (*not her real name) whipped shirts on and off in her quest for the perfect top.
The attention to detail spun my head. I wear things that are comfortable or because I like the color. If I happen to nail it with the perfect neckline I chalk it up to chance. I have a few friends who have figured out what flatters them and they seek out those items, but that is not what was going on here.
Heidi maniacally deliberated between flattering her arms or her abs. Should she dress classy or sexy? Flats or heels or boots? “This black doesn’t really go with these jeans, right?” she asked me, a stranger whose idea of “getting ready” was showing up with soaking wet hair. I felt like the goofy, younger sister and didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say, “Girl, you’re out of your mind–it’s black, but instead I said, “I like that blue top; might as well show off those yoga arms.”
It was the right answer. She hugged me. I thought we’d be out the door, but there was another decision on the table. It could be chilly in West Marin, and if the fog rolled in she’d freeze in that sleeveless top. Out came a quiver of cardigans and wraps. I looked at the old sweatshirt I’d thrown by the door on my way in; I was clearly out of my depth.
We took the back roads and giggled all the way to Spirit Rock in the western part of the county. “Maybe we should just drive to the beach for barbecued oysters?” Liz asked, but we were committed to seeing what singles night had in store for us.
“If even one of us meets someone it will be so worth it,” Heidi said, though I was pretty sure that the one person better be her. I considered hitchhiking home, but joined the discussion as the girls were serious about nailing down our exit strategy in advance. They devised a complicated arrangement of code words and sign language that we could use if the event was a bust, and schemed about what we’d do after.
We walked into that building like Charlie’s Angels, but the wind machines stopped blowing our hair back when we entered the double-wide-trailer-esque vestibule and were told we’d have to take our shoes off before entering the meditation room.
“I didn’t have time for a pedicure this week,” Liz fretted, and Heidi worried about her jeans dragging on the floor and didn’t like how they looked cuffed. My own method of “hemming” is to measure a new pair of jeans or cords against an old pair, then lop off the bottoms with kitchen scissors.
The speaker was about to start, so there was no time to worry about any of the things they were worried about, and, after all, we were in a (goddamn) meditation center where the point to is discourage fear and judgement, and encourage peace and compassion. We struggled to find three seats together, and glad for a little space I opted to sit by myself a few rows away.
The man in front of me dropped his head back and snored. The woman next to me smelled stale. Somebody had cooked with curry, and I suspect a few people swallowed raw cloves of garlic on a regular basis. The girls I came with giggled a few rows away. I tried to concentrate on the Dharma talk.
Spirit Rock has a well-known roster of speakers including Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, James Baraz and others. I wasn’t familiar with the woman speaking that night, but the cadence and intonation of her speech reminded me of my high school commencement speaker who, in the recent wake of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, started with King’s famous plea: Can we all get along?
I don’t remember much about the Spirit Rock singles night speaker except that like the inflection of her voice, her opening sentiment matched that of my graduation speaker. The line: We are all doing the best we can all of the time.
She repeated that line several times for emphasis, and wove it throughout her talk. Even when what we’re doing seems like it isn’t enough—it is. Even when you think someone is failing you—they’re not. It can be challenging to wrap your head around, but once you do it it’s hard to go back to the other way of thinking.
It’s true: people sometimes suck. People hurt us and don’t apologize. They might steal from us, rob us of our dignity, betray our trust. But remember: We are all doing the best we can all of the time.
She finished the talk and then explained how the rest of the evening would work. Oh right, there was more: strained mingling. I was there with two women who could secure a date while rolling up a yoga mat, but because we were at a mixer with Marin’s lonely and socially awkward we’d be playing games to encourage conversation.
This was my first (and only) singles meet-and-greet, but from the get-go something felt very wrong about the concept. The theory that playing games will encourage shyer folks to come out of their shells is nonsense. Either you’re comfortable engaging in conversation with strangers or not, but putting a fun fact about yourself on a slip of paper for singles bingo is probably not going to help with the latter.
Alcohol isn’t for everyone, but there is a very good reason it’s the world’s most reliable social lubricant.
The leader assigned us to groups then we held hands in circles, pantomimed, and did a lot of supposing. Some of the games involved word associations, some blindfolds and some physical touch, which not everyone was comfortable with. I wondered how much worse the prospect of physical touch was than drawing attention to your fear by sitting on the sidelines with your knitting on your lap, and I had to figure—must be pretty bad.
Almost all of the games required guessing, and the premise of that as a basis for icebreakers disturbed and saddened me. Take a bunch of people who don’t feel comfortable allowing conversation to begin and grow naturally, then remove forthrightness and unambiguity and expect that to go well.
One man’s mismatched socks were matted with cat hair. Some guys wore sweatpants (they’d probably been there before) and some women wore flowing skirts adorned with bells. Jerry Garcia died in that valley, but no radius of twirling skirt would bring him back. But it’s safe to say that Heidi was the only one there who’d agonized over her top, Liz the only one who’d carefully separated individual eyelashes.
I was in the middle row of a human pyramid when Liz caught my eye. Nothing says “time to go” more clearly that a tap on a watch. I didn’t want to stay, but I didn’t want to go either. I felt an odd sort of responsibility to contribute.
The room brimmed with the socially awkward—that’s why they were there—and although I knew I wasn’t going to find a love connection in that room, I thought that by exhibiting silly, vulnerable, unselfconscious behavior I could somehow help these people break out of their shells more efficiently that a slew of contrived games.
The pyramid dismantled and the organizer prepared to announce the next round of activities. Heidi was ready to blow out of there, and Liz was caught in the middle between two friends who were strangers to each other. I negotiated one more round of ham-handed interactions, and agreed to go to Sausalito with them after.
Sausalito is about as far away mentally and spiritually as one can get from Woodacre and still remain in the same county. Woodacre is mossy, woodsy, and artistic. Sausalito is also artistic, but has sparkly views of the San Francisco and even sparklier people. Because the girls didn’t find anyone interesting at Spirit Rock, they figured the best thing to do was a full one-eighty, which landed us at Sausalito’s Sushi Ran.
Sushi Ran is exceptional. Zagat ranks it among the top five Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, and they turn out some seriously top-notch sushi. We’d be getting there just before ten, which seemed late to me, but the girls assured me that was the perfect time to arrive. The people on dates would be gone, but the singles scene would be ramping up.
Singles scene at a sushi restaurant? Was there any singles outlet these girls had not tapped?
They anticipated an older guy drunk on sake, sitting alone at the bar, who would offer to buy us dinner, but not for nothing: he’d want to sit at our table and tell us all about how fabulous he is.
The truth was, nobody did offer to pick up our tab. The only single guys there were remnants from the girls’ pasts. Not wanting to go home undefeated, they talked me into one more stop.
The Silver Peso is one of the area’s only dive bars, but like almost every other haunt in Marin County it has a celebrity attached to it, and Janis Joplin used to drink and shoot pool there most afternoons with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Those days are long gone and Marin has taken a few turns for the worse. These days The Silver Peso is full of alcoholics in the morning, and in the evening it’s a semi-sleazy pickup bar. (Note: I love dive bars. I hate dive bars that are pretending to be something else.)
The phone number that Liz scored that night resulted in no-strings attached relationship with a kid just barely out of college, and this led to the demise of our friendship, which at first seemed bizarre, though in actuality it should have been expected.
Liz and I kicked off our friendship by sharing the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves; things we’d rarely, if ever, exposed. We mirrored each other so we could see ourselves, though what reflected back was not always received with gratitude.
Liz regularly spoke about wanting to get married and have kids. She was thirty-eight then—the same age I am now—and sensed that time was running out. She would occasionally go out with an age and socio-economically appropriate man, but before the appetizers arrived she’d find some ostensible reason that this guy was not the one.
“Fine,” I’d tell her, “Keep trying. But don’t miss out meeting the right guy because you’re banging a kid who won’t be ready to settle down and have children for ten more years.” She got it, but she didn’t, and the truth was that I didn’t either.
I’d gotten back together with my boyfriend who, despite his good intentions and heart of gold, was not someone I could build a life with. I knew I was banging my head against a wall, believing in the potential of someone instead of the reality. It reminded me of the realtor I worked with in Honduras, “Buy what you see,” he’d tell his clients, “The infinity edge pool may never go in; are you happy buying this patch of dirt?”
My boyfriend had a friend he wanted to set up with Liz. I spent weeks telling her everything I knew about him and trying to coordinate a time the four of us could do something. We finally decided to go to a Friday night Giants game. She was excited. So excited, in fact, that she started planning how the rest of the weekend would go. She had us all sleeping over at her house, going to the beach, having brunch, scattergories, Sunday dinner. She got ahead of herself.
She got so far ahead that she started to do a loop. A few hours before the game she called and we met in the park between our houses. “You know how I’ve been wanting to go to Auberge du Soleil?”
I knew all about it. She wanted to take her young boy-toy up there, and was prepared to drop two grand (that she didn’t really have) on a weekend at the romantic resort. She hoped that by crossing something off her bucket list she’d access a deep place of longing within herself, but in reality that luxurious weekend would most likely lead to further erosion.
Liz and I both engaged in self-defeating behaviors, and as frustrating as it was to see this in each other, we would not stop repeating our destructive patterns until we saw them in ourselves. When I told her I was disappointed that she cancelled our ballgame plans in favor of sliding around on silk sheets, she said, “I feel like you’re judging me.” I wanted to tell her I wasn’t, but I couldn’t, and our friendship ended almost as abruptly as it had started.
The intimacy between us had been premature. We knew too much too soon, and by leap-frogging the trust building stage of friendship we were left on shaky ground when there was something at stake. We risked our pride, but more than that we risked losing the parts of ourselves that, despite not working, we’d become attached to.
I stayed around for a few more months, and then returned to Montana. The boyfriend and I clung by tattered threads, but they disintegrated naturally though we maintained a friendship. Never one to fess quickly, a few months later he said, “I have to tell you something I’d been wanting to tell you for awhile. It’s been killing me.”
He came right out with it: he and Liz had gone on a few dates. Her office was a few blocks from the Whole Foods that he worked at and she’d regularly gone there for lunch, though after she broke the plan to meet his friend (and figured correctly that I’d not minced words on the reason) she avoided the store completely.
With the kombucha on tap impossible to resist, she eventually started going to his store again and went from barely making eye contact with him to suggesting they hang out sometime. He told me they’d had a good time on several dates (even in its brevity that was too much information), but that he hadn’t been seeing her exclusively and that while she was on vacation in Hawaii he got more serious with someone else, a woman he’d marry a year later.
Sting, sting, sting. All of this information felt like stepping on a beehive. I hated him. I hated her. I hated myself for ever trusting either of them. I hated myself for ever trusting any one. And then I remembered: We are all doing the best we can all of the time.
All of us. Even me.