Sometimes we don’t know how to engage with the world until someone, and something, forces us to reckon with ourselves.
When I first met Allison, then, I’d never felt truly close to someone, not the way I’d seen other people be close to their friends; had never shown all of my selves, the most private and intimate and deepest selves, not to anyone. I had connections, friendships, some of which had lasted more than a decade, but there was always some distancing. I’d show one friend the side of me that was grieving over a relationship; another friend the side of me that believed, down to my core, that love was possible. But to show both sides to one person? Impossible. And so I compartmentalized. Categorized. Found moments of truth in drugs and alcohol but never in clarity, never in moments that lasted. I lied by omission. I swerved. That isn’t how I wanted to be, but it was all that I knew. And when I met someone new, instead of listening, or being open, I judged. I’d been taught that by the rubrics of my family, which focused on achievement, production, the presentation of perfect self in everyday life, to misquote the social theorist Erving Goffman. Later, of course, as I unwound over the course of four years of constant and life-threatening illness, I would understand why my behavior could have seemed sociopathic, as it was sometimes called, why I had created that distance. But before Allison loved me into becoming a different person, until, as I told her before she died, she midwifed the person I had wanted to be into existence, I couldn’t get what all the fuss was about.
And then, finally, things started to change. Not because of me, but because of her.
An early evening in November, I was walking down College Avenue toward the Rockridge Avenue BART station. I had my headphones in, because I always had my headphones in, because otherwise the chatter in my head, the noise that told me that I was assessing things incorrectly, that I shouldn’t have said that thing to that professor, that my attempts at my life changes were totally failing, became deafening, but even above the music I heard a
And to my left I saw a green Honda, a car I would later drive to the hospital to take her to the oncologist who would tell her she was really dying this time; a make and model of car I would years later see, sometimes, on the streets of Berkeley and look for her and forget that she was dead, but for now it was just Allison, alive, with Sadie on a blanket in the front seat.
I got in, putting Sadie on my lap, but not before putting on the social armature of dealing with an old and sick person. I prepared to be polite, respectful. I prepared myself for talking about general topics—books, grad school, perhaps some gossip from the meeting. I prepared myself to have a social interaction that would just slip its way into my roster of social interactions that I needed to get through to get to the next thing. And instead, I looked at her and saw her face and her eyes and her tiny mouth from which so many words had poured, and from which a few more came, and a tightness in my chest uncoiled, just a millimeter.
“Where are you headed?”
I wanted to lie, to dissemble the same way I’d dissembled the specifics of school, but instead, as I felt that tightness uncoil just another millimeter, I edged into addressing reality.
“A party, in the city, with this guy—it’s his birthday.”
And then, truth:
“I’m worried I’m going to sleep with him.”
“Is that likely?”
I told Allison how I’d met Matt. Two years earlier, in the airport in line for a delayed flight headed from New York to Heathrow, where we’d started talking and then exchanged emails and then decided to hang out in London. How we’d had a mini-fling, which was relevant because I was in the middle of switching from one relationship to another, adding a third person to the mix because—
“Of course you did,” she interrupted. I continued on, saying I wanted to—
“Feel alive!” she interrupted again.
“I’ve always seen him in cities neither of us lives in, and it’s weird now that we live in the same place,” I said.
I was also, because of my interest in recovery as self-improvement, trying not to just randomly fuck people. I wanted to change things up, have a good relationship maybe, or at least stop what wasn’t working for me anymore. Sleeping with Matt would be a total backslide, it didn’t fit into the story I was building, the bettering-of-self I was aiming for. “This is going backwards, and—I mean, it’s bad behavior, right?”
Now was the time for her to say something wise and also in line with my original thought. I waited for her to tell me to live my best life now and not give my precious gift away. Or to tell me that having sex with someone I wasn’t dating was bad behavior, was something I should stop doing. Everyone else in my life was advising me to change my ways. I was sober and yet I had this predilection for going to bars and sipping club soda while everyone else got hammered, and then finding a target and casually flirting and then bringing him home, and the last person I’d done this with had had a girlfriend—whom I’d met, ten minutes before I took him home. “I have a hall pass,” he’d told me, and I hadn’t cared that he was probably lying. Because my wants were more important than the truth.
“The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you fuck him or not: you’re still you,” she said. “We are not saints.”
Sure, we weren’t saints, but we were always trying to improve, right? I had thought everything we were doing in the meetings we went to was about Becoming a Better Person and Developing Better Habits, and here, in this car in the rain, Allison had just offered me something different.
And then it was 7:30 and I had to leave, had to make it to the group dinner at the hot new restaurant, and so I reached across the car to do what I’d always seen everyone do with Allison—touch her, hold her, squeeze her shoulder and her arm. I didn’t do it because I wanted connection, but because it felt like the next right thing to do to maintain kindness, to acknowledge her. I’d seen people touch her like that in meetings, and would learn later about the particular physical tourism of illness, the way in which we begin to sanctify those who are closer to death than we believe we are. Later, I would be touched in the way that she was; touristed in the way she was. But that was later, after I got sick, after I joined her kingdom.
Excerpted from How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).
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