The award-winning memoirist reflects on her intense, instantaneous social-media friendship with a favorite singer—only to be left to try to make sense of her just-as-sudden disappearing act.
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In 1988, I had a regular front-row table in a dark East Village club frequented by folk and country musicians, Broadway singers going solo, and newly successful rock stars. I had seen Melissa Etheridge play there early on, along with Lyle Lovett, Doc Watson, Jane Siberry, The Chieftains, The Roches, and Betty Buckley. Meredith (not her real name) performed there all the time, and my seat at this regular table was close enough to see her hands quiver one night as she tuned her guitar to DADGAD, the dissonant, Celtic open tuning that every young folk musician knows. On this particular night, Meredith looked down at me while she was tuning—I was a little drunk, and resting my beer bottle on the sliver of stage in front of the monitor—and smiled. The man singing with her—doe-eyed and stocky, possessed of the usual stage erection for which he was well-known—raked his hands through his sweaty blond hair, dried them off on a dirty black towel that had been resting on Meredith’s amplifier, and tossed it down to me.
Keep it, baby, she said to me, when I started to throw it back up onto the stage. She winked; I teetered and sat down. She was gamine and edgy, a notorious tease, often mistaken for a lesbian, and men and women alike were infatuated with her since her debut album hit the Top 40 out of nowhere. I swooned at her attention and finished my beer.
The towel lived for years in the bottom of my guitar case, stiff with age and rank with stale lager and old cigarette smoke, a black blot against hot pink velvet padding. I mostly used it to wipe the finger oil off my strings, which I hated changing, but I also kept it as a talisman, a reminder of where I was that night in 1988 when I was 25, and how I came to own a used performance rag belonging to someone who would go on to become an icon I would see perform everywhere from DAR Hall in Washington, D.C., to a sold-out Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
Thirty-two years after the black towel incident at the club in the East Village, I asked Meredith over dinner at a bistro in Boston if she wanted it back. I still had it.
I hope you at least washed it, she said.
Meredith was in her 60s now, her straight hair dyed blonde and her neck streaked with white lines by the sun from Malibu, where she lives and works. She ordered a pork chop and a bowl of incinerated Brussels sprouts; I had a steak. We ate two baskets of warm herb-flecked rolls we slathered with truffle butter; we shared a chocolate pot de crème for dessert. We did not drink: She is many decades sober, and I was struggling with alcohol and deciding how much of it I wanted in my life. I did not want her to think badly of me, and I did not want to get drunk.
We ate slowly. I noticed a slight shake to her hands as she pulled apart a roll. We talked about her son, our mothers’ mental illness, our creative processes, and how much our industries—hers, music; mine, writing—had changed over the years. I had just finished a ten-city tour for my memoir, and for the first time in my writing career was not starting work on a new project immediately on the heels of the last one. The usual hardcover publication interviews, newspaper pieces, and magazine articles had come and gone; things had quieted down and ebbed into the dreaded land of what’s next. Meredith picked at her roll and said she hadn’t written any new songs in a few years. She was carrying a few extra pounds, she said, and needing a relocation, a change of scenery. Maybe Tulum. It was a few weeks before Christmas, and I told her that playing her holiday album marked the official start to my family’s season; she was touched, she said. We talked about love, how I met my wife, and our marriage of two decades. She spoke of her divorces as moral failures.
You’re wrong, I said. Divorce isn’t a moral failure.
But I just check out, she said, her eyes gaping wide, and then I leave.
She stared down at her plate.
Maybe you just pick the wrong guys, I said. Maybe you just need someone nicer.
Maybe so, she said. I attract assholes. I’m hard, though.
Maybe you’re too tough on yourself.
I said this like I knew her, like we were friends.
I ran through my mental Rolodex of straight single men in my life, divorced or widowed, who might want to go out with her. I imagined my calls to them, and their disbelief when I told them that Meredith was my friend, and that I wanted to fix her up with someone nice.
I knew all of her stories long before she told them to me. Her romantic luck was legendary and hideous. The press followed her love life for years, and she spoke about it publicly and with self-deprecation; it was often a punchline in stories about her. What was the protocol for this kind of conversation between two new friends, one a celebrity and one not? I knew her life as it was depicted in People Magazine and Rolling Stone; she knew nothing about mine, except what she’d read in my books.
Tell me everything, she said over dinner. I want to know.
I had been living in the bardo since my book had been published: Neither here nor there, the book tour over in the months before Covid, I had begun sleeping late and going a day too many without a shower. I let my gym membership lapse and spent hours every day mindlessly scrolling through Instagram while my wife was at work. Meredith and I had been skulking around each other on social media for months, hiding behind virtual shrubbery. When she began liking my Instagram posts and responding with emojis, I thought her account had been hacked. Even though we had briefly moved in the same circles in the 1980s when we lived in New York, she had arrived on my Instagram suddenly, and without reason. I have every song she ever recorded, on both tape and CD; I have bootlegs with hand-scrawled labels, bought from stoned hawkers at her concerts. My wife has every one of her albums on vinyl.
Do you know she’s following you? a writer friend said to me over coffee, after scrolling through my feed. What the actual fuck?
We have mutual friends, I said. Which was true.
You? she said, incredulous.
Fuck you, I said. Why the hell not? We both have blue checks.
At first, Meredith and I followed each without saying a word. She “liked” every post I put up, scrolling back years. I tried to play it cool, and was more selective of hers. But when I posted a dewy, filtered shot of my hands holding a strand of rose quartz malas, she broke the silence. She quoted the AA Big Book, and wrote about ego and humility and service, core principles of the Twelve Steps and the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous; she thanked me for writing, and for my honesty.
What are the rules about becoming social-media friends with someone famous, far into mid-life, when the mundanity of one’s married suburban groundhog days becomes like a trench too deep to climb out of? When the morning coffee resembles the last morning’s coffee, and the dog needs to pee precisely at noon in exactly the same spot; when the food shopping is the same—chicken on Monday; salmon on Tuesday—and lovemaking rare, when there are no new clothes because you work from home, perhaps, or because your body has changed and you finally understand the appeal of yoga pants. Virtual reality is tailor-made for people leading quiet, aging lives; apps like Facie remove lines and double chins; soft, desaturated light blurs the hard, veneered edges of a basement Office Depot desk just out of view of the furnace. We exaggerate: A pillow becomes a longtime meditation practice; a pile of papers become a new screenplay. It makes us something other than who and what we are. Applied to followers—humanoid bitcoins with quantifiable value in the open market; the more followers, the more value —social media is by its nature sophomorically nefarious: a famous person of whom you are a fan and known to you only through her Grammy Awards begins to follow you because she has read something of yours she likes, and your followers increase by fifty percent in a day because if a stranger is connected to you, then they are, theoretically, also connected to the famous person. When a famous person begins to follow you, you will be elevated in the eyes of others who will want to be connected to you and them, and you will be lifted, somehow, out of your trench of mundanity, if only for a fleeting minute. An addictive burst of dopamine will keep you from putting your phone down, even though none of it—not the romantic monochrome still life of a pitcher on an English farmhouse table in Sussex, nor the Grammy winner who comments on the perfection of your sourdough boules—is real. Virtual means simulated, and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, almost. Reality: the quality of having existence. Virtual reality: almost existence.
Are you friends, or are you not?
Does almost count?
I was a thoughtful dinner date. When I made our reservation, I asked for a quiet table where Meredith could sit with her back to the door so she wouldn’t be hassled by fans. People came and went; some did double-takes and left us alone. Bostonians are, by nature, reserved.
So is this weird for you, I said to her in the Uber on the way to the bistro. Does this kind of thing happen to you a lot, where you go out with followers you meet online?
Being in a car with her in a city not home to either of us felt intimate, and slightly subversive.
She shook her head no and said never and lit a cigarette. She rolled the window down and flicked an ash out onto Commonwealth Avenue where her tour bus was parked overnight, a few blocks from the college dormitory where I had lived in the early eighties. She seemed jittery, and she tossed the cigarette out the window, slumped down next to me, and pulled her coat around herself and up to her cheekbones which, I noticed in the glare of a Kenmore Square streetlamp, had not changed since the night of the black towel, in 1988.
I can be hard, she said. Just so you know.
She stared straight ahead.
One night, a few months before we met and while waiting for my wife to come home from work, I was sitting on my living room loveseat in Connecticut, the dog next to me. I poured myself a glass of Chianti. I was listening to Meredith’s earliest music—what she was playing the night of the black towel—with a more adult, critical ear. One of her best-known songs came on, about sobriety. I had just started going to AA, attending early morning meetings one town over from mine to avoid running into people I knew. I was crawling hand over hand towards a different way of living, but I was not there yet.
Hey, I wrote to her in an Instagram direct message.
Hey there, she wrote back, seconds later. What’s going on?
She began her part of the conversation in the middle, as though we had been talking for ages. Hadn’t we?
She loved my books, she said, and thought about taking one of my memoir workshops.
You’d need a pseudonym and a wig, I told her, and she agreed.
I taught a songwriting workshop once, she wrote, but I hated it. People wouldn’t leave me alone.
It must be a hassle, I said, to always be hassled.
Sometimes, she said, unless they’re cute.
We talked about crossing paths in the 1980s. I had been a musician for a brief time, but gave it up for school. We had played in the same clubs in Cambridge when I was still a student. She had been romantically aligned with a friend of a friend. She was the regular entertainment at a West Village café when another friend of mine worked as a server there. We had been in the same place at the same time, for an entire decade.
So how come we never actually met? LOL, she wrote.
Because you got famous, I wrote back. That’s how.
Meredith told me that my most recent memoir—about moral obligation, parental estrangement, and the possibility of becoming addicted to another person—moved her deeply. Her mother, a church-going conservative woman, suffered from narcissism the way mine did, and it tore the family apart. I told her about my dodgy and exhausting attempts at sobriety, and how much more closely I was listening to her lyrics, knowing she hadn’t had a drink since Reagan was in office. The night of the black towel, Meredith had already been sober for five years. Back then, I was just beginning my love affair with wine, which I blamed on my day job in the food business and the fact that I had to be able to identify a Pinot Noir versus a Rhone blindfolded. I had been going to cooking school after work, and wine was part of the curriculum. I was in love with my straight roommate, came home from school at midnight, opened another bottle, and crawled into bed without her while I listened to Meredith’s first album on my Walkman. Wine was a socially acceptable anesthetic. Now, after 30 years of daily drinking, my body was starting to fall apart; I wanted to stop, but I was having trouble. I told very few people.
I am at your service, Meredith wrote. It will help me too.
Our conversations moved quickly from Instagram direct message to email, where hundreds of words flew back and forth over the course of a month. She told me stories about the relationships she had with her mother and her siblings. She told me about work, and her relationships with men, which never ended well.
I want to hear about you, she said. No shame. Shame kills.
I’m an open book, I told her. After three memoirs, I was.
I’m coming to Boston on tour, she said. Why don’t you come as my guest—
I’ll be there, I told her. Dinner?
Dinner, Meredith said. It’ll be great to finally meet.
I booked a hotel room a block from where she was staying, and made plans to drive up from my home in Connecticut. The performance was on a workday, and my wife wouldn’t be able to join me.
Meredith and I shared our cell numbers and moved on to text messaging. Our conversations went on for hours, and always started the same way.
Hey, she would say.
Hey, I would answer.
Texts arrived from everywhere and around the clock, from lift lines in Aspen and hotel restaurants in Las Vegas near the venues she was playing, from pre-dawn swims in Malibu, from her kitchen during Thanksgiving, from green rooms backstage in places like Tulsa and Nashville, moments before her performances started.
Hey—what’s for dinner, she’d ask, and I’d tell her.
Okay gotta run, she’d say. I have to be on stage in five.
Good luck, I’d write.
Talk to you tomorrow, she’d write. xoxox
Do you think that maybe you can put the phone down, my wife said one Saturday while we were walking around Lowe’s, shopping for a new dishwasher. Because you haven’t looked up for hours. I feel like she’s always here.
She was right.
Meredith had become a part of my day-to-day existence. She had moved in with us. My phone sat on the dinner table because I knew she would text; it was always in my jacket pocket, and I set my Apple Watch to get notifications while I was on the treadmill in the gym, in the event that she wrote; it lived on my nightstand so that I could answer it when she texted after swimming her pre-dawn laps, before my own alarm clock went off. When my phone vibrated, my wife stirred, and I instinctively grabbed it and turned it over so that she wouldn’t see, as though I was a teenager who had been found watching porn.
The intimacy was as invasive as a weed, and I was letting it happen. Was it flattery, or was it boredom with the quiet little suburban life I’d fashioned for myself? Was I on call all the time because of the number of Grammys Meredith had won, or because her music was the soundtrack to my long-ago life as a single woman in late-’80s New York? Was I a smitten fangirl roped in to fill a narcissistic bucket without my even knowing it? Would my response to her have been the same if she was just another midlist author like me, a middle-aged accountant, or my local florist? What about the woman I barely know who regularly responds to my posts as though we have an intimate, secret relationship just we two? Would I have asked her to have dinner with me? Meredith had become a daily fixture in my life, and I couldn’t keep my boundaries in check with her. And when she texted me at five in the morning, or when my mother was over for dinner, or when I was walking the dog, or when my wife and I were getting into bed early, I dropped what I was doing, and I responded to her.
Hey, she’d write.
Hey, I’d say back.
Although our friendship primarily existed virtually—meaning in a not-quite-real way—I told her I’d be in her city promoting my book in the spring and would love to see her. She said she’d be out on the road, but wanted me to stay at her house.
You can watch the cat for me, she said. Don’t rent a car—I’ll leave you my keys. It’s just out of the shop.
I told my wife.
She wants you to stay in her house and use her car? Are you fucking kidding me?
The holidays came and went; we shared photos of the tables we set and the food we made. I had won a Beard Award, and she asked me about making beef stew. She taught me how to re-string my guitar quickly, which I had been doing wrong since I started playing as a child. My wife and I were listening to her holiday album and organizing our ornaments when Meredith texted me photos of her tree, and her son who was on his way home. I sent her pictures of our house, wrapped in lights. A visual artist as well as a musician, she was beginning to sell greeting cards she designed on her website; they were beautiful.
Send me your address, she said, and I’ll send you some.
I thanked her and insisted on buying them; she said no.
I sent her my address; they never arrived. I didn’t ask why.
She wrote one morning to say she was in agony, suffering from severe neck and shoulder pain, a common affliction for guitarists. I mentioned it to my own acupuncturist who cured me of disc pain when no one else could. He had trained in Los Angeles, where the best acupuncturist in the United States has his practice. She asked if my practitioner, a longtime fan of hers, could pull some strings and get her in just before the holiday, jumping a three-month waiting list. He did. She went once, and never responded to either of them when they both called her to follow up.
Is she alright? my acupuncturist asked. Nobody has heard from her.
I didn’t know what to say.
Over the holidays, I sent Meredith a sourdough bread from a craft bakery in Michigan. She thanked me, and froze it. On Christmas Day, after I put the standing rib roast into the oven, she texted wishes for peace and happiness, prosperity and love. She was wistful, and confided in me about an old boyfriend. She was tired of being alone.
Make it happen, I told her. Life’s too short. Go to New York and see him.
You think? she said.
I do, I told her.
I sent her flowers on her birthday, and she texted a selfie with them. She was beaming.
BRB—be right back—she texted.
I never heard from her again.
Ghosting is not new. It used to be the man you went out with and perhaps fucked, and who never called you. Or the woman who did the same (we do the same).
I just get bored, wrote one woman when I asked about her chronic friend-ghosting habit. I wanted to see how far I could push things, another woman told me. I like being in control. Still another reminisced about high school, and the practice of ghosting her best friend because everyone was ganging up on them, and she simply joined in, in a marriage of boredom and cruelty. In 1977, when I was 14 and living in Queens, I was ghosted by every girl in my class, with whom I had been very close the year prior; we ran together as a pack. Later that year, after a suicide attempt, I was treated for severe clinical depression.
Text-messaging has made adult ghosting far less messy, but crueler. You know when someone has read your message or when they haven’t. If they respond without a READ notification appearing after your note, it means they’ve manually disabled that notification so the person on the other end can’t tell whether they’ve seen it. Ghosting via text is like the little black purse of social snubbing and subtle bullying: Everyone wears it, and it goes with every occasion.
But ghosting generally doesn’t happen after a year of correspondence and airline tickets, and usually not when one party might risk being outed for bad behavior to a large fan base. Ghosters generally ghost as a rule, not as an exception, and it is risky behavior for someone in the spotlight. Ghosting, which is classified by some as an addiction with its roots in dopamine rush, can also involve haunting—continuing to follow someone on social media and perhaps even commenting on their posts—but cutting off all other communication. Social-media ghosters innately understand that the platform for their actions is not real—virtual—and this, perhaps, is the driver: No harm done if it’s only a simulation, a flimsy representation of life, rather than the real thing.
A year after disappearing, Meredith continues to haunt my Instagram feed—following me, viewing my stories, the latter of which cannot be done anonymously. The weather has gotten colder, and despite Covid undoing all of our plans, Susan and I bought our Christmas tree early, and decorated it to the strains of Meredith’s holiday album, the way we have for the last 20 years. It felt treasonous and unsettling to listen to it, like when photos of my ex fall out of a drawer. Would it ever be possible for me to separate Meredith’s actions from her art? All of her concert dates into the spring have been canceled—I still receive monthly notifications from her management— and so the awkwardness of attending a nearby show with my wife and hanging around with an all-access stage pass is moot. But even if it wasn’t, I would have sold our tickets and just left the black towel for her with the box-office manager with a note saying I think this is yours. Instead, I threw it out.
“It’s the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate,” says Claire Messud’s narrator, Nora, in The Woman Upstairs. “Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they’re lying to you, but as often because they’re lying to themselves.” What drove Meredith to our not-quite-friendship? Was it boredom? A game of cat and mouse between an artist and a fan? Or just two middle-aged women stumbling through the mess of time, the slowing of work, and modern social communication? Or was it more than that?
I can never ask, and I will never know.
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