A few months ago my four-year-old daughter and I drove to
another state to visit my dearest friend, Charlotte. I was in the middle of a busy
week at a writers’ conference, and Charlotte, flying in from the South, was planning
to make a quick in-and-out trip to do archival research for a new book. She was
also recuperating from an ear infection she’d picked up at her son’s swimming
pool, an infection that had moved from “no biggie” to potentially serious in a
matter of days, with a doctor at one point telling Charlotte that it was possible
the infection could move into her brain.
At dinner Charlotte started to feel sick, worse even than
she had felt on the plane. Around five the next morning she rushed to the
bathroom, the door slamming in her wake. By six we’d talked to both her husband
and my fiancé, debating whether I should take her to urgent care. Was the
infection eating her brain? Was it just a common bug? Was it something she’d
caught on the plane (a possibility that’s scared me silly ever since I read
Floyd Skloot’s In the Shadow of Memory)?
By late morning her illness had started to taper off, but
Cora and I stayed as long as we could to help calm her. We made a trip to
Target to get some crackers, the one food Charlotte had hoped she could
stomach, and some other necessary items to shore her up for a worst-case
scenario should she decide to drive to the archive the next day. As we texted back
and forth between the hotel and the medical aisle, Charlotte and I were in stitches,
laughing as we tried to figure out what size disposable underwear to buy. Were
they sized like regular underwear? Was the generic brand okay? It wasn’t the
kind of thing you wanted to get wrong.
When I returned with the Target bag, she said solemnly, “You are one of three
people in the world I would ask to buy me adult diapers,” and I laughed. We
found out later it was just the flu.
Cora and I originally planned to be home before lunch but we
didn’t leave the hotel until after five. An hour from home and approaching
dinnertime, Cora and I tore into the bag of popcorn we’d bought at Target. I
rummaged in the glove box and found a collapsible dog bowl I’d bought a year
ago when I adopted a puppy—certainly not ideal for feeding a child but up to
the task. We made up songs about this and that for the next hour, mostly about Charlotte,
Cora’s new favorite person. It had been a good trip. A great trip, actually,
despite a screwed-up hotel reservation, a thwarted research trip, an unexpected
illness, a day stuck inside. A bad day with Charlotte is still better than a
good day with almost anyone else I know.
Now, every time Cora and I have a snack in the car—which,
anyone who travels with a four-year-old knows, is more than frequently—she asks
if she can use the dog dish. “Watch this!” she’ll say, and then demonstrate how
to collapse the bottom in on itself. Then she’ll hold the rim in her hands and
push up with her thumbs, delighted each time as it pops open and morphs from an
unusable object into a bowl. Each time, I think of Charlotte.
More than a few readers might be wondering what this has to
do with writing, or reading, or books, or anything. I’d make the case that it
has to do with all of those, and more. What draws me to this moment is my close
relationship with Charlotte, the humor we saw in a shit (ha!) situation, Cora’s
innocent delight in the byproducts of everything gone wrong, the reality of
expectations diverted, and the physical vulnerability and betrayal of our own
This interconnection is
what I attempt to capture in my fiction: to make something as meaningful as my
relationship with my oldest friend as vivid and real as a collapsible dog dish.
I hope you will check out my latest UNP collection, It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories, and let me know if