When we lived in Maryland, I’d meet my friend Cara once a month for breakfast at a bakery in Bethesda. We ate scrambled eggs and slathered strawberry preserves and hazelnut chocolate spread on croissants while we talked shop: mothering, writing, teaching, books. Sometimes, if we happened to have a bit more time, our waitress would pour fresh coffee in to-go cups and Cara and I would walk around the neighborhood, shamelessly drooling at the houses and making up stories about the lives of people inside. A woman was always the protagonist. She was unabashedly confident. She was fantastic at a really interesting job, and she made time for everything: exercise, cooking, decorating, fashion, reading; whatever she needed or wanted, she made time for.
“And she always looks good,” I added, lifting the coffee to my lips.
“Always,” Cara replied.
These fantasies Cara and I created helped us with our own dreams. We talked about what it would feel like to, say, be a writer full time.
“I can meet you at the bakery,” I told her. “We can have writing mornings. We’ll write for three hours, then walk around the neighborhood together for a break.”
Cara and I walked along the sidewalk to the next house and I added, “We’ll spend the afternoons reading.”
“And we won’t leave each other until we have set goals for our work when we see each other again,” Cara said.
“Absolutely,” I said, tapping her coffee cup in celebration.
Cara and I stopped in front of a house that had one of those circle driveways, with not a spot of gasoline on the cobblestone pavement. I craned my neck to peek inside the home’s kitchen. Gleaming stainless steel appliances twinkled against cozy colored walls, and baskets hung from the ceiling. “At night,” I said to Cara, “I will roast a chicken and while it’s roasting I will knit.”
Cara laughed. I wanted to know how to roast a chicken and learn how to knit since she and I first met. Seven years later, I had yet to touch any sort of raw meat and I had a basket of yarn coiled in neat figure eights with their labels around them, sitting in my bedroom.
I was always energized with possibilities after I met with Cara. These little stories we imagined helped me think about what I could do, or who I could be in reality. It’s like walking into a bookstore and standing between shelves of books and thinking, “Whose world will I enter today?” It’s the thrill of where I might go, and who I might become that excites me.
Cara and I didn’t always have time for walks after breakfast, but our passion for pretend, our imaginative wondering, our acceptance that we aren’t fully satisfied with who we are crept into our conversations between sips of coffee and bites of buttered toast.
One day, when I was in graduate school, I met Cara with a crumpled and tear- stained draft of a paper on Desiderius Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly.
“I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all,” I told her, while fresh tears spilled into my coffee mug.
She took my paper and read what I had. I couldn’t look at her read it, so I looked out the window at a clothing store across the street called Courage b.
“What’s courage have to do with a cashmere pashmina?” I muttered, and rested my chin on my hand. I leaned towards the window to get a better look at a plaid pair of ankle pants. I studied the pattern and wondered if they’d look cute with an Irish cable-knit fishermen’s sweater Jesse gave me for Christmas years ago. I didn’t get a chance to wear it that often when we were in the DC area, and the weather never got as cold as it does in the Midwest. I shook my foot rapidly while Cara read, and I stared at those ankle pants. I should get rid of that sweater, I thought. After all, minimalist wardrobes are all the rage: only keep what you love. If you haven’t worn it in several years, toss it.
I hadn’t worn that sweater in years, this is true, but thinking about throwing it out made me sad. I could remember the morning Jesse gave it to me. We were living in South Bend, and he was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. He told me the story behind the sweater—that each pattern is unique to the fisherman so that if he drowns at sea, he can be identified. I thought about a wife sitting by a fire, knitting a sweater for her husband, a pattern designed for him so if she stands next to his lifeless body one day, she can point out the cable and twist stitches down the center, the rib stitch she decided on at the last moment for the sleeves. “This is mine,” she would say, running her fingers over the yarn that was once a pile on her kitchen floor while her husband sat nearby humming “The Night Visiting Song.”
Maybe I’d wear that sweater again someday. It would look cute with those ankle pants. I began to imagine reading my Erasmus paper in that outfit at a writing conference, perhaps the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I would look fantastic, and I would express something about The Praise of Folly that nobody had thought of before.
I chuckled at myself and felt slightly as though I could write a better paper, when Cara said, “Erasmus is discussing the importance of comedy.”
I shifted my perspective away from Courage b and towards my tattered essay Cara was holding.
“You see life, yourself, and others a little differently if you can laugh for a minute, don’t you think?” she asked as she tapped a copy of Erasmus’ story.
I picked up my fork and moved my eggs around the plate.
“What’s your favorite sitcom?” Cara asked, trying to pull something out of me.
“‘Friends,” I said, and regretted it immediately. Cara has a Ph.D. in Theatre Practice. She studied at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan. I should have said, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Community.”
“I love that show,” she said.
“It’s hilarious!” Cara poured more coffee for herself and discussed ensemble casting and I blurted out, “Jesse and I try to watch every Thanksgiving episode over Thanksgiving weekend.”
“The one where they get their heads stuck in the door?” Cara chuckled.
“Or, the one where Rachel makes that trifle?”
“IT TASTES LIKE FEET!” we said in unison.
I sat back in my chair, and circled my mug with my finger. “I could write a paper about ‘Friends’,” I joked. Cara didn’t respond so I added, “On September 11, one of my less hefty thoughts was whether or not that show would be cancelled.” I was ashamed that I said this, but Cara leaned forward and said, “See,” and her eyes were shining. “You needed comedy!”
“Doesn’t that just prolong thinking about or doing something about the problem? Aren’t I just playing pretend?”
I thought of our walks and our fantasies, the work Cara and I put off so we could make up stories about people living in Bethesda mansions. I thought about why I can’t throw away a sweater I haven’t worn in years and probably never would wear as long as we stayed in Washington DC. There’s a possibility of a story. Maybe I’d wear that sweater again. Maybe I’d find something to say about why folly is important.
Cara slid my paper across the table and told me to write what I understood about Friends and plug in The Praise of Folly when I found parallels. I folded my paper in half, slipped it inside Erasmus’ book, and tossed it all in my bag. “I’ll think about that later,” I said.
“Okay, Scarlett O’Hara,” Cara joked.
We spent the rest of our time talking about our plans and dreams, what life is like and what it could be.
Later, I would walk past Courage b and look at the price tag on those ankle pants. I’d decide they were too expensive and head towards home. I’d sit down at my desk, pull out Erasmus and my draft and do what Cara said.
I would never wear my fisherman’s sweater in DC, but I would be thankful I had it on a ferry ride out to Whidbey Island, where I’d work on my MFA in Creative Writing. I’d stand on the boat next to another writer who told me we were riding along the Whale Trail. We’d lean over the side, our hands gripping the bars, and gaze towards the water where I’d look for black and white, blue and grey, fins and blow holes, wondering what in the world I’d do if I actually came eye to eye with a whale.
It’d be quite a story.