I’ve never minded coming home in the dark. I used to walk home all the time in Prague. The bus would roll up to our stop at the edge of the village and the doors would open with a loud sigh, leaving me on the stone sidewalk beneath bare tree limbs and bright stars.
That short walk up the hill to the old home in whose attic I resided for two years was one of the best parts of my long days in Prague. There was contentment in putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that each one was taking me closer to somewhere I belonged. The peace and purpose that comes from simply walking the path before me was impervious to the influence of wherever I had been and whatever was waiting for me up ahead, good or bad.
I don’t live in the moment as well anymore.
“Really?” I said to the large semi merging in front of me on a crowded Bay Area highway with not enough lanes. This was two summers ago and I was headed to a wedding.
On either side of me were cars backed up for miles. And they say LA traffic is bad. I had been stuck in Bay Area rush hour for two hours and as the time on my GPS readjusted again, I realized I might be cutting this wedding a little close.
Leaving my sister’s house had been harder than I expected. Not that I wasn’t able to get ready early enough – in fact, she even took the kids outside so I could use the bathroom to primp without being interrupted a dozen times.
But once my dress had been donned and my hair done up, I stood by the patio door and watched her and my niece and nephews soaking up the sunshine of late June on Berkeley’s greenest, most bee-occupied lawn.
Deborah caught my eye and walked over with her three-week old – a bundle of pink wrapped in nylon hair bows bigger than her head.
“You look nice, Mefs,” she said to me.
“Thanks,” I said. “The outfit looks alright without the hat.”
This wedding invitation had asked guests to wear hats and fascinators and as I haven’t owned a fascinator since I lost the one I bought for the 3 a.m. live streaming of Kate Middleton’s wedding, I went with a hat. It was large and conspicuous and I wouldn’t have done it for anyone other than Lina.
“The hat’s not so bad,” Deborah said as I tried to fit it over my heavily sprayed curls. She stepped inside into the kitchen and I followed her.
“Whose wedding is this, again?” she asked.
“Lina,” I said, knowing a name wouldn’t help. “She was the one I met right before I left for Prague and then we were penpals.”
“The same one you visit sometimes when you’re up here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Her.”
My family hasn’t met the amazing, mousy miss Lina, whom I have always affectionately called “Dinky.”
Deborah bounced the newest addition to our family on her hip while putzing around the counter, clearing up from our lunch.
Ten years ago, all I wanted was this. I wanted a little home and a gaggle of kids and a person to live my life with. I think a lot of girls who grow up in the church want that. I think we want it naturally, but I also think we’re implicitly taught that marriage and kids is our purpose in life, our calling. So I’ve spent large periods of the last decade feeling like I haven’t arrived yet, like I’m on hold and, no matter how nice the “please hold” music sounds, all I really want is to talk to the person waiting on the other end of the line.
(It should be noted that I never felt that way in Prague. Not for one second.)
And, in the face of not getting what was once my dearest hope and desire, my aim of late has been to figure out how to gracefully age out of one dream and into another without retaining any of the bitterness that so often accompanies disappointment.
“You’ll be late if you don’t get started,” Deborah said. “Traffic up here is pretty bad.”
It was hard to pull away. I hesitated one more moment, breathing in the quiet joy of her happy home, and then I grabbed my shoes and headed to the car.
It took me the better part of three hours to get from Berkeley to San Juan Bautista, but driving my snazzy blue rental car into the tiny Northern Californian town was worth it. The main street was lined with old store fronts and antique facades. Off the main street were neighborhood lanes (I got lost down a couple) with “children at play” signs. The blooming gardens and the well-kept homes were evidence that people here cared about the life they were building.
Suddenly, I felt very much like someone passing through – not just through the town, but through life. If I have a home or garden or roots of any kind, I couldn’t tell you what they are.
A narrow street off the town center strip hailed me over with long-limbed oak trees and I parked. I was early, even after all the traffic, and the venue was a five minute walk away, according to my GPS. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
Getting out of the car took considerable effort, given the hat, but I made it out and was immediately swept up by a strong breeze, the kind that knows where it’s going and pushes you out of the way in a hurry.
One hand on my hat and the other firmly on my dress, a la Marilyn Monroe, I sauntered as conspicuously as one can up the quiet lane, past a man in a T-shirt and shorts who gave me a quizzical look, and then onto the main street.
Time to find a drink.
Now, I’m sure San Juan Bautista has some decent bars, but the closest one to the venue was a small, four-stool dive on the adjoining end of a Mexican restaurant.
Three of the stools were already occupied by a few comfortably-dressed locals. My hat and I sat down in the fourth.
A very friendly bartender peered over the counter at me with a smile I thought I recognized and asked, “What can I get for you?”
I leaned in close and said in a low voice, “I’m about to go to a wedding and I have to wear this hat.”
He nodded with a grin and said, “I know what you need.”
I don’t know what he ended up giving me – something with lemon and vodka – but it did the trick. Within fifteen minutes, I was chatting with the other patrons and making smalltalk with the bartender.
“Joe,” he introduced himself, and suddenly I realized I knew why he seemed so familiar. His godfatherly reach around the bar, his gentle tone with servers who came up asking for drink orders or buzzing with a question they couldn’t answer, his commanding presence behind the counter, his jolly and affirming interactions with any customer who approached him for a drink or a friendly word – these were all qualities possessed by a Joe of my own. Joe from the diner, our graveyard buser and personal diner coach, always ready to give a pep talk when things get harried at 2 a.m.
Joe helped me get my hands on some chips and guac until I finally worked up the courage to walk down the block to the venue, hat still perched conspicuously on my head.
It so happened that, as I was walking down the main street, Lina and her entourage were walking up it.
My friend is a beautiful woman who shines from the inside out, glowing like stardust and exuding a cool and conquering spirit like she’s Disney’s most down-to-earth princess. She’s translucent, a fae in human form. Seeing her there, silhouetted by a dipping sun, backlit by golden rays, slightly windswept in flowing ripples of white and crowned with flowers, I nearly lost my breath.
“I’m so glad you wore your hat,” she said emphatically to me as we brushed by each other.
I did this for you, babe.
The venue was a patio garden, draped with lights and decked with all the trimmings of a millennial wedding – a chalkboard with seat assignments, a churro truck… You know, the basics.
Mentally counting hats among the other attendees, I found a seat and waited for the ceremony to begin.
It was short and sweet, which was fine with me because I was hungry and the hat was giving me a headache. I only knew a handful of Lina’s friends, but one of them was also at my table. We were of comparable age and life stage, so there was enough to chat about as we awaited our fellow table mates.
An L.A.-based writer in her late twenties or early thirties, a Los Vegas-based script and screenplay composer in her late twenties or early thirties, a self-made fitness coach in her late twenties or early thirties… The pattern became clear fairly quickly.
“This is not the Singles Table, is it,” I said. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.
The Singles Table was clearly two down from us with all the younger women and single men.
“Yeah, no. This is definitely the 30’s Table,” said one of the girls over her drink as we watched the other table. “We’re no longer single girls, ladies. We’re single women.”
There was a moment of silence as we listened to the polite laughter and awkward giggling floating from the singles table – that necessary social grace required when sitting next to strangers at a wedding.
We had had very little of that at our own table – most of us had dropped into deep conversation pretty quickly. Why are relationships so hard and why do we decide to stay or leave them? How much do you put on the line for a dream job that has small odds of ending in success? When do you throw away caution and when do you abide by it? What do you do when life gets lonely? And how the heck do you stick to a nutrition plan when you have roommates with terrible eating habits (”and what if you’re that roommate?” I asked).
Our laughter wasn’t awkward, and neither were the moments of vulnerability we all seemed to share so openly.
We all agreed to take our hats off, and when some of the girls were ready to find the bar, I went with them. We came back with Dirty Shirleys and cosmos and something super pink. Our table was one of the last to be called for food and we had a good time joking about the wait. No one felt up for dancing until one of us did, and then we all went onto the floor together. We checked in on each other as the night rolled on, unfolding in merriment under crystal stars and warm breezes.
“How are your feet holding up? No shame in going barefoot if you need to, girl.”
“Hey, are you doing alright? Do you want company or would you rather have a minute alone?”
“Can I get you a lemonade, babe? I’m going that way now.”
“You wanna dance? I wanna dance. Let’s go.”
It felt good to be cared for and to care for others.
At some point in the evening, we all shared our “So how did you meet Lina?” stories. Most of us met her through a friend.
I met her in a parking lot. I was picking up campaign signs for my boss – a political guru during the 2012 election cycle – and she was riding around with her friend while her friend delivered the signs to various drop off points. The three of us had talked for a minute in the parking lot, made the exchange and gone our separate ways.
Then I got a text from Lina saying, “Hey, got your number from my friend. You seem cool. Let’s hang out.”
That’s a paraphrase, but not much of one.
She hounded me for several weeks and I eventually ran out of polite excuses not to see this stranger. So we met up at a coffee shop with another one of her friends and we worked on our laptops for a few hours… And that was it. We have been friends ever since.
Eight years, dozens of international letters, a few baseball games, numerous cups of coffee and hundreds of deeply sincere and meaningful conversations later, I was here at her wedding. What a life we live.
“I’m starting to think she did this on purpose,” said one of the girls at our table. “Like, she didn’t make a 30’s Table, you know? She just made a table with all of her friends and she wants us to meet because that’s what she does. She introduces women to other women and we all become deeper and stronger and better for it.”
That sounded like our Lina.
And it was nice attending a wedding and not worrying about whether I’d meet someone on the dance floor or in the cake line or in the seat next to mine at the table. Instead, I spent five hours with these incredible women – handpicked for me to meet by one of my best friends. They oozed cool and confident and carefree while being tender and sweet and strong. They made me proud to be a woman and they made me want to be a better one.
How much time do I waste looking for a man to spend my life with and end up missing out on the women who have been there all along?
Platonic relationships are so undervalued.
I thought of Joe from the bar as I sipped on my last drink and he made me think of Joe from my diner in San Diego. Friendships abound all throughout life if you make the effort to look for them. I’m a lucky girl.
We all exchanged contact information and said our goodbyes in waves of retreat, each of us passing into the dark in due time to find our cars and our ways home.
Keys in one hand, hat in the other, I found my blue rental beneath the spreading limbs of moody trees, each bathing peacefully in starlight and shadows.
And then I drove home in the dark.
The four hour commute in traffic was barely two hours long at midnight. And I thought about life the whole way home – how good it is to surround yourself with friends, how lucky I am to know the women I do and how sweet it is to have somewhere to go even if it’s just one step at a time, like a drive in the dark, a walk back from a bus stop on the edge of the forest, or a day in an ordinary life given to us by an extraordinary God.
There is contentment in putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that each one is taking me closer to somewhere I belong, and that somewhere will not be here in this life. As sweet as it would be to have a blooming garden and a kitchen full of kids and someone to hang up their hat on my wall at the end of the day, all of those aspects of home are temporary. They will turn to dust in time, like the rest of the world. We do not belong here.
So I will keep my eyes on my heavenly home, knowing that every day is a step toward it, all while rejoicing in the journey and the friends that join me on it.