Friends: An Essay
A writer searches for someone to eat with
by Diana Spechler
Our first night in town, we went out for sushi. When we sat at the bar, the chef introduced himself and showed us his knife. His name was Jack. His knife was beautiful, sharp, the blade engraved with Japanese letters. Or maybe they were Korean letters. “From Korea,” he said, pressing a palm to his chest. After that, our communication entailed pointing and vigorous nodding and careful blade-touching.
Minutes before, I’d felt lonely. As far back as I could remember, an empty space inside me had been growing like a bald spot. I was least aware of it when I planned a move, and most when I arrived. My boyfriend and I moved a lot—in two years, from western Montana to eastern Montana to Texas to Michigan to central Wyoming, and now, so I could pursue a ten-month creative writing fellowship, to San Jose, California. We were writers. I was certain it was somewhere: the perfect place to write, the perfect place to live. My boyfriend was always game. That was one thing that drew us together.
We ordered from the waitress, Cathy—Jack’s cousin, she said—and then watched as Jack sliced chunks of salmon like butter, shaved thin sheets of yellowtail, and rolled shrimp and rice into seaweed wrappers. This was sushi that melted on the tongue, so fresh and delicious, my muscles relaxed. From the sake I felt fuzzy, enveloped in a hug. I loved this restaurant—the slim silver chopsticks that caught the candlelight; the warm glow of the lanterns; the Japanese painting, a tight flock of birds. I loved the people who gave this to us—our first meal in a new city.
“Do you guys want to come over some time?” I asked.
I was so glad that they did.
Outside, it was September. I told my boyfriend, “I’m perfectly full,” as palm trees swayed like dancers, as high-rise condominiums twinkled. I hugged him, remembering our early days, when we lounged in his bed for hours, saying, Let’s stay here forever.
They always arrived with food from the restaurant—tempura, seaweed salad, dragon rolls, spicy scallops. We’d sit at our kitchen table and eat, pointing to things—table, door knob, armpit—and translating. Korean to English, English to Korean. Cathy was the motivated cousin. She carried an electronic Korean-English dictionary and typed furiously as we spoke. Jack didn’t want to learn English.
“Typical Korean man,” Cathy said.
“Typical Korean man,” Jack repeated, grinning.
We played a game where my boyfriend or I talked as fast as we could and they had to guess what we said. I once knew a girl who microwaved marshmallows just to watch them explode.
Then they did the same for us. In Korea we eat puppies.
My boyfriend, a hunter and travel writer, said he’d like to try puppy with them some time. He showed Jack and Cathy his buffalo skull. He let them pet his black bear rug. I imagined us all growing old together. We’d be laid-back California types, laughing, buzzed on sushi and friendship and beer, two languages weaving a blanket around us.
One night, while we smoked a joint at our kitchen table, Cathy said, “We have to tell you something.” She wasn’t eating the sushi they’d brought. Neither was Jack. They ate sushi all day every day and had grown sick of it, a problem that sounded like heaven to me. Cathy and Jack conversed in Korean. Cathy took a long swig of her beer. Then she looked at us and said, “We are not cousins.”
“Oh,” we said.
“What are you?” asked my boyfriend.
“We are boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“So…” My boyfriend glanced at me, confused. “You just…pretend to be cousins?”
“Yes. Because Jack hoped you’d eat in our restaurant again. If customers think I have no boyfriend, they come back and look at me.”
“We don’t go out to eat so my boyfriend can ogle the waitress,” I said, laughing.
Jack and Cathy blinked at us, empty-faced. Then Cathy looked up “ogle.”
After the joint made a few more rounds, Jack, as if he were a friend we’d known forever, passed out on our living room carpet.
When they left, Jack babbling in Korean, Cathy holding his elbow, I leaned against the closed door. “They’re so great!” I said, the air still pulsing with their presence.
“They are?” My boyfriend rubbed his forehead with the heels of his hands. “They lied to us.”
“And they eat dogs.” I shrugged. “But we’re not perfect, either.”
It struck me a couple of years later when I saw an ad for the site AdultFriendFinder.com, before I learned that the name was a euphemism, that that’s what I’d been during my transient years. An adult friend finder. I’d accumulated people—in Michigan, an actress who mirrored my body language when we talked; in Wyoming, a divorced hay farmer, who rode his horse around his beautiful land, so sad that he wasn’t married; in eastern Montana, two brothers in matching cowboy hats who drank too much and grabbed my ass. (Well? Beggars can’t be choosers, I said about that friendship.
But why are we beggars? my boyfriend wanted to know.)
My boyfriend never understood—why I smiled at every stranger, why I smiled even when I didn’t see a stranger, in case one materialized. His best friends were his brothers and a few guys he’d known since childhood. Whenever they got together—handsome, rugged, cheerful—they spoke a secret language and vanished into the woods. Content with those long-distance relationships and months with no one but me, my boyfriend lacked the compulsion I had—to scour the land for friends, to hoard them like provisions.
After their confession, Jack and Cathy disappeared. I called Cathy a couple of times in the coming weeks, but her outgoing voice mail message was a robot voice. She didn’t call me back.
“Stop calling her,” my boyfriend said. “They’re just people we met in a restaurant.”
“I love them,” I said, my eyes blurring.
They were our only friends in town. Of the two other fellows in my program, one lived an hour away. The second had had a psychotic break and asked me to do her laundry (I did), and then quit the program when the director said no, he wouldn’t buy her a car.
I got depressed in San Jose, the sun taunting me with its brightness, my words stilted on the page. All winter, my boyfriend and I spent our days writing, our evenings watching movies. This was back when Netflix allowed only three DVDs in rotation at a time, so I passed some evenings in fidgety silence.
“I don’t know how to be happy,” I said.
“I know,” he always said, hugging me.
After a month with no word from Jack or Cathy, I begged my boyfriend to take me to the sushi restaurant.
“You’re stalking them.”
“What, they blow us off so I’m not allowed to eat sushi?”
“This is going to be awkward,” he said.
Instead, it was as if no time had passed. Jack made us appetizers on the house. Cathy brought us extra sake. By the end of dinner, my heart pounded with hope. They promised to come over soon.
“You didn’t ask where they’ve been,” my boyfriend said as we walked home, past giant hotels and men in suits and people with shopping carts full of cans. It was winter, but not really, almost cold, but not quite.
“I’m just glad to see them,” I said, watching group after group of strange faces come into focus, then disappear.
They returned to us, the smell of soy sauce wafting as I flung the door open wide. Six months had passed since we’d met, and for a few minutes it felt like the old days, as we hugged and set the table and pulled bottles of beer from the fridge.
“We have to tell you something,” Cathy said as she and Jack watched us eat. She looked at Jack. “Our names aren’t really Jack and Cathy.”
“We kind of figured,” I said, popping a piece of shumai into my mouth. It was so good, I moaned.
“What are your names?” my boyfriend asked, suspicious.
Cathy told us her Korean name, and then Jack’s. We had her repeat them four times.
“I see why you go by Jack and Cathy,” I said.
My boyfriend only picked at his spider roll. I knew he thought they were liars. But their lies intrigued instead of repulsed me. Why should people come to us cracked open like coconuts, their meat already gnawed through?
“Jack Nicholson and Catherine Zeta Jones,” Cathy said.
“Of course,” my boyfriend said drily.
They disappeared again, this time for two months. We ate some quiet dinners—American things like grilled cheese and salad. Our one-bedroom apartment felt both enormous and cramped. Dead bugs collected in the overhead light fixture and neither of us bothered to clean the thing.
“Don’t,” my boyfriend said when he saw me reach for the phone.
Then one spring night, someone knocked on our door. It was Cathy, a plastic bag of sushi dangling from her wrist.
“Come in!” I said, pulling plates from our cupboard, chopsticks from the drawer. I lit candles on the table and the apartment glowed once again.
Not until I sat beside her did I notice the furrow in her forehead.
“I tried to leave Jack,” she told us, “but he took my shoes.”
It was difficult to discern if she meant this literally, or figuratively, or if something wasn’t translating.
“He won’t let me go anywhere. He doesn’t want me to learn English. He won’t let me have my own money!”
I didn’t eat the sushi that night. I barely even noticed it. I studied Cathy’s face, her pretty black eyes, her veil-like lashes, and mourned all we’d never be able to say, and all that we couldn’t do for each other. She looked thin. I rubbed her back, my fingers catching the spaces between the stones of her spine. “Do you think you can work it out?”
She shook her head. “When I’m with him, I feel lonely.”
“Wow,” I said, stunned by how nuanced her English had become.
I jumped up from the table to get Cathy our spare key. “If you leave him,” I told her, “doesn’t matter what time of night it is. You always have a place here. We’ll always take you in.” I felt as though I were handing her a giant key to a make-believe land, something covered in glitter and star dust, a prop.
She would never use it. Anyway, we were leaving.
In a month, we would move back to eastern Montana, and then to Rhode Island, our last stop together. My boyfriend would always be the man he was—filling the freezer with dead rabbits, raising crawfish in a bucket in the bedroom, while I would always be a pescetarian and a malcontent, looking for something better in the freezer, and outside of the freezer, too. So I’d move to North Carolina with the vacuum cleaner, and he to Alaska with the television. Later, we’d both settle in Brooklyn, living two lives that would never touch. That storm was still over a year in the future, but already I felt its rumblings.
“Thank you,” Cathy said, slipping the key into the back pocket of her jeans. “You’re my friend.”
“You’re my friend,” I said, and when I opened the door, a wind whooshed through us.
Because I was an adult friend finder, the second time Jack and Cathy disappeared I’d befriended a fifty-year-old middle-school teacher whose online identity was an eighteen-year-old dominatrix. Submissive men nationwide mailed him iPods and clothing and cash. They slept outside if he told them to, emailed him pictures of themselves tied to beds, believing that they were the virtual sex slaves of a gorgeous young mistress with flowing red hair.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he told my boyfriend and me, rubbing his receding hairline.
My boyfriend sighed. Later he’d ask me, Is everyone in California a liar?
“But they’re real relationships,” said the middle-school teacher. “In a way, they’re totally real.”
In his words I found relief. I wasn’t the only empty one. If the whole world stood in a line, we would form the longest tunnel. I saw the facts of loneliness—how boundless it is, how inevitable. How universal. How untreatable.
When Cathy left, we closed the door and collapsed on the couch. I didn’t yet know that forever after, I’d receive weird spam from her email address—ads for iPads and penis enlargers and a mysterious berry called acai. I’d be one of many recipients, one link in a chain of strangers. On the couch, my boyfriend reached for me from a great distance. I felt angry with him, as if he’d taken my shoes. We didn’t speak for a long time, just held hands from separate rafts, two specks floating on a wide blue sea.