Several years ago, before my husband & I moved to our current house, we lived across the street from a couple named Greg & Laura (no, not their real names). My husband & Greg both shared a love of video games, UFC, & setting off illegal fireworks at 3 a.m., so they hit it off right away.
Laura & I – not so much.
Laura was a wonderful person, really kind & welcoming & open to having me as a friend, & I tried my best to be the same with her. The problem was we just had NOTHING in common.
She was a super girlie girl who would excitedly show me her new purse or share pictures of a cute skirt that was on sale at her favorite boutique. She also loved to host those parties for selling candles or make-up or whatever was the trendy thing at the moment. While I worked my hardest to summon enthusiasm for these things, I’m sure my lack of conviction was apparent.
Likewise I might tell her about a crazy play I saw in a football game that weekend or about the new JRPG I was playing, & her eyes would go a bit glassy over a big smile of feigned interest.
One day Greg arranged a pickup volleyball game with a bunch of friends at our local community center. I LOVE volleyball, & it’s so rare to find other people who know how to play well enough that you can make a decent match of it, so I was ecstatic. We played for probably three hours, & while Laura was a good sport & cheered for us all, you could tell it was not how she wanted to spend her Saturday afternoon.
Our husbands were really keen for Laura & I to become best friends. It would make it that much easier for them to have bro-time if they knew we were happily hanging out as well. But as it became more & more apparent that the effort was failing, they suggested, “Hey, you both like books! Why don’t you give each other your favorite book to read?”
Books! Why hadn’t we thought of that before?! We seized on the idea of a common ground, both of us scoffing at the impossibility of picking a single favorite to exchange. In the end, we decided to choose a book that we loved but that the other had likely never heard of, & then afterwards we’d get together to discuss what we’d read.
I gave her my copy of Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. It’s the story of twelve year-old loner Oskar who befriends the cute girl next door, only to find out she’s a centuries-old vampire.
She gave me Still Alice by Lisa Genova, the story of a high-powered linguistics professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
And so we went our separate ways to read.
In giving her Let the Right One In, I felt I’d chosen something that was representative of my favorite kind of book – one that’s a bit creepy, a bit different, but with a strong story & characters I can root for. And as I began to read Still Alice, I had the sinking feeling that she’d done the same for me.
Still Alice is a wonderful book, but I struggled to finish it. I found it boring & depressing. I mean, books are where I go to escape from real life, not to vicariously confront life’s tragedies through someone else’s eyes. I realize that’s not how everyone is, but it’s true about me.
When we met up to return books, she asked how I’d liked her choice, & I racked my brain for something positive. “It was really well-written,” I stammered, “It was definitely a new experience for me.” I asked her thoughts on my book, & she forced a grin. “Yeah, yours was pretty new for me too. Um, really original.”
And that was basically it. I’m sure she realized it as much as I did. We’d failed to connect – even over a shared love of books.
“This was fun,” we both said. “Let’s do it again.” But somehow we never did.
Life went on, & the boys kept up their bromance, but for us, we remained good neighbors. Nothing more.
A year later when we moved away, she hugged me & said how sorry she was to see me go. And I know the sentiment was genuine. But we didn’t bother with fake promises to stay in touch, because we both knew that was a close as we were ever going to get. We’ve only talked once in the years since then.
It was a situation in which a life lesson was presented to me in extreme clarity – one of those startling adult realizations that seem obvious but yet I had never thought about before. You can like a person & yet not be friends with them.
When the movie adaptation of Still Alice came out in 2015, I imagined Laura going to see it, & the thought made me smile.
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