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 bodies.
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 I’ve succeeded.