I am looking for a new friend. A close friend–and one-third of my book club–moved out of town (out of state, out of the region) a few weeks ago. So, in the way I used to look about hopefully when I was unmarried, surreptitiously studying slightly geeky, attractive men about my age at the coffee shop, bar or concerts, I now surreptitiously study slightly bookish women about my age at the kindergarten dropoff or elementary school open house.
It was at the elementary open house, as I waited in the cafetorium (that’s “cafeteria/auditorium”) for the principal to give remarks, that I was especially conscious of being alone. I was in a seat with a few empty ones on either side of me, expectantly craning my neck as I studied the crowd and the new arrivals.
And I’d forgotten my book. Yes, I’d left the essential prop that, seen through the right eyes, would show my friend-to-be a few of my essential qualities.
Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life is about a Manhattan family moving in elite professional and private-school circles after relocating from Ithaca. The plot concerns a homemade pornographic video that a 13-year-old girl emails to the 15-year-old son, in hopes of showing him she’s sophisticated and interested. When he forwards the video to a few friends–who also forward it–it goes viral and rains down all manner of pain on the girl, the boy, and the boy’s family. The broad theme is one to which I often return in my fiction reading: A Family Is Tested. (I also enjoy books in which A Marriage Is Tested and A Friendship Is Tested.) A good novel has the drama and truth and dirt of gossip, but none of the guilt. That is, if you find yourself discussing a real couple’s trials, you realize: a) you can’t really know what’s going on with them; b) your discussing their problems doesn’t help them; c) you feel kind of gross having discussed another couple’s problems. Reading a novel leaves no bitter aftertaste.
I like to think my reading This Beautiful Life tells people something. It says I like to read new novels. It tells them I care (perhaps too much) about what the New York Times Book Review says (it got a good review!). Since my copy of the book is borrowed from the local library, it hints that I’m too frugal (or cheap) to buy lots of new hardcover books. And, yes, since it’s a book, it tells people I’m a bit of a Luddite. The downside to my preference for reading the printed word–as opposed to pixels collected on an electronic device–is that I forgot my book. (People don’t forget their iPhones. They lose them, and it’s a crisis. But they don’t forget them.) And so I glanced about me, trying not to look alone, while others in the room were engaged in conversations with friends and acquaintances, or engrossed in their phones.
Without a book, who did I appear to be? I looked like a mother, with graying hair, a tired expression and nondescript clothes. Maybe I even looked like someone’s grandmother, filling in for parents who couldn’t be there. (See graying hair.)
It’s the whole book/cover thing. But I’m suggesting you can judge a person not by her own appearance but by the cover of the book she’s carrying. And, whatever the advantages of electronic devices, you cannot judge a person by her iPhone.
Meanwhile, my son is starting to make friends in his kindergarten class. He already has little jokes he shares with them, inside jokes. He had been at the same daycare for more than five years, so I wondered how he would do with an entirely unfamiliar group. But as he seems to settle in, I realize that I–at least as much as he is–am stumbling about in a new social scene, looking for the people who will “get” me.
I’m out of practice. I haven’t had to make small talk in a while. And how do I look for friends without looking like I’m looking? (No one is attracted to someone who’s needy.)
Fortunately, I’m not desperate. I have a job, a husband, and a friend or two or three. And I have inner resources! And books!
Can you tell by looking at someone’s book if he or she might be a friend? Or do you need to know more than your eyes can tell you?