imaginary friends and neighbors
by caitlin meredith
A few weeks ago I developed an intense attachment to a couple that lives in the neighborhood. It happened very quickly, the way some of the best friendships do. It was immediately clear how much we had in common – everything from our favorite kind of organic tea to the poetry of a lesser known writer. Having this kind of chemistry can be bittersweet – on the one hand you can’t believe your luck to stumble upon a kindred spirit (two in this case!) but on the other you regret all the time wasted not knowing each other already. The memories that could have been made! They’ve lived four blocks down from me for a while now, and yet we’d never crossed paths before. Sadly, I got to know them on their moving day, which sucks.
Another thing that sucks? They never existed.
Let me explain.
Sunday morning, sun was shining. I set out on my 15-minute walk to the Pilates studio, listening to an old RadioLab podcast, marveling at the parasitic wasp that lives in the cockroach’s brain that Jad Abumrad and company are telling me about. Just as I’m about to round the corner I notice what looks like a yard sale across the street. Most of the yard sales in my neighborhood consist of a mess of gauchely colored hangered blouses jammed into a chain link fence, but this was different. There were boxes and boxes of books, fluffy down comforters and what looked like a tent. Only a couple of people were there but one of them was holding up a guitar. I put the podcast on pause and squinted at the sign in front: FREE. What?
I crossed the street to investigate further. As I entered the tumble of treasures the others averted their eyes. I started with the books. There was David Foster Wallace and T.C Boyle and Jim Harrison and Wallace Stegner and Umberto Eco. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, my favorite Larry McMurtry book, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and all of Billy Collins’ poetry volumes. I realized at some point that I was holding my breath. I felt as though I had snuck into a darkened living room while on my way to the bathroom at a dinner party. But it also felt like I was looking at my own bookshelf. I was very confused.
Next I investigated the tent. It was lightweight, from REI and seemed to have all the necessary bits. Propped up on the coffee table next to it was a NorthFace backpacking backpack with a pair of men’s rock climbing shoes tied to it. Unfurled beneath was an inflatable Thermarest camping mattress. They were campers – I love camping, and I had just signed up for a rock climbing class. I had always wanted to meet kindred spirits in my neighborhood, and here they were. You know what, I thought, these are my new friends.
Looking up, I noticed that the porch was a scramble of white kitchen garbage bags full of food and random food prep items. A freezer bowl for an ice cream maker sat alone to the side. By now I was sensing signs of some sort of crisis – the small pebble of confusion in my stomach had turned into a large stone of dread. What the hell was going on?
It wasn’t exactly like stumbling upon a modern day Pompeii, where the volcanic ashes famously captured frozen villagers in their daily activities, but it kind of felt like a modern day version of those lives cut short. Lives that had a striking resemblance to mine, in the material category anyway. I know our things shouldn’t define us, but many of them define our type. And they looked like my type. Give or take a few items, the contents of their front yard looked pretty similar to what it would look like if you turned my house upside down and shook it. That’s what it looked like: a wild frenzy to get everything out of the house as soon as possible. A box holding a tennis racket, microphone stand, one wool sock and IKEA placemats balanced on one of the front steps.
I asked one of the women there who was clutching a light fixture and glass serving bowl if she knew what happened. “I guess they just don’t want this stuff,” she said on her way to loading her car. That didn’t make any sense to me. Who doesn’t want all of their camping gear? Who just decides that all of the unopened organic quinoa doesn’t interest them anymore? And who throws away a life’s collection of books???
The evidence suggested a few possible alternatives. A woman (or man) scorned was a possibility – god knows romantic fury is an efficient house cleaner – but there were so many men’s and women’s items mixed together (his and hers matching Smartwool long underwear!) that that didn’t seem a likely possibility. Another was a foreclosure but there were no signs up and when they show those sad neighborhoods with 80% foreclosure rates in Nevada, they all have signs up. My heart dropped when I realized the only other reasonable explanation: eviction. My new best friends were being evicted by some evil landlord. As if we already didn’t have so much in common, I was also in a financially precarious position, wondering if a fire sale would be in my near future. At the sight of more people coming to scavenge goods, I became panicked and snapped into action.
I started to put all of the items of particular value into a pile in the corner of the lawn. Onto the heap went the tent, backpack, down comforters, Patagonia clothing. It was too late for the guitar and tennis rackets but I got the guitar stand and the fishing pole. Any time a car passed my head swiveled wildly around, expecting it would be the reality TV moment when they returned from their weekend away to find all of their shit on the front lawn and go ballistic. I feared there would be crying and screaming, clutching at the favorite t-shirt that had been trampled by looting neighbors. I would then timidly approach them, telling them I tried to save all of the valuable stuff and point to my pile.
But, by now over an hour had passed and my new best friends weren’t showing up to claim their stuff. Maybe it wasn’t a weekend trip, it was a week-long trip and the landlord had waited until they left for the airport to descend. I developed a longer-term plan. I would save all the stuff I could, bring it my house, take a photograph of it and post it on Craigslist, letting them know that some of their stuff had been saved. That’s when I remembered that I didn’t have my car.
A young woman was on the porch sorting through throw pillows. I asked her if she would mind staying and guarding my pile while I ran home to get my car. She agreed and I took off. My heart was racing on the four-block run. Not just because I’m not a runner, but also with the urgency of the situation. Churches would be letting out any minute and the couple’s life’s possessions could disperse in moments.
I jumped into my car and sped back to the house. The young woman had just finished loading the coffee table and picture frames into her SUV. I thanked her and set about dividing the books into easily replaceable paperbacks and more valuable hardbacks and specialty books. Getting this intimate with their book collection endeared me to them even more. Who was reading Steven Jay Gould’s book on evolution? I love Steven Jay Gould. Which one studied law? I took classes at the Law School last year! And whose extensive short story collection was this? I love short stories! In my mind we were already squeezed into my kitchen making pizzas together, talking about our favorite David Foster Wallace essay.
I loaded one box and headed towards my car. That’s when I saw a young woman in the neighboring house emerge. I started shaking a bit. Oh God, here she was going to see me taking all this stuff and tell the neighbors that I was one of the vultures. I left the box near my back tire and called out to her. “Hi, um, do you know these people? Do you know what happened?” She looked at me through her disheveled post-Saturday night hipster hair and squinted. “Yeah, they’re just getting rid of a bunch of shit. They got broken into like three times in the past couple months so they’re moving out.” She went on to explain that it wasn’t really their shit to begin with. It’s been this, like, group house between friends over the years and everybody left stuff behind so they just threw it all out on the front lawn to get it out of their hair. My heart dropped, again.
My entire life’s work, in the past couple hours anyway, had been completely immersed in a fantasy that I was helping my new best friends on possibly the worst day of their lives. Now it turned out that not only had the stuff not been cruelly seized from their clutches, it didn’t even belong to them. The composite image my (clearly overactive) imagination had constructed for them was based on the belongings, literary proclivities and hobbies of not a couple, but a procession of couch crashers spanning the years. Devastated might be too strong a word to describe my reaction, but certainly sad and confused. And I started to feel….very foolish.
Instead of laughing at getting the wrong end of the stick, however, I started to turn on the imaginary couple who lived in the house. My identification ceased the moment I imagined them throwing some of my favorite books on the lawn, tossed asunder like old shoes. Not to mention the high quality North Face back packing backpack. Didn’t they know the value of a dollar? They were starting to disgust me. What, were they so rich they could just throw a perfectly good tent away?
I tried to make the transition from goods-guardian to extremely lucky just-happened-to-walk-by-and-got-lots-of-good-free-shit neighbor, but it was only half-hearted. I picked out one of the down comforters, loaded the camping stuff into the backpack and carted as many boxes of book as would fit in my trunk and headed home.
The next day I drove by and there was no evidence of the chaos of the day before – it had been picked clean. The house was empty and my new friends had moved away. The betrayal was complete.