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Dogs in Doorways
Yesterday afternoon, I got on the phone with a friend and we both stepped away from our computers and went for a walk in our respective neighborhoods—she in Portland, OR, and me in Iowa City. It was about 4:45 here, and the sun had just emerged, flooding everything with that syrupy late-afternoon light.
We both sighed and commented on the relief we felt at leaving the virtual world of phone calls and Zoom meetings and the infinite maw of the internet into which we ceaselessly seemed to deposit our energy. “At least outside it’s like, here is a hill with some trees, here are my legs walking up the hill,” I said. “I know what it will take to walk up this hill.”
“Right,” she agreed, her breath subtly shifting with each step. “And that’s it. The virtual world of work is insatiable. It wants everything you’ve got.”
“Energy expenditure on the internet is like cryptocurrency,” I said, with the confidence of someone who knows absolutely zero about cryptocurrency. “It only exists in the abstract, but it will still happily bankrupt you.”
Just a couple of weeks away from publishing my third book, I have to work pretty hard not to be bankrupted by the virtual world. I’ve never published a book without leaving my home, and I’ve never had a home in a place like this, which is at once far more comfortable than anywhere I’ve lived as an adult and also profoundly strange and lonely.
For twenty years, I cultivated relationships to my neighbors in various Brooklyn neighborhoods, spoken and unspoken. The pleasures of these and the boundaries that governed them were clear to me. Now, everything is different. First of all, our immediate neighbors are almost all white. They all seem to have children, young or grown. They are homeowners with snowblowers and Weed Wackers and multiple cars. They stand at the end of their driveways and chat us up. We stand at the end our driveway and chat back. It is enjoyable, but weird. What would happen if we talked about more than the weather and our dogs? I am happy to keep talking about the dogs, but I am also lonely.
Most afternoons, we go for a walk in the neighborhood. At the right time of day, there are a familiar cast of characters. There is the desultory husky who lounges behind her storm door like a character in a Colette novel. The aged corgi, who walks her very old man past our kitchen windows every morning at 9:15, and can be found in her doorway every afternoon. We know all of the dogs’ names or have made names up for them. We know very few of the people’s.
“Look, there’s Marvel and those kids,” we might say.
“Here comes, J.J. and her man.”
“Oh, look at that good pack!”
“Cyrus is really looking scampish today.”
Our old chihuahua, Chuck, also likes to spend sunny afternoons in the doorway. We plop his bed in front of the storm window and he basks in the sunlight, occasionally sounding his strange, raspy bark when another dog walks by.
Until this week, I never really connected the other dogs in doorways of our neighborhood with Chuck. By this, I just mean that I never imagined the other dogs patiently alerting their owners that our planet had reached the correct degree on its axis in orientation to the sun and they would like the door opened so that they could bask and observe passersby. It was a sort of characteristic daftness on my part, but also a kind of typical human oversight.
I remember sitting in my family’s car as a kid, watching the traffic around us as we drove from Massachusetts to New Jersey to visit family for some holiday. For the first time, I thought about all the people in their cars, their similar boredom, their waiting cousins and grandparents, and the comparable absorption of their interior worlds. Here we all were, lugging our individual life stories around, all of them unfolding simultaneously like so many concurrently playing songs—totally separate and also parallel.
We live in such close proximity to our neighbors without knowing anything about their interior lives, or even the interiors of their homes. I’m not saying that I want to, necessarily, but right now this condition seems to highlight the fact that despite having lived here for nine months, we haven’t been able to make any friends. We don’t have a community apart from our jobs. Our neighbors are the only people we talk to in person.
Writing a book is always partly an attempt to find companionship with other people, and to offer it. This time around, it feels more acute. I stand in front of my computer, talking and typing and clicking and dumping energy into that black hole, but really I’m trying to drag my stinky little dog bed to the window, sit in it, and bark in greeting: Hey you! It’s me. Hi. I want you to know that I’m thinking about you, in your life and all its various interiors.
This letter is itself a kind of raspy bark, announcing my presence from the window, letting you know that I’m in here and I’m happy to see you, even from this unbreachable distance.
P.S. My book publishes in 18 days. You can buy it here, and read some super nice things people have said about it here. I’ll be on a virtual tour (details here!) for most of April, reading and talking with lots of geniuses, like Jo Ann Beard, T Kira Madden, Stephanie Danler, R.O. Kwon, ZZ Packer, and others. My launch is on March 30 at the wonderful Charis Books with a bunch of my favorite people. Please come to any or all of these readings? I swear I’ll read something different at every event and make brand new silly jokes.
P.P.S. Here is an excerpt from Girlhood in the Yale Review about how my body was a conduit for the sublime as a child, how our society taught me to hate it, and how I found my way back. Also, how I used to eat watermelon as a kid and pretend it was raw meat.
P.P.P.S. A short story (my first in years!) at The Cut about compulsory heterosexuality that is also in this wonderful anthology, KINK: Stories. Please don’t read it if you and I are related (love you, though!).