There’s package in the mail. Well, “package” is a strong word. It was really just a brown paper grocery bag wrapped around a small bundle of cloth. It’s postmarked Bethesda, Maryland, and with no return address. It has been sent to my street address in Framingham, but the ZIP code, instead of 01701, says 01721; the area code I had last year when I lived in Ashland. As I make my way upstairs with the brown bag in my hands, I do all the stupid things you do with a gift whose surprise you want to prolong. I shake it, squeeze it, try to guess what it could possibly be.
Anna Goodman is the only person I know in Bethesda, Maryland. I try to remember the last time I hear from her, and I can’t. I’m pretty sure I sent her our routine “I’m not engaged or pregnant” check-in text message at some point in the last few weeks, but she hasn’t gotten back to me. I’m due for some sign, however eccentric, that was she’s still alive and well.
Once inside my apartment, I pull a chair out from the dining room table- careful not to pull too hard on the top and have it come off as it has a tendency to do (for sixty-five dollars at Goodwill, what do you expect?)- and sit down to unwrap the package.
The paper breaks away to reveal a shirt: A black tank top with orange and green writing. “Nectar’s: Since 1975” it read. And on the back: “Fresh Music Served Daily”.
I sit and stare at it for a moment, blinking and shaking my head, searching for a clue to the puzzle. And then, there the answer is. Of course! Nectar’s! How could I forget?
Anna and I go back a long way. Almost twenty years now, to when we were both in the second grade and taking piano lessons from Ms. McJunkin. At that year’s spring’s recital, all the children performing were sitting together in the audience, and during the boredom that was waiting for everyone else to go on, Anna and I became fast friends through a game that we made up which involved ripping up the programs and making silly sentences based on names of songs and performers.
Take a poll of Anna’s large, diverse body of friends and acquaintances and ask them how they met her. A few will give you normal answers like “we work together”, but the majority will say something like “She was in line behind me at a coffee shop and when I dropped my change she helped me pick it up” or “We sat next to each other on a Greyhound from Hartford to Newark”.
So, in that context, it’s not so strange that in my mid-20’s I’m still friends with the girl I chatted with at piano recitals in elementary school. I’m no longer in touch with any of Ms. McJunkin’s other students, but I believe Anna still speaks to a few of them.
Now, this is great on one level. Every crowd needs someone like Anna to break the ice in case of social awkwardness around new people, or to come up with an adult equivalent of the ripping the program game in case of an otherwise boring night in. But her ever-expanding social circle coupled with her spontaneous personality make keeping up with her on more than a superficial level very difficult. Even when we lived in the same town, I was rarely able to pin her down for more than half an hour at a time before she had to go skipping off to the next engagement. The farther in advance I would try to carve out time, the more likely it was that she would cancel on me.
And so, the summer before our senior year of college, when we were both back home in Guilford, Connecticut and throwing around the idea of taking a road trip, I waited until the last possible moment to ask for the time off work.
But on the scheduled day, there she was, in her beat-up blue Volvo station wagon, ready to hit the open road. I tossed my overnight bag in her back seat, popped the playlist I’d made entitled “The Most Amazing Road Tip Mix Ever” into the CD player, and off we went.
We didn’t have a set-in-stone itinerary of course. There were some friends in New Hampshire and Massachusetts we wanted to visit, some places we wanted to see, a financial budget that was comically small, and a time constraint of one week.
We also had goals we’d set for ourselves, just to see if we could do it. Some were more attainable than others. For example, we wanted to be vegetarian the whole week (not so bad) and we wanted to go the entire time only buying from independent stores; no chains or franchises (We clearly hadn’t factored in the idea of gasoline.)
A relative early start allowed us to make it to Northampton by lunch time. No particular reason why Northampton, except that Anna had been there for a track meet once, and had deemed it a “cool place”. It was everything our dirty hippy life-on-the-road hearts had desired. We spent the afternoon eating at a vegetarian café owned by a folk musician, and browsing shops where everything seemed to be made out of hemp.
Around three o’clock we got back in the car for the second leg of that day’s journey. The plan was to spend the night at a campground in Burlington, Vermont that was rumored to exist. I honestly don’t remember whether we even brought a tent. We must have at least had sleeping bags…right?
Anyway, make it to Burlington we did. And once we got there it was love at first sight. Anyone who has spent time in downtown Burlington knows the wonderful dichotomy of lake and mountains if you look to the left, and pedestrians-only brick street shopping district to the right. We parked the car and made our way along the path, stopping here and there to watch the street performers that gather on the sidewalks during warm weather, hoping to part a few tourists with their money; musicians, magicians, a boy who looked to be all of sixteen juggling bowling balls on a skateboard.
There was still the problem of where we were to find a place to sleep though. And it was getting dark. I was all for trying to locate a library or somewhere there might be tourist information or at least a map of the town. (This was in the days before we all constantly carried around the internet in our back pockets.) Anna, however, opted for a much more direct approach. I lost sight of her for a moment and when I turned around, there she was, a few blocks away, engaged in conversation with a girl about our own age with dread locks and a flowing peasant skirt. After awhile, to my surprise and confusion, they seemed to exchange phone numbers. They then waved goodbye and Anna ran back to where I had been staring at a bulletin board vainly trying to find a clue as to where one might find lodging in Burlington.
“Lauren says the campground is really close to here, but it’s kind of expensive.”
“Lauren?” I began.
“She says we can stay with her tonight.”
“And she wants us to go see this band with her later at Nectar’s.”
I thought about this turn of events for a moment, and realized that deep down I had half expected something like this to happen. After all, we were looking for an adventure, weren’t we?
“All right.” I said. “I’m in. What’s Nectar’s?”
Nectar’s turned out to be exactly the kind of hippy watering hole you would expect to find in such a town.
Except that it also wasn’t. The band, “Greg Mayo and the Groove”, had sort of a funk/soul sound that was in keeping with the whole Burlington persona. But the band members were all wearing button-down shirts and khaki pants, as if to bridge some gap in the demographic of their audience, which, as I looked around, I realized was exactly what they were doing. For every part-time barista/full-time starving artist at Nectar’s, there was a businessman in his forties enjoying a late happy hour with the guys from the office. And the stranger thing was that these two groups of people were mingling with each other. As the night wore on, everyone began to dance. And everyone seemed to know each other, as if they did this very thing every night of the week.
This was not the New England I knew. In the New England I knew, next-door neighbors went months in between so much as a wave at the mailbox. In my New England, kids barely spoke to each other on the school bus. Retail transactions were made with a bare minimum of eye contact. When the summer people came from New York with their big cars and their noisy children, it embarrassed both our Puritan work ethic and our Catholic guilt. Whose woods these are…I’m really not sure.
At some point in the evening, Anna and I must have worried that Lauren wouldn’t show up and we would have no place to go when the bartender finally turned the lights up and asked everyone to hurry up, please, it’s time. I have to believe to that we must have had at least that much foresight or common sense, but I really don’t remember. Anyway, Lauren did show up, and her offer still stood. It must have been shortly after that that we decided we needed a souvenir.
The shirts were overpriced the way mementos and tourist junk always are, especially in places where alcohol is being served. Remember that comically small financial budget? We weren’t doing so well sticking to that, but we couldn’t let ourselves get out of this bar, this night, this town, without proof that it had all actually happened. And so we decided that we would buy just one shirt and mail back and forth to each other periodically as a way of keeping in touch. (And I promise you the idea was completely original. It was before anyone had ever heard of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.)
So we bought the shirt and shoved it in the enormous bag of tricks that Anna insists on lugging around everywhere, making room for it next the deck of cards, the roll of stamps, the pitch pipe and the avocado, and I finished off the night quietly sipping my Malibu and Coke and shaking my head as my travelling companion struck up one flighty conversation after another with Lauren’s friends, the business man who had just proposed to his girlfriend and bought a celebratory round for everyone in the place, even Greg Mayo himself.
The next morning, though, I awoke to the sun in my eyes, streaming through the window of the unfurnished spare bedroom that Lauren just happened to have. On the other side of the room Anna still snored. I walked through the silent house, taking stock of my surroundings. Out the window I could see Lauren’s yard much better than I had the night before. A tire swing hung from a maple tree, and beyond that I could see Lake Champlain.
As I got more acclimated to the new day, the worrier that I naturally am began to come to the surface with a dozen questions. Where was everybody? We can’t just leave without thanking our host. Did I oversleep? Will I step on a board and wake up some room mate of Lauren’s I have yet to meet and make him or her mad? Is the car safe where we left it? Where did we leave the car? Does Lauren regret letting us stay at her place and now she’s left for fear that we’re murderers?
The shrill of a telephone on the kitchen counter interrupted my runaway thoughts. I stared at it as it rang twice, three times, eight times. There didn’t seem to be an answering machine. On the twelfth ring I finally picked it up. It was Lauren.
“Oh hey Jane” she said with the utmost nonchalance, as if I picked up her telephone every day. “I had to go to work. Would you mind walking the dog?”
I’ve asked myself a dozen times since then whether Lauren would have opened her home to just anyone, or if Anna’s ineffable charm got to her too. I’ve never met anyone who can get away with quite as much as she can. The most improbable things just seem natural coming from this woman. Maybe it’s in her blood. Her sister has managed to hitch-hike across continental Europe on multiple occasions with no negative repercussions, and has actually made lasting friendships that way. And their mother’s sister, well, she’s married to the bass guitar player of a very famous rock band. I’m not making this up, I swear.
Back in the present, I sweep the dining room table with my hand, searching in vain for a note I may have missed. But there is none, of course. Anna has, on the spur of the moment no doubt, simply wrapped the shirt in brown paper, scrawled an (incorrect) address on it, and brought it down to the post office on her way to her next adventure.