Hannah is one of the best friends I have ever had, which is amazing considering how we met. It was the first day of Teach for America institute (I’m not proud, but those are the facts). I was in the airport getting ready to go to Tempe, Arizona. Hannah was in the airport getting ready to go to Tempe, Arizona. I am not sure who approached whom, but I remember Hannah was wearing something kind of orange, and she looked way out of my friend-league. She looked like the sort-of-hippie-ish-but-clean girls who’d rejected me in college. In the airport, Hannah was warm and kind. She asked where I was from; she asked what I was going to be teaching; she asked how I felt about Tempe, Arizona. It was a nice conversation. I knew, of course, that this was too good to last. Hannah would notice that I was wearing a tank top from Forever 21 and reject me immediately because Forever 21 is all slave labor and synthetic fabrics. Best not to get your hopes up around a girl like Hannah. The Hannahs of the world only bring heartache and loneliness.
I really believed that, with all my heart. The idea of actually talking to this person seemed completely out of the question. Once in Tempe, I would avoid Hannah whenever I saw her across the quad. I would turn my head down and walk faster if we were near each other in the cafeteria. I knew that if we were put in the same room together, Hannah would only feel awkward. She would feel guilty for not wanting to talk to me, and she’d have to let me down easy. She would have to say something gentle and passive, like, “Hey, this was nice, but my friend’s just right over there so I gotta go.” I was saving us both a lot of trouble by not talking to Hannah.
A mutual friend re-introduced us once we were back in New Orleans. I remember saying to the mutual friend, “Oh Hannah? Hannah doesn’t like me AT ALL.” And the friend said, “What? No. That’s impossible. Hannah is really nice — I can’t think of anyone she doesn’t like.” Then Hannah was totally nice to me, which was plainly shocking. One day she even asked me if I would cut her hair for her. It was like a celebrity had asked me to cut her hair. I rearranged my plans to do it. We sat on the swampy brick back patio of my New Orleans house and talked about teaching while I systematically wrecked everything that had previously been good about Hannah’s haircut. She was really nice about that, too, and said something like, “Oh! Yeah! It’s cool. And this part will grow out.”
Then we spent the afternoon lounging in the banded autumn light at the park, laughing about how Mike Neckwalksi’s teeth smelled terrible (somehow you could tell, even without kissing him) and about how hard it was to do anything fun now that we were teachers. After nine hours of actually talking to Hannah, I was head-over-heels in love. Hannah was one of those truly special, honestly gentle people you never think you are actually going to meet.
Years later, we are roommates (and we have been for going-on-five years). Hannah talks sometimes about when we met, too. The beginning of that story is the same for her, but then she goes on talk about how, after our nice airport conversation, I began to completely ignore her. For no good reason, I started snubbing her every time she saw me. Sometimes she’d even wave, and I just pretended like I didn’t see her. So she decided that I must have considered myself way too cool to be her friend, and eventually, she gave up.
Over the summer, I ran into one of the cool outdoorsy girls who’d rejected me from college. I was showing my friend Ned around Portland, and I took him to my favorite taco shop on the South East side called Los Gorditos. They have burritos that are as big as your arm, stuffed with fried soy curls and hot avocados and like twelve kinds of salsa. TWELVE KINDS. Joanie was sitting at a table with her husband, finishing dinner. My heart raced when I recognized her: Joanie had been my roommate for a while in college, and I’d kind of worshipped her. She had waist-length rose-brown hair that always seemed simultaneously messed-up and perfectly neat. Sometimes she had solitary picnics completely naked in the middle of our dorm room. Then she rejected me. How did she reject me? Great question. I realized she was too cool for me once she started making other long-haired outdoorsy friends, so I stopped sitting near her at breakfast. I didn’t reach out to her on a regular basis. I avoided her at lectures because I knew that she had new and better people to sit by. That’s mainly it.
I knew that when I saw her at Los Gorditos, she would pretend like she didn’t know me. I braced myself for that. I knew that when we sat down, she would prefer we didn’t sit anywhere near her. All this was so painfully obvious, it might as well have been a trash can with a “NO EXIT” sign on it. That’s a thing. Trust me.
So it was a surprise when Joanie jumped up and hugged me in a very straightforward and genuine way when she saw me. It was furthermore a shock when she moved over to our table after we sat down across the restaurant, and hung out with us until we were done with our dinner. She had questions and stories all her own. She didn’t seem to think anything about me or my presence was burdensome or uninteresting. This was the first time I considered that maybe those hot outdoorsy girls in college hadn’t rejected me. Maybe I’d been so afraid, I’d effectively (if unintentionally) rejected them.
Last Friday, our backyard neighbor pounded on our front door. I was the only one home, and when I opened the door, I could tell immediately that he was mad. He had asked me last week to cut the banana trees that were scraping his roof. (He had been mad that time, too. He hadn't "asked" me to cut them so much as he had demanded it.) I had not cut the banana trees. I HAD told Hannah — who has a full-time job and no extra time whatsoever to cut banana trees — that he had wanted the trees cut. I had offered to help, but there was not follow-up there. Really, he was right: the banana trees were still scraping his roof. He didn’t yell at me, but he WAS irate. Every time he said something aggressive, I apologized profusely. That seemed to irritate him further. I started to feel smaller and smaller. He seemed to not want me to feel smaller. He seemed infuriated by my teensy, flimsy responses. Eventually, he said, “You better cut those fucking banana trees by this weekend, or you won’t like what I do to your yard.”
I shrank to the floor and sobbed like a four-year-old. I was a horrible person. I deserved to die. I had really fucked up this time, and nothing was ever going to be OK again.
Hannah came home early from work to help. I may have alarmed her when I sent sent twenty texts in a row that all said, "It's an emergency; he's going to torch our house if we don't do it RIGHT NOW." We went behind the house to cut the banana trees, which aside from being a very up-high job, is satisfyingly easy if you have a good pair of loppers. As we cut (well, SHE cut -- I held the ladder), the neighbor came out again, still visibly angry, and started to scold us about our failure to chop the banana trees sooner.
Hannah said, gently and calmly, "You seem really mad. We want to be good neighbors; we didn't know this was such a big problem. We had been told that we just needed to cut the trees once in the winter; so we're very sorry that it hasn't been done sooner. We simply didn't know. We work very hard on the yard. Please just tell us calmly next time when something like this is bothering you. We will do our best to make sure we get it done quickly." As she was speaking, the neighbor diffused. He looked calm. He was no longer upset.
"I"m Sicilian," he said. "Sometimes we get a little riled up."
Over the years I have lived with Hannah, she has taught me more than I have space to write about here. There have been dozens of times when she has legitimately saved my life. She is intelligent, thoughtful, careful, and direct. She is constantly wrangling with her own truth, and firmly refuses to sit quietly by injustice. Probably the most valuable thing she has taught me, and continues to teach me, though, is what it means to actually talk to people, and why actually talking is so important.
When Hannah feels like she has sparred with someone at a meeting (she goes to a LOT of meetings, which is super-noble, but also hard for me to understand, because that sounds like straight-up torture), she regularly calls the person to discuss what happened after a few hours have passed. She asks for one-on-ones with people who have been distant with her. I know that, because she's had a few one-on-ones with me. Sometimes I don't even realize I'm being distant, but having Hannah sit down with me and tell me how I am coming across ultimately brings us a lot closer together.
The key to actually talking is to walk into all conversations assuming the best about people, and remaining empathetic, even in moments of conflict and discomfort. Hannah calls this "entering conversation in love." If love is behind everything you do, you can't go wrong. You have to believe, in the middle of your heart, that every person is just a person; aching to be understood as much as everyone else.
Of course, that's harder than it sounds. Actually talking to someone -- I mean, looking them in the eye, remaining present with them through the chaos, and listening to what they have to say -- requires vulnerability. Being willing to let someone in is a reciprocal process, and we all fear rejection and failure and ridicule.
The neighbor offered to let us borrow his ten-foot ladder. We went into his backyard and saw his tool shed and his above-ground pool. There was a bowl of something that had once been food rotting near a wood pillar in his yard, and I realized all at once that he was just as prone to accident and mistake as I was. Probably -- certainly, even -- someone in his life had also made him feel small; had also walked up to his door and told him that he was doing everything wrong.
And now, someone else had done just the opposite.