11.29.2010

What Happens When You Move

If you're a shy person, you have friends because you already had them. You went to school with them and kept on going. You worked with people, or your spouse did, and you gradually incorporated them into your evenings and weekends. Your kids had friends with parents you got to know bit by bit, and you continued the relationship. When you stay in one place, it takes little, simple steps to have a social life.

When you move like we did: not with a job and not with kids, you have to start over. It shouldn't be difficult with a son and his family down the hall (we're the apartment managers of my dad's building, not a real job). It should be easy with relatives by the houseful scattered an hour south. A few decades ago, I worked at jobs near here, went to high school and college near here, and even lived twenty-one blocks east in my mom's apartment for a year. Easy, easy, easy. Slipping into a past social life seemed simple.

The thing is when you move away, you become a stereotype. You aren't a bunch of little stories you tell about yourself when asked at birthdays. When you're gone, you can't admit what you want to share and leave out the embarrassing stuff. You can't defend yourself when the spin about those embarrassing situations goes south.

When you move, you become a relative with a tagline. I was the bohemian daughter. I didn't know this until I returned and was introduced, or re-introduced, to people I have known my whole life. I wasn't someone's daughter or niece. I was "that one," as in, "you remember her? That one?"

My relatives invited me for holidays again, and asked me the weirdest things. They had only heard bits of my life, and the bits were not representational. Like everyone, I'd had successes as well as failures, but unlike everyone, I had been on food stamps. It was twenty years ago or so, and for less than a year, but it was what had been said after my name. That was my label. That, and the reminder that I had moved around a lot. They didn't know I was fixing up and selling those houses  I'd been moving around in for a profit.  To my face, they told me I was "non-traditional."

It's going to take a lot of birthdays to forget those food stamps.

My idea of an easy social life died, too. Everyone had moved on without me for over twenty years. They weren't keeping a space open at the table, hoping and waiting for me to return. The table was filled with new people who didn't know me. When you go to Thanksgiving dinner at a close relative's home, at a table you sat at hundreds of times as a kid, and you don't know two-thirds of the people sitting there, you realize you are the newcomer. You are the one without a social life.

When we first moved, my husband stayed to finish work in Oregon for a year. For days I sat alone in my kitchen chair, or on the floor if I was really sad, holding my phone. It's hard for a shy person to call someone when they're lonely, and harder when people don't call back. Everyone has a full life but you and here's the proof. You could spend three days holding that phone, talking to nobody during that 72 hours. You make up an excuse to go to Safeway just to walk around three dimensional people and have a superficial conversation with the checker.

If I were one of my kids, I would have advised to join a group. Sign up for a meet-up and meet people with similar interests. When I got the reminder emails, I left them in my inbox. Shy people don't go to random locations and walk into a roomful of strangers. If I'm going to act on-stage, it's going to be around relatives, not people who may not be worth all the effort. I joined so many meetups that my inbox was full of potential social life but I declined every invitation.

When my husband moved down permanently, he had a lot of fix-up work to do. He talked to the other tenants, he had to. Talking to tenants was something my dad advised me against doing. He said, rightly, "You don't want to get too close. They're not your friends. You might have to evict one of them some day."

He didn't have to tell me in such an extreme. Avoiding people is something I do naturally. When we lived in a condo with a shared hallway, I put my ear to my door to make sure there was no one near before I opened it. My heart starts pumping and I stutter and blurt stupid comments if I happen upon someone without advance warning.

I couldn't always avoid tenants. I chose the quietest time of the day to water the plants or vacuum the hallway, but one tenant always caught me. She'd start talking and, even though the vacuum was so loud I couldn't hear, kept talking. She asked questions so I couldn't smile and keep on going, pretending I had to get the vacuuming done. She talked easily so she probably didn't realize I had no idea how to respond. Afterward, I'd finish vacuuming with a happy feeling, like I'd had a good conversation with a real friend, ready to spend another three days alone in my kitchen, holding my phone.

That tenant moved out a few months ago but by that time my husband had moved back into my kitchen and my life. All the deferred repairs from all the tenants who I'd avoided kept him busy, so he was gone most of the day. In this way, the transition from hermit-hood was gradual.

By talking with tenants and repair people all day, he wasn't worried about his lack of friendship outside the building. He seemed relieved he didn't have people calling him all day long like at the job he'd just left. He still might be in that sweet spot, like vacation, where the contrast between your regular day and your vacation day is so striking that you aren't bored yet.

Not me. It feels weird not to have unrelated people call up and ask you over for dinner. The electrician got to know my husband so well, thanks to an un-pampered building, that he eventually invited us over. It was the first time since moving that I'd been inside someone else's house. I felt like a country girl going to the big city for the first time. "Look at all your art," I said. "Look at your pots and pans."

How many times can you compliment someone's pots and pans? They were the nicest I'd ever seen, and more plentiful than I'd ever seen. My three that I was pretty proud of up until then, made me feel rural, like I had teeth missing. Maybe all their friends had the same kinds of nice pots and pans. Maybe they thought everybody had pots and pans worth $150 each, and so many.

They talked about things about which I couldn't add to the conversation, like jobs and work travel. It felt like going to a different country with strange customs, like cheese plates. How much cheese were you supposed to eat before dinner? It was just sitting there, a few pieces sliced, with a knife available to cut as much as you were allowed. How much were you allowed? Should I eat all the slices and stop after that? Should I leave the sliced pieces for someone else and slice my own?

They were busy stirring and cooking in those beautiful pans and it looked like dinner would be a while. Which bread went with what cheese? There were three of each and the bread had bits of hard, dark things mixed in that I couldn't recognize. I kept slicing more off, trying to figure out what the dark bits were. They were probably nuts but I'm still not sure. I'm sure I ate too much but that's what you do when you don't know what to talk about. One of the cheeses, the electrician's wife said, was eighty dollars. Did I hear that right? I kept quiet, not sure how to respond. Nothing I could come up with seemed appropriate.

Maybe it's best not to stress my lack of social life. I've lost all the questions that used to pop up in my head when people were talking to me. When you can't think of something to ask, you do a lot of sighing and really, that's just embarrassing. You can do that all you want at home, in your kitchen, by yourself, with your phone in your hand.