Life swap

IMG_4878First of all, know that these sounds are normal: birds very close to the house, the way our cat belts out torch songs of boredom in the middle of the night.

The car horns and sanitation workers you have in New York will be replaced by a throbbing chorus of cicadas. You may call a friend and hold the phone in the air. Just try to imagine, you will say, what I am going through.

When you tell your parents of your plan to take up residence in Alabama for three weeks, as our dogsitter, they fear for your safety in this place where anyone and everyone could be carrying a gun. Manhattan, the devil you know, has its dangers to be sure, but out there, in wild America, you can’t be sure of anything, only that you are an outsider.

Your mother reminds you that you are Jewish, that you might have car trouble, and that this is a place with storms and snakes. Or maybe they don’t know about the snakes. My daughter mentioned the other day that she sees them pop out of holes in the ground on her way to school. I don’t think I will tell you about the snakes.

My husband, who understands what people from New York City can be like, because he is married to one, emphasizes that people in the South are friendly. It is customary to nod or wave as you drive down our street or even speak to people in the supermarket. You ask me about this later and I confirm that it is true. You don’t need an exit strategy.

Even as I tell you that we live on a suburban street, I know that you are picturing a swamp, the only means of escape a rusted out truck with manual ignition. As you pull repeatedly on the clutch the cicadas drown out all other sounds.

As I write the instructions for how to look after the dog and where to find things, you ask questions I hadn’t anticipated. I am trying to tell you how to navigate my life while you are busy inventing your own.

In one email you ask if I own a mandolin and where to go to an open mic night to sing. I know where to find a cigar box banjo, but I am not even sure these are real questions. Since when are you a musician?

You clarify that the mandolin is for slicing cucumbers from the farmers market and that you have a fantasy where you will unleash your inner cabaret persona. You imagine a nearly empty nightclub—I am picturing a raucous table of missile defense engineers drinking Monkeynaut, a local brew, cheering you on. This is not a place where we celebrate loneliness.

You ask what to bring. How can I tell you? A bathing suit. A sweater for the supermarket. But maybe also a cape and a tricornered hat.

What time does the dog go to bed? You ask. Does he like to chase balls? The questions keep coming: ziplining, manicures, health food. I am researching a new life rather than instructing in my own. You are free from the burden of being me. All I ask in return is that you let me know how it goes.

This piece was written last spring in answer to a writing prompt of Operating Instructions. My friend did come here and became good enough friends with some of our friends that she returned. She could have been the only person in all of NYC to visit for New Year’s. She found the experience broadening in some ways and the experience of having to drive everywhere oppressive, which I think very few Americans get. People think cars are freedom, but if you have grown up being able to walk out the door and get anywhere on foot or public transportation a car is a big, needy beast with its own agenda. You have to negotiate with it to get anywhere. You have to pay attention to it and to “the road” first thing in the morning. She has drafted her own version of the experience, which I will share here as a companion piece.


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