It’s 5:44 a.m. at the airport I’ve just landed in on the East Coast and I’m wearing what might be the world’s worst stakeout shirt. It’s pretty but also orange. The good news is that I have a two-hour layover. There’s enough time to change. The bad news is that it’s 2:44 a.m. California time and I’m delirious and about to embark on convincing someone at an RV campsite that I need to tour the grounds to see if my friend’s soon-to-be-ex-husband is hosting another woman when he’s supposed to be watching their son. WTF.
After a year and a half of a global pandemic, who’s to say what crosses the threshold of unhinged? Lockdowns, drive-by birthday parties, no one feeling safe and people feeling some degree of angry much of the time has made nutty the new normal. But even so, this caper feels momentous. Sometimes you jump without any idea of where you’ll land because a friend asks for help. Reason takes a back seat to friendship and mighty forces will come to your aid ― or they won’t.
Three days earlier, one of my dearest friends told me she was getting a divorce. We have the kind of friendship where immediately looking into airfare and flying to her side made perfect sense. But the day before my scheduled flight, my friend texted to ask if I could change to an earlier red-eye so we could do a stakeout to see (and photograph) if the car of the woman my friend suspected her husband was hooking up with was parked alongside his newly purchased RV. She didn’t have definitive proof of an affair, but she had a hunch.
I was a bridesmaid at this friend’s wedding, but the entirety of their marriage took place thousands of miles and many states away from where I live in Los Angeles. I’d seen him only a few times in person, so the odds were decent that he wouldn’t recognize me from a distance if he were to see me.
Back at the airport, I decided not to change. I originally chose my orange shirt because it reminded me of that PTA mom ― you know, the one who packs the really good lunches and volunteers for everything. I held fast to my first instinct that the shirt helped support our cover story, the one where I’m just there scoping out potential sites for a large family reunion. I reminded myself that we weren’t going to be in a parked van reaching for night-vision binoculars.
But, alas, our stakeout was not to be. Before we could exit off the highway and head to the campsite office, we drove by his rig. We could see it from the highway, and no cars were parked parked next to it. Most people would have been happy that his RV was on the perimeter of the campgrounds, so no undercover tours were needed. And since no other woman’s car was present, we didn’t have to pull over to the shoulder of a highway (albeit a single-lane one) to take pictures. But delirium and adrenaline levels were spiking, and I found myself disappointed.
The stakeout was a bust but my weekend in the Deep South was a call to arms. Instead of gotcha photos of an affair, we ate carbs, remembered how to chain-smoke and grew more formidable as the night bled into morning.
Capturing evidence of an affair, hot off a red-eye, would have added a worthy chapter to the story of my friend and me. We met cute over two decades ago when we started reporting for the Vail Daily on the same day. Our news editor attempted to squeeze more industry out of both of us by preying on our insecurities. He disingenuously told me not to be intimidated that I was starting out alongside someone who routinely wrote four articles a day in Sterling, Colorado (population 11,000); concurrently, he casually mentioned to my friend that I was fresh off an internship at The New York Times. His tactics held sway until the end of day one when I popped my head over our cubicle divider and asked if she wanted to go for happy hour at Paddy’s across the street.
The stakeout was a bust but my weekend in the Deep South was a call to arms. Instead of gotcha photos of an affair, we ate carbs, remembered how to chain-smoke and grew more formidable as the night bled into morning. I introduced her to the glories of a jalapeño margarita and she showed me it’s possible not to flinch when a once-cherished partner becomes a ruthless stranger.
Some describe true friends as choosing your own family. I say it’s more like choosing your own army. There are friendships that make you braver, smarter and stronger. Alone, it’s easier to be disheartened by an opponent who seeks advantage by unearthing new lows. Fighting dirty can be a winning strategy. I can’t sit next to her in mediation. But what I can do is remind her who she is, fortify her defenses and, in doing so, clear some of the toxins out of my own life.
Prior to strapping in for my cross-country flight, my head was a mess. COVID had put the death knell on my book club, my monthly writing group, my political postcard writing group and local girls’ nights out that involved more than two individuals. Then the delta variant, in turn, hit the pause button on any attempt to resurrect them. Yes, I know. Laughably small COVID potatoes compared with what many people have faced or succumbed to over the past 20 months.
But sometimes it’s the small potatoes that get you. Darkness is darkness when you’re engulfed in it. And if you don’t get through it, it doesn’t matter how frivolous the originating source may be. I deeply missed the psychic nourishment gleaned from live gatherings with people who share a worldview and/or just want to laugh together. I’m sure the feeling is common enough. The damage came, however, when I mentally self-flagellated for how much real estate this longing took up in my head.
My stakeout weekend kicked that pointless but very real punishment in the teeth. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards nailed it: You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need. I’m lucky enough to claim some of the planet’s most remarkable people as friends. It took a bleary flight and a shameless soon-to-be-ex-husband to see I wasn’t even close to appreciating how much that mattered.
Sarah Paik is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and the editor at Best of Korea. Her work has appeared in The Aspen Times, Vail Daily and The New York Times. Although she is a PTA member, she only packs a slightly above average lunch.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.