Words by Ashley Locke
Photo by Mary Gates Kennedy
In the summer of 2016 I went to Home Depot to buy a wooden plank to lay across the top of the washer and dryer where my kitchen counter should be. I had just moved into a very old, new-to-me home, and I was lucky to even have a washer and dryer in the tiny space. There was no insulation and no heat, but it was close to my job on the Square and the rent was cheap.
I graduated from The University of Mississippi two years earlier, but I was finding it impossible to graduate from the town. Oxford is known by many names, but none of them resonated with me like The Velvet Ditch—soft, comfortable, and hard to get out of.
Since finishing school, I’d hopped from rental home to rental home. I went from being a barista at the local coffee shop to waiting tables at the local bakery to managing the new restaurant in town–all jobs I loved, none of which used my four-year English Degree. It wasn’t the life I always imagined, but it was good enough.
I couldn’t go anywhere in town without seeing several friendly faces. My restaurant friends always slipped me their employee discounts. I got to spend full Tuesdays off work, sitting on a patio with a margarita and a book while the nine-to-fivers were stuck in the office. When I got off work at 3 p.m. in the summers, some friends and I would pick up a couple of pounds of crawfish and the beer from our fridges and drive out of town to the creek for the laziest of afternoons.
It was magic in a way, every second passing long and slow like molasses–but one winter day when my space heater wasn’t enough, when I was chopping veggies on my makeshift countertop while it vibrated from the whirring dryer underneath, I realized I had to get out of there.
I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to live in a city. I wanted countertops! So I began applying to jobs in my hometown, Nashville. By the end of February, I changed my LinkedIn title to Social Media Strategist and settled into my new office on Music Row.
My boyfriend moved with me into a new one-bedroom condo, which was affordable with a two-income household. We lived just outside of downtown, walkable to restaurants, bars, and parks. I walked to all of those places many times, but I never ran into anyone I knew.
I had friends in town–my best friend from high school, a friend from college, a friend-of-a-friend, a work friend, a friend who graduated with my sister—but they all lived in different parts of town and none of them knew each other. I no longer had a friend group.
For over a year I zig-zagged to my friends’ neighborhoods for one-on-one hangs. My social life felt hectic and disjointed—a line of dots pushing forward but never connecting. I wasn’t unhappy, but I did miss the familiar comfort of a crowd of people spilling off the couch and onto the living room floor. I missed the chorus of laughter, the too-late nights, and the ease of group texting “anyone up for brunch?”
The thought of introducing my friends to each other crossed my mind and abruptly left. How weird would it be to invite everyone out for drinks or to a movie—I imagined a bunch of strangers making awkward small talk and checking their phones until it was acceptable to leave. But then I started cleaning out my fridge.
I travel a bit for work, and when a trip is coming up I resist grocery shopping so my fridge doesn’t fill up with food that will go bad. This particular week was ending in a trip for me, so my fridge was pretty bare. I had dried pasta in the pantry and butter, a quart of half-and-half, and Parmesan in the fridge. It was enough to make a very basic pasta, but it could be better.
I texted my work friend, “Hey, do you have any food that’s about to go bad? I’m making pasta, and if you bring your dying veg I’ll feed you.”
“OTW,” he replied, and he showed up shortly with a few cloves of garlic and some cherry tomatoes that were just starting to wrinkle.
By that point, I’d sent the same message to all of my friends. A couple couldn’t make it, but my friend from high school showed up with two bottles of wine. My friend from college had a half-empty pack of pancetta. My friend that graduated with my sister brought just herself, but she came straight from work and promised to bring something next time. They already assumed there was going to be a next time.
I started cooking while my friends started drinking wine and chatting, taking turns adding songs to the Spotify queue. 20 minutes later, we were a friend group splitting penne with burst cherry tomatoes and crisp pancetta in a garlicky parmesan cream sauce—and we ate it on the floor.
Our schedules have kept us apart for awhile now–we haven’t had pantry pasta since that night. We might never again, but that’s okay, because the small taste of being part of a group was better than anything we ate.