paving the cow paths

I am following the ill-fated romance of my friend K. She tells me about the urgent text messages exchanged late into the night. About how his ardor is maddeningly inconsistent: In the morning, over coffee, after love, he maps out their future together – the cities they will live in, the places they will visit, but by the afternoon he is only: “Baby, let’s take it slow.” She says the women he has been with seem to follow her all over town. They turn up at the grocery store when she is buying arugula and leeks; at the hair salon, waiting for a cut and color; as she leaves the dry cleaners with her good suits on hangers.

Years ago, back when they started, while they were both still in marriages they were trying to escape, they pack a picnic, drive out to the woods. She rests her sandaled feet on the dashboard, her window open wide. He says: “My wife was an ER nurse for many years. She’d see people brought in all the time who had been sitting like that when their cars crashed.” He tells her of legs broken, hips crushed, pelvic bones – shattered.

It was M. who first introduced me to the term “paving the cow paths,” but since then, I hear it all the time. I have heard it used as a desirable thing to do, as in: you watch what people do – the behaviors they already exhibit – and you make it easier, faster, more convenient for them to do it. But I have also heard it used as an example of what not to do, of doing something that has already been done and is redundant, foolish: “Well, there’s no sense in getting out there just to pave the cow paths.”

If the frequent online updates are any indication, a childhood friend – a sweet, shy girl from a troubled, violent home – has become something of a self-help devotee. Don’t get me wrong: I spent an entire year working through “The 8th Habit,” and if there is a 12-step checklist anywhere near me, it is likely I have underlined and starred whole selections of it, and copied the most compelling bits onto post-it notes that cling to my office bulletin board. They hang there – these little squares of inspiration – slowly losing their properties of adhesion until the day they flutter down in clusters onto my desk, like the dead leaves of some misshapen, neon-bright tree.

But her self-help advice seems aggressive and dark and borders on the absurd. She posts new quotations daily, the sources of which are never clear:

“Remember that you came into this world alone, which is exactly how you will leave it. We are solitary animals – nothing more, nothing less.”

“Life is too short to be with anyone who makes you miserable. Cut them loose. Shut them out.”

“If someone you consider a friend betrays you once, turn the other cheek. But if it happens again, know that this is no friend.”

I am uncertain as to what the online etiquette requires. She expects me to have seen them, and periodically, she will ask in a message: “Did you see the quote I posted today? I thought you might find it useful.” But it makes me uncomfortable to read these little glimpses of her struggle, entirely without context, and to respond only with the stunningly inadequate “like.”

K. says that when she hears from him, spends time with him, she feels a rush of adrenaline like she has not known in years. “I can’t sit still. My hands tremble.”

“That’s good, though, isn’t it?” I ask, though not entirely sure.

“Yes, I think so, but also frightening – like I am so totally out of control.”

“Do you need to be in control?” I ask. They are on their own now, both their marriages ended. “Can you just let this run its course?”

“But what if there is no course?” she says. “What if this is just the way he makes me feel?”

I laugh. “Well, that might just be a lovely problem to have.”

The hallway on our second floor is strewn with my son’s toys, all of which have been left in the exact positions they were last held in play in the moments before the call to the bath or to the table. There is no thought, of course, given to bare feet making their way from bedroom to bath in the dark of an early winter morning.

This morning, I stumble through a landscape of jungle animals: brown hippos and a white rhinoceros lay on their sides. Several grey elephants stand nearby, their trunks raised. Just ahead of them, there is a line of tiny warriors facing the bathroom door, some with shields raised, some with arrows poised for flight. He still calls them “worriers” – and I do not have the heart to correct him – when he explains the scene to me later in his halting and protracted narration:

“The worriers are going to battle because…the worriers are…Mommy, the worriers are going to battle because…they are going to battle because the aliens came. The aliens came…Mommy, the aliens came and…the aliens came and stealed all the babies of the animals and that’s why they are going to battle. To fight them and to bring back all the babies.”

“A reasonable response,” I assure him. I wonder briefly if I bear any personal responsibility for the fact that the idea of “worriers” is more familiar and accessible to him that that of “warriors,” and decide that I probably do.

Late last night, I get a message from K: “Took your advice. He spent the night. Lovely, lovely. XOXOXO”

I don’t recall giving that advice, exactly, but I decide not to be too concerned. I’ve got a legion of worriers on the job.