How a Missing Sock Changed My Life

Not the sock itself, but a note attached to the sock. (Actually, the guy who wrote the note.)

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Nearly five years ago, I found a stray sock in my building’s lobby with a note affixed to it that read: “This guy got separated from his family and I found him wandering scared and lost in my own laundry.”

The note flooded me with such joy that I posted a picture of it to Facebook with the caption: “Whoever wrote this is my new favorite neighbor.”

One friend commented: “Find out if he’s single!”

Another wrote: “I love this person!”

“Me too,” I replied. “Who takes the time to do this? It’s just so cute.”

I couldn’t figure out who it was; none of my neighbors seemed nearly whimsical enough for such a thing.

My husband and I had bought our apartment four years earlier. We had two toddlers and no extra money and things weren’t great between us, but I had hoped that this move would lessen the tension in our marriage.

The previous tenants were relocating to another unit in the same building, and right before we moved in, they invited us to their child’s birthday party so we could meet some of the other families in the building. I didn’t realize until we arrived that the party was not in a common space but actually in our new apartment, which they were supposed to have vacated by then.

We sat awkwardly on the floor, balancing paper plates of cake on our knees, contemplating how no one ever can really own anything.

The highlight was when I had a brief, funny conversation with one of our new neighbors, Jeffrey, a shy single father with a cute smile. Our interaction made some dormant feeling crackle in me, but I felt too frazzled to identify it as flirting.

Over the eight years that I lived there, I saw Jeffrey only a handful of times, mostly in the elevator. It’s a big building, we lived four floors apart, our children were different ages and our schedules were unaligned. Occasionally, we would share an elevator ride and make eye contact, smile and look away, blushing.

The building provided joys and comforts, but the move had not lessened the tension in my marriage. Neither had our children getting older, or me returning to work, or couple’s therapy.

One day I saw Jeffrey in the elevator and realized he was very sick. He looked pale, lacked his usual bright smile, and his neck was crisscrossed with stitches. Another neighbor told me he had cancer. I wanted to bring him something — a hot dish? (I don’t know, I’m Midwestern.) Instead, I chided myself: Here was a man dealing with a life-threatening illness while I was perfectly healthy, yet I was feeling so tragic about my small discontents. Get a grip, me!

A couple of years later I had lunch with a professional acquaintance, Elizabeth, who said, “You know what’s funny? My best friend lives in your building.”

Her best friend, it turned out, was Jeffrey. This put him in a different context for me. He was best friends with a funny, quirky, lovely writer who I wanted to know better? How perfectly perfect.

“You’d love him,” she said. “We should all go for a drink sometime.”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking: God no, that’s a terrible idea. I have a marriage I’m trying to maintain here, sis.

It would be years before we all finally had that drink.

Eventually, after 15 years together, my husband and I ended things and I moved out. There was no big blowup, no giant betrayal, hardly any drama at all. It felt like our marriage had finally flatlined, and I was simply the EMT to call it.

I rented a place a couple of blocks away. Although it felt wasteful to rent after owning, I had become convinced that our split could be more humane, and our co-parenting lives more peaceful, if my ex stayed in the apartment.

About eight months after I moved out, Jeffrey followed me on Instagram.

“Oh, hello!” I said out loud, and then proceeded to scroll through his entire feed, which revealed a person with about 80 different talents: He was a painter, a chef, an illustrator, a tennis player, a woodcarver, a photographer and really into his two cats.

Elizabeth and I happened to have a plan to meet for outdoor drinks in the neighborhood. At my suggestion, we ended up including Jeffrey. His presence made me nervous. I drank too much, and soon we were mock-arguing over pizza preferences. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time, but I wasn’t looking to get involved with anyone again, like, ever. Since the end of my marriage, I had become an expert at staying detached and numb. Sometimes I wondered if I had gone to permafrost.

Still, he and I kept texting each other, and eventually I invited him over for a socially distanced drink on my pandemic-friendly balcony, which didn’t end up being very socially distant. Kissing me, he said, “I’ve imagined this so many times.” A weird feeling happened in my chest. Maybe I was dying?

We spent the night together and the next one and the next one.

I’d had some emotionless flings — I was almost alarmingly good at them — but with Jeffrey it felt different. I started, despite myself, to thaw.

As we got to know each other, I learned that we had both been at our most miserable around the same time, stewing in separate sadness a few floors apart. He brought me tiny, perfect offerings: a trilobite here, a sourdough starter there. We had long conversations about life and love and philosophy that made me feel like a long-dormant part of my brain was getting jolted alive.

One of his many obsessions is rescuing mostly dead plants that people have left on the sidewalk and nursing them back to health. We had been together for about a month when I realized: Was I a desiccated succulent he found on the curb?

He said no, but I’m not so sure.

Mostly I kept thinking: He was right upstairs all along.

Dating someone from my old building was, of course, extremely weird. The super blinked at me when we met in the hallway one morning as I emerged from the entirely wrong apartment.

Jeffrey and I have tried to not overthink the weirdness, have tried to just take things day by day. One crisp fall Saturday as we walked through Green-Wood Cemetery holding warm drinks, edging around the “What is this?” conversation, I felt like I should warn him I was not ready to commit to a real relationship.

As if reading my mind, he said, “I try not to worry about the future or stress over what’s out of my control.”

I think he got good at living in the moment when he had cancer (he’s now, thankfully, cancer-free). It’s a practice I’m terrible at, but, like everyone, have had to improve during this pandemic time. Talking about the future is so 2019, anyway.

We had been dating — or whatever — for a few months when Jeffrey happened across a photo on his phone that made him laugh.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I used to do this with stray socks I found in the laundry room.” He showed me a picture of three socks lined up with little “missed connections” notes attached.

“Wait, what!” I said. “That was you?”

“Did you see one of them?”

I scrolled through my Facebook archives to find the one I had photographed and posted years earlier. “Look,” I said. “I posted about it!”

“Oh, wow,” he said.

Of course it was him. That’s exactly the kind of thing he does. Devoting time and effort to some quirky project for no reason other than it might bring a stranger a second of joy. He also spends countless hours putting together beautiful meals (“But you know we’re just going to eat that, right?” I often think but have not yet said), and he can devote months to making detailed paintings on the undersides of skateboards that are mostly on display to the pavement below.

He lives life like it’s a sand mandala, gorgeous and intricate and about to be blown to the winds. Which, of course, it is.

When I tell people about Jeffrey and the sock note, the term “beshert” comes up a lot, a Yiddish word that means destiny, or soul mate. I’m not sure it’s possible for me, post-divorce, to believe in soul mates, although I suppose there’s no rule that everyone gets only one or that a soul mate must be lifelong.

What I do know is that it can be good — lifesaving, even — to be reminded to take each moment as it comes and to make time for silly, pointless joy. When it comes to that, Jeffrey is up to the task.

Amy Shearn is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her most recent novel is “Unseen City.”

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