"so I settled for a burger and a grape snow cone..."
It was going to be an unusual evening anyway, it just turned out different. My plan was to meet at a Jamba Juice with a woman I'd thought was nice, and perhaps weave a few threads of promising conversation into something just slightly more substantial, if my warp and her weft fit together.
Maybe the promising thing about it was that it was meaningful so quickly, that I had been at a church social event, I had been talking afterwards in a crowd of people, and there suddenly this woman was asking me personal questions about my faith, and I was giving answers, and I'd asked her questions, and she'd said insightful things, and mentioned some things that hinted at a true life, and I was struck by the simplicity and ease of the connection. I asked her out, as much genuinely interested in what we'd have to say to each other as hoping for the start of a friendship, and more interested in both of those than in any idea of romance.
Perhaps, then, it was the strangeness of that ease, or its premature nature, that made the difference between a "Sure" on Wednesday night and a "I have other plans" early Thurday evening. Or perhaps it was my honesty about questions of faith; sometimes questions fit better with questions and answers with answers. Maybe it seemed more like a couch trip than a date. But whatever the case, I was driving to meet her when she called on my cell phone, and told me about the church potluck, and that she needed to be there. I sleepwalked through the acknowledgement, easily unconcerned but not really understanding. The cell phone was going in and out; what was she saying? I was welcome to come to the potluck and mingle. It sounded pleasant. I didn't have much pot to bring, was that OK? It was. I said I'd come, and we'd see what happened.
I hung up, and with mild horror I realized the usual colloquial meaning of the term pot (versus my own intended wordplay on food), which was certainly an embarassing mistake in a church context (funny as it may or may not have been in other contexts). Ouch. But it didn't explain the call itself. Did she really have an obligation to meet at the potluck? The only way to find out was to go and observe. And did it matter? If she wasn't straightforward about the reason for changing plans, then continuing to be interested in talking with her because of her straightforwardness was at the very least mildly absurd. If she was, then I didn't have anything to worry about. I'd said the right thing: I would just go and see what happened.
Except a mild note of falseness had already crept in. I hadn't expected her to cancel -- I was really convinced she was interested -- and so I hadn't known how to respond when she called, and so I had just gone with the flow rather than engaging the situation. It's something we all learn to do, but the detachment hurts our ability to really see or shape things. Having done that already, I knew it might be rough going reversing it. And it was. I arrived at the potluck, and was greeted by a surprisingly large number of people I knew, which made me more comfortable, but she didn't meet my gaze. I got dinner, sat down at the table, making conversation for a while with everyone in general, no one in particular. She left the table. I didn't follow. She didn't come back. We exchanged pleasant looks at one or two points in the evening, but for the most part, simply ignored one another. The awkward note was there, and I didn't know how to get around it, so I became immersed in another conversation, and then watched and waited while we divided up, preparing to go visit and fellowship members of the congregation who hadn't been for a while. For a moment I re-experienced just the slightest shade of waiting to be picked for a team in elementary school.
She wasn't part of my group, whether by design or chance I couldn't tell. But I was happy with my group: Kristine, Jeremy, Teresa, and I set off in the hulking Oldsmobile wagon which I drive, neatly interweaving conversation with discussion of the individuals we were trying to contact and directions to their homes. It was shades of being a missionary again, going out to see people and bring them into a community, all while making personal contact and sharing thoughts: discussion of films with themes of lost innocence, age and interaction with people at different ages, and good donut shops to visit after going dancing.
Then we were done, back at the institute building. Everyone else got out of my car, said goodnight. I was suddenly aware that I was very tired, but didn't want to go straight home. The talk of donuts had me wanting one, and I had Alan Jackson running through my head. I drove down to the center of town. There weren't any Donut Shops. No real donuts in the grocery store. The Jamba Juice was in the same plaza as the Donut Shop. I peeked in, just to see if she was there.
The Jamba Juice was closed. I settled for a Chocolate Banana Shake from Jack-In-The-Box, and I sat in the parking lot and looked out over Simi Valley, moon rising, lights blinking, no river nearby, but the sounds of trains and cars on the freeway were muted into a soft rushing by the summer night. I thought: was I lonely? Yes, a fair bit. How much did I really expect a bit of that loneliness to be broken tonight? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed I really had, and the more absurd that seemed.
Sometimes it seems there's no other way: human connections are almost always given, almost never planned. It's the chance decision about where you live, the gaze caught in a vulnerable moment, the book in the backpack of a casual acquaintance, the job you took in Memphis instead of LA. So you wait for the chance; you stack the deck for the event of meeting the right person, going to the places you think will be right, maybe becoming more friendly, or more attractive, but mostly you watch, and wait.
Or there's the other way: you commit yourself to a community. You put down roots. You do something the same every day, even if every day is somehow a little different. People learn who you are and where to find you, and you're not dodging the karma that moves in deep, slow arcs through life.
And that's the absurdity, I realized. It's what you do every day that changes life, as much as the turns and twists of fate, the capricious decisions of others, the random event that we always think life depends on. And as I stumble over this truth again, I'm struck by the fact that I know this but can't seem to get it right, can't seem to arrange my life so that I'm spending time every day nourishing commitments that will support me and grow into the life I want to live. And it connects to the woman, too: how many times have I frightened away a woman, offering a quick hand of direct friendship and a hint of something more, then been treated with caution or avoidance until weeks later it became clear -- perhaps by the community I was part of -- that I was not only safe but desireable?
And so I'd bet a few chocolate banana shakes on the fact that if I were to stay here, if I were to set down roots in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, within a month or two, she and I would become friends. There would be common acquaintances first, actions and words checked against assumptions, shared social settings, and so on. What was tension created by discomfort would move into a mild highlight, and then perhaps interest. Perhaps. I really don't know this, it's just what I've seen before sometimes, a pattern that I think could repeat one more time, if...
If I set down roots here. That's the real question: what am I going to every day, not what she or I did tonight, or what I'm going to do for the next week. It's what you do every day of your life that matters. All I can do tonight, though, is finish the chocolate milkshake and drive home.