“I’m a witch,” Misty said to throw a big, huge matzo ball atop our table. It dominated our conversations, silently hovering over the restaurant table while we tried to talk over it or through it. She didn’t list this nugget of information on her online, dating profile. Who would? Green people who wear pointy hats don’t get asked out very often. She wasn’t one of those witches anyway. It was her religious affiliation. She didn’t have a cauldron, she clarified, she didn’t own a candy house to lure unsuspecting children, and she never cackled.
I don’t know if it’s one of those loose concepts that coming-of-age movies love, “No one’s to blame and everyone is,” but we buy into this notion that people who think different make calculated, well-informed decisions in life, especially when it concerns spiritual and mystical pursuits. In my experience, about 50% of us think the oddball population have it all figured out, and 50% think they’re total idiots. There’s also a contingent who will publicly say they’re total idiots, but conceal the secret belief that oddball thinkers might be onto something. In my brief interrogation of Misty, I found that she was a little of both. She decided to become a Wiccan for some of the same reasons I played Donkey Kong when I was a kid. She thought it sounded fun and cool. She was as uninformed, insecure, and vulnerable as the rest of us when she joined, but she stayed so long that either conformed to group thought and became who they wanted her to be, or she finally found a group who shared philosophy of life, and she developed a strong bond with those people that lasted for years.
As with most insecure and vulnerable people, Misty put her best foot forward on our first (and as it turned out our only) date. She threw that big old matzo ball out there with some conviction framing it. ‘I’m a witch, deal it!’ her expression said, and deal with it I did, in my own obsessively curious way. I don’t know what was on my face, but her smile told me she knew she struck a chord.
“And now for something completely different,” I thought, recalling that old Monty Python line. I was so fascinated that I dove right in. I asked superficial questions, in-depth questions, and then questions that made her so uncomfortable that she laughed before answering them.
Most of these questions were self-serving. I didn’t care that Misty chose what I considered an alternative religion, I wanted to know why. I wanted to know why she joined and how her beliefs could challenge mine. The questions I asked weren’t the polite type everyone asks, and I didn’t ask leading questions to have her view me as open-minded. I went for the jugular, asking questions that we’re not supposed to ask.
Most people refrain from asking questions, because they don’t enjoy watching other people squirm. Misty wasn’t a squirmer. She might have been squirming, uncomfortable, and vulnerable when we first met, but who isn’t? By the time I worked my way past the obligatory, nice questions and worked my way into the questions we’re not supposed to ask, Misty was chuckling (as opposed to cackling). Some of the questions I ask offend some recipients, and that’s fine with me, unless they offer me a substantial reason why the question might have hurt their feelings. It’s happened, and when it does I back off and apologize when warranted and without excuses or qualifiers. Most of the people who intrigue me enough to work past the initial questions, enjoy any questions that test their meddle.
“I don’t know how you get away with asking such things,” a witness to some of my questions said.
“I think they know I’m just curious,” I said.
When the Q&A portion of our conversation concluded, Misty couldn’t tell if I was interested in her religion or her, so she asked me if I wanted to join her religion. I said no. I told her I was just curious. She smiled at that. I didn’t know why she smiled at first, as I thought it might disappoint her that I had no desire to become a warlock, but I realized that she thought she had her answer. It was an excited smile, until I informed her that I wasn’t interested in her either.
The Real Eye
Michelle had no secret potions or magical spells to help me, but she had “friends in the industry” who she thought might be able to help me end my desperate search for a quality apartment at a reasonable rate. She said she knew people in real estate who specialize in helping prospective clients find quality apartments at below market rents. Her friend could not only help me find a top-of-the-line apartment, but she would haggle with the landlord over rent, and her fee for doing so would be paid by a landlord who was grateful that she found a tenant for them. Made sense to me. Who wouldn’t jump at such an offer, I thought, until Michelle brought up her finder’s fee.
“Your finder’s fee?” I asked. “What are you doing here? You’re not helping me find an apartment. You’re pointing me to someone who can. How much do you want for your ability to point?”
“I tell you what,” she said with a grin. “You take me to lunch, and we’ll call it square.”
In the space of fifteen seconds mired in uncomfortable silence, I developed about three different attack strategies to illustrate the absurdity of her proposal. These attacks would’ve also informed her that I wasn’t as naive as she thought I was, but I also knew that one of the only reasons she wanted to help me was that she had a something of a crush on me. I ended the silent stand off with one word: “Fine!”
At the restaurant, Michelle immediately wet her eye with a bottled solution, and then she did it two more times before the server put our lunch on the table. If she needs to water her eye once in such a short time span that’s a thing, twice might be a bad day, but three times is a big old matzo ball she purposely inserts into the space between us, disrupting all other conversation until the matter is aired.
“Why do you keep doing that?” I asked. I could’ve, and probably should’ve just ignored it, but I live by the rule that it’s better to ask embarrassing questions than to leave a big, old matzo ball hovering atop a table. A matzo ball isn’t an ugly thing, and it isn’t beautiful. It’s also not a stand alone meal. It is what we make it, when we surround it with tasty items. Until we do that, it’s just a bunch of ground up crackers and eggs. If we don’t talk about it, it’s the only thing we want to talk about, and it influences every conversation we have, until one of us develops the fortitude to address it. It gathers a life of its own in our conversations, until both parties are so uncomfortable that someone has to put a pin in it.
“I have to,” she said. “It’s a fake eye, and if I don’t keep it wet, it gets irritated, it burns, and there’s a possibility that I could lose it.”
She wet her eye a fourth time after she said that. I don’t know much about artificial eyes, but I understand that we probably don’t have the technology yet, necessary for them to produce their own liquid. I also understand why a sufferer needs to keep it wet. I don’t know how often a physician directs the victim to wet it, but Michelle was dousing it at such regular intervals that it was obvious that she wanted us to address the matter before we moved on.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It was … a car accident,” she replied. She swallowed those words, as if they were so weighted with such trauma that I should immediately drop my need to ask questions people are afraid to ask and just drop it. The look on her face suggested that she wanted me to ask follow-up questions, however, but she wouldn’t answer any of them. The silent drama between us couldn’t have been more dramatic if she body slammed the carcass of her dead aunt on our table, wet and festooned with seaweed and added, “And I don’t want to talk about it.” Yet, she appeared to beg for further exploration. She hit me from so many corners so quickly that I didn’t know how to approach this matter. I felt trapped between what I wanted to do, what she apparently wanted me to do, and what she apparently didn’t want me to do. I was so confused that that confusion obviously spoke volumes, and the silent confusion that followed wounded her.
Thanks to the desensitizing repetitions replays of the car accidents I’ve been in, I’ve recovered a lot of my sense since, but back when I was in this restaurant with Michelle, I was a mess of emotions about car accidents. I developed my own I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it phobia of car accidents. The idea of a car accident robbing her of an eyeball rattled me.
I was a wreck mentally, on the topic, but she was physically impaired. I still had all my appendages and organs in working order, but her impairment reminded me how easily our situations could be reversed. It wasn’t fate, I decided as she spoke, and it didn’t have anything to do with skills, smarts, or stupidity. The reason she sat on one side of the table without an eye, and I sat with two full functional ones, was luck.
How many of us know that our life is awesome? Most of us don’t give it any thought in the routines and patterns of a given day, until it’s all disrupted. Anything can happen in a car accident, could turn out to be an excellent, working title for the first chapter of my autobiography, and the exploration of the aftermath would’ve littered the next three to four chapters that followed. A driver can hit someone from behind, at a relatively slow speed, and both drivers could incur once-in-a-lifetime, freak injuries. It happens. It happens every day. It happened to Genie. Genie was my good friend, and she and I spoke at least once a day for about a decade. We were such good friends that I broke her down one day and asked her a question no one is supposed to ask, what happened to her.
“I got into a car accident.” Her words didn’t contain the weight of drama and trauma Michelle’s did. Genie was more a “just the facts” kind of gal. “I don’t remember anything about the accident,” she added. “All I can tell you is what the policemen told my parents. I can tell you that I never sped. I knew the speed limits of every street I traveled on. I never rolled through a stop sign, and I always turned on my blinker, even when it was obvious which way I was turning. The police say it was a simple fender bender that happens every day, but the force of the impact caused my head to hit in the windshield just so.” Genie didn’t add that the impact left her with a mental impairment that would mark that seventeen-year-old’s life forever after, but it wasn’t necessary for me to complete the dots.
I thought about the terrifying car accident I was involved in that led an on-scene police officer to say I was lucky to be alive, and I thought about Genie when I looked at Michelle’s fake eye. I thought about the car accident I got into with an elderly woman who told the police officer, responding to the call, “It was almost as if he intended to drive into me.” Those words haunted me, because I could remember freezing up when I saw myself heading toward her, but I couldn’t remember it too, because I managed to edit that portion of our benign fender bender with no injuries. A simple twist of the wrist would’ve avoided the accident. I wasn’t drunk, or in anyway impaired. I was just terrified. To my lifelong embarrassment, I choked, froze up, or however one wants to put it.
Freezing up like that is so weird, and so embarrassing that we never talk about it. How does one talk about deep psychological scars that lead to an embarrassing silent scream that can cause it to appear that we’re intending to drive into another car? It’s so confusing that we choose not to deal with it or talk about it, until someone says something we’re not supposed to say, like, “There’s something wrong with you my man,” is something they say if we ever are dumb enough to open up about it and confide a particularly vulnerable moment to a friend. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with you. Something deep in your layers. You might want to seek counseling to rectify that before it’s too late.”
Most good friends and family don’t say such things, but if we offer them our vulnerabilities, they duck into a hole and come out with eyes that say so much more. We all know that look. Michelle knew that look too, and when I inferred that she didn’t want to talk about her car accident, I tried to conceal that look.
Once I got over the daymare, Michelle started dotting her eye with the bottled solution again. I tried to be sympathetic, or empathetic regarding the nature of her injury, but I obviously couldn’t keep the look off my face. I tried and succeeded, then I tried and failed. I tried talking around it, with it, and through it with various conversation topics, but she just kept dotting. I could see her ingesting each look, and I knew that my looks meant more to her than any words I said.
I knew Michelle had romantic aspirations long before our lunch, and I knew the looks I gave her put an end to that. She wouldn’t stop dotting, and I couldn’t stop looking.
After our lunch was over, I drove Michelle to the location of the cherry apartment, and the real estate agent went through her pitch. It was a cherry apartment, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to rent the first apartment on the agent’s list. I wanted a menu of options from which to choose, and these two women had me all hopped up on the idea that this real estate agent was something of a miracle worker. That was a mistake, and Michelle seized upon the opportunity.
In the aftermath of the afternoon, I don’t think I devoted a half-hour of thought to any events that occurred that day. When I did think about it, I didn’t think good thoughts or bad thoughts. It was just something that happened.
It wasn’t until about a week later, when I ran into Michelle, “Hey, whatever to that apartment?” I asked.
“The one your real estate agent showed me,” I said. “If it’s still available, I think I’ll take it. Tell your friend.”
“I took it,” she said. “I’m living there now.” She searched my face for a look. I might be mischaracterizing it for my own narrative, but I think she was searching for a look of pain that matched the pain she presumably felt from my looks. I think she took the cherry apartment to spite me and the looks I accidentally gave her and her fake eye.
The funny thing about spiteful intent is that it rarely hits the recipient in the dramatic fashion we devise. We dream up theatrical reactions, as in “When he finds out … Oh, it will be delicious.” When she spitefully signed the lease on an apartment I considered a cheery location, I found another one. In a city of thousands of open apartments, I found another one. Women broke my heart more than once, two put a dent in my heart that might never heal, but Michelle did not accomplish what she obviously set out to do. I didn’t think about this moment for decades, until I sat down to write this. Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if Michelle ever thinks back on her attempt to create this big, old matzo ball to place between us and deliciously alter our relationship in her favor. I wonder if she celebrates it as her victory now, or did the rational wisdom that only comes with age, re-characterize as pointless and petty?