(This is going to sound like fiction. It is completely true.
Even the names haven’t been changed.)
So, last Sunday evening I was driving home. I had both bulldogs – Homer and Napoleon – in the car with me and was looking forward to a quiet night. But it was only about 9:30 on a Sunday . . . a time to read and reflect and maybe pass a glass with some friends (or, at least, acquaintances) before the work-a-day world of Monday morning presented itself. So instead of going immediately home, I stopped off at Paddy’s Pub for a quick pint.
Paddy’s is a neighborhood bar, and sits pretty much just across the street from my place anyway. Until recently (the Tourist Season) it is usually a quiet place to have a drink, the clientele and bartenders are amiably low-key, and they have WiFi. I show up about once a week or so and I have gotten to know the staff and some of the people who actually are Norm Peterson.
I didn’t even drop the dogs off at my place before heading in, that’s how little time I was going to spend there.
* * *
Walking in I called out a Hello to Johnny, who was tending bar that night, and by the time I settled onto a bar stool he was handing me a Guinness. “I saw you drive up,” he said, to explain how he had it ready for me, “how ya doing?”
(Like I said. Not a bad place to go some nights.)
I thanked Johnny, asked about his plans for his birthday, and settled myself onto my stool. Opening up my iPad and clicking into the WiFi I got ready to spend some time surfing the Web, catching up on the news, and sipping a beer. I’d have one – maybe two – and then go home. It was a Sunday evening with a handful of people sitting round the bar and nothing much going on.
So there I was, sipping my Guinness and reading political blogs, when suddenly a blond woman dropped her arms around me, pulled me into herself, and kissed me on my neck. Then she dropped onto the stool at my left, smiled and asked me, “How are you doing?”
Now . . . you have to understand – I had never seen this woman before. Not ever. I knew that immediately I saw her, but I did spend some minutes afterward, while I was talking to her, trying to figure out where I might have known her from. The closest I ever came up with was that she might have been someone I had seen at Paddy’s before, but I was sure that I had never spoken with her prior to this night.
She was attractive.
“I’m good,” I said, turning toward her and not missing a beat, “how’re you?”
She told me she was fine, but I could tell that she wasn’t. She clearly had been crying quite a bit earlier and had tried to clean herself up, but some of her face makeup was still streaked, and her eyes were red, and they were just a little bit too shiny. When I told her that I could see she was upset about something and pressed her on it, she told me that her boyfriend had just dumped her.
Hhhmmmm . . . . .
* * *
And this is where the difference between being a man in his early 40’s and being a boy in his early 20’s becomes apparent. Because when this woman (I would discover that her name is Leslie) told me her boyfriend had just dumped her I could feel the wheels spinning in my head, like slot counters coming up Gold Bars.
She is attractive, she is at least some kinda crazy, she is obviously at least a little drunk, she is crying and vulnerable, she just broke up with her boyfriend, and she has already kissed me on the neck. I can definitely take this girl home.
And, if I were still a boy in his 20’s, that is about as far as those thoughts would have gone. Oh sure, I would have had an inkling that something bad might result from my taking a girl like this home, but I wouldn’t have worried about that. So you’ve got another crazy story to tell, I’d’ve told myself, you’re a storyteller. That’s a plus!
But now I’m a man in my early 40’s, and taking obviously crazy women home with me is something I no longer decide solely with my limbic system. Immediately after the Gold Bars came up in my mind another thought intruded: Dude. She is obviously crazy. If you take her home you will eventually have to deal with that, if not tonight then definitely tomorrow.
And I suddenly knew that I wasn’t going to do that.
* * *
But all of that decision-making occurred in the space between heartbeats. It is the closest we have to instantaneous. And when it was done and I knew that I was not going to try to sweep this woman off of her feet and back to my place I came back to my conscious self and discovered that I was in the middle of a sentence and I was looking at her face, staring at mine. I found that I was babbling reassurances at her and then I started to wonder what I was going to do with her.
It was obvious that she had glommed onto me for some unknown reason, and that I wasn’t going to get back the opportunity to just quietly sip my Guinness, surf the Web and listen to the jukebox. I mean, sure, I could try to do that and that would make my immediate life simpler, but Leslie obviously needed to talk to somebody and there really wasn’t anybody else around. And so while I watched her answer a question I had asked about her boyfriend I was thinking to myself:
Okay, so you’re not going to take her home, but she is in pain. Can you do something to help?
And, suddenly, there it was in my head. I knew what I would do: I would be the Jesus/Buddha of the Bar, I would be the guy to help the attractive blonde woman with no thought of actually sleeping with her myself. I would be a modern day (slightly soiled, vaguely reprehensible) saint.
Now that’s a plan.
* * *
And it worked out okay, for a while. I have no idea how to really help people, I certainly cannot look at them and deliver some kind of instantaneously sage and immortal advice. But I am very, very cynical about people, and being cynical about people is almost the same thing as being wise about them.
One of my bedrock beliefs about people is that most of ‘em want nothing more than to talk about themselves. We are cursed by the limits of our own perception to see ourselves as the center of the Universe, to find ourselves the most fascinating things around. Mark Twain once wrote something like: “The secret of tact is to conceal how much you think of yourself, and how little you think of the other person.”
So, cynically, I know that giving people an opportunity to talk about themselves is what most people want. There is an art and a skill to being a good listener, it finds itself in the subtle nods and murmurs and headshakes you give to the person telling the story, to encourage them to tell the story longer.
Most people are not good Listeners. Most people you meet are just waiting for you to shut up so that they can tell their story. Most people are very annoying.
Which is why, when a person is in emotional pain and you don’t know what to do to lessen that pain, the one thing you can rely upon consistently is that if you let that person just talk to you and you listen – really listen – you can help them out.
(Note: You don’t have to care. You just have to listen. Caring is innate, you are born with it or not, it isn’t anything special, it is like having blue eyes. But Listening is an acquired trait, a skill).
* * *
So I Listened to Leslie for about an hour and a half. She told me about her boyfriend and about her time spent growing up here. She and I, it turned out, are of about the same age and we both of us grew up here and around the island.
I did try to turn her mind away from some things (in this I was playing amateur psychologist) not because I thought it was bad for her but just because I thought it might be harshing our mellow. For example, after the first 20 minutes were spent listening to her tell me about her boyfriend and getting her to admit that this wasn’t the first time they had broken up, I decided that I didn’t want to listen to this anymore. I detected a strong tendency in Leslie to keep coming back to this theme, and I thought it was because she wanted to wallow in the soap-operatic nature of her boyfriend relationship, and I thought that would be a bad idea. So after the first 20 minutes or so, whenever she brought the dude up I turned the conversation to something else.
* * *
And, I’ve gotta tell ya . . . I was feeling pretty good about this. I mean, here I was talking to this attractive woman, no thought in my head about how I can turn this to my personal advantage, I’m just trying to help. And I’ve got her laughing, this woman who came into the bar a little while ago fresh off a crying jag. I’m doing a good thing!
Well . . . that wouldn’t last.
I had been talking with Leslie for about an hour and a half when the TeeVee over the bar came on with a News Flash (the Teevee was on mute, ‘cause the jukebox was playing) and they showed President Obama’s face on the screen.
“I fucking hate that guy,” said Leslie.
“What?” I asked, “How can you hate Obama? He just killed bin Laden!” I kinda thought she was kidding.
“Do you really think he killed bin Laden?” Leslie asked me, “are you that stupid? If he killed bin Laden then where is the body? Where are the photos? Fuck that guy, that lying fucking guy.”
And right there, ninety minutes of caring and compassion for Leslie went right out the goddamned window.
“Yeah, I think he killed bin Laden,” I told her, “You don’t? Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute . . . I know you! I predicted you!”
“No, seriously, hold on a second.” I explained to Leslie about the blog I write and, while I was explaining, I pulled the blog up on the iPad. I found the post predicting that the refusal to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse would cause crazy conspiracy nuts to come out of the woodwork and that they would put the Birthers to shame. I read the relevant paragraph out for her.
“Seriously, Leslie, I predicted you. Like, a week ago. How does it feel to know that you are predictable?”
That pissed her off.
“Well . . . well,” she sputtered, “well, you gotta admit, Obama is no President Reagan!”
“Reagan!” I laughed, “Reagan! Well, thank God for that, ‘cause Reagan was a pussy!”
Leslie’s eyes goggled. And then she got really, really quiet on me. “What did you say?”
And me, oblivious, just kept on going: “Sure, Reagan was a pussy! C’mon, you know that. We were just talking about how we grew up here together," (a Marine Corps town) "and are about the same age. Remember the Marines in ’83? Reagan sent a stupidly small contingent over to Lebanon to ‘keep the peace’ – right into the middle of a civil war. And then, when they all got blown up real good, like anybody with half a brain could’ve predicted, he didn’t stay around to kick ass. He pulled everybody out and two days later attacked Grenada to take our minds off of it. What a pussy!”
Leslie suddenly leaped off of her stool. Quivering with rage, she shook her finger at me and yelled, “YOU. DO. NOT. GET. TO. MOCK. RONALD REAGAN.”
And because I am clueless and kind of thought she must be joking I said, “What are you talking about? Of course I do!”
“FUCK YOU!” Leslie screamed at me.
* * *
At this point Johnny, who had been hanging out at the end of the bar playing a video game, raised his head and yelled: “Leslie! You’ve gotta cut the shit out right now! Or get out of my bar!”
“But Johnny! He’s being an asshole!”
“That may be, Leslie. But he’s being quiet. You get yourself under control, or you get the hell out of my bar.”
“Fine!” Leslie grabbed her purse from off the bar and stormed out the door.
The whole thing – the turn from being someone I should help care for to being someone who wanted to rip my guts out – had taken less than 3 minutes, and my head was still pivoting between the door Leslie had just stormed out of, her empty seat, and back to the door again. I’m pretty sure my jaw was open. I hadn’t expected anything like that.
On one of the two or three backswings of my head towards Leslie’s bar stool I noticed that Johnny was walking down the bar toward me. “Hey, man,” he said, “I’m sorry about that. I wanted to call you off of her, but you were already deep into talking when I noticed and I figured it was too late.”
“Dude, Johnny . . . “ I said, “I wasn’t trying to take her home. I was just talking to her. What the fuck was that?”
“That is what she does at least once or twice a month. She breaks up with her boyfriend, gets liquored up, comes in here and then talks to somebody until they say something that pisses her off. Then she makes a scene and storms back to her boyfriend. She’ll be back here again in a week or so, and the same thing’ll happen. Here . . . . have a Guinness. It’s on the house.”
. . . . . . “Uhmm . . . thanks.”
* * *
It was The Goofiest Thing.