The front door slammed and interrupted my avid data entry. As I looked up I saw him standing in the doorway and I knew I remembered him. Here was something good, something lovely perhaps. A thing which had been here before.
“Ah! I remember you!” I said, my mouth operating before my head. “And your name is?” I pulled a quizzical squint.
“Steve,” he replied with a smile, seemingly equally as pleased to see me as I him. “And you’re … Lilly?”
I was quietly tickled, enjoying my name being mistaken for such a frilly, girly name such as Lilly.
“No, Lucy actually, but close!”
He approached the desk, sat down and much smiling and self satisfied nodding was exchanged.
I’d processed his rent cheques before, once late last year and perhaps again at Christmas. He was in his late thirties, often dressed in a cotton T-shirt of a considered colour and design, comfy jeans and today his round face was topped with a lightly sun bleached baseball cap.
What was most memorable about him however was his terribly gentle nature. He had soft eyes, but not shy and he held my gaze with a certain magnitude. He spoke humbly and his softly bearded face was as warming as a hot muffin. He was almost the opposite of the raw, fragmented customers I was used to, my job being that of the not-quite-slum lord’s administrator.
“How have you been?” I asked, delaying the exchange of cash and receipt.
“Oh, I’ve been ill actually. Pretty terrible flu over Christmas. I’m only just feeling better now.”
“Me too!” I exclaimed, noting my enthusiasm had carried rather too much pitch for a shared winter virus.
I told him about the aches and pains, and he agreed adding how fast the virus had hit. I too had been felled during a one hour period, inconveniently whilst at the mall far away on the edge of town, and was excited to share this small but marked story of my ill health with a sympathetic ear.
I asked him about his plans and he spoke of his attempts to resume education to complete his degree, but halfway through he paused and his head dropped a little, perhaps at some internal realisation that the story wouldn’t be complete without a longer explanation. He reluctantly began to describe to me his rather terrible 2014.
Nothing draws me in more than stories with emotional weight. I don’t mean the kind of people who, on first meeting, declare how their father was a alcoholic or that they are in recovery, but the kind of people for whom life has difficulties, and they relate their experience of it without pretence or adulteration. As Steve conveyed the circumstances of his bad year I was immediately immersed.
And it had been a very bad year. His ten year marriage to a childhood sweetheart had collapsed, and he had been trying to re-establish his life whilst still living in what had been their marital home, a place full of memories.
Second to my attraction to stories with emotional weight, is stories about relationships, and perhaps revealing my love of tragedy, specifically failed relationships.
I admitted this to him, sure he must be noticing my rapt attention, and wondering how long it would be before I appeared creepy.
He seemed unconcerned with my confession, so I added “So, do you know why it went wrong?” and he laid out the problems they had had and how the relationship stood currently. We discussed it until we ran out of air and ideas, and I realised the inevitable transaction for which he was here, was due.
As I fumbled counting the money, mis-calculated the change due and muddled the details on the receipt, I was aware a sacred social contract would be contravened if I didn’t offer up some similar nuggets of a personal nature.
I handed back the receipt “Well, I had a tough 2014 too. I’ll try to give you the short version.” He still seemed interested so I delivered a version of my bad year, including specifically the parallels in our experience which we’d opened for discussion. He listened intently too, and pulled sympathetic faces at all the right parts. I felt a strong sense of validation and understanding from this relative stranger.
There came a natural ending to our chat and he stood up to leave.
“I really enjoyed talking with you” I asserted perkily and added “Well, I hope it’s me again who takes your rent next time you come in!”
“I hope so too,” he said and smiled widely before leaving.
For some time after he left I felt a sense of peace but also mild elation at the deeply human exchange. I may have even congratulated myself on what a sensitive and open individual I am, and surmised that wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all share our vulnerability? Be real with one another?
This story should end here.
However, after work I was shopping in my local grocery store, as usual hypnotised by the aisles of foreign foods, when I rounded a corner and almost walked into Steve. We both stopped short and uttered “Hi!”.
I felt unsure, confused, and I was missing my defined role, duties, and my appropriately positioned giant desk to protect me. I noticed he made to move on. Keen to challenge the urge to pretend nothing had passed between us earlier I attempted to engage him in conversation.
I shot a glance at my shopping basket for inspiration and barked with audible panic “I’m making chilli! What are you doing?”
He was clearly carrying only a carton of trash bags. He gestured to the carton of trash bags and offered simply “I’m having a clean up.”
“Ah! I see!” I said, nodding, realising this was not going well.
I nodded a bit more.
“Well, nice to see you!” I said and hurried off, my head bowed down and to the side to hide the involuntary grimace of awkwardness.