I have a hard time with emotions a lot. I have a hard time figuring out how to behave and when confronted with some emotional outpouring I usually respond in whatever manner I consider most likely to tame that emotion and bring the interaction back into equilibrium. I'm the emotional version of the second law of thermodynamics. Usually this is a good thing, unless it's not and I find myself laughing at totally inappropriate times or saying something morbid and depressing when I should be laughing.
I ran into this girl, a friend of a friend, whose name I couldn't recall in 1,000 years but she talked to me with the familiarity of a lifelong friend, which in itself throws me right away. I was only paying a minimal amount of attention to what she was saying because she looked a little worse-for-wear in the traditional Walmart-shopper uniform of fleece Mickey Mouse pajama pants bursting at the seams, over-sized Duck Dynasty t-shirt, and flip flops. Her red hair was a greasy mess perched atop her head and similarly-clad children were running circles around us. I had to come up with something so I asked her what she'd been doing all these years since I'd last seen her. I was expecting the social standard "not much" or "oh, you know" or something. What I got was more like a list of increasingly tragic circumstances, recounted with all the weight and melodrama which makes these situations so dangerous for me, not a hint of humor or light, something along the lines of:
"Oh girl... well, you know that [what's his name] left me after [what's her name] was born, but what he didn't know was that I was pregnant again! And I guess that's just as well because I lost that baby. Oh, I nearly bled to death on the way to the hospital because the dadgum car wouldn't start and I had to wait for [what's his name two], you know, these two's dad, to pick me up. Anyway, I lost the baby and spent nearly a week in the hospital. I told my boss and had doctor's notes when I got out, but she already hired someone else. We lost the apartment so me and the kids moved in to Mamma's trailer. She has a bunch of cats. Yeah, the cats just come and go. She always has a feed bowl outside for them. Her food stamps don't buy cat food so she usually buys a bunch of bologna and cheese and milk so the cats can just eat what we eat. Well [what's his name three] had just started crawling and got into the cat bowl. Girl, you should have seen it! He had cats climbing all over him! I think I have a picture... [pause for picture of traumatized child] ...Have you ever seen anything like that? Anyway, I took him to the doctor for all the scratches, just to be safe. I just got this stuff I have to rub all over him twice a day. He seems alright, that stuff is sticky though so we have to wipe all the cat hair and crumbs and dirt and crap off of him all the time. Anyway, I found a new job working nights at this gas station but it was about a dadgum mile from the house and I had to walk. I worked there almost two months and then I was hit by a truck."
And with a "what can you do?" shrug her story was over. I had managed the first several sentences with what I felt to be an appropriate degree of sorrow and empathy. About the time the food stamps were used to buy food for the cats I started wondering if I was being messed with but I maintained an empathetic expression while watching her closely for some indication that she recognized how crazy this story was and that it's a lot to react to in a grocery store aisle, but she just plowed right through in an Eeyore-esque monotone. Then she was hit by a truck and, with that, her story was over.
Now it was my turn to look hit by a truck. There was a moment of panic as my hyper-self-awareness tried to reason with my totally-uncalibrated sense of humor. Then I actually issued a giggle as my sense of humor overwhelmed my social grace.
"Damn, girl! You were hit by a TRUCK?!?! I would have started my story with that!" I managed to explain, and it was okay because she seemed to recognize how absurd life can be and that despite all the horror she lived, she had a great story and a captive audience for just those few moments leaning against her shopping cart full of bologna and cheese. She kind of chuckled. I laughed, encouraging her, and she started laughing. I told her I would pray that things got better for her, to "keep in touch" even though we didn't exchange any information, and I patted her on the back with "...hit by a truck, good Lord, girl!" as she giggled and wiped a mass of cat hair and fluff off of the toddler in the cart.
Things might always be horrible and scary and it's hard to keep from being mired down with all the regret and shame and fear and negativity, but, as for right now, I'm thankful that my story doesn't end with me getting hit by a truck. And, as thanks for the story she provided, keep my friend in your prayers.