Parallel, Perpendicular

When I was home for Christmas break last year, but a few days after Christmas, I had coffee with my friend Ellie at Bakers & Co—our regular spot. I can't remember if I took her there first or if she took me first. I like the Market bun better than she does, but even I think it's too sticky sometimes. I like eating things with my hands, but if the thing will make my hands messy (especially sticky), I think at least twice before starting to eat it.

We started talking about the research projects we had been working on. Mine was a fellowship at my college, helping a professor update his book on a more holistic way of approaching Christian film studies; hers was a longitudinal study on the seemingly disparate perceptions of Gloria Steinem as both a sex symbol and a feminist icon.

We agree on most things, but our conversations aren't echo chambers—we really do refine and support each other when we discuss the nuances of how and why we believe what we believe.

Naturally, we moved into a discussion of politics. We both have a hard time knowing

how to talk to our families about all the things that are happening in the world—things we know we should have a vocabulary for, but sometimes they're too unbelievable to even mention, much less organize or rationalize, or correct.

Ellie says, "Sometimes it feels as though the people we love aren’t trying to love their neighbor. What are we supposed to do about that?"

I can't even begin to answer that question.

We talked about our parents. She knows almost everything about my parents' marriage. How is started, when it got rocky, what eventually killed it. When we were first becoming friends, my parents were in the process of separating and I didn’t want to ever talk about it because I thought that made me seem weak or that it made me incapable of maintaining and carrying out a faithful, lasting, or meaningful friendship. I think (and sometimes I still think) that my father's infidelity is one of his 46 chromosomes and that he's past on half of it, or all of it to me—but I pray it's been diluted, or eradicated completely by its contact and mixture with my mother's faithfulness.

The internet and too much privacy and boredom ruined my parents' marriage. Cancer had saved her parents’ marriage. Just as her parents' marriage was beginning to dissolve, her mother started dying and her father fell in love.

I don't know what it was about Cancer that had shaken her father to remember and uphold his vows. Maybe it was the fear of death—the loss seemed too permanent and out of his control. Not on his terms. My parents' divorce was not on anyone's terms, not even my mothers', but it was a direct result of my father's choices.

Ellie asked me if I had ever been in love. I didn’t know what to say. I didn't know how complete an answer I should give. Of course, I could have told her "yes." And I did.

"Yes, I believe I have."

But what I didn't tell her because I didn't know how to say it right, that I had once been in love with her—or I had thought that I had been in love with her. I didn't want to say it because I wasn't in love with her anymore. And I didn't know how to explain to her that admitting these feeling wouldn't be awakening of these feelings, it would only be an identification of them. I think it can be easy to understand where someone is coming from, but it can be more difficult to understand where they're going next.

But then the conversation shifted, mid-thought, to a discussion of what it means to be in love "with" someone. I argued that,

"Actually, I think to be in love "with" someone, the other person has to love you back. Otherwise you're just in love "at" someone, or you're just in love "to" someone."

Ellie agreed. And with that caveat established: no, I don't believe I've ever been in love "with" anyone. But I've been in love "at" more people than I ever thought I would have to be before finding someone to be in love "with." I wonder how many more people I'll love "at" before I love "with."

We talked for another two hours. Both of us were a bit shocked at how time had passed. We made plans to meet up again soon, but I haven't seen her since.

After coffee with Ellie, I had lunch with my mother. I called her one the way home to see if she wanted to meet. Sometimes I have trouble having conversations with her.

So we talk about things that aren’t too personal: what plans I have after graduation. All of my conversations feel like they're about this these days. She asked about people I haven’t thought about since high school and I didn't know what to say. I don't know anything about them anymore.

She got a string of texts from her brother while we were there. He’s been trying to get a new job because his wife left him and he doesn't want to drive school buses anymore. He needs more money. He's waiting to hear back about driving a garbage truck for the county. My mother told me that it’s been hard for him to accept that he might drive a garbage truck because growing up, he was always told that if he didn’t work hard in school, all he would grow up to be is a garbage truck driver. His parents told him that. He wanted to prove them wrong, but he might not be able to. It’s hard to live into such a pessimistic prophecy.

Later that afternoon, I picked my friend Isaac up from the airport. He talked about how his mother gave him a haircut and how there was a present for him under the tree from Santa Claus. That was something that hadn’t happened since his grandmother died. She used to sign all of the presents from Santa Claus. It gave Isaac a warm feeling but when he asked his mom why she did that, she couldn't say. It wasn't an instinct for her, but she seemed to have done it instinctively.

Later that night, too late for coffee, I met my Dad at Starbucks. He lives in Delaware now, but he still holds the same job he had when he worked at home. So he's still in the area a good bit of the time. I don't see him very much. Part of the reason is because I'm away at school most of the time, but even if I lived at home, I wouldn't see him much.

I asked how work was going and he said it's not going well.

"I don't work where I used to work anymore. I mean, I work for the same company, but I work in a new location now. I work up near the Aberdeen proving grounds. Do you know where that is? It's an army facility."

I had no idea what he was talking about.

"You know, when I was in the boy scouts, we used to camp near there. We would hear them working through the night. They used to diffuse bombs there. I'm not sure what they use it for now. I never thought I'd work near there as an adult, but life has a way of being unexpected, I guess."

I nodded.

"I actually started working with someone I knew in college. I didn't recognize him at first, but then when he said who he was, it clicked. I was actually the best man in his wedding. He's still married to the same woman" (he said that as if it was surprising) "and they have four grown kids!"

I tried to be sympathetic, but I couldn't understand how my father could sit there and be proud of this man's family and his successful marriage when he's talking to the son he let down. But I shouldn't be surprised. In a phone conversation with my father, years ago, he once tried to explain to me how he was justified in leaving his wife and his children because the woman he was seeing had young children and those children needed a father figure.

Before we parted ways, he asked me to give a video game to my younger brother Timmy—a late Christmas present. I took the game from him, but I knew it wouldn't work. Timmy has an Xbox One and this was a PS4 game. They spend time together every week and Timmy never stops talking about how happy he is to have an Xbox. My father is inattentive to things like that sometimes.

Tomorrow is New Years' Eve. Every year, I plan make resolutions, but I can't think that far ahead. Maybe that's why I always make so many to-do lists.

#fiction #podcast #coffee #parallel #friendandfamily

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