Everyday we make choices. Do you need the jolt of caffeine or will decaf do? Has the workout allowed for the favorite lunch or are we going to be a low-fat citizen? Expressway or the road less taken? Most of the time the options are barked by some underpaid, disinterested hourly worker. There’s no urgency in the question or in the process of the decision beyond the few seconds that proceed or follow it. Despite how they may momentarily distract or irritate us, these choices are meaningless in the grand scheme of our lives. We make them often without really thinking about them. Most of the time we are barely paying attention.
On the other side, we have so many ways to occupy ourselves that personally I’ve lost the ability to listen. To be really listen. I can’t remember the last time I waited in line without whipping out my blackberry to check email or search the web, looking for a way to speed the ticking clock. I find myself so distracted by so much noise and static that often I lose the ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
I was waiting in the airport for my flight when I had a small lesson on clarity. I’m funny in airports: I’m always looking for a familiar face. I’ve never seen one, but I always look. All those people; I figure the odds are in my favor. Like most people, I try and find a seat away from all the strangers. I read the paper or a book, catch up on work, or return phone calls. But here I was with time to kill and without my tools to kill it: my flight was a bit delayed, the paper was read, and my toys of distraction – blackberry, laptop, and iPod – are out of juice. And not an outlet in sight. The result is a restlessness which is uncomfortable. Life is so busy sometimes I feel I’ve lost the ability to be still, to be quiet. It’s an ongoing effort to still the horses in my head that are ready to break from the gate.
I head to Legal Seafood near the gate to grab a quick bite to eat. It’ll deliciously kill the time. I park my suitcase against the metal bar the divides the small open-air restaurant from the adjoining gate and claim a seat at the end of some stacked tables designed for singles or small groups of fliers not looking for a privacy. I’m lucky on this night to find an empty seat – the rest of the tables are full. My seat is across from a neatly dressed woman who I take to be in business. She’s got a glass of red wine in front of her and she’s staring at her blackberry. She’s on the end and I’m across from her, and next to another traveler and his companion sitting side-by-side. I order my food and sit and think. The company for which I work has just been acquired and there is plenty to work through.
The waiter brings my glass of wine and I swirl and contemplate the straw-colored liquid. This woman across from me – I’ve just about forgotten she’s there. Until she starts talking. A quick glance verifies she’s on her phone. It clearly isn’t a business call. There is something about her voice. She’s speaking in low tones, but I’m so close to her. I can hear a looseness to it, a rawness. She speaks, How could I have been so blind? It was all a lie…I thought it was real. For 3 years, I thought it was real. What would I know – it was the first real thing I’ve had. What do I do now? I keep swirling my wine. I take a sip. I can't betray my eavesdropping ways. I’m so close to her. It’s odd how anonymity can give someone the feeling of privacy. She takes a deep breath, listening to the person on the other end of the line. She lifts her glass and takes a deep draw. She utters an odd yeah…I know.. uh huh… from time to time. She starts to speak again I know. I know the smart thing to do is to move on. I just don’t know how to do it. I just want to call him, to beg him to make it like before. Pathetic. Goddamn, I’m so pathetic. Please, promise me you won’t let me do that… her voice is quietly shaking. She’s really angry and sad and so all over the map. She’s momentarily distracted at the waiter as he puts down my food. She lifts her hand and catches his eye, points to her glass. She orders another without uttering a single word, her ear still listening to the person on the other end of the line. She keeps talking and I try and focus on my food, my wine.
Shortly, the waiter sets down another glass of wine and then clears her plate of nearly untouched food. The only indication that she’s aware of this is the change of her grasp from the empty glass to the full one. She says I just want to get home. Fall into bed. Wake up when this is all over…She swirls the red liquid; a bit splashes over the edge on to her hand. She lets go of the glass for a second and wipes the back of her hand on a napkin. She’s staring at the placemat, her eyes open, her breathing slowed and regular. Her emotional fatigue or the wine – or a combination of the two – is slowing her down. I swear, between work and him, I’ve been moving so fast for so long, I think I … I don’t know. I think I missed my exit or something. She utters a weary laugh. I’m ashamed at my eavesdropping but equally rewarded with this verbal gem. “Missed my exit.” I literally do that more often than I’d like to admit. I’ll be driving somewhere and will get so caught up in my thoughts that I miss the turn, the street. Recently, I blew through a red light without even being aware of the intersection. I realize this woman was speaking metaphorically, but I instantly boil it down to the dual demons of choices and multitasking. We’re so intent on both of these that we miss so many details – important or not. They are the threads of the fabric of our lives. I sit there and look at the dinner I barely thought about before ordering, and realize I haven’t tasted a bite.
The waiter brings her bill and she mechanically retrieves her credit card. He processes it right in front of her with a clever little gizmo, and prints off three copies of her bill. She scribbles the tip and signs her name and slides one copy across the table to the waiter. She’s still on her phone. She says quietly I’m fine. I’ll call you tomorrow. She disconnects the call and lays her phone on the table. She swirls her wine – gently this time – and takes a sip, then pushes the glass away. She puts her face to her hands and rubs her face, as if removing evidence of the day. She rests her forearms on the table, her hands clasped as if in prayer. She’s looking at her hands then nods her head slowly; I hear a deep sigh. She unclasps her hands and studies her palms for a second or two. I’m struck with the idea that she’s astonished to find them empty. She stares at them for a second longer, then rubs one gently against the other, as if brushing away crumbs. Ok then. This is the last thing she says before gathering her phone and briefcase and heading out of the restaurant. I watch her, walking across the concourse to her flight home. I don't know her and am left with the feeling that - despite this - she is oddly familiar.