"Friends," he said.
I was a little confused at first, "What do you mean I need friends?" I have friends. I have lots of friends. But there he was, my doctor, prescribing "friends."
I'm an affable, likable guy. I could give you references! “I could give you references,” I told him! “Like who?”
I listed a solid, half-dozen people that I consider to be friends. I could have listed more and more with no problem. Plus, I told him not to forget “Paisley.”
“Paisley is your dog,” he replied straight-faced. I had my doc on this one: “Who can argue with ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ huh?” My humor was only slightly amusing to him. He was stone-cold serious. Yes, he was truly prescribing, “friends.”
“How many of those people can you call right now and have a beer with after work?” Damn. The curse of my field: hospitality. It’s true, I do have lots of friends and, like confetti, they are sprinkled across the country from sea to shining sea. The friends I have within beer-after-work-distance keep a diffenitively different schedule than mine. The rest of my pals call home in completely different time zones.
“Well, I don’t have to call Paisley and we chill after work!” Yeah. Try selling your doctor on how healthy it is to drink with your dog after work. Trust me, the position is weak, at best.
I love Paisley. She’s adorable. I’d take a bullet for my dog. I hired a pet detective from Animal Planet when a pet sitter lost her. On New Year’s Eve. In Pasadena, California. This happened to coincide with her first birthday and a little event called The Rose Bowl. It’s an epic story for another time but for now, just trust me: don’t mess with a man (or woman) and his dog, even if she’s the cutest little yorkie-bichon mix you have ever seen.
If you could sit down for fifteen minutes and have a beer with me, the irony in all of this would be self-evident: I can relate to you. Yes, you. Gay, Muslim, straight, Christian, black, white, fundamentalist, whatever. I feel people. I feel your emotions. I can hear subtleties in your tone of voice. I hear the words that you’re saying, but the tenor of how they're expressed is what counts. I can read your posture and body language like people read a paperback novel. So, what’s my problem?
I can’t turn it off.
There’s that old saying: I’ve never met a stranger. It’s true. Bartender, CEO, Janitor, Salesman, Professor, Entrepreneur, Lawyer, Uber Driver, Wedding Coordinator, Concierge, Front Desk Attendant, or just the person sitting next to me at the bar, restaurant, coffee shop, or airport. It happens. I have a gift for making people feel comfortable and at ease. I don’t do anything on purpose; I’m just being me. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that my empathy can make a difference in people’s lives, and that satisfaction is boosted by the fact that often, I can do so quickly. Yet, like anything, this has its consequences.
I’m at the bar, by myself, having a drink. I notice the woman next to me has been reading a book but, taking a break, puts it down to sip a martini and munch on some calamari. “Reading anything good?” This is an involuntary response; it just comes from my lips. Before she utters a word, I know the following by simply sitting next to her…
The bartender I know well, and he’s good with names. A few minutes prior, he asks the woman, “Mary, are you doing okay for the time being?” Mary? An uncommonly common name, and one that is easy for me to remember. She gives the bartender a direct, polite, but muted response. Her shoulders are slouched in a way that suggests she’s trying to hide. Clearly pretty, I can tell that she wants the company of others – otherwise, she wouldn’t be at the bar – but the diamond on her engagement ring would blind someone under the right light. I guess that men flirt with her in excess, never acknowledging her relationship. The bar isn’t at a hotel. She’s a local. Her husband must work very different hours. Otherwise, why would she be perched completely alone at the bar, at 6:30 pm on a Tuesday, reading a book, with an enormous rock on her left hand?
“Reading anything good?” It must be decent. She is about two-thirds through it, and it isn’t light reading gauging by its size. If she didn’t like it, she would have stopped. “Oh, it’s a book about Siberia.” “Fiction or non-fiction,” I ask. She’s getting the vibe I’m just a flirt, but none-the-less she responds, “It’s kind of like a journal; it's about a man who documented his travels through Siberia.” Sounds heavy to me for a Tuesday, but whatever. “Well, I don’t know who the author is, but if it’s your husband, I have to believe he got home safe and sound, yes?” Posture change. She leans back. I’m not a threat. She even grins, “No, my husband is a doctor.” “Working right now, is he?” “Yep, he’s in the rotation.” This explains a) the size of her ring and b) why she’s alone. I tell her about my little sister, whose husband is a world-class eye surgeon. I ask her how she met her husband, “Tell me the story,” I say.
Two hours go by. At this point, I’ve made her laugh so loud she slouches in her chair, covers her mouth, and looks at me like I’m one of her best girlfriends with that did-I-just-embarrass-myself glance. She’s happy. I’m happy that she’s happy. It’s late now, and Wednesday morning calling with its duties, I politely excuse myself. “It was a pleasure meeting you. Enjoy the rest of your book! And just think, better a late night at the hospital than stuck in cold Siberia!” She gifts me one last grin…
I never see her again.
I walk to the car with a pep in my step. I met someone who had resigned herself to an evening of loneliness while her husband toiled away in the emergency room, and I left her with rosy cheeks, relaxed, and in her own words, “It was really nice to meet you!” “I assure you the pleasure was all mine,” I told her.
Getting into my car, starting my engine, I acknowledge that I did a good thing in lifting her spirits. It wasn’t even conscious. I just did it. Driving home, the contact high of what felt like having a friend vanishes. I never meet a stranger, but why do I so often feel like one?
Then it hit me. I created a faux friendship. Don’t mistake me: I wasn’t being fake in the least; I was certainly me, Derek. But making someone feel good in a way that few people can isn't the definition of a friendship.
Heavier than her book about Siberia was the fact that I lacked true authenticity. To be authentic means I must lay it all on the table. I’ve got to bet the farm in my relationships, putting everything on the line. Good, bad, ugly, and uglier. That’s scary.
Fear. Tons of fear. I can keep up a good facade, but I never used to do that! Over the years I had forgotten what it felt like to be my authentic self, 365/24/7. Hell, I'm still so far from that it's going to take me a minute to remember what that feels like.
But I had to start somewhere. So I started being truly authentic with one person.
THE WORST HAS HAPPENED. THE BEST IS NEXT.