I fell in love for the first time when I was in Ninth Grade. She was beautiful and smart and never one to shy away from voicing her opinion. We started out as friends. Then I finally got up the courage to ask her out...and was immediately shot down with a version of the “I don’t think of you that way” speech. One thing I have to give younger me credit for is accepting that and not thinking that she’d change her mind about me one day. I knew she wouldn’t. She later told a mutual friend that she didn’t think of me as a guy but rather as my own species. Fortunately, I can laugh about this now, but at the time OUCH.
The upshot of all of that was that I was able to date other people instead of spending all of my time pining for her and waiting for her to come to the obvious conclusion that she should be with me. It’s not that I didn’t love her, but I was able to focus on our friendship instead. We remained good friends throughout high school, talked to each other about our various relationships (at the end of our junior year I started dating the woman I would go on to marry and later divorce), and then we went off to different colleges…at which point I became a massive jerk and cut off just about all contact with my friends from high school. That’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s what happened.
Outside of two or three instances, I didn’t see her for the next fifteen years. But I dreamt about her. Even as my own relationship moved from dating to engagement to marriage, I would still have dreams of the girl from high school on an almost weekly basis. After talking to my college roommate about it (years after we’d graduated), he finally explained to me what was going on. I wasn’t dreaming about my friend from school. Instead I was dreaming about my ideal woman. My friend was just her avatar.
Several years ago, my ex-wife and I took our kids to visit another city miles from our home. While shopping, we ran into my high school friend and her husband. This was…unexpected. For me it was a bit like going to look for shoes in my closet and instead finding Alyson Hannigan. Yes, it was wonderful to see her, but I really wasn’t prepared to suddenly be confronted with this woman that I’d so built it up in my mind. Quickly pulling myself together I…
No. I’m lying. I didn’t pull myself together. Instead, I babbled at her nearly incoherently for a few minutes (It may have been less than 60 seconds. Time gets extended when you’re mortified), and we went our separate ways. I spent the drive home kicking myself, but soon thereafter, I came to the conclusion that I was being completely ridiculous when it came to my friend for one very simple reason: I had absolutely no clue who she was anymore. Could I even say that we were friends? Sure, we were close in school, but when I ran into her, we were barely acquaintances. The woman in my dreams may have had her face, but she wasn’t my friend in any other way.
This realization put an end to her appearances in my dreams.
But more than that, I started to wonder how much my brain was filling in for me about other people in my life. Did I really know any of them as well as I thought I did? Or was I instead creating versions of them in my mind the way I wanted them to be rather than getting to know who they really are?
Go to a crowded public place and look around (but not creepily. That can get you into trouble.). Every single one of those hundreds of strangers has an entire life full of family, friends, loves, and events that you know nothing about. As a writer, I find it mind-boggling to think of all of the individual stories that they have. That time she hit the winning run for her softball team. The day he stepped on a nail and had to hop home. The boy who broke his heart. The girl who first made him realize there could be something to this dating thing after all. That old woman you just blew by on the freeway went to Korea with the USO, but to you she’s just someone impeding traffic.
It’s no surprise that you don’t know the strangers you happen to pass over the course of your life, but what about those people you see every day? I’ve worked with many of the same people for almost fifteen years now. I’m friendly with many of them, and maybe I know the basics about some of their lives outside of work. For most of them, I can tell you whether or not they are married, but I can only name the spouses of very few. I don’t know where they went to school or where they grew up or what made them to decide to enter our line of work. I could ask, I suppose, but I don’t. Just as they don’t ask me. We are coworkers, and despite spending more time together than we do with our own families, we know little about each other beyond the basics.
But even being family doesn’t guarantee that you know everything about each other. This past Summer, my kids and I went on vacation with my parents, and during the trip my father started talking about hitchhiking across Ohio when he was younger. I was stunned. To give you some idea, this is pretty much the equivalent of Spock suddenly telling the story of his past as a stripper. After almost 40 years of knowing him, I had certain ideas about who my father was. “Guy who used to bum rides” is nowhere in that vision. Even now after listening to the man himself talk about hitchhiking, I can’t picture it. I have this new knowledge that doesn’t fit with who I thought my father was. And it’s not like we’re talking about anything earth-shattering here. It’s just hitchhiking, but it doesn’t fit.
That is, of course, my problem and not my father’s. He knows the experiences he’s had. He was there. Meanwhile, I have this narrow view of him as my father. I know him as he is now (or has been throughout my existence), and he’s changed since he was a young man. Or is it that instead of seeing him as an individual person, I’m seeing him as the role he plays in my life? We categorize people based on who they are to us. Bob is a coworker. No, Bob is Bob. You and he just happen to work together. Bob also does metalwork on the side, enjoys long hikes, and once crashed while doing 100 miles per hour in his dad’s 1966 Ford Mustang.
I don’t think that there’s anything that we can do about this, or that it’s necessarily even a problem. No matter how close you are to someone, there will always be things about them that you do not know because you haven’t lived their life. When it comes down to it, we never really know anyone. We just think we do.
- Alan Decker (@CmdrAJD on Twitter)