[For more of this story, read Talk is Cheap, Listening is Free and Talk is Cheap, Listening is Free, Good Vibes are Priceless]
In this day and age, it is alarmingly easy to miss connections. We walk around with head phones in our ears, cell phones in our hands. We never miss a status update while the world passes us by. We have no problem connecting with strangers online. We don’t think twice about “liking” a stranger’s Facebook status or retweeting something they’ve said. But when confronted with an actual being- with body language, voice inflection, pheromones, and eyes: those twinkling betrayers of secrets- we shy away. It’s too scary.
If you’ve ever moved to New York City, you know scary. Entering adulthood is difficult in general, if you move to this city simultaneously, it is nothing short of terrifying. Exhilarating but terrifying- especially if you’re like me and move with absolutely no savings, two weeks after college graduation. But I did it, and after somehow surviving nearly four years in this urban jungle, I have a new perspective on “scary”. After struggling to get a job to pay your insane Manhattan rent, it’s not so scary to crash a fancy champagne reception. After having a bank balance so low you can barely afford groceries, it’s not so scary to use pick-up lines at the supermarket. After dealing with rejection from dozens of auditions, it’s not so scary to flirt with the lead singer of a band. After going to the hospital all alone, it’s not so scary to start a conversation with a handsome stranger on the street.
Compared to all that, to stop and talk to a random guy with a sign that says, “Free Listening”? That’s not scary, it’s a walk in the park. But to have him listen to me? That’s another story.
After the family with good vibes departed, I felt it was about time for me to leave the Listener too. I didn’t exactly have anywhere to be, but I had been talking to him for a while. “Is there a time-limit on this?” I questioned. “Nope,” he replied, “You can stay as long as I’m here.” Still, I felt like I’d taken up more than my fair share of his time. I didn’t want to be the jerk at the free food table who takes four slices of pizza, the last four slices.
“You still haven’t told me a story,” he said. “I know. You’d think if I’ve been here this long, I must have something I want talk about.” I said, like I was joking. But of course I wasn’t joking. I did have something on my mind, I wanted very much to talk about it, and having a stranger listen was exactly what I wanted. Usually when I feel that way, I write in my blog. But this was something I felt unsure I should blog about. Nor was it something easy to talk about.
I could have sat down and told the Listener any story. I could have told him what I had eaten for lunch. I could have spoken the text of a Shakespearian monologue. I could have said anything, and he would have listened. Granted this gift, I felt I couldn’t just say anything. I felt I had to tell a story that I needed someone to listen to. And so, after much hesitation and almost leaving because not participating is always easier (but never as fulfilling), I sat down.
“So there’s this guy,” I said, “Which is such a cliché, but I already told you about my blog so why should I deny it?” I told him the long version of this story:
I’d been seeing this guy. A guy who was incredibly sweet, kind, and thoughtful. We met at a party of a mutual friend. I felt like I was breaking two patterns here by picking a nice guy and meeting him in a totally boring, undramatic way. He seemed really into me, very attentive, always saying sweet, genuine things. It was a nice change. Then, about six weeks in, he disappeared. Completely stopped texting, didn’t return my calls. Five days of incommunicado, I tossed him into the pile of Lost Boys, and tried to forget the whole thing. Of course that was exactly when he called me. I answered a call from an unknown number and it was him. “Where have you been?” I asked. He went on to tell me that the day after I’d last seen him, he had gone and checked himself into a psychiatric hospital.
Most times, when he doesn’t call you, it’s because he’s just not that into you. But sometimes, it’s because he’s in a mental hospital.
What does one do with that kind of information? I was having trouble processing it. How did this news make me feel? Daze, shocked, confused. What was my role? It had only been six weeks. It wasn’t my place to help him through the mess he was going through, but how could I just shut the door on someone I had started to care for?
He opened up to me so much as I spoke to him on the phone. Simply telling me he was in the hospital was incredibly brave. I hadn’t shown one iota of that vulnerability. Being vulnerable terrifies me. More than anything New York City can serve up. It’s huge challenge for me in all my relationships. In fact, in telling this story, I shared more vulnerability with this stranger on a park bench than I had during the entire relationship I was speaking of.
The Listener listened to my story. While I was speaking, his eyes darted all over the place as I spoke. He could not hold me gaze. Perhaps looking me in the eyes crossed a line. When I decided to tell him a story, it was go big or go home. I was sharing a piece of myself with him and seeing that shine through my eyes may have just been too intimate. Maybe I took advantage of him by telling him something I was having difficulty talking over with my friends. Perhaps, but as he had several times asserted: there is no fine print to his sign. Free Listening. That was the offer. I said Yes, And I raised the stakes.
With writing, there is no eye contact, I can still keep some walls up even when I let others down.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I know it can be scary to leave a comment, or even in some cases to let me know you read my blog. But know it would mean a lot to me.