The Smallest of Every Day Choices
I stared down at the thick, heavy psychology text book lying open on the table in front of me. I chided myself again for procrastinating and waiting until just 4 hours before the test to read the material assigned. After all, the class met just once a week on Tuesday nights and I really enjoyed the new things I was learning in it.
I disregarded the many excuses that flew through my mind; just because I only moved last week was no excuse. Well sure, it was the fourth move in a year and a half since my dad had served divorce papers on my mom. First a flight across country from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Los Angeles via Chicago when I was just 19 years old; then into a studio apartment, and then into another one and finally back home when Mom moved back to LA that fall. And even though I had gotten used to living by myself, it really was no hardship to move into the tiny condo shared with Mom, one older brother, one younger sister, and another younger brother. No, I should be able to concentrate…Linda, you should be studying. Really!
I went back to marking the text with a thick, yellow highlighter. I thought about the force of the words in the book. A scale measured the amount of stress events place on a person’s life. I began counting up the number of points Mom had accumulated over the course of the last year. She was way over the number of points that indicated she would be at risk of developing a severe illness in the next 12 months. Do I really want to know what psychologists study in an effort to understand the human mind?
The words transported me from my circular thoughts that had kept reminding me that I was missing the family birthday party tonight for my nephew and niece, born the same day to two different sisters-in-law; missing evening events was a real drawback to attending night classes this first semester of college for me. I knew I had to focus in or risk flunking this psych test in a few hours and attacked my studies with renewed resolve.
I reached the Summary and Key Terms at the end of the chapter, sighing in relief. Then I felt all the hairs at the back of my neck stand up in unison. “Someone is watching you.” I felt it and knew it at the same time. This was my quiet, secret place; the satellite cafe on campus open only during the off hours when the day students had gone home and the night students not yet come in. The place had been empty when I arrived, dropped my burger and fries on a table with seating for 6. I placed my books around me with notebook and pens handy.
Dare I glance up and see who was staring? Years of training in my family of 11 siblings warned me to be cautious. The Key Terms I stared at blurred as curiosity grew inside me, to look or not to look, what should I do? A quick glance up made me groan inwardly, my eyes darted back down to the page. First impressions mean everything right? And that momentary look told me all I needed to know—a veteran, short hair, jeans and a t-shirt, a broad grin smiling down at me. But my look up provided all the invitation he needed. Long, lanky legs strode over to the edge of the table, “Anyone sitting here?”
Nope, just me and I am invisible right? “No,” I mumbled as inaudibly as possible.
“Okay if I sit here?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but set his tray down on the table, sat down and slid into the booth. Do I even have a choice in this? There are only a dozen more empty tables scattered around the room. I noticed the cup of coffee and slice of cake resting on his tray, chocolate. Hhhmmppphhh!
Aren’t I supposed to be at a birthday party for LeAnne and Matthew? Now what am I going to do? I started gathering my supplies and books for a quick retreat to the library. I scarfed down the last huge bite of burger and decided the fries were a lost cause; I could drink the cola on the way to the library.
“I’m new to this school and checking things out today. How do you like it?” the jovial man asked.
“It’s fine; it’s my first semester too. I have to go and study for a test.”
“What’s your major?”
“I’m thinking about taking guitar. Do you know anything about the music department?” Another guitar-playing guy back from the war…It was 1975 and no one appreciated the sacrifice our service men and women had made.
“Don’t know a thing about the music department, all my classes are in math and science,” my curt reply did nothing to dissuade him from his cross-examination.
“How about the art department? I saw some signs on the way over here. There is some kind of an Art Gallery around here.”
“I know there is a sign pointing the way over by the library,” I wished he’d read my signs that I did not want any more of this conversation. I plastered my eyes on the Chapter Summary and tried my best to ignore him.
“I just got out of the Air Force and did a bit of ceramics while I was in Arizona. I’d like to teach ceramics or art someday. Could you show me the way to that sign pointing to the Art Gallery?”
Oh yeah, I sure can. “Of course, I’ll show you the way to the library. But then I really need to study.”
“Let me just finish up my cake and we can go,” he said before demolishing it in a few bites.
With nothing left for me to eat, I studied the face across from me; dark hair, brown eyes, a thinner version of my dad. He continued to ply me with questions and amazingly I continued to answer. Before I realized the time was passing, I found myself laughing and forgetting all about my test. The missed birthday party fled my thoughts as we walked across campus to the side door of the library.
We found the sign which pointed up a staircase. “I guess that is the way to the Art Gallery.” I lingered at the door just a bit longer than needed.
“You think you could walk up there with me?” He paused momentarily at a loss for words.
What could one flight of stairs hurt? After all, I never had been to an art gallery in my life. Well okay, maybe I could take just a few more minutes. “Oh, all right.”
“Oh, and by the way, here’s my phone number. Could you give me your phone number?” he miraculously materialized a slip of paper with his phone number on it. Do guys just carry these things around in their pockets?
Of course, I had already memorized my new phone number for the condo! “Sure,” and I gave it to him which he carefully recorded in a small, green book he produced from his back pocket.
So we climbed the first flight of stairs and reached a landing. At the side there was another sign stating Art Gallery with another arrow pointing up. So I looked up this flight and realized that there were many, many more flights of stairs up the hillside before a person would reach some trees at the top of a mountain with some buildings peeking from behind. What have I gotten myself into? And yet, now I didn’t want to let this conversation go. So we climbed up what I counted to be a dozen flights of stairs to finally reach the top and follow another sign into a shady grove where the Art Gallery stood, closed!
Yep, they were between shows and if anything this part of the campus was even more deserted, probably because it involved climbing a mountain to get up here!
“Hey, since the gallery is closed, would you like to see my car?”
See his car, why in the world would I want to see anyone’s car! And so we walked off in another direction on campus for me to see his beautiful, to him, dark blue, 1974 Mustang. It was pretty and my 1967 Comet didn’t look like much beside it. I studied his pride in showing me his car. I thought of cars as utility vehicles to get me where I needed to go. What was I missing?
“I’ve gotta go now, so I will give you a call sometime.” He hopped into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. A little more small talk and then our first parting from one another was over.
Somehow I floated down the mountainside, found a place in the library, and focused back on the task of preparing for the multiple choice test in psychology. Thankfully we started the class with the test because I don’t think I absorbed much of the lecture afterwards. The next week I learned that despite the distractions, I did okay pulling a 90% on the test. By then, Gary and I had already had our first date and were making plans for him to come out and meet my family.
Sometimes the small choice of looking up and giving a random stranger a moment or two of your time can have profound effects. Some of the walks we’ve taken together have been easier, other very difficult. Just 6 months after meeting, one of the hardest walks we took together was attending my mom’s funeral after inflammatory breast cancer robbed her away from us. Yes, all that stress she endured plus the rejection from the divorce did turn into serious illness for her. The psychology test had predicted correctly on that one.
Another 6 short months later we became engaged, planning our wedding for July of the next year. We have been climbing mountains together for almost 40 years since the day I chose to look up. The world around us has revolved and now our country welcomes our veterans back home and thanks them for their service, unlike when Gary came home and veterans were reviled for fighting in Vietnam. This choice seems to be much better than blaming the men and women we send overseas for the results of war.
And it is in those small, everyday choices when we decide to be there for one another, understanding our human foibles and enjoying our shared humanity that we set the patterns for our lives. Whether we grow a spirit of friendliness and generosity or become embittered over life’s difficulties is a result grown from those very choices to look up with a smile or keep our eyes shuttered from our fellow human beings. And yes, one day about 2 years into our marriage I asked Gary if he knew the Art Gallery was closed that day with his car parked so nearby. “Of course I did,” he said with a grin, “I just wanted to see if you would bother or not.” And I am so glad that I did because it turned into the best decision I ever made.