Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Unexpected Information

Over the past few days I’ve had some stunning opportunities to watch my mind reel following the effects of unexpected information.

On Saturday I was talking to Franco, a friend from my current neighborhood. We were drinking beer and conversating and I forget what we were talking about, but he made a joke about priests molesting kids.

I remembered that he went to a Catholic school. I also remembered about how at my elementary school, all the students knew that the traffic cop on the corner who helped kids cross was too touchy-feely. I think kids frequently know who the molesters are, but they don’t tell adults because they don’t want to deal with the fuss or they don’t know how to explain it, so they just talk about it amongst themselves. So I asked Franco if there were any similar situations at his school.

“No. If there were, nobody ever talked about it. But”

The word “but” clued me in that he was going to say something else about child molestation, and I became vaguely uneasy. As I feared, the next word was “I”, which let me guess that he was getting ready to disclose information of a personal nature. Sure enough, the next word was “was,” oh no, “molested” was next, so it was a given that the following word would be “by,” then “my,” and I was almost certain that the last part of the sentence would be “neighbor,” “Scout Master,” “friend’s older brother,” or something of that nature.

But he said “dermatologist,” and I blinked a couple of times, unable to process what he’d said because it so completely confounded my expectations. Dermatologist? My confusion about what he said overwhelmed my horror.

It made me realize how much we rely on prediction for smooth communication. When you think about it, we speak quickly, so how do we understand each other so quickly? It’s because listeners guess about what speakers’ next words will be and plan how to react ahead of time. Every word out of a person’s mouth limits the possibilities of what the rest of the sentence can be about. Most of our conversations are pretty mundane and predictable. But as illustrated above, the predicting you do can derail your brain.

As I would learn anew on Wednesday.

Mornings when I go to work, I usually hang out on the sidewalk and talk to Langston for a few minutes before the shift starts. I’ve been working this temp assignment for less than two months, so I haven’t known him long, but he’s a pleasant acquaintance who can discuss many different subjects. He’s been in the military, raised kids, and read good books.

So I forgot how it came up – I guess I must have been talking about my old neighborhood. And he said, “Oh, I bet you knew my wife. She ran a store down the street from you, ” and I asked who his wife was. “Antonia,” he said.

“Oh! I love Antonia!” I said. Back in my days of the old neighborhood, I used to stop in to jaw with Antonia at least once a week. She knew all of the gossip and, like Langston, could talk about anything.

So here’s what Langston had to say about her:

“Oh, well she’s dead now. She died in February.”

Me: Mouth hanging agape. Internal state of shock, with a turmoil of sad discomfort beginning to stir itself.

I knew Antonia had been struggling with breast cancer, but the last time I saw her she looked great, wasn’t taking chemo anymore, and appeared to be in the clear. I am ashamed to say I don’t even remember when that was – it must have been sometime last year. Langston said the cancer came back last November, and she spent the last month of her life in the hospital.

My brain was struggling to process this information, and my feelings were trying to figure out what to do. What I became fixated with right away was the memory of Antonia referring to her husband as “Bear.” I pictured “Bear” as a grizzly-sized man, almost freakishly large – maybe 6’6 or 6’7. Antonia was about my height and size, and I knew when she sprained her ankle at work, she drove home and Bear met her at the driveway and carried her inside. That seems like it would take a big guy. But Langston isn’t all that big.

“When were you married to her?”

“I was married to her for 33 years.”

“So you’re Bear?”

He nodded.

I guess he’s more of an Eastern Black Bear than a Grizzly Bear.

The doors opened and people began going inside.

I got some coffee and milled around in the break room doing the good mornings with everybody, but the corners of my eyes were damp and I felt really strange. I went into the work room, where Anne, the lady who sits to my right, was already settling in. We haven’t been desk neighbors for long, so I don’t know her well, but I needed to talk to somebody.

“I’ve had a really weird morning,” I said, and told her what happened.

“So it turns out he’s the husband of your friend?” Anne asked. I nodded. “When did she die?” I told her. And with an (almost) straight face she asked, “So, did he ask you out?”

That was sure as hell not what I expected. I howled with laughter and told her she was awful.

I had no idea that woman was so funny. Thank God she is, and thank God she chose to handle it that way. If I had been unlucky enough to sit next to somebody who wanted to get all gooey and comfort me, I might have been a distracted emotional wreck all day. But I was able to put it aside until I got home, and I will get my full-scale sadness wallow on as soon as I finish this.

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