I have a small story to tell.
It’s one I’ve been meaning to tell for a little while now. Life, and other writing projects, got in the way. And, to be honest, I’m mostly telling this story because the main character in it instructed me to do so when we met. I’ve grappled with this event for over a month now, trying to tie it into everything I do on this blog. If there’s a lesson I’d want to import with this post, it’s this: write things for other people. Storytelling is as much about reaching out to others as it is about your own creative fulfillment. This blog shouldn’t always be about me.
The small story took place in last February, on the first warm day of both that month and of this year. I was just getting out of one of that month’s many depressive episodes. I had finally broken out of my lonely, messy room— or at least dragged myself away from the Internet, and I had found peace in my own thoughts again. On moments like this, post-depressive episode, I’m usually high with energy, invincible, certain that I’ll never feel depressed again. Last February is when I stopped crawling out of depression oceans triumphant, instead reaching solid ground water-logged. It’s better now, sure, I thought, but these moments will be back. There’s no point denying that anymore. There’s no more energy to feeling good again, just a calmness. That’s the best thing I could say about my mind at the time.
I stepped outside my apartment that night and stretched my arms, running my fingers through recently-showered hair. The sun was setting. I tend to forget (or not have the energy to) eat while in depressive states, so I decided tonight was good enough of a night to go out on the town. I brought “The College Station All-Male Feminist Union,” my short story, with me to edit.
A lot of people were out that night— wearing shorts, talking loudly, living well. I’m listening to “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” by Tom Waits, so I’m not interacting with Iowa City residents that night. It’s dusk out, but the stores and restaurants are so well-lit that few would be able to tell. Again, I’m not one to pay attention to details, especially in a town I’ve lived in for five years. One detail about tonight does worm its way into the forefront of my mind: I’m supposed to skype my parents right now. We scheduled this yesterday. They’re likely texting me about this at this moment. But at this point of the night, I’m hungry and still tired, so I ignore my phone and walk into Forbidden Planet.
Forbidden Planet serves gluten-free pizza. They’re also a quaint arcade throwback place, with old sci-fi posters on the walls, but I’m not paying attention to that. It’s crowded today, a Saturday. People are sitting at bright primary-colored tables, chatting away. No server arrives to seat me (was I supposed to seat myself? Can’t remember. All the tables were taken anyways). So I go to the bar, passing a hurried kid on my way to sit down there. I order an Arnold Palmer and ask for a menu. While I’m waiting, I write down editing notes on the copy of my short story on feminist allies. I do this for a few minutes until…
“What are you, some kind of food critic?”
The fat, sweaty guy in a white shirt a barstool over says those words to me. I chuckle, defensively, and explain that I’m working on a short story of mine. He seems satisfied by this answer. He would not take criticism of this restaurant lightly, I would later find. He’s got a wide mouth, and he opens it to keep talking to me. Introverts like myself know how to deal with moments like this: talk along with your new friend, be polite, ask questions about their story, wait for a long pause before giving your excuse to leave.
I listen to him and talk with him longer than I thought I would. His name was also Nick. He talked like an old man, nostalgic and prone to repeat himself, in the voice of a college freshman. He was drunk. Being drunk is an aura that exists beyond a sweaty face and friendly demeanor, so even someone with few drinking experiences like me can single out that inebriated presence.
Nick lost his father nine months ago. I inquire further, and find out that Nick helped work for his father’s business when he was young. That’s why he likes being here: Forbidden Planet is a family business. “It’s all about family,” he says. “These kids, serving drinks, cleaning glasses, they just want to have fun. They just want to help out.”
He repeats these facts about five times during our conversation.
About the fifth time he talks about the kids helping their dad’s business for the love of it, I joke and say that the kids probably want to be anywhere else on a Saturday night. At least, according to my memories of growing up. Nick denies this. He’s loud about it. He taps one of the server kids on the shoulder and asks him, “Hey, why are you doing this? Why are you working?”
The kid replies, “I just want to help my dad.”
I admit to Nick that I lost our little bet. I’m also touched. Nick nods, then goes back to watching the kids help their dad. There’s a long pause. It’s here that I decide that I should skype my parents today. Today more than ever. I thank Nick for his company, and go off to get an actual bite to eat— my menu never came.
Don’t worry, I did actually talk to my folks that night. And yes, I told them that I loved them very much.
It was during my conversation with Nick that Nick made me promise to write about our conversation in that blog I mentioned. I promised to talk about our heart-to-heart (or rather, his heart to my ear). I resisted doing so for a long time. It’s a small story, a trite one, and it reveals that as much as I claim to love people spilling out their guts to me, I’m never sure what to do when I meet one of them. But this story is not about me. Nick gave very clear signs that he was a lonely individual looking to be heard, even if he wasn’t good at articulating that. He deserves to have his story, even a small segment of it, be told. I’m glad I listened for as long as I did (Hey, I had to eat sometime. And I had to connect with my own folks sometime too). I’m glad I could put aside my work and listen that night. Nick gave me insight into what loneliness sounds like. I came out of a depressive episode just in time to help someone in a depressed mode with his problems. One of the thing I’m finding out now is that I can get myself to class and therapist appointments, when I’m not feeling well, if I can make someone happy, usually by promising to tell them a joke. And I did make Nick laugh a few times. Both of them.
If there’s anything else I want to say, it’s this: it does get better. Even if you don’t know how it will yet. It’s true: you can never hold back spring. It’s a small message, but sometimes authors just need to tell small stories.