I start to pull in to one of the bays at Valvoline as I check my watch. It’s all about time these days. There’s never enough. I calculate. Will I be able to have the oil changed before my kids get home from school? I decide that yes, I will, although it will be tight, as usual. I have armed myself with some iced coffee and my iPhone. The time drags at Valvoline — ironic, since the company promises fast service, and yes, it’s fast, but a little awkward, too. There’s the fact that these men (and they are always men, aren’t they?) always try to sell me services that I think (but am never sure) that I do not need. In my experience, mechanics prey on the ignorance of women in all matters automotive. Then there is the fact that I am a decidedly white-collar individual who’s just now thrust my car into a blue-collar world. I, with my iPhone and iced coffee. These workers, dirty and smudged, and, in the case of the manager of this outfit, a gummy smile courtesy of several missing teeth. I feel out of place, I feel snooty, I feel female, and I feel stupid, all at once.
This time a paunchy man with a doughy, pale face greets me. “How are you?,” he asks, and I respond with a quick, halfhearted, “Fine.” I am already looking down at my email. Only now do I remember my manners: “How are you?,” I return, expecting little, hoping for little. He looks me straight in the eye: “Living the dream,” he says. There is such profound bitterness behind these words that I am caught short. It is as if the man has punched me.
Half-listening is how we go through life, ordinarily. But once in a while something demands our attention, our full attention, and we cannot help but comply. We jerk up, wake up, sit up straight. Three words, “Living the dream,” and I have forgotten all about my email and my coffee. This man with the watery blue eyes, the scruffy beard, and the extra weight around his jowls and middle is in pain. We do try to help other humans who are in pain, as long as we recognize it for pain. I believe that. I still believe it, even after close to forty-five years of living.
“That doesn’t sound good,” I offer in the tentative manner one adopts when conversing with a stranger.
“A year ago my 18-year-old daughter ran off with my best friend,” he responds, this rush of words burbling up as if under pressure and soon to blow. “My best friend, who’s my age — 35 years old.”
(For a moment I am distracted by the math. If he is 35, and his daughter is 18, then he had her when he was… I wince.)
“Whoa,” I say. “That is awful.” And I mean it. Awful on so many levels that it would take an hour to list them.
He continues telling me his sad tale. He confides that his mother suspected what was going on long before he and his wife guessed, but that they both refused to believe her when she confessed her concerns to them. He worries about his wife, who’s taking this all so badly, who flares up at him for seemingly doing well when she herself is a wreck.
I don’t think this man is doing well at all, but I remain silent on this point. I watch the other mechanics shooting us nervous, embarrassed glances, as if they’ve heard every bit of this before and are not quite sure how to stem its tide. I offer what I can. “Your girl will come home to you eventually,” I speculate, “and when she does, she’s going to need you more than ever.”
“Oh, yeah,” he replies, “I know my best friend. He chews women up and spits them out. He’ll be tired of her soon. And if you’re right, if she does come back to us, then, and only then, will I go over to my ‘friend’s’ house one night and…” He stops speaking. He doesn’t need to say what he’ll do to his traitorous former best friend. It’s clear to both of us. I nod, acknowledging his intention, acknowledging his heartache.
He tells me that he has a younger son who in some convoluted way is blaming himself for his sister’s departure. I think about how pain and grief ripple out, affecting the most incidental of players.
I am chastened as I leave Valvoline. All the rest of the day I feel lucky — spared. Such awful things can happen to people. The next morning, my teen mentions over breakfast that he has just read Oedipus Rex in English class. “Ridiculous,” he scoffs. “The number of coincidences it took to have that scenario unfold as it did. It could never have happened that way.”
“I don’t know,” I say, doubtful. And as I watch my boy take off on his bike for school, I think, There is Greek tragedy all around us, each and every day. But most often we manage to sleepwalk right through it, emerging from our stupor blinking, dazed, none the wiser.