Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part VIII
Identity is an interesting concept, reader. The idea that we can use one word or phrase to describe an entire human being’s existence, the whole of their experiences, wants, desires, interests, personality, what makes a person a person—is more than just silly.
And yet, we do it every day without realizing it. Think about how we meet new people:
“Hi, I’m So And So.”
“Hi, So And So. I’m Another Generic Name. What do you do?”
“I’m an engineer.” As if the label of engineer is enough to educate a stranger on the summation of another’s life.
I’m an academic.
She’s a nerd.
He’s a musician.
I’m a thrill-seeker.
I’m a detective sent from the future to warn you of oncoming danger and protect you from evil. Put that cupcake down, milady, it’s poisoned.
I’m a gamer.
None of these labels are necessarily bad things, reader, but identity can be such a narrow concept. When a person fails to take the time to get to know someone on a human level, a label is a shortcut to a one-dimensional view of a life that contains multitudes.
The problem is, most of us don’t have the time to get to know someone. We rush through life, focusing on our own problems—chasing our own balloons—that everyone else is a single-faceted side character in the story of our life.
The German language has a word that captures this realization. Sonder.
Sonder is the realization that every stranger you pass by is living in their own vivid, exciting life story that is equally as deep and real as your own and that, from their perspective, you’re just a random passerby without so much as a true name. “Passerby” is your name. Your label. Your one-dimensional identity.
Every stranger you meet could have a life filled with hundreds of vibrant characters that you’ll never know existed. Adventures, ambitions, the joys and sorrows that make each of us human, and yet, from the view of their story, you’re just background decoration.
A lit window across the street.
A bartender who’s sole duty in the story is to provide a drink and some atmosphere.
A librarian who (thanks to that one-word identity label) should be bookish, homely, shy, quiet, all the words that can barely describe a library, let alone cover the whole spectrum of the human life working within it.
“…And then she tells me I’m the side character,” I said, stocking the bar counter with fresh limes and oranges before we open.
“She sounds like a fun girl, man, I like her.” Moog smiled as he chopped vegetables.
“I’m starting to think you like every girl I talk about, Moog.”
“I mean, you’ve only talked about the two so, yeah, man. I do like every girl you talk about. You should introduce me.”
“How does she even get up in the morning if she thinks she has no control or choices in her life?”
“Don’t ask me, man. I’m not a psychiatrist.”
“You mean a philosopher?”
“No, man, I mean a psychiatrist. Cus’ I’m startin’ to think that you’re crazy and you keep attracting other crazy people. I’m startin’ to think I’m the only grounded person in your life, man.”
“So, you’re saying you like crazy women, then?”
Moog put the knife down and turned to face me, eyebrows and shoulders raised, “Uh, yeah, man. Who doesn’t?”
A few days had passed since my latest encounter with the librarian. In that time, I had learned a modest amount about hot air balloons and thought maybe it was time to get started on repairs. Tomorrow, Moog and I would start listing out what needed to be fixed so we were ready when Alice’s cash arrived.
We finished prepping the bar and Moog walked up front to unlock the door. He looked out onto the street, “Dude, you should check this out. There’s this skater chick outside and…she’s good.”
“Like, skateboarding? People still do that?” I did a final check of the bar, making sure the register was ready, bottles and glasses in place. Moog’s sushi side of the bar was, as usual, immaculate to a surgical degree.
“Of course people still skateboard, man. It’s the only thing the hipsters haven’t ruined that’s still cool.” He came back to the bar after unlocking the door. “Wish I could skate as good as her, man.”
I ignored him and opened one of the books I’d checked out from the library. It was a weeknight so we weren’t expecting a big crowd. This book claimed to cover weather patterns and meteorology “for dummies.” I quickly learned that I needed to respect meteorologists more. This stuff was like black magic, it was so confusing.
Time passed with hardly any patrons. Moog kept himself busy with random tasks: cleaning up this, re-arranging that, making a list of changes we should implement now that I was manager. All the while we could hear the intermittent scrapes and scratches of a skateboarder outside. Occasionally, there would be an earth-shattering crack that would shake my focus. I assumed it was the skater landing an exceptionally high drop off a railing or stairs.
I was reading about the difference between alto and stratocumulus clouds and how aviators should remember the concept of lapse rate—that is, how the ambient air temperature drops at a rate of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit per thousand feet of altitude, and how it’s important for pilots to be able to calculate the outside temperature when flying because ice and thermal layers and… that was about the point where my eyes glazed over.
After a while, the skateboarding stopped and I heard voices outside the door. Finally, some customers.
I heard the door open. I didn’t need to know a thing about lapse rate to feel the atmosphere in the room change. It suddenly got very warm. I heard Moog stop whatever random task he had dedicated himself to. I looked over to where he was standing and realized his glowing face must have been the source of the sudden heat. Or, rather, half the reason. The other half was the lady who walked in the door and had left him awestruck.
“Dude, dude. Dude!” He nudged me, “It’s the skater chick. I didn’t see her face earlier. She’s beautiful.” Moog’s eyes beamed brighter than his face.
I looked towards the door and saw a woman holding a skateboard. Nothing else about her screamed “skater girl” other than her pants that were full of random stitches and home-spun patchwork. Beside her were three other women who had walked in, without skateboards. In fact, not only did they lack skateboards, but they looked all business, maybe stopping in for a drink after a long day at the office. Even the skater, if you took away her wheeled instrument of pre-digital rebellion and freedom, looked rather professional from the waist up.
Trying my best to suppress any look of surprise on my face, I nodded and waved, “Evening, ladies. Have a seat wherever you’d like.” I smiled and turned away from them to face Moog, who was just standing there, staring. His eyes were so big, you could sail a ship across the dark pools of his pupils.
“Moog! Snap out of it! Go see what they want,” I whispered, and then gestured with a head tilt, “That’s the librarian.”
That finally got his attention. “Wait. What?” He punched me, “Why didn’t you tell me she was so…cool?”
“Keep quiet, and pick your jaw up off the floor so you can take their ord—”
“Hi boys,” the librarian interrupted. She walked up to the bar while her friends all took a seat at a table. “I didn’t know you worked here, Mister Hot Air Balloon.” She nodded towards my weather book, “You should really learn to hide your boring life choices.”
“What can we get you ladies?” I tried to change the subject.
“Well, we’re celebrating, but champagne is cliché, so what other celebratory drinks do you recommend?”
“Did you get promoted at the library?” Moog queried.
She gave both of us a sideways glance, so Moog continued, “He told me you worked at the library, which I never would’ve guessed because you’re h—you skate so good.”
Her eyes sparked—and not the good kind, reader. It was a dreadful spark. The spark of a revolver when its firing pin strikes the bullet. The spark of a vodka-soaked rag in a bottle, igniting a revolution.
Or, more relatable metaphor, the spark of metal in a microwave—a universal signal that, like Moog, you’ve just made a dumb, yet grave mistake.
“Oh. You don’t think librarians can’t skate?” She leaned towards Moog.
Moog recoiled. “No, no, I was watching you from the door. Not on purpose, or, like, in a creepy way, just, you know, I saw you and you looked amazing. Your skateboarding looked amazing, I mean, not you. You look amazing, too, with the weird pants, but, you know, that’s not what I mean.”
And Moog thinks he’s the grounded one.
The librarian just nodded at Moog’s rambling. When he finished, her deadly eyes flashed into a warm smile with a quickness that was equally scary, despite the positive transformation. “I know what you mean,” she laughed, though Moog was paralyzed. “Just giving you a hard time, glad you appreciate a good skater.” She nodded to her skateboard propped by the table, “I was just killing some time outside waiting for the girls to show up. And, yeah, I do work at the library, but that’s not why we’re celebrating. My friend over there,” she glanced back towards one the business ladies, “just ended a bad relationship so we’re—”
“Ah, so this is a sad occasi—”
“No.” Her eyes were back to sparks. That’s what was so scary, her volatility. She seemed able to shift from laughter to violence at the turn of a page. “This is a celebration,” she slow-winked at Moog and he about melted. She spoke with a measured cadence and nodded while talking to get her next point across, “We’re celebrating that she’s free and can do whatever she wants with her life now.” She kept nodding, “You get what I mean?” She looked us both square in the eyes, one at a time.
“Gotcha—” I tried to jump in and save Moog but he continued with more of those ridiculous sounds a person makes when their mouth is disconnected from their brain.
“Absolutely! We’re great at breakups and bad relationships. The best!”
I wanted to drop my face into my hands and escort Moog away, but to the librarian’s credit, she just gave him another wicked smile and said, “Good to hear it. What’s your name?”
“Moog.” He at least managed to say that much without embarrassing himself.
“Hi Moog,” the librarian offered her hand, “Sondra.”
(This week is a short one, I know. But don’t worry. I’ll be making up for it in the next installment and I can’t wait to share it with you guys. Big things about to happen! Part IX will be out in two weeks!) Check out the whole series thus far here.
(Photo by Bran Sodre on Pexels.com)