The Power Of Positive Pessimism
“Hi, Rick. It’s great to finally meet you.”
“Hi, Denise. Same here.”
We were standing in the waiting area at the Olive Garden restaurant. I’d spotted her as soon as I came in the door and was relieved to see that she looked as good as her picture. It proved me wrong, and I’m always happy to be proved wrong.
You’re supposed to hope for the best and expect the worst. Well, I don’t know about the first part, but I’m really good at the second. In fact, I think it’s lucky to expect the worst. They say it’s always what you don’t expect that gets you, so by that reasoning, every bad thing I can think of is automatically less likely to happen.
I know it sounds strange. But like the guy in New York with the talisman that protects his apartment from tigers, I’d say it’s worked so far. Although it probably cost me my marriage.
The maître d’, who looked like he was still in college, led us to a window table. As I walked behind Denise, I took grateful note of the slimness of her body. In my preemptive imaginings, I’d had her about 20 pounds heavier than her online photo and assumed it had been taken years before. Mistaken on both counts, and good for me.
We’d met two weeks earlier on e-Together.com, after they’d matched us in “25 Crucial Compatible Categories.” A flurry of e-mails between us was followed by the next step—going out to dinner. We’d picked the Olive Garden in Danbury because it was equidistant from the two Connecticut towns where we live.
Now, as we settled in at the table, came the obligatory awkward moment.
“So,” I said with what felt like a cheesy smile.
“So,” she answered with a self-conscious smile of her own.
I tried to remember what grade she’d said she taught. Was it fourth grade?
“How were your kids today?” I asked, taking the safe route.
“Crazed. They always are before Christmas vacation.”
“Same for me at the store.” I manage a TFM franchise at the Waterbury Mall. It stands for Today’s Favorite Music, but we joke that it really stands for Total Fucking Mess. I thought it was a little too soon to share that with her. “People are nuts this time of the year,” I wound up saying.
She nodded and we buried our faces in the menus. Off to a pretty unimpressive start, I thought.
The waitress came over and we ordered. Tuscan chicken for her, veal Marsala for me, Chianti and a Caesar salad for each of us. The waitress departed.
“So, how’s your band?” she asked. My profile mentioned that I play guitar and jam on weekends with other amateur musicians.
“It’s not really a band yet. We’re just having fun at this point, nothing serious. Although we could use a good keyboard player.” Her profile said she played piano. It was one of our “25 Crucial Compatible Categories.”
“I wouldn’t be good enough.” She smiled and gave a modest shrug. “I’m okay for playing at school assemblies, but that’s about it. What kind of stuff do you do?”
“Eagles, Springsteen, some Kenny Loggins. I’d like us to do Steely Dan songs, but nobody has the chops.”
“I love Steely Dan.”
The waitress arrived with our glasses of wine and the salads.
“Do you think their later albums come up to Aja or The Royal Scam?” I asked, and we were on our way.
As dinner progressed we talked about a whole lot of things: politics (we both voted for Obama), movies (loved Slum Dog and Milk, hated Benjamin Button, thought it was unfair that Gran Torino didn’t get nominated for anything), books (read all of Kurt Vonnegut, not crazy about Dan Brown), sports (we’re both Met fans), and a few of the other 25 pillars of crucial compatibility. It felt comfortable.
There was also some mention of our exes. “Tim and I got married too soon,” she said. “We were fresh out of high school and didn’t know anything. But he’s a nice guy and we’re still friends.”
I told her Marian and I were a similar story, that we’d only dated for six months before we got married, and, after five years, we realized it wasn’t working. Neither marriage had produced any children, and that was a good thing. But we still wanted to have them someday.
It seemed to be going great, except that it wasn’t. Something indefinable was missing, at least for me. I became increasingly aware of a tiny rasp in her voice, and I wondered if it was the kind of thing that would ultimately get on my nerves. Her eyes seemed too small and intense. I didn’t know if I liked the way she’d occasionally reach up and play with her hair.
There was also the feeling that I wasn’t scoring many points either. An observation meant to be funny would sometimes get only a fleeting smile. Her attention seemed to wander. I thought I saw her frown when a piece of zucchini accidentally fell off my fork while I was talking. There seemed to be no spark between us, no exciting sense of possibility.
This is never going to happen, I realized, with as much glum certainty as I ever felt in my life.
Simultaneous with the thought, there was a thump against the window next to us, rattling it. Then a whoop of insane laughter from the parking lot outside. We looked out the window.
A woman in a dark, full-length coat had stumbled against the side of the building, and she and her male companion were finding it hysterically funny.
“Whassa matter wi’ you?” he called out, slurring the words. “I gotta carry ya to the goddamn car?”
“Screw you!” she screamed at him, lurching away from the window. “I’m gonna wind up carryin’ you; tha’s wha’s gonna happen.” She staggered and almost fell, making him crack up anew.
We could see them clearly under the lights of the parking lot as they wove their way toward a cream-colored Mercedes, arguing boozily. He was struggling to get the keys from his coat pocket.
“Those people are going to die tonight,” said Denise. “And they’re going to kill other people while they do it.”
She said it in a flat tone of voice, like it was an immutable fact that nothing could alter.
“I should go out there,” I said, pushing my chair away from the table. “Try and stop them.”
“I should go with you,” she said, getting up too.
I could see through the window that the guy had unlocked the car by now and was starting to climb in. The woman swayed unsteadily on the other side, yelling at him to unlock her door. If we hurried, maybe we could get there.
Suddenly, flashing lights came into view, and a police cruiser pulled up beside them. It must’ve been patrolling the area just at that moment. A cop got out. We watched as he questioned the couple and put them through a quick sobriety test. Then he told them to get into the back of the cruiser. We smiled at each other as we sat back down.
“Well,” said Denise, almost to herself, “it worked again.”
I blinked in surprise. Could that possibly mean what I thought it did?
“What worked?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s silly; never mind.”
“No, really,” I insisted.
She blushed and looked down. “I had a premonition that something bad would happen, and it didn’t. I always predict bad things; that’s how my mind works. Tim used to get furious with me about it. I know it’s only superstition, but I actually think it helps prevent bad things from happening. You probably think I’m crazy.”
I looked at her for a long moment.
“Can I tell you a story?” I asked her.
“When I was sixteen my dad was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. They said he’d live for a month at most, and there was nothing anyone could do.”
I told her about the devastation that wracked our family, how my mom and my older sister kept saying we should pray for him, that we should think good thoughts, keep visualizing him as healthy again, sending out as much positive energy as we could.
“I tried, but I couldn’t do it. All I could think of was that he was going to die, and afterwards, we’d blame ourselves. If we’d just prayed a little harder, or had more positive thoughts… For me, it would’ve made it twice as horrible.
“So I secretly started visualizing him gone. I imagined the funeral, then the three of us living without him. I saw the empty space at the table. I pictured his closet, full of clothes he’d never wear again, and my mom finally able to get rid of them after a year or so. I saw it all.”
I told Denise that it didn’t make me feel guilty. “It was just my way of preparing for the blow,” I said. “I didn’t believe it could affect anything; positive or negative. I didn’t think it mattered. And then, three weeks later, his cancer went into complete remission.
“We couldn’t believe it. My mom and sister were sure it was their prayers and positive energy. I just went along with them, but I wondered.
“A couple of years later, my dad and I were at a Mets game. He’s a terrific man, by the way; I think you’d like him. Great musician. Used to be one of the top studio guitarists in New York. Anyhow, I don’t know why, but I decided to tell him what was going through my mind during those weeks when he almost died. I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but I sure wasn’t expecting what I heard.
“He said, ‘Don’t ever tell your mother this, but I never thought I was going to make it either. Not once. Right up to the moment they told me I was okay, I was absolutely certain I was going to die.’
“That’s when I realized. Maybe things just happen no matter what, or maybe we can influence them for good or bad; who knows? But if you add up all our premonitions that came true against all the ones that didn’t, ‘didn’t’ wins by a landslide. So why not take advantage of it?”
She was staring across the table at me with eyes that were not small and intense. They were wide in fascination, and they were beautiful.
“Can I tell you something?” she said.
“My brother Rob is in Afghanistan. Every day I wake up thinking he’s dead. I see him getting blown up by an I.E.D. or a suicide attack; I see him getting ambushed. I even imagine him being killed by friendly fire, or electrocuted in one of those improperly wired showers we hear about. I think of as many ways as I can for him to die. I can’t stop doing it, and I don’t want to, because every day he stays alive, I think I’m helping somehow. Tim used to tell me it was sick to think that way, so I stopped talking to him about it.”
“Marian was the same,” I said. “Even after I decided to keep it to myself, she’d still look at me funny and say, ‘I know what you’re thinking and it’s disgusting.’”
We both sighed. It was almost in unison.
“Do you suppose we’re the only two people in the world who feel this way?” I asked.
“I’ve never met anyone else,” she said, and the tiny rasp in her voice sounded incredibly sexy.
I had the sudden urge to ask her to come home with me. We’d have a drink, talk some more. Maybe, if things were right… But it was too soon; I couldn’t. It might spoil everything.
“Would you like to do this again?” I said.
“I’d love to.”
“That would be wonderful.”
She began to idly play with her hair again. It was so cute. How could I have thought otherwise?
We split the check, as agreed, and the waitress took our credit cards.
“Maybe someone who works here will steal our identities,” I suggested.
“Maybe we’ll get salmonella from the raw egg in the Caesar salad.”
We both cracked up, and that started it. All the way out of the restaurant into the parking lot, as I walked her to her car, we traded doomsday scenarios the way jazz musicians trade solos.
“Maybe we’ll each run into some black ice on the road and have a serious accident.”
“Maybe we’ll run into drivers that are drunker than that couple.”
“Maybe we’ll each get home and find out our houses were robbed.”
“No, no, even better. Maybe we’ll each walk in on a robbery in progress, get taken hostage, and tortured for our PIN numbers.”
We were laughing uncontrollably as we kept trying to top each other. Suddenly a voice called out from somewhere on our left.
We turned toward the sound. “Oh my God,” she said, “Tim!”
He was walking toward us, a blond-haired, good-looking man in a gray parka. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to interrupt,” he said meekly to her, “but could I talk to you just for a minute? Please?”
She hesitated. “Okay,” she said uncertainly. “Tim, this is Rick.”
“Hi,” he said abstractly, barely taking his eyes off her. “Could we talk privately? Just for a minute?”
She turned to me, flustered. “Do you mind, Rick?”
“No, no, of course.” What else could I say?
They moved down the row of cars and spoke softly. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see their body language, his face pleading, hers immobile at first, then growing softer and more accepting. It seemed to take forever, as my stomach sank lower and lower. Finally they finished, and she came back to where I was standing.
“He says he was wrong about everything,” she told me. “He wants us to try again, that he understands now where I’m coming from, that I only want good things to happen, not bad. I don’t know what to say, Rick; I still love him. I never expected this.”
“I know,” I said. “Neither did I. That’s why it happened.”
“Well, I guess we can’t think of everything.”
“No, we can’t.”
“Don’t be,” I said. “This was a great dinner, and I’ll always be glad I met you.”
“I will too,” she said wistfully, then turned and walked away.
As I watched her, the woman who would surely have been my soul mate, leave my life, one thought took shape in my mind.
I’ll never find someone. I’ll grow old, and I’ll die a miserable, lonely man.
There. I was starting to feel better already.