Random Encounters

Feeling that I would otherwise regret my entire life if I didn’t go, I decided this afternoon I would hit up the gym’s group fitness courses for one last time. I got dressed in my workout gear, placed a song on my tongue, and set out for AbSolution, an intense, 15-minute abdominal workout that feels like an hour. And feeling in a rather torturous mood, I decided to follow it up with 75 minutes of yoga. Delightful, but I was subsequently drenched in my own sweat.

The good thing is, this story? It’s not about that. But if I hadn’t gone out when I had, if I hadn’t bought some tea and read on my Kindle for as long as I had, if I hadn’t decided to get food in the face of a post-workout lack of appetite, I’d have missed out on not one, not two, but three random encounters.

The first was remarkably inconsequential.

I stood at the register waiting to be handed my tea and a girl whom I did not know asked me, “How was yoga?” The question seemed to suggest she’d been there as well (I hadn’t noticed; the people I had to force myself not to stare at, obviously, were not of the female variety), but I surmised enough.

“Good, good,” I said, “how about you?” Or something like that. She agreed, and as per the usual standards of verbal intercourse, etiquette dictated that it was my turn to question. “How long have you been doing yoga?”

“That was my second time,” she said, her eyes popping a little.

Mine likewise widened; it’d been intense, and I admired her for sticking through it, although these thoughts came to me later and I didn’t say them then. Instead I just said, “I’ve been doing it about,” pause to reflect, “ten years–but not continuously,” I said, to soften her surprise.

Anyways, my tea arrived just then and I went off to read.

As I said, inconsequential, but things are better in threes.

Later, as I approached the dining hall, I saw a woman leaning against the bricks outside, licking some chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream from a cone. Those things are great, have no doubts, but I recognized the owner of the cone: This year’s editor of the Windhover, N.C. State’s very own literary magazine–for which I served on the visuals committee this year and had a poem published therein!

Anyways, we chitchatted for a moment, and then she introduced me to her boyfriend–who, get this, I’ve seen like a bazillion times without ever meeting him! Small world, you know? As we conversated (because that’s so totally going to be Webster’d) I also happened to be greeted by a team member from my Belize spring break trip, which made the subtle interaction all the better. Poetry had been a small staple of our nightly reflections, so it all seemed ironically appropriate, this small enumerated series of such unpredictable events.

In any case, then I ate dinner.

And this, my friend, is where the real fun begins.

I got back to my residence hall and entered through the front door to see a small group of three around the lobby area. The one nearest me nods and says hello, so referring once more to the common laws of verbal intercourse, I response in kind, saying, “How’s it going?” Because this usually works for a two-second conversation and then, as often these dialectic hookups go, it passes to never be reprised again.

Except instead, as I turn around the chair to head for the stairs, he’s still staring at me and he says, “I can’t remember where we met.” Which makes two of us. Because I haven’t the faintest idea myself.

So we stand there staring awkwardly, because I’m sure we’ve all been there when we pass someone on the street who greets us like we’re best friends, but we just can’t conjure a name, let alone a place we first saw their face. Except now I was cornered. He was talking directly at me and I had no idea who he was. I began searching the archives of my memory for matching faces, shuffling through mental mugshots like detectives on CSI. Hillel? Nope. The GLBT CommUnity Alliance? Definitely not. NCPIRG? There’s eight of us; he’s not one of them.

Then he points his finger at me and smiles. “I know,” he exclaims, and for a brief moment I’m on my toes hoping he hasn’t just confused me with someone else–that could only make things worse. “You were at the ASB reunion, right?”

Yes, I was, and now my mind is whirring, thrusting me back to last Wednesday, a week and a day ago–that wasn’t last year already? Wow, I really have been busy–and I’m tracing the night like a preschooler tracing a coloring book full of dinosaurs. I saw Andy again, he looked good, and a few others, my team’s leaders, the ASB director, my best friend, my best friend in creative writing, and who else?

I really hadn’t met him, had I?

But I had spoken during the open mic. That must be it.

“You spoke then, right?” he asks me, and I put a tally on my imaginary scorecard as I nod at him and he says he can’t remember my name, so after I share it again (for the first time, really) I cleverly ask for his. And definitely we’ve not met before. He’s got the same name as someone I’m chatting with online, so I’d surely have remembered it if we had.

Now he’s wondering which trip I was on, and I can see him struggling, he really doesn’t know–which is alright, mind you, since although he thinks we met that evening–or at least by now has probably realized we hadn’t met but is trying to save face by making me think he thinks we did–and so I nod and say, “Belize.”

“Water issues, right?”

“No, wasn’t that Nicaragua? Mine was Fair Trade.”

“Oh, yeah!”

“What trip were you on?”

“Guatemala, health clinic,” he says, and I nod appreciatively. The other Guatemala trip was the first I was made aware of–the trip they wanted me to go on, the trip Andy’s a team leader for (and I must continue putting his name out there because he was the first person I met doing ASB, but I forgot his name once already, so I’m obligated not to forget it again. Besides, he’s cute), and so now I feel a connection with this guy, and it’s awesome, isn’t it?

“That’s so cool,” I say, because it is, and I suck at small talk. “I’m hoping to go on the Guatemala gender issues trip next year. I even applied for team leader.”

“You did, man?” He’s surely beaming now; is he really that proud for me? And wait, woah, now he’s shaking my hand! This is so cool! “I really hope you get it, you’d be a great team leader.” Another pause. Or I’m just forgetting what we said then. “I liked what you said a lot.”

What did I say? I made a witty comment about why our trip didn’t have any pictures in the slide show (“A picture’s worth a thousand words, but there are no words to describe our trip–so no pictures either,” but I don’t think many people got the joke). And then I made a small quip about not knowing there’d be an open mic and not having had time to prepare. And then, then I said how awesome it was to be there, how magnificent and terrific and amazing it was to step into a room full of people I didn’t know, a room full of strangers essentially, but to feel connected to each of them–because we had all collectively experienced this thing called ASB and had each been changed individually because of it. Sure, we all wore the iconic read shirt with “ASB” splayed across our chests, but the unity ran far deeper than that.

“Yeah,” I said, laughing, “I thought, maybe if I say something I’ll get bonus points for team leader,” and so he laughed, too. “But I meant every word I said, don’t get me wrong.”

Because honestly, they were happening right now. Here was this person I’d never met before, I’ve never seen before, didn’t even recognize, but he recognized me–and once we made that connection, there it was, we were instant friends. Here we were, talking about our majors, how finals were going, the fact that’s he graduating. It was amazing. Incredible. Precisely the kind of encounter only made possible through service and camaraderie.

And for that, I’ve got ASB to thank. Because it built a bridge where elsewise there would have been none. Because it ignited a spark that brightened a little slice of the night. Because it sowed the foundation for a random encounter that had just changed uncountable lives.

Because, really, just how many people can say that? How many times do we cross paths with the people who could reshape our lives entirely but walk on blindly, obvious to their presence?

I know I probably do it a lot more than I should, but after tonight, after this, maybe I’ll think twice before I rush off to get the stairs, because maybe I might not remember you and maybe you don’t know my name, but it doesn’t mean we don’t know each other.

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