Four Minutes

couple for Four Minutes

“Any two people can fall in love, given the chance. Don’t waste your time searching for the perfect soul-mate. You can fall in love with a total stranger in a couple of hours. Don’t believe me?”

People stirred, grinned, glanced around the room to see others’ reactions. Professor Forbes continued.

“There’s a psychologist, Arthur Aron, who came up with a test to see if people who didn’t know each other could bond – even fall in love – in an hour or two. He had them answer thirty-six questions followed by four minutes of staring into each other’s eyes. There are some married couples as a result. So who’s feeling brave? Who wants to try?”

Professor Forbes had a reputation as an iconoclast. His unorthodox teaching methods were discussed all over campus, and seats in his classroom were coveted.  Jody had to wait two semesters to get in, but she felt it was well worth it. He didn’t disappoint.

Now, in response to his challenge, she raised her hand. She’d just broken up with her  boyfriend of three years. What she’d thought was true love didn’t survive the separation when they went to different colleges. Jody covered her hurting heart with a cynical, world-weary attitude; a good jumping-off place for social experiments, she thought. Especially cock-eyed ones that would never work in a million years.

Ian also volunteered. Jody’d seen him around campus and thought he looked interesting (read “cute,’” but she didn’t use that junior-high term any more). They’d never gotten acquainted. Ian was always in a hurry, and Jody had been preoccupied with trying to fan the embers of a dying relationship.

“Any thoughts as you get started?” Professor Forbes asked.

“Just…it’s not gonna work, that’s all,” Jody said. “And even if it did, I wouldn’t be interested. Love sucks.”

“Yeah, I agree,” Ian echoed.

“Well, there you go, already you agree about something,” Professor Forbes said.

Jody and Ian took seats at the front of the classroom in chairs set so close that their knees touched. Jody wished she’d washed her hair that morning and put on something other than an old, stretched-out sweatshirt. She straightened her spine and lifted her chin. Ian slouched and stretched his legs wide so her knees were inside his.

Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?

Ian went first. “I’d want Eminem.”

Jody wanted Malala. She shrugged; it figured. Not much common ground there. They continued.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Jody said, “My parents and my home.”

Ian said, “Being the first one in my family to go to college.”

Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

Jody hesitated; she’d never shared her secret ambition. But what the hell, she might as well be honest. What did it matter?  “I want to write a book. I haven’t done it because I’m not good enough. I don’t know how to begin.”

Ian:  “I want to become a doctor. I’m working on it, but man, it’s hard. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it.”

What is your most treasured memory?

What is your most terrible memory?

What does friendship mean to you?

If you knew that in one year you would die, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

Jody and Ian answered with increasing frankness. The rest of the room fell away; there were only the two of them talking directly to each other. Professor Forbes’ voice was disembodied as he asked the questions, a neutral conduit for the connection that grew between them.  When the bell rang signaling the end of class, neither of them heard it. The room cleared, but Jody and Ian didn’t move.

At last they reached the final question: Share a personal problem. Jody’s eyes welled as she described how flat life seemed now, how joyless and tiresome and difficult. Ian spoke of his fear that he’d disappoint his family by flunking out of school and what it would mean to him to give up his dream of medicine.

The final exercise was to hold eye contact for four minutes. At first, Jody felt herself stiffen with terror at seeing and being seen so intimately, but gradually she began to relax. Slowly, Ian sat up straight and leaned toward her. His knees came together and squeezed hers. She reached for his hand. His eyes were hazel with tiny flecks of amber. She felt herself falling into them.

“Time’s up,” Professor Forbes said, giving their shoulders a little shake to get their attention. “You’ve just spent the last hour and ten minutes getting to know each other. How do you feel?”

They didn’t answer, didn’t even glance at him. Hand in hand, they walked out of the classroom and into the rest of their lives.

~*~

“And that, kids, for the fourteen-hundredth time, is how I met your mother,” Ian said, smiling into the hazel eyes of his twin daughters. “Now I’ve got to run or I’ll be late for evening rounds. Look, here comes Mama, home from her book signing. I’ll bet she’ll tell you a bedtime story.”

The girls raced to the door and tackled their mother around the knees when she entered.

“Again, Mama. Tell us the story again,” the twins chorused, “about how you met Daddy.”

 

 

 

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Adult Ed

 

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Jake surveyed the room. The adult ed class at the retirement village was meeting for the first time and he sized up his opponents – no, that kind of thinking wouldn’t do. It was laudable that these folks wanted to keep their minds sharp, he reminded himself.

He’d volunteered to lead a discussion of current events. Experience had taught him that seniors had opinions and were not shy about expressing them. It made for lively discussions, but there were always a few types who could derail a class in a minute. He looked for them now.

There was Judy, her face stuck into her phone. Jake recognized her as a Fact-Checker. Whatever the topic, Judy would be on the Internet checking it out. Her joy in citing some expert or other would be incandescent. Extra points if she could directly contradict something Jake said.

On the other side of the room sat Freda, a Giggler from the looks of her. Her head was thrown back in peals of laughter. What’s so funny? was written all over the faces of people around her. The Fredas of the world took up a lot of time, especially class time when the whole group was forced to wait for their mirth to subside.

And then there was Ray, the Raconteur. He was holding forth in a lengthy story that  had his captive audience darting glances around the room for escape routes. One Ray could suck all the air out of the room, causing people to slump over sideways and bleed from the ears.

Jake sighed. It was time to call the class to order.

“Everyone, everyone, if you’d take seats, please. It’s time for us to get started.”

A shuffling of canes and walkers ensued. Purses were rifled for one last tissue, cough drops were rustled from cellophane wrappers and papers and pencils were arranged. Seniors tended to be note takers.

“Let’s begin with a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in our country today. Do you think things are better or worse than they were a few years ago?”

Predictably, most thought things were worse.

“Why, when I was a boy there wasn’t any of this stranger-danger stuff. Kids played outside all day long and nobody thought a thing about it. Nowadays, they’re so pampered and protected they can’t even get up a decent game of stickball. Do they even know what stickball is?”

“Folks want too much. We never expected to start out with big houses, new cars, huge T.V.s and vacations every year. If we couldn’t pay for it, we didn’t have it. Simple as that.”

“And the politicians! All they care about is keeping their big, fat behinds in their seats in Congress. Never mind what’s good for the people back home.”

“Well, let’s talk about that. Do you favor term limits for elected officials?” Jake asked. “Can our state decide to limit a congressional term, for instance?”

Jake saw Judy working her phone. “Here it is,” she said triumphantly. “’In May 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), that states cannot impose term limits upon their federal Representatives or Senators.’ It’s right there in Wikipedia.”

“What do you think, Judy? Is that a good thing?”

She looked at him blankly, then back at her phone. “Well, Wikipedia…?” she said uncertainly.

“It would take an act of Congress to control Congress, and they’d never pass it,” Freda said, and laughed until she had to dry her eyes. Her classmates smiled politely for a few minutes, then began to stir restlessly.

“Moving on,” Jake said, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. “What about that border wall?”

“Now, I lived in Texas for many years,” Ray began, crossing his arms and settling in for the duration. “My cousin’s neighbor’s nephew – what was his name? Ted? Tom?  He had a dog named Chester Arthur, I do remember that. My cousin, not the neighbor. Cousin’s name was Jeremiah. Used to drive him crazy when I’d sing, ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ Anyway, this guy, the neighbor’s nephew, was a border patrol agent, worked in El Paso, and what he told my cousin…”

Ray was streaming live. Jake attempted to jump into the torrent of words and divert the flow, but it was hopeless. Ray just raised his voice. Jake grabbed a figurative tree branch and hung on, praying for rescue.

It came when a small woman spoke up from where she sat in the corner. Her voice was quiet but authoritative. “Time for lunch.”

Ray’s mouth snapped shut, Freda cut herself off in mid-giggle and Judy dumped her phone into her bag. Everyone rose, stowed away belongings and headed for the door with remarkable speed, intent on getting to the lunch line before the chocolate cake ran out.

Jake looked around the empty classroom, a room that vibrated with thoughts and ideas still to be spoken. It was his job to focus those thoughts, to find a way to for all to be heard. He must keep the group on topic, encourage give and take. What strategies would work? Breaking up into small discussion groups? Banning cell phones? Using a timer? He shrugged.

“Maybe next week I’ll just bring cake.”

Wild Things

Wolves for Wild Thing

Jackie heard them howling at night, a primeval chorus that sent shivers down her spine. Echoes bounced off hills and trees so that she seemed to be surrounded by hungry predators. It shredded her nerves. Why was it, again, that she’d come to a cabin in the woods?

It was temporary, her stay in this little cabin at the edge of a national forest. A sympathetic friend had offered it as refuge from the rough break-up Jackie was experiencing. Lord knows, she needed to get away; her ex was not taking it well. So she sublet her apartment in the city and moved into the cabin with her dog, Lola. She’d commune with nature. Calm down. Get her head straight.

She hadn’t bargained on wild life.

“Wolves were reintroduced into the area a couple of years ago and their numbers have been growing,” her friend said. “Don’t worry, they’re shy of humans. They want nothing to do with you. Better not let Lola go out alone, though.”

The little cabin crouched in a small clearing. There was a rough track to the road, but no yard – just towering ridge-pole pines that released their fragrance in the sunshine, but crowded in menacingly at night. In her search for sanctuary, Jackie had moved to a perfect plot for predators. Lola, small, ancient and deaf as the proverbial post, seemed unaware that nearby animals would consider her a mere McNugget. But Jackie knew, and it added to her feeling of foreboding

Hoping knowledge would bring power, she read up on her enemies. She learned wolves live in packs led by an alpha male and female, the only pair that produces pups.  Nocturnal hunters, their howling is a lupine party line, a means of keeping the group connected when they range for miles in search of food.

They know more about you than you do about them, she’d read in one memorable passage. You won’t see them, but they’re watching. They know your habits and your schedule.

It was a creepy thought. Lying in bed at night, she listened to the wolves’ call and response, nature’s fugue. Secure in the silence of her world, Lola snored beside her, but Jackie had trouble sleeping.

One morning there were paw tracks in the snow around the cabin. Large prints at the sliding glass door indicated a sizable creature had stood looking in. Lola sniffed at the spoor in deep concentration, hackles raised.

Jackie kept Lola on a short leash when they went outside. She found an old golf club in the cabin, and carried it with the vague idea it could be used as a weapon. It never occurred to her to be afraid of the most dangerous predator of all. Man.

~*~

She sat bolt upright, instantly awake and afraid. The digital clock read three fourteen. She’d heard something.

“Who’s there?” She’d meant to shout but it came out a squeak.

Silence. What answer did she expect, after all?  She heard the floorboard to the right of the fireplace creak, and felt a cold wash of night air – the sliding glass door was open. Had she forgotten to lock it?  Fear paralyzed her. She knew she had to mount some kind of defense, but she couldn’t force her limbs to move, couldn’t take a deep breath.

Suddenly, Lola roused, awakened by who knew what – Jackie’s trembling? An unfamiliar scent in the air? The old dog lifted her nose and howled. Jackie had never heard such a sound issuing from her pet. Little Lola, fan of sofa pillows and peanut butter, loosed a wail as savage as anything her wild cousins could produce. From just outside came an answering chorus.

The untamed cries were galvanizing, stirring a wildness in Jackie she didn’t know she possessed. She felt a rush of adrenaline and with it, found her courage. Switching on the bedside lamp, she grabbed her golf club and jumped out of bed.

“Get out of here!” She beat a tattoo on the log walls. “Get out! Get out! I’ve got a weapon and I’ll use it!”

The howling, yelling and drumming worked; the intruder ran. She heard an engine turn over and saw tail lights retreating as a car bounced away on the track. Stumbling in her haste, she locked the door and hit the outside light switch. Its illumination was reflected in a semi-circle of glowing yellow eyes. Before she could react, the wolves melted silently back into the trees.

When the howling began again, she answered with howls of her own in a fierce celebration of  bravery and triumph. The song of her pack.

 

The Desk Set

Desk Set

The ladies trooped in from their cars, bearing Christmas gifts and steaming casseroles. Coats and scarves and gloves were shed amid hugs and appreciative sniffs of kitchen aromas. It was the annual Christmas luncheon of the Desk Set, six woman who’d worked together in an office for years and still kept up their friendships in retirement.

“We need a name,” Rachel had said back in the day. “Something catchy.” She looked around the cubicle farm with its rows of work stations. “How about the Desk Set?” It stuck. The Desk Set they were and remained.

They’d shared so many moments  – watched each other’s children grow up, plucked the first horrifying chin hairs together, went from svelte to comfortably plump, from high heels to flats. Traditions grew from long friendship and those traditions kept the group close. One of the most important was the Christmas gift exchange, so when Florrie arrived at lunch empty-handed, the others noticed right away.

“Where’re our gifts?” Jean demanded forthrightly.

“Oh, you’ll never believe this,” Florrie said. “I bought your gifts ‘way last summer and put them away in such a good place that I can’t find them.”

“Did you look everywhere?” Rachel asked. “Tell us where-all you looked. I bet this is just an excuse because you forgot to get us something.”

“No, I promise, I have your gifts – somewhere.”

There was a lot of laughter and teasing about the terrible disappointment and how Florrie wouldn’t get away with it. “We’ll come search your house ourselves,” the ladies threatened.

“Susan helped me look for them,” Florrie said. “We just turned the place upside down, but she couldn’t find them either.”

Susan was Florrie’s daughter, and the group immediately sobered. They knew Florrie had been truly desperate if she’d involved Susan. They all tried to hide the dues they were paying to the aging process from their adult children. Objects that simply disappeared were not new to this group. It happened with distressing frequency, and was one of the things they preferred their offspring not to know. It might lead to unwanted conversations about the advantages of downsizing and how exercise improves mental acuity.

The indignities of aging were simply part of life now. They’d long ago agreed that the only thing to do was to laugh about it, so they proceeded to give Florrie a hard time.

“You could have gotten us something else,” Rachel said, and the others nodded.

“But there wasn’t time. I’d have had to shop at the Quik Trip on my way over. You wouldn’t have like that.”

They knew each other so well; they knew exactly what would bring delight. Fragrant soaps, soft throws, special teas, something pretty for the Christmas tree. Nobody spent much money, but everyone got five presents to open – charming, indulgent items they’d never have bought for themselves. It was their favorite part of Christmas.

“I’ll find those packages eventually,” Florrie promised. “Next time we get together, I’ll have them for you. It’ll be even more special then, like an extra surprise.”

“Just make sure you don’t save them for next year,” Jean said. “We want new gifts next year.”

Despite their best intentions, it was hard to get together. Days filled up with grandchildren and doctor appointments, volunteer work, vacations, household tasks and errands. It was July before the Desk Set managed to schedule another lunch, but it didn’t matter because they always took right up where they’d left off.

Florrie was late and there was some speculation around the table about whether she’d found their Christmas gifts and would remember to bring them this time. There’d been a flurry of e-mails reminding her, so when she arrived seemingly empty-handed again, looks were exchanged.

“What?” Florrie asked, intercepting the looks.

“Where are our gifts?” the group demanded. “Did you find them?”

“Yes, and I brought them. I don’t know, though; they seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I’m afraid you won’t like them. After such a build-up, you might be disappointed.”

“Quit stalling! Hand ‘em over.”

Florrie scrabbled in her enormous purse, finally coming up with five small, flat packages which she handed around. The ladies attacked the wrappings without the usual exclamations of “Oh, cute paper!” They’d waited six months, after all. Nobody cared about holly paper now.

One by one, they held up their identical presents for inspection. White enamel frames painted with blue forget-me-nots enclosed shining reflective circles. The circles caught the light as the women examined them.

Rachel looked up in puzzlement. “They’re lovely, but mirrors? At our stage of life, you’re giving us framed mirrors?”

“No, I’m giving you pictures of my best friends.”

The Desk Set agreed you just couldn’t beat Christmas in July.