Ma and I are on the way back to Michigan, and as usual we stop at a particular gas station in Ohio which we consider to be the halfway point in our journey. Ma reaches the women's restroom first so I have to wait in line in front of the refrigerated beverage section. A kid walks in. Actually, lets call him a young man, since he's my age. And let's say his name is Tristan. Tristan walks up and stands unnecessarily close to me as I explain to him that the men's restroom is occupied too. Contrary to what I'd hoped, my explanation doesn't get him to back up, and he just stands there looking at my face for a couple of seconds before speaking. Turns out Tristan has a soft voice and a lot of troubles.
"How you have you been?"
How you have you been?? Have I met you before? "Um, fine. How are you?"
What followed either came straight from his mouth or I had to surmise it from the tone of his words. This is the gist of his story:
Just before walking in Tristan had a conversation with his dad who revealed that he's having an affair on his mother. Also, his grandparents aren't in good shape, which means his family will have to take care of them or take them in. Either way this means even more stress for the family, and a potential move to some other place in Ohio which Tristan assumes I am familiar with. On top of that, he might have to leave college to support the family, which he doesn't want to do because he's only been attending for 1 1/2 years and he really wants to finish.
FINALLY the women's restroom opens up. As I go in I offer, "Well I hope things get better for you."
"Oh, it's fine. Good luck!"
"Same to you."
What in the world was that?! We are strangers. In the middle of the middle-of-nowhere in the representative of all nowhere states. In a gas station. Waiting for the toilets to free up. Why are you telling me your life story? And what am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to do? A person can only feign so much empathy, and can only say "Wow..." and "I'm sorry to hear that" so many times. I'm sure you just needed someone to talk to, and I'm sure you didn't want empty condolences in response. Now that I think about it, I really wish I could have said something better. But when you put a stranger on the spot like that, that's usually the best you're going to get.
On one hand, I was sad because I felt for Tristan and wanted to do something for him. Poor thing. On the other, I was annoyed because I was caught unawares and felt like I was expected to solve his issues. My own load is heavy enough.
I still wonder if a joke was played on me, a joke that was too real to be funny. At the same time, I feel like I just took a pop quiz in humanity and failed. A stranger was desperate enough to tell me about his pain, and all I could give him were empty words.
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