Wednesday Wonders: Chance Encounter

Last weekend, I attended the engagement party for someone who may be familiar to my regular readers: Peter Bean. It almost didn’t happen, and it actually took a gigantic and improbable coincidence to make it happen.

There were a few factors making me reluctant to go. First off, it was a long schlep — only about 40 miles by car, but in L.A. terms that might as well be to the Moon. Second, I still had COVID concerns regarding the possibility that the Delta variation is infectious even to fully vaccinated people, of which I am one.

On top of that, though, while Peter and I do have mutual friends, none of them were going to show up. He’d be the only person I’d know there, but since the event was going to be all about him and his fiancée, I also knew that his time would be getting divided all over the place so I’d have little chance to talk to him, and I’d just feel awkward.

Yeah, having not done live improv for well over a year has kind of stunted my social skills again.

But, the big factor on top of that was my old friend depression, which came back big-time a couple of months ago. My typical week would be this: Get up, work from home, maybe eat lunch at some point (if I had an appetite), take a nap after work, wake up, eat dinner if I hadn’t had lunch, then write my own stuff or watch various YouTube videos or streaming shows until bedtime.

Lather rinse repeat, except that the weekend schedule turned into Wake up whenever, turn noise-generator/rain machine back on for an hour, then another hour, and another. Eventually look at the clock and realize that it’s 1 p.m. — or 2 p.m. — or later.

So although I really wanted to be there to support a good friend, it was a case of the flesh was willing, but the spirit was weak. And the flesh wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything with no spirit in it.

Then I went grocery shopping on Friday night, the day before the party and my usual time and store. I’d gotten in line, but I turned out to be behind some customer having a coupon issue and paying by check, and all those awful things. But I noticed that at the other open check stand to my left, the dude with the cart was almost done, so I changed lanes.

I pushed my cart in, started putting my stuff on the belt, then looked at the guy in front of me and realized, “Hey — I recognize that hair. And those glasses. And even though he’s masked, I’m 99% sure…”

“Peter?” I ask tentatively. And, sure enough, it’s Peter Bean himself, in the flesh, and even though we haven’t seen each other in person in well over a year (only keeping in touch via social media) it’s like no time has passed at all.

We immediately get chatty, which I’m sure the clerk appreciated — nothing like talking to someone who makes time vanish for you to turn you into the kind of customer you hate for not paying attention! — but I told him that I probably wasn’t coming to the party and most of the reasons why (I left out the depression), and while he was mock-upset, he understood.

We walked out together and played catch-up for a while by my car, and all the while I was thinking, “What were the odds of this happening, and on this night?”

See, this has been my regular store for almost 13 years now, and I usually do my grocery shopping on Thursday or Friday nights. The thing is, though, is that it’s also Peter’s regular store — we live about two miles apart. But I’ve never seen him there before, nor has he seen me, and despite the proximity of or residences, we’ve never run into each other at random either.

And then, the night before the party I was going to miss, random chance put us together, and if either one of us had been a minute late or early, we would have missed each other; if the woman in my original line hadn’t been a total PITA, we would have missed each other. If he’d decided to grab the items he needed to decorate for the party at another store, we would have missed each other.

I don’t believe in the supernatural or the spiritual or anything like that, but it was truly like the universe was telling me, “Get your damn ass to this party. That’s an order.”

Later that evening, Peter did mention that a couple of people we both knew were coming, but they just weren’t our mutual friends on Facebook. So I made a list of what I needed to do to be ready for it, decided that I’d get up at the ungodly hour of 10:30 a.m. on Saturday in order to make the 3:00 p.m. party time, and set the alarm.

Then a funny thing happened in the morning. I woke up at 7:25 a.m., but only lolled around a little bit, and I was out of bed before 8:30. I had a mission and a list, and I put it into action.

The first thing I needed for the party were new clothes. Over the COVID era, the state of my wardrobe has gotten… ratty. I can’t wear most of my pants because of quarantine weight-gain, and I hadn’t done actual laundry in months, relying instead on probably ineffective bathtub washes when stuff started to stand up on its own.

So it was time for a trip to my go-to clothing emporium, ROSS Dress for Less, which is an amazing outlet that has all designer brands for really cheap. And, as I’d mentioned to Peter the night before, I tend to be cheap particularly when I actually have money. Well, okay, frugal. Why spend a couple hundred dollars on a pair of pants when you can spend $12.99?

So I picked up two pairs of dress pants — khaki and dark brown; a reversible belt, which is the best kind of belt because it’s two for one; a three pack of socks in brown/beige tones complimentary to the pants; a nice white Dockers dress shirt that turned out to be created with minimizing water usage in general and which appears to be some kind of linen or hemp; and a four-pack of undies, all for about $72 after taxes.

Yes, I was basically creating an entire outfit that didn’t have the reek of plague on it. The only things I already owned that I wore were a pair of brown wingtips and an orange and white striped tie.

And the simple act of shopping for and buying these clothes lifted my spirits further. But the next step was to get my unruly mane cropped.

Pre-COVID, I’d gotten my hair cut in February 2020, and then nothing. By July of that year, it was out of control, so I did what a lot of friends of mine did: Bought some clippers online, and then shaved my head for the first time in my life.

It looked… odd but actually felt great. And hey, I wasn’t going anywhere, right?

I didn’t have another haircut until February 2021, and this one was a freebie from my boss’s wife, who was a stylist, done in their backyard with both of us masked.

Full circle to July of this year, and with my normal salon open again, I made an appointment online and got it cropped so that I’d look human and not like a mad professor.

On the way home from the haircut, I grabbed a card for the happy couple — although a blank one, because pre-written engagement cards suck. I also grabbed a pair of bold ballpoint pens, since I didn’t have any working ones at home.

Finally, I needed to grab the engagement present, and all signs seemed to say that champagne was appropriate, so it was off to the local liquor retailer and, although they didn’t have the brand I’d picked from their website, I still found something comparable, definitely French, and in the mid-range cost-wise.

Side note: Apparently, champagne is a very popular engagement party gift. I think that Peter and his bride-to-be scored at least a case worth. Oops!

Finally, it was time to head to the party via a stop to check my mail at the post office, which was on the way, and then the epic drive. Leg one was going south past Downtown L.A. on the 101, then transitioning to the 60 and heading east.

Traffic was heavier than expected, so it took me longer than I thought, but I wound up arriving at the party at around 4:00 p.m. The first person I met was Cathleen, the fiancée, and I realized something as soon as I introduced myself.

I’d realized the nightmare that I’d had so many times over the last year and a half, and I’d left my mask in the car before walking into a very crowded house. I was tempted to run back and get it, but it felt like it was too late anyway, so I committed.

I gave Cathleen the gift, then found Peter, and met his mother almost immediately. Now, he’s told me a lot about her, but it was great to finally meet her, and we wound up bonding over all kinds of things, having several long conversations over the course of what turned out to be a very long party.

It also turned out that our two mutual friends did not show up at all, so that ultimate fear was realized and it turned out to not make any difference at all. And while Peter’s time and focus were naturally pulled all over the place, it didn’t really matter. I found myself able to talk to people again, with intermittent breaks of “I’m just going to sit over here now and watch interactions.”

What I learned from the party? Peter truly is a human anti-depressant. His fiancée is an incredibly wonderful person — gracious, poised, creative, funny, and friendly. Peter’s mother and I have the same sense of humor. I’ve never seen Peter look so happy for as long as I’ve known him. (Six years, if you’re keeping track.)

And, most importantly, if a Filipina mom presents you with food, you eat it. All of it. Now! (Note: You can swap Filipina for Italian, Jewish, or Mexican.) I had reasons for not eating that day, and apparently the bride’s tía was watching me like a hawk and noticed that I didn’t eat.

I wound up coming home with an overstuffed plate of, well, everything — except for the amazing potato balls from Porto’s, which had been swept away, along with the desserts, before I got to the doggie-bag portion of the evening.

I wound up staying a lot later than I ever though I would and managed to drive my way back out of the neighborhood and to the freeway without GPS — not a simple feat, but I’m a homing pigeon. Also: The trip back is always much shorter than the trip there despite being the same distance.

The party had turned out to be far from the nightmare I’d created in my mind. Instead, it was a very fun and positive experience, plus I got to hang out and bond with Peter, his fiancée Cathleen, and his mother Jean, and their various friends and family members.

None of which would have happened if not for a chance and very improbable grocery store encounter, which is really the lesson of this piece. Pay attention and listen to coincidences. Carl Jung would call this “synchronicity,” which are circumstances that appear meaningfully related, but which lack a causal connection.

My chance encounter with Peter at a grocery store the night before his engagement party certainly had all kinds of meaningful relation to the party, but the party didn’t cause it. Well, not directly. Yes, he was getting party stuff at that store, but that had nothing to do with me being there at the same time.

But… for the first time in a long time, it snapped me out of my funk, and that’s totally worth something.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, help is available. In the U.S., call the SAMHSA National Helpline. In the UK, contact Supportline. And although they tend to lump the subjects of suicide and depression together (despite a lot of us not having any suicidal ideation) help in other parts of the world is available via this list.

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