On a 20 hour train ride from Spokane to Minot I overheard a conversation that resulted in my sadness and poor outlook on the human race – myself a member. Somewhere around Havre, MT two women got on board with a wealth of other new passengers. Those of us who had treasured our two-seat comfort were disappointed, but it was to be expected sooner or later.
These two women were fascinating to watch because, although they shared a common language (accent) and geography, they were the epitome of night and day. Julie was thin, fit, and of average stature. Janice was shorter and rotund, and her shirt revealed her backside whenever she bent over to get anything out of her bag. Julie was stylish in her stone washed jeans, layered fashion t-shirts, and textured Justin boots. Apparently Janice and her husband used to live across from Julie and her husband years ago. And today they had met at the Havre train depot, both of them headed back to Minnesota.
In listening to their conversation, I learned that Julie is a cancer survivor. Janice sent her a card after she learned about her former neighbor’s plight months ago. She asked if Julie got it. She did. She had just decided not to respond. Who knows? Maybe surviving a near death experience like cancer makes you simplify and you worry less about social expectations like returning a correspondence.
During their initial exchange, Janice made several attempts to reconnect. She even settled for getting their husbands (who apparently used to be good friends) back in touch. Julie’s husband was up in Canada on his Harley enjoying a ride so that he wouldn’t miss Julie as much while she was gone. I got the feeling that Janice’s husband still works.
Growing up, my parents were never really the social butterflies you see on those sitcoms where neighbors talk to neighbors over the fence and have the occasional barbecues. And even today, when I move to a new place, its very difficult for me to be neighborly. But Julie and Janice, from the clues in their conversation, had been the kind of neighbors that take baked goods to each other and collect each other’s mail when they’re out of town. I was having trouble liking Julie as this went on.
Julie said words that were to be expected when Janice spoke. She replied at the appropriate times and even came and leaned on the empty seat in front of us near the end of the conversation to face her “friend” and engage fully. But Julie spoke a different kind of language with her body language, the words she chose, and her tone. In Julie-language she quite obviously said, “I’m so far past you … so much better than you … this won’t go anywhere after we get off the train.” Her replies near the end said, “I’ve been there, done that,” or “Oh, I can do you one better.”
Julie has beaten cancer and she is happy to talk about it to anyone that wants to hear. She likes the way they look at her after she tells them. As soon as a fellow passenger (a rather artsy looking Seattleite with long, well kempt hair and Birkenstocks) heard a name he recognized, he joined in the conversation. Visually comparing the two, Julie quickly dropped Janice like a hot potato. Janice may not have noticed, but I did and for some deep seeded reason I felt pissed.
Doug and Julie realized they had several relatives in common and began talking about what a small world it was and how uncanny it was to discover each other. Julie got the attention she’d been seeking, in the package she preferred. I know the label is used more commonly on men, but I have to say that Julie was a tool. I watched as Janice slowly settled herself in for a long train ride next to a total stranger (me) who didn’t like to talk much. Was I projecting some underlying sadness of my own in this social defeat of Janice’s? Perhaps.
But with each conversation, each one so unlike me to instigate or perpetuate, I was speaking to Janice in Julie-language. “We’re real, dammit. We matter. We GET that everything in life doesn’t work out perfect and fit in neat little designer Justin’s or Birkenstocks. Our joys are just as important as anyone else’s. Our pains are just as relevant. We may not have been to the chemical warfront and returned to tell our stories over scars and glasses of fine wine. But cancer comes in many forms. Self-serving social cancer can hurt people too. We will pray for Julie’s condition.”