Earlier this summer, my husband and I were walking to a concert in our local town when the skies opened up and it began to thunder and lightning. We popped open our umbrellas and ran toward the concert hall, but as I moved through the streets with no canopy of trees to cover us, I saw the flashes coming closer and closer, and I began to fear lightening would strike the tip of my umbrella. We’d just seen a movie, “Moonrise Kingdom,” an enchanting story about young love, and there’s a scene in which the lead character is running through an open field, and he’s struck by lightning. I was torn between closing my umbrella so as not to attract the lightening, and knowing that if I did, I would be soaking wet as I watched the concert. And there was a good chance I wasn’t going to be struck by lightning at all, and that I would be uncomfortably wet on account of silly paranoia.
My father once told me a story about a woman who was such a fatalist that she left her house one evening without her sweater and didn’t want to turn around to get it for fear it would place her somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be, in the threshold of some doorway, or stepping off a curb into the street, and that she might meet her end because of it. So she continued on into the evening without her sweater, and the result was, she caught a cold.
When we arrived at the concert hall, we were greeted by our neighbor, Sheila, who is the entertainment director there. She sometimes gives us free tickets, as was the case that night, though they’re usually in a section on the side of the stage. It’s a mixed bag: the seats are close — about tenth row from the stage — so you feel almost like you’ve met the entertainers, except that you’re seeing them from the side. It would be like going to breakfast with someone, but the whole meal, you’re talking to their profile.
Sheila left but returned a couple of minutes later to say that if we preferred, she had another pair of seats available in the center of the concert hall, where we would have a frontal view of the stage. But they were about 20 rows back. She said we could go with her to see if we liked them better. As soon as we got there, I saw that not only were they better seats but several of our other neighbors were already sitting there.
“I didn’t offer you these seats initially because I figured you’d have the baby, and I thought you might want to be close to the door in case you had to make a quick getaway,” Sheila said.
That was considerate of Sheila, but given that she is better friends with the neighbors already seated there, I couldn’t help but feel Sheila had given them preferential treatment and was now making an excuse for why she hadn’t put us there initially. I understood the concept of the better the friend, the better the seat, but there were about eight empty seats in that center section, and I imagined Sheila had been saving them for people she liked more than us, but because it had rained and they hadn’t shown up, she was now offering their seats to us. Basically, we were getting sloppy seconds.
“Wasn’t that nice of Sheila to think of Eddie? She’s so considerate,” my husband, Bruce, said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. I always think the worst of people, mostly because I think so poorly of myself. It’s that old, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member.”
Lately, when it comes to relationship matters, I’ve been wrong on every count. I thought a woman was refusing to answer my texts and a voicemail and it turns out her mother had just died and she’d gone incommunicado. I silently cursed a man who didn’t answer my email, and then a day later, he replied. When I failed to get an email telling me where the next meeting of my book club would be held, it occurred to me that maybe they didn’t want me in the group anymore, and they were meeting in secret to figure out how to tell me that. Turns out there was no meeting because everyone dropped the ball and failed to schedule one.
The problem with paranoid thinking, though – whether it involves relationships or matters of life and death — is you can be wrong a thousand times and right just once, and that’s enough to perpetuate those nagging thoughts. The day after the music concert, I read in the newspaper that a woman walking back from the beach a few towns north of us was struck by lightning and killed. She was with her family, and when the thunderstorm rolled in, they all packed up their things and left. The woman was a few paces behind everyone else, scurrying across an elevated walkway holding a beach chair and other beach items, when she was struck. Her two children saw it happen, as did a local police officer, who said the lightening went right through the woman’s head and out her stomach, making a hole as it exited. Another witness, who was standing in her doorway across the street, said she saw the bolt strike the woman’s head and flow down her body to her feet and then back up again, making the items in her hands glow.
A few days later, a 17-year old girl riding a chairlift that runs along the beach saw a thunderstorm moving in and fearing she, too, would be struck jumped 35 feet to the ground. She survived the fall by landing on her side. The ride had stopped, and as she dangled in mid-air, she said she could see the lightning off in the distance, and she just freaked out.
I was recently at a party thrown by my friend, Dawn, who has a house in the woods that has a view of the Delaware River. We were surrounded by evergreens that were about 100 feet high, and there was a canopy of younger, shorter ones surrounding my friend’s yard. I sat on the edge of a swimming pool with my friend, Tom, dangling our feet in the water, as my son, Eddie stood in front of me on the first step of the pool. As Tom and I talked, I could see lightening flickering off in the distance, and I kept thinking, “Should I get Eddie out of the pool? What if it strikes the water and fries me and my son? What if it just kills my son?” And so I did what any mother would do when questioning whether their child was in danger: I asked the person next to me.
“Do you think we should get out?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I imagine we’re fine,” Tom said.
I kept my legs in the pool and we continued to talk — until I saw another flicker of lightening, a little closer than the last.
“I’d hate to be wrong on this,” I said. “I wonder if we should get out of the water.”
“I think you have a better chance of being eaten by sharks than being struck by lightning,” Tom said.
Tom speaks like a Southerner, orbiting a point like a fly trying to get at a piece of watermelon.
When I saw another flash, brighter and closer than the last, I looked over and saw Tom’s legs were out of the water. I yanked Eddie out of the pool and then pulled out my own legs. Sometimes, the only way to know whether your fears are justified or whether you’re just having a bout of silly paranoia is for your worst fears to be realized. But of course vindication means never getting to say, “I told you so.” So I chalked it up to one of those clichés worth heeding, like don’t buy cheap tape, don’t put anything sharp in your ear, and better safe than sorry.