People tell me things. Perfect strangers unburden themselves to me, and nowhere is this more evident than when I’m sitting my photographer husband, Gary’s, Festival of Arts booth. In my tall chair I’m like Lucy in her psychiatry booth and the sign says, “The Doctor is In.”
A woman stops in front of my chair and stretches from the waist, forward, backward, sideways.
“My back’s bothering me,” she says.
I say I’m sorry, and she launches into her story.
She got divorced when her son was little and didn’t date until he graduated high school, except for dinner with a fellow teacher and that other guy who stood her up on the first date. She thought he was a real jerk until she heard he died right before their date. She’s done with men, though tonight a man told her he was very rich and he’d love to spend the evening with her.
“Do you think he really is rich?” she says.
She asks where she can get a cup of coffee and heads off in the opposite direction.
An old man approaches.
“Do you live in Laguna?” he asks.
“San Clemente,” I say. He knows a fine young woman who moved there and was lost to drugs.
“Why would a good Christian girl ruin her life like that?” he asks.
I say I don’t know, and he tells the whole sad tale, before asking directions to the bathroom.
A potbellied man with a bulging shoulder bag inches up to my chair. We are eye to eye.
Potbelly has 44 film cameras. Because I’m sitting a photography booth, he asks me if his lenses will work on digital cameras.
I say I don’t know.
“You didn’t take any of these pictures?” he says.
“No,” I say. “I’m a writer.”
He’s a writer, too, and has accidentally illustrated his ex-wife’s children’s books. Accidentally, because she just needed some rough sketches to show the publisher and they ended up in the book.
He starts coughing, fishes through his bag and gets a cough drop.
“Acid reflux irritates my throat,” he says, sucking the lozenge a second before he continues.
“I can think up stories, but I have trouble fleshing them out.”
“I’m the opposite,” I say. “I have trouble with the story.”
He suggests a collaboration. He does the story. I do the fleshing out.
“Do you have a card?” he says.
“No,” I say.
He reaches into the bag and pulls out a card.
“Here,” he says. “Send me your material and I’ll come up with a story.”
His card says he is a nuclear design engineer.
“That’s not my writing card,” he says and tells me about his patent for nuclear waste disposal and how he developed a way to get energy from seawater. It was used on a spacecraft bound for Titan, but it landed in mud so no one knows if it would have worked – or something like that.
He’s pawing through his bag again, but comes up empty.
“Do you have a Kleenex?” he says.
I give him a tissue. What therapist doesn’t have a tissue? He blows his nose.
“Thanks. Which way is the Pageant?”
I point and he is gone.
As another evening at the Festival winds down, I close up shop and walk to the shuttle stop, looking at the people I pass. What’s your story I wonder? Then I remind myself I’m off duty now. The doctor is out.
Liz Zuercher writes personal essays and fiction. She co-authors the writing blog, Little Bit Everything in Tasty Sauce (tastysauce.blogspot.com) and is a regular reader at DimeStories Laguna Beach.