On slim-chance encounters

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How many people do you think you have met in your lifetime? Of those, how many have become acquaintances and friends? How many have you lost again over the years and through distance? If you recognized someone across a room in a different city 10, 20, or even 30 years later would you run the other way and hide, playing the avoidance game? Or would you use that rare moment to catch up and embrace them in a warm hug? I ask because these sorts of random and wonderful meetings always humble and impress me, leaving me philosophizing for days. Personally, I am all for the “embracing” response to that question.

There was a joke in my family when I was growing up that every time we went to Superburger (a fast food restaurant just over 83km from home) we would inadvertently run into people we knew. This joke was entertaining, far too true and always left me feeling excited for days. It is amazing that in this big world you can be so connected with everyone you meet. For some trying to escape something or start over, I am sure these chance encounters are nothing but a small annoyance, but I am always comforted by unexpectedly seeing an old friendly face. It’s amazing how much tranquility can come from one of these quick meetings, which often involve commiseration, laughing and discussing wonder about old times.

This post and the questions above come from an encounter last night, which led me to think back on every other time some such slim chance meeting has occurred over the years. Last night my significant other, Nick, and I went to his sister’s housewarming/birthday party (again just over 83km from where we currently live). As it started to get dark out, a new couple joined the pretty big group of people that were already enjoying themselves in the backyard. I didn’t really see the male that came in at first, but I remember thinking the woman looked so happy.

A couple of hours later the man and I sort of ended up in the same group of people having a conversation and I began to feel a sense of familiarity wash over me. It was difficult to tell at first because the last time I saw this person was October or November 2004 at High School graduation. That was nearly 14 years ago. I was both sure that it was him and unsure that it could be since we were hours from where we used to know each other and it was years later. It is funny how people can change and mature physically, but their mannerisms stay the same. After a while of back and forth over whether it could actually be someone I was friends with so long ago, he walked out of the house eating fruit and I was certain. I remember sitting in the common area at school all those years ago talking with this exact person while he ate an apple and talked about his metabolism. He continued towards me and said, “This is going to sound completely random, but I think we went to high school together.”

After a wave of relief, awe washed over me that of all the places in the world we could both be in that exact moment, we were there in a mutual friend’s backyard recognizing each other after nearly 14 years. We weren’t extremely close when we did know each other, but we spoke daily and were friendly with each other. We talked for the rest of the evening, catching up and having a more meaningful conversation than we had likely ever had. It turns out he and his girlfriend are living less than an hour’s drive from my house and his life has run pretty parallel to mine over the last 14 years. Like me, he owns a place in the city, works hard for a living and spent his years after university/college figuring out a good path to take.

We talked about politics, having children, our plans for the future and mutual friends/acquaintances. We discussed topics I would never talk about with someone I just met, but it felt natural to spill my guts to this person I knew so long ago. Before he and his girlfriend left the party for the night, we hugged goodbye and took a picture together (on his phone, sorry guys). If I get it from him I will post it, but in trying to be polite and not wanting to lose mine in the pool, I had left it in the car.  Encounters like this always leave me awed because of both the coincidence of time and place and the fact that I think of myself as horrible with remembering names and faces. Maybe I am not so bad at it after all. Or maybe I have run into many more people that I have known over the years that I didn’t end up recognizing or speaking with.

He also brought up a friend we both had when we were in high school who I had also recently run into coincidently. In a completely different city half an hour in the other direction about a year and a half prior, I noticed this other friend across a room.  It was at a local concert I went to with some friends one night to enjoy the entertainment and in the front row, I noticed someone I thought seemed familiar. He was someone I was sure I recognized because, like me, he has red hair and like the person I ran into last night he has telltale mannerisms that some part of me clearly remembered. His posture when he stood was what gave him away and although I was astounded that we would be in the same venue on a Friday night 13 years after high school graduation, there we were. I was sure of it. So after the concert was over I gathered all of my courage and walked up to him, telling him I recognized him from high school and asking him what brought him there. It turned out he was there because he also knew someone in one of the bands that were playing and we spent some time catching up on life.

To note a different encounter with someone else completely: last year while eating at a burrito shop across town, someone I knew from when I was at University in Kingston walked into that shop. We had lived in the same house for about a year so I knew for sure it was him even though he looked quite different and about 10 years had passed. For reference, Kingston is a three and a half to four-hour drive from here and I had no idea that we were living in the same city again. It turns out he is working here, just got married to his wife (who was also there) and they bought a house together. We spent a few minutes catching up and hugged goodbye before I left the shop. I was left wondering how in a world full of so many people I could continue to encounter the same ones from my past in the most random and unexpected places.

While I have experienced countless slim-chance encounters throughout my life, I won’t bore you with the details of all of them. This last one I am going to share with you actually has nothing to do with me running into someone. I used to work in an office with an ex and the relationship ended rather dramatically, as most do. A few months ago one of the people I work with told me that his sister in Australia was at a party and ran into my ex. At the party in Australia. It turns out he went there (a place he used to say he would never go) to meet a girl from the online world. The girl was a sister of someone who threw the party or something and the person who threw the party was friends with my friend’s sister. First of all, how in the world they ended up in the same place I will never understand and second of all, I find it crazy that they figured out they knew someone mutually and that story was shared with me.

Is there another way to describe these meetings other than slim-chance? Obviously, they aren’t impossible, though it might seem that way. This is why I started to wonder about the number of people I have met in my life and the ways they have all had an impact on me. For me to remember someone’s specific swagger after 13 years or to remember the way someone eats a piece of fruit after 14 years, it means those people had to have some level of impact on my life and the person I have become. While it seems rare for you to run into people you already know in a different city because of the number of places and people in the world, I wonder if the truth is that with the number of people we have met over the years we are bound to end up in the same place at the same time once again. In those rare moments, if we are lucky enough to remember that those people were once part of our lives, we can have a completely honest moment with someone that we will always remember and share with people for years. Hearing the perspective of other people we knew from that time in our lives also helps us better understand where we come from and the places we have left behind. It is a reminder of how real it all is and how lucky we are to be here making impressions on each other.

So let me ask again if you recognize someone across a room in a different city 10, 20, or even 30 years later will you run the other way and hide, playing the avoidance game? Or will you use that rare moment to play catch up, be awed, and embrace them in a warm hug?

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