Sylvia

Sylvia

She came to the coffee store and wanted tea. It was a little odd, but she was a little odd, somewhere between crazy and eccentric.

Her name, as you might have guessed from the title, was Sylvia. Jason’s fourth law is the older you get, the younger everybody else looks; the corollary is that as I was young, I can’t trust any assessments of her age, especially this far after the fact. Let’s say somewhere between 50 and 70 with 90% confidence. She had long black hair with no silver in it, so much no silver that it was obviously either dyed or just a wig.

She wore loose-fitting layers of clothes in dark colors gilded with gold. Maybe trousers and a blouse with a scarf and a wrap. If you watched her walking and then closed your eyes, you might remember her using a cane, although she never did.

I worked at a coffee and ice cream place and went to college. She came to the coffee store and wanted tea. It was a little odd, but she was a little odd, somewhere between crazy and eccentric. I was at least eccentric, so it seemed natural that we should spend some extra time together. A customer service job was effectively torture for a young man with Asperger syndrome, but I didn’t know I had it and didn’t know I was being tortured. I had elaborate, pre-written routines to entertain customers so I would not have to relate to them to plainly; it was protective coloration of a sense. She saw through it.

She laughed at the jokes, sometimes with her belly, sometimes just politely. It’s actually causing me some amount of pain right now to think of her empathy, and I’m starting to realize why she did the things she did. I think I should have loved her better.

One day she asked me if I would drive her to Estes Park. I didn’t have a car then and was out of practice driving, but I was also less of a coward. I agreed when she said her eyes just weren’t as good as they used to be, and she loved to drink tea and listen to the elk. She wanted to go to the big hotel there. The Overlook in Stephen King’s The Shining was based on it, but I don’t recall the name of the real place now. Memory is such weird, tricky stuff. Anyway, it never occurred to me to wonder if she had any ulterior motive. I got into so much trouble in those days for this failure to wonder, this rush to take people at their word.

On the way up, she admirably did not nag me about my driving, which was pretty bad. She should have driven herself; it would have been safer. She chatted about various nonsense, whimsical ridiculous nonsense, and let me concentrate on the driving by not asking me to contribute much. It never occurred to me to make a note of what sort of car it was. If it was a story, I’d probably include that as a detail. The kind of car sort of establishes Sylvia’s social standing. I’d also include that I couldn’t remember it, that it hadn’t seemed noteworthy at the time, because it establishes my disconnectedness from mundane matters.

So we get to the Overlook, and we look around a little (gorgeous old place!) and eventually sit outside with some tea. Well, she has tea, I have coffee in an adorable little porcelain confection that really does make the coffee taste better. The elk aren’t cooperating: we only see a couple of them.

And then I suddenly get the what-are-you-doing-with-your-life talk. It seems natural. Sylvia isn’t really very motherly or even very grandmotherly, but neither were my mother or grandmother. They were and are real people not pigeonholed by their relationships to me. So I never wondered about that either, I just listened. I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do, was content to eat and drink and laugh and work and study, all to no special purpose. I wasn’t good at talking to humans then, either, so I couldn’t express all that.

Then things took the weird turn. Remember that Sylvia had talked nonsense on the way up. Mostly, she told me about her imaginary cat. It seemed to be a joke or a gag. Who describes their imaginal companions as imaginary? But it was also serious, meant something to her.

And now she asked me if I were sensitive.

“Not especially,” I offered, not seeing what she meant. I was really sensitive actually in the way I thought she meant, but no way was I admitting that to myself enough to admit it to her.
But she persisted. She imagined I was sensitive to the feelings of other people, that I had some untrained clairvoyant or psychic ability, and that was why I was so troubled and defended at the coffee shop. This resonated with me at the time, and some of it remains true for me. I’m not psychic and don’t believe in these phenomena. But I am, at least at times, uncommonly dialed in to the feelings of others. Later, this would pull me gradually and slowly into therapist training.

I drew the line at witches. The whole expedition seemed to be motivated by Sylvia’s desire to warn me against the evil witches who lived in town. They liked to poison the psychic atmosphere, and the wary needed to learn how to guard their feelings. She was sincere in her empathy for my pain, the pain I did not even really know I was in, and that’s what I remember now, though I was pretty sure she was crazy at the time. I thought I was helping her but she was trying earnestly to help me.

And she did. I would work through all the mystifying bullshit later. Imaginary cats and evil psychic witches were cover for empathy; psychic sensitivity was just my own hypervigilance, another way of being defended that provoked all sorts of other defenses from both myself and other people. Years later, in therapy training, this would all get demystified and harnessed to good effect. People like me are not apt for empathy but we DO have it and it can be trained and put to work. Because we need things made explicit, this can make us actually rather apt therapists and psychologists.

But if not for Sylvia, maybe none of it would have ever happened.

We drove back to town, her going on about the cat (actually, was it the CAT that was named Sylvia, and not the woman?) and other nonsense, which I now recognize as respectful space. Again, she was just giving me room to think about what we had talked about—and drive the car without killing us both. All such clever pretext. And then I didn’t really see her much after that.

And never wondered about it.

— Jason Dias

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