Erin Flaherty was a normal young woman.
Normal in the sense that she was like 65% of the women out there.
She wasn’t drop dead gorgeous, but she had a cute smile. She didn’t have the charisma of a social media super-star, but she could come up with a snappy comeback once in a while. She wasn’t the picture of perfect health, but she could make some really yummy cupcakes for friends on special occasions.
Erin was purposefully pleasant towards service staff, she was particularly efficient at minimizing trash, and she put smiley faces and heart emojis in most of her correspondence. She constantly felt the impulse to be a ray of sunshine in the world.
But, like most other women her age, she was also hiding an undercurrent of anxiety, frustration, grudges, and loneliness. While Erin was pretty good at keeping those negative feelings at bay, every once in a while she could feel herself becoming a bit overwhelmed by one or the other darker moods.
On one particular Tuesday, it was her anxiety that was riding high.
She was supposed to meet a guy “to have lunch together”. Not exactly an invitation to a date – but it was still sitting down with a guy over a meal. Such encounters made her palms sweat.
Tim was a good guy, a normal guy.
Although he would never be cast in an aftershave commercial, he did have a full head of wavy light-brown hair above his glasses. He wasn’t a suave man of the world, but he was a guy who didn’t mind asking for directions. No Marvel superhero body, more likely to be described as “buoyant”.
Erin and Tim had met each other originally in a municipal teen chorale group. Although they never really talked then, they saw each other regularly at rehearsals and community concerts. That lasted for one year and then Tim disappeared.
The next time Erin saw him was during a service project in college, helping to set up homes for families who had been homeless. She and Tim did talk a little then, but they didn’t exchange phone numbers or anything.
Then Erin started a job at a magazine publisher as a proofreader/receptionist. Erin had always loved reading, and thought it was a dream come true to work at a publishing house. Reviewing text for magazine and journal articles was not the perfect situation, but it got her in the door of the publishing world.
The new job was located in a 3-story office building that held nearly a dozen other businesses. Located in the charmless suburbs, where parking lots, franchise food joints and traffic signals dominated the landscape, it was a far cry from her vision of working in a cozy little publishing house, stacked floor to ceiling with old books, tucked away in a quiet corner of a bustling city.
As it turned out, Tim also held a job with a company somewhere in this office building. She didn’t know which one, but she had bumped into him in the central corridor one day, waiting for the elevator. They chatted briefly and agreed that lunch options were limited in the neighborhood. From out of the blue, Tim suggested that they should try a nearby café sometime. Erin agreed to that out of her practiced habit of being agreeable in conversations, before remembering that she usually felt exceptionally awkward in such situations.
What harm could there be in having lunch in the middle of the workday one time with this guy, she thought.
The café had the usual – salads, sandwiches, and some trendy tidbits. All overpriced, of course. Erin chose a ham and cheese croissant while Tim picked a small salad and a cup of soup.
They agreed upon a table near a window.
“Oh, man – it is good to be out of the office!” Tim exclaimed.
“You got that right,” Erin agreed. It was a pleasant day and she was enjoying the sunshine. Before the conversation went too far, she decided that she needed to get clarification on his situation.
“Which office do you work in?” she asked.
“I’m with the Tierney Insurance agency,” he answered, nodding his head. “We mostly handle insurance for businesses. I work in the department that investigates possible fraudulent claims. You ever heard of ‘Johnny Dollar’?”
Erin confessed that she had no idea who that was. Was this a mascot she was supposed to have remembered from a commercial, she wondered.
“He’s a character from an old radio show in the ‘50s. Kind of cool, actually. He was the ‘Agent with the action-packed expense account.’”
Erin couldn’t help but look at Tim blankly.
“What? You don’t listen to old radio programs?” He replied with an expression of mock surprise. “Well, that’s it,” he said throwing down his napkin and raising his hands. “I can’t be seen with someone who doesn’t like the oldies.”
She snickered at his joke. At least she hoped he was joking.
As if reading her mind, he tucked his chin and looked at her over his glasses.
“I’m just kidding. Even my friends think I’m kind of out there with some of the stuff I like.”
The conversation went smoothly after that. They talked mostly about their current jobs and touched on what they’ve each been up to since they last saw each other. When it was time for them to get back to their respective offices, they agreed that they still had more to catch up on. The usual “let’s do this again sometime” statements were made.
Erin returned to work happy that she had stepped out of her comfort zone. Her anxiety had lifted.
It only took one more encounter in the corporate corridor the following week for Tim to suggest that they have lunch again. As that turned into another pleasant encounter, it became a regular thing on their schedules.
Since they were both naturally shy people, they talked only a little, but chatted a lot during these meals. One of their favorite things to do was to comment on people they could see around the shopping plaza where the café was located. Tim particularly enjoyed making up stories for the people, giving them ridiculous errands to be running. Erin delighted in providing dialogue between the people and the inanimate objects they were carrying or wearing.
When a very athletic, tan young woman walked by Erin began to create a conversation between the woman and her headphones, but then Erin came up short. She suddenly felt very aware of her own less-than-ideal body.
Tim seemed to pick up on the subtle shift.
“You know what?” he asked rhetorically. “I never quite understood what the big deal was about getting tan. I mean, everybody knows that decades of sun exposure is not a good thing. As fair-skinned as both of us are, we shouldn’t be out in the sun for very long anyway. I say let them get all tan and leathery. We’ll be pale and smooth-skinned well into our old age.”
“That’s right,” Erin giggled, “Let them live their perfect little selfie lives for now. We’ll catch up to them and pass them by later on.”
“Yes!” Tim agreed. He sat up straight and waved an arm towards the café window. “You can walk in the sun. We’d rather dance in the rain!”
Erin really liked that statement. Something about it conjured up a visual that made her smile.
Weeks went by, holidays passed, seasons changed, and the bond between Erin and Tim knitted itself into a pleasant relationship. The kind of relationship where they could talk more freely about things deeper than silly observations and lists of favorite things. On an early spring day, Erin decided to give more of herself than she was usually comfortable with giving.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m walking under a cloud,” Erin revealed as she pulled a soggy piece of lettuce off of her club sandwich.
Tim was a little surprised by the abrupt turn in the conversation. They had been brushing over some of the latest news of the day. Nothing about their personal lives.
“Why do you say that?” he asked, trying not to sound overly concerned.
“Well,” Erin continued, “it’s like – this stuff we’ve been talking about, stuff in the daily news. So much of it is upsetting, even when you’re just scrolling past headlines. And I know that it’s a marketing tool to get clicks or whatever. But the underlying stories tell the truth. There’s just so much hardship, and people who are dealing with things that I just can’t imagine being faced with.” She raised her sandwich to take a bite and hesitated. “So, like, I try to help, y’know? I still volunteer once in a while, like we did with that housing project back in college. I try to donate to charities, when by checkbook says I can.”
Tim chuckled and nodded. Erin continued describing how she felt.
“But I just feel like I keep coming up short. No matter how much I do, it’s just not enough. There’s still so much pain and anger and bitterness out there. All I want to do is be happy and make other people happy, but I keep finding things that upset me. So then I feel like I’m under a cloud.”
Tim had put down his own sandwich and wiped his hands on his napkin.
“I know exactly how you feel,” he began. “And whenever I start thinking that way, I just keep coming round to the realization that I’m doing all I can, and that’s all I’m responsible for. If I could make everyone happy, and still be happy myself, great! Unfortunately, no one put me in charge of the world, and if they did I would probably just make some really strange decisions for people.”
Tim laughed and Erin smiled a bit.
“Like make everyone listen to old radio programs?” she joked as she took a bite of her sandwich.
“Hey,” he responded, “I guarantee people would be happier if they listened to Jack Benny more often.”
Erin had to cover up her mouth as she laughed.
“If all I can do is make the world a better place in little ways,” Tim continued, “then I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. It’s all any of us can do.”
Erin thoughtfully finished her bite.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know what you’re saying. And you’re right, of course.”
She looked wistfully out the window. A cluster of little clouds were passing overhead.
“I guess it’s foolish to think that I have to be happy and make everyone else happy all the time.”
“Well, we all want to be happy,” Tim said. “And most of us want to make sure other people are happy, too. It’s just a tall order to try to make sure everyone is happy all the time.”
Erin smiled slightly before returning her gaze through the window.
Tim reached over and, for the first time, tenderly laid his hand on hers.
“Hey, you’re a wonderful person, Erin. You’re so funny and caring and, to be honest, you have a cute face that’s nice to look at.” She felt herself blush, but didn’t pull away. “Just being yourself is bringing sunshine into the world. You don’t have to try that hard, really. And if you have a cloud over you once in a while, that’s okay. That’s natural. After all, clouds bring rain and rain brings flowers, right? And flowers… they bring the sunshine… wait.” Tim reflected for a moment. “Okay, maybe that metaphor walked away from me there.”
They both laughed at that.
“What I’m trying to say is that, you do plenty to make this world a better place. A sunnier place. And if you have to walk under a cloud once in a while, don’t forget that it’s okay to dance in the rain.”
Their lunch break was over once again and they returned to work.
All that afternoon, Erin reflected on what Tim had said. She thought about him to the point of distraction. Refreshed with the notion that this was the guy for her, she left work that afternoon determined to call him and ask him out on an official date.
A sprinkle had begun to fall as she crossed the parking lot to her car, even though the sun was still out. A genuine sunshower. Erin laughed at the ridiculous affairs of the weather. She giggled as people hurried by. Tim would have given these people really odd reasons why they couldn’t get wet.
She began skipping over puddles and swirling in the sun, in concert with the feelings that were bubbling up from inside.
Erin let herself dance in the sun and the rain that day.
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