A man recently approached me at a gas station.
This doesn’t happen often; in fact, I only remember one such other occasion, and it wasn’t particularly pleasant.
My initial reaction when anyone approaches me while I’m busy doing something goes something like this:
I’M UNDER ATTACK.
WAIT, NO I’M NOT.
AT LEAST, I DON’T THINK.
WAIT, WHAT DOES HE WANT?
UGH, DO I HAVE TO TALK TO HER?
I see the encroaching form from the corner of my eyes, and I tend to start from a place of doubt and cynicism and social anxiety. Whether it’s a homeless person begging for cash or cigarettes, or a supervisor asking for a favor.
My first thought when I’m approached is never:
YAY A PERSON COMING TO ENCOURAGE ME.
A couple weeks ago, I parked at a gas pump and stepped out of my car. I started to reach for my wallet when it happened — someone approaching me from the left.
I recognize him immediately as the long-haired kid on a skateboard I’d just passed upon pulling into the gas station. I’d even pointed him out to my roommate who was in the car with me: “Wow, look at that kid. So cool with his hair and wheels and graphic tee.”
And now here he is u-turning toward me with his skateboard.
“Excuse me,” he says, coming closer. “Did you work at Second Nature?”
I stop in my tracks, looking him over: blonde locks to his shoulders, silvery blue eyes. His eyes are searching mine.
“Yeah…” I say, confirming his question, my voice trailing, trying to figure out how in the world this random kid would know I used to work in the woods —
“Do you remember me?” he asks.
And right as he asks it, it hits me.
I start pointing at him as words rumble up my throat.
“Grant!” I shout, and his face lights up. I step toward him, and we bypass the handshake for a hug behind my car.
Grant was one of the students in the seemingly foreboding yet brotherly addicts group. I worked with him for a couple shifts, learning of his story as a 17-year-old new father who’d also done some prison time for his drug use. We’d connected over how we were both from Charlotte, where I was living at the time.
That I’m now looking at Grant’s face OUT of the woods and NOT in Charlotte, but Asheville, where I now live, is throwing my brain through all kinds of hoops and loops.
“What are you doing here?” I ask him. “How are you?” I follow up. “How’s your son?” I can’t stop.
Grant smiles a boyish grin, and he nods a few times. “I’m good, I’m good. I went back to using after getting out of Second Nature, but I’m focused on my recovery now. I’m actually staying in a halfway house down the road, and I work part-time at a couple restaurants in town. My girlfriend moved here with me, too, and she’s staying in a similar place. We don’t get to see our son since we put him up for adoption, but we’re hoping with enough sobriety between the two of us that the parents will ease up and let us see him someday.”
He tells me the name of the restaurant where he works, a building quite literally one block from my house. I’m standing there by my car, my roommate patiently waiting in the passenger seat, my car still needing gas, and I’m wondering if I should let Grant on his way or drag him into a booth for coffee at the gas station’s adjoining Dunkin’ Donuts.
To think: Grant’s story and mine, re-converging in these same Blue Ridge Mountains hardly an hour away from where we first met nearly a year ago. He is the same kid I met in the woods, and yet he is distinctly different, older and wiser, with more of a sparkle in his eyes I didn’t quite see back then.
“I’ve always wondered if I’d ever see any of those kids outside the woods,” I tell Grant. Additionally, I’m thinking: I’ve always wondered if I even made any difference for those kids inside the woods.
Grant is still grinning as he swipes a lock of hair from his eyes, and I want to stand or sit and talk longer with him, but he has a job to get to.
“It was so cool seeing you again,” I tell him. “Maybe I’ll see you again some time.”
He nods, and we shake hands, and then he skates away.
I fill up on gas, and I drive with my roommate into the mountains, an excursion we had planned on taking an hour earlier but gotten delayed at home for whatever reason. I can’t even remember why anymore.
Had we left an hour earlier, Grant on a skateboard and myself in a car would not have crossed paths at this unsuspecting gas station.
“It’s stuff like this that proves God is real,” I tell my roommate as we drive into the hills.
I live for moments like these. Encounters we never see coming.
I need moments like these. The assurance of not being forgotten.
I cry out for moments like these. For hope realized that a season of our lives was not wasted.