My entire life has been a never-ending quest for real conversation. The people I like talking to the most are capable of truly talking to me. Conversation is valuable to me. I like to talk. I like to share ideas. I like to have random conversations. Some of the happiest times in my life were four hour phone calls with occasional kindred spirits, who enjoyed perusing as many different topics and going deeper into all of them. Oftentimes, those people were my “writing buddies.” Once, when working on a vampire novella with a friend, we stayed up super late on the phone discussing different elements of our ideas, coming up with new possibilities, divulging the secrets of the individual research we had done, and laughing. I was excited to talk to her. I couldn’t wait to do it again. In those carefree summer days, we had all the time in the world to exchange a flurry of e-mails. One a day, at the very least – sometimes, three or four.
That relationship, as all of them do, eventually faded. Our passion burned out. Our lives went in different directions. Our interests changed. Yet, those discussions forever cemented her in my mind as the person I could discuss all manner of vampire-related things with. To this day, when feeling a burning need to talk about anything relating to the blood-drinking undead, for a split second I think, “Gee, I wish could call…”
Another friend, a decade later, was my go-to buddy for sci-fi related chat. We spent hours Skype chatting while watching episodes of Star Trek and Fringe together. I loved those days, because I got to not only watch shows, but talk about them with someone else as invested in them as I was. Not only did we theorize on the upcoming episodes, we made up back histories and ran theories by one another about secondary character’s lives. We also wrote a 300 page Trek novella together. Then, as all friends do, she drifted away.
I have a kind of intensity when it comes to close relationships. The more I like someone, the more I want to talk to them, and the more often I yearn to do so. But as we get older, our time fills up with other things. We no longer have the luxury for frequent e-mails or late night conversations. And, with so many television shows to choose from, inevitably my friends and I all wind up watching different things. I am no longer in synch with my friends. We are out of orbit, occasionally casting shadows across one another, but not focused on the same thing, with the same intensity, at the same time. Discussion falls by the wayside.
People come and go in our lives. It’s normal, because our interests shape who we choose as friends. We need one another at different times in our journey through life. But deep down, I will always want conversation. If I watch a movie, I want to discuss it. If I read a book, I want to discuss it. If I have a thought, I want to discuss it. The nice thing is, if I live my entire life searching for good conversations, eventually I’m bound to find it.
Recently, I re-watched Elizabethtown, which has one of my favorite fictional characters of all time in it, Claire. She is a lot like me in many ways, from her crazy six-hour phone conversation to the detailed, music-timed map she lovingly gives Drew before he embarks on his cross country trip. I see her as what I can become if I continue to search for conversation. She has one line in the film that has always impacted me: “we are the substitute people,” meaning, she and Drew are remembered for a time, when needed, but passed over once the crisis ends. I have found that quite true in my life from time to time, when I got the impression that I was the last person on the invite list, or people just plain forgot about me (another quote also resonates – “I’m impossible to forget, but hard to remember”). Yet, although she enjoys being “not” a substitute person with Drew, she doesn’t seem to mind being that person for other people.
Claire’s entire involvement with Drew starts as a substitute person – she’s the last person he calls when he wants to talk, but she’s there for him. She sees on the airplane that he needs her, and steps up to the plate, despite his disinterest at first. She sees a need and fills it, knowing he’ll need her later. At the end of the story, she sets him off cross-country with a map and a decision, to continue home and back to his old life, or to find her at a fair and change her life. Claire is willing to be the substitute person. She could have just been the girl who was there for him when he needed it, and nothing more; but she let Drew make the decision otherwise.
We substitute people don’t have to feel bad about being there for people when they need us. It’s a glorious thing to chase away the shadows in a dark moment. And if we live for every moment, we’ll enjoy the experience while it lasts. When we’re at the center of another person’s world, we’re temporarily not the substitute person, but when that moment passes, we’re back to being it again. My former friendships came about because we needed each other, but once our interest subsided, we went in search of other conversations with other people, based on our needs of the moment. Not only is everyone on the planet a substitute person, we treat other people as substitute people. This can be a very bad thing if it is cruelly done, or it can be a good thing if we realize that life gives us different friends at different times.
I do not feel sorry for myself when a relationship ends, because while it lasted, the friendship was wonderful. We had fun. We had good conversation. We helped each other through some rough stuff. It made memories that will continue onward with me, even though the closeness I once had with that person is gone. I’ve always seen “being a substitute person” as a bad thing, but it’s really not. It’s the chance to bring joy into many people’s lives, and in doing so, into my own, for an instant. Claire saved Drew, because she cared enough to be a substitute person. Without her, he would have remained in depression, driven home, and killed himself. We never know what may happen as a result of our interaction with others, but if we are always open and looking for good conversation, unexpected delights may come our way.