Arugula. Cupola. Garbanzo. I love the sound of those three words. I’ve gone so far as to threaten my family that if we had a third child, I’d consider naming him, or her Arugula Cupola Garbanzo. Imagine how fun it would be to be the kindergarten teacher who called attendance for that lucky little kid every day.
I love the sound of lots of words. I just love words in general. It’s a small personal challenge of mine to use new, exotic words as often as possible. Expanding my vocabulary and learning the meaning of new words is amusing. It’s particularly entertaining to look up a relatively common word and find that it is frequently misused. Take fantastic for example. People will sometimes say they’re fantastic. My first impression was they’re feeling great, doing wonderfully and having a terrific day. I’ve even seen a digital sign in front of a courthouse that flashed, Have A Fantastic Day! So, I’m not the only one who thought it was a term solely for excellence. I looked it up and found the more common meanings for fantastic are: bizarre, incredible and unbelievable. Think of the out-of-this-world Fantastic Four super hero characters and you get the picture. Now I use fantastic sparingly when I’m feeling absurd, whimsical or extravagant.
I play a word game with a young lady who works at my local liquor store. Her name is Tiffany. I know this only because she wears a tag on her shirt. She may know my name because I pay with a card. But beyond my visits and weekly purchases, we’re strangers.
I walk into the store and say, “Hi, how are you?” She responds in surprising ways almost every time. Sometimes she’ll say, “I’m well enough.” And then she’ll attend to my purchase without another word. Other times she responds, “I’m well. How are you?” Then I have the option to say, “I’m fine,” or “I’m doing great.” But I prefer to answer with something clever like, “I’m awesome,” or “I’m inspired.” Depending on the day, and my answer we may banter about the extended and not-so-common meaning of the words I used. Or she’ll counter and challenge me with an equally exciting come back and say something like, “That’s brilliant.” Then it’s my turn to try to top her.
Like flash fiction, it’s energetic and spontaneous. It all happens in a 60 second encounter with confused customers standing in line behind me holding a bottle of whisky or carrying a six pack of beer. But I don’t rush my time in the spotlight with Tiffany. I look forward to the days when she’s up for an entertaining volley. On those visits, when she’s in a good mood, her parting words for me are, “Safe travels.”
It’s always a treat to see Tiffany even though her moods swing wide from cheerful to head hanging glum. No matter what her mood though, she’s never rude or unresponsive to the customer’s needs. She may be short, to the point, and seem anxious to be left alone. But she always manages to do her job with focused efficiency whether she’s stocking shelves or checking someone out at the sales counter.
One memorable day I walked into the store and said, “Hi, how are you?” Tiffany replied, “Cantankerous!” Now that struck me as a serious and deliberate word choice. It was an unusually strong and emotionally driven selection for Tiffany who usually hovered in the realm of placid. I pressed for more information and asked, “What’s wrong?” She hinted she was having a problem with work but didn’t go into detail. We dropped the subject and she completed my sale in silence. After leaving the store I looked cantankerous up on my phone to check its meaning. The first three definitions are: irritable, crabby and argumentative. I wished I could have done more for Tiffany that day, but maybe listening to her sudden and uncharacteristic burst of anger was enough.
I don’t know if Tiffany was aware of our word play or if I’m just another customer. At one point she mentioned she was moving away, up north, to fulfill a dream she didn’t elaborate on. I whished her well. And truly hoped she’d find happiness in her new endeavors. I missed her and our inspiring exchanges. The other sales people were friendly, but let’s face it, they were boring. They couldn’t compete with Tiffany and her colorful words.
Years passed, but I remembered Tiffany fondly. Then one day she was back. I wondered why, but I never asked her. It seemed rude to pry into her personal business. And I worried the reason for her return might’ve been painful for her. I guessed her dreams or ambition changed as they tend to do for most of us over time.
Recently, while Tiffany was completing my purchase I mentioned a paranormal book I was reading. She instantly perked up with a spark of excitement I’d never seen before. I asked what she liked to read. She happily told me about a series of fantasy books she liked. The stories took place in enchanted places inhabited by magical creatures like elves, ogres and fairies. A flood gate opened. She wouldn’t stop talking. We exchanged more words than ever before. I was amazed to see her so animated and happy, unlike her usual meek self. After all this time, we’d found another common interest. We had more than single words. We both loved to read. We shared the joys of living wild adventures through the characters in our books. It was thrilling to meet the lively side of the timid sales girl I thought I knew.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to sit down over cups of coffee and really get to know Tiffany. But I fear it would break the spell. Then the delicious spontaneity we share as strangers would be strained by expectations.
Whatever the reason for Tiffany’s return, I was glad she was back and happy she still had a fiery passion for expressive words. In addition to our word play exercising my vocabulary, Tiffany taught me not to underestimate anyone. Shy people, though quiet on the outside run deep. They have plenty to contribute and say. You just have to start a conversation about a subject their interested in to hear all about it.
Where ever you enjoy challenging yourself to grow, intellectually and artistically, don’t overlook the social aspects of the experience. If you’re fortunate, they’ll bring just as many fascinating surprises.
Where ever the journey takes you, I wish you safe travels.