David walked up to the kiosk and punched the 5 minute button. He waited anxiously as the machine spat out the long scroll of paper and wondered who came up with the idea for this contraption. When the length of paper finally stopped unfurling from the machine, he rolled it up and shoved it into his pocket. He paused for a moment, thinking that one story wouldn’t distract him for very long on a 3 hour flight, but just as he was about to hit the button again, a man hauled up behind him and said, “Ever wonder who came up with the idea for this contraption?” David gave him a slight ‘humph’ and walked away in search of a place to grab lunch.
Passing several walk-up stations with pre-made sandwiches, he turned the corner and ducked into a sit down diner with a few open tables. A waitress quickly appeared and handed him a menu. “Welcome to Magpie,” she said. “If you tell me when your flight is boarding, I’ll make sure to get you out of here on time.”
Magpie? Of course the name of the diner just happened to be the same nickname he called his now estranged wife. The wife who left him 6 months ago for his best friend. A friend who also happened to be his business partner. A business that was now in shambles as a result.
For a moment he thought about going back to one of the walk-ups for a sandwich, but instead ordered a BLT and rested his head in his hands.
His mind flashed back to two weeks ago. The day he and Maggie signed their divorce papers at the lawyer’s office. “You’re making a mistake I’ll always regret,” was the last thing he said to her as she walked out the door.
That night, mindlessly flipping through network TV programs and throwing back shots of whiskey, he paused on a new reality show called “The Divorce”. The scene cut to an unkempt husband crying to his wife as she walked out the door, “You’re making a mistake I’ll always regret.” Hearing those same words made him feel validated somehow, yet strangely violated at the same time. Those were his feelings for Maggie and his alone.
The week following the divorce was harder still as the prosperous business relationship with his long-time friend came to an acrimonious end. He agreed reluctantly, yet also with some relief, to sell his portion of the business to the man he had once considered a brother and now viewed only as a common thief. When his friend extended his hand to say goodbye, David stared at it thinking of how this hand would now be caressing his sweet Maggie, brushing her cheek, zipping up her party dresses, massaging her shoulders and helping her fold the laundry. David did not offer his hand in return, but instead looked his friend in the eye and said, “I don’t shake hands with the devil.”
After another night of whiskey in front of the TV, David woke up on the sofa feeling like a truck had hit him and then backed up and rolled over him again. His head throbbed in time with the beat of an old song playing on the Country Music Network and it took him a moment before he made out the lyrics: "Don’t shake hands with the devil, don’t shake hands with the devil, don’t shake hands with that evil one below...”
He sat up abruptly and stared at the TV as if it might be possessed by the devil itself. “What the hell...” he said, hitting the off button on the remote. He dragged himself upstairs and took a hot shower, realizing he had no office to go to, no deadlines to meet, no purpose whatsoever. It'll get better, he thought. It's got to get better.
He toweled off and went to his closet, flipping on the radio as he walked by. The announcer’s voice boomed, “Everybody’s always looking for something better. Better job, better marriage, better life. Well we’re going to give you a chance to win something better. A two week vacation where everything is better...in the Bahamas. Be caller number five when you hear...”
David hit the off button and would have laughed if he didn’t feel so much like crying. The world seemed to be mocking his pain and for a moment, he saw himself succumbing to it, spending every night with a bottle of whiskey and bad sitcoms until he became a shell of the man he was. He shook off the image and chuckled, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Grabbing his mobile, he scrolled through the contacts and hit the number for his travel agent.
In the two weeks leading up to his trip, the bizarre coincidences continued. One day his GPS sent him on a wild goose chase. Realizing he was totally lost, he pulled off to the side of the road and spotted a sign in front of a church that read, “To be almost saved is to be totally lost.” Everywhere he turned, billboards, bumper stickers, t-shirts, TV ads, junk mail on his doorstep and total strangers on the street — all repeated his thoughts and words.
He decided that if it didn’t stop by the time he got back from his trip, he would consider seeing a therapist. He was sure he could find a good shrink in a city the size of Boston, which is exactly what he was thinking when he heard a woman say, “Can I sit here?” She smiled and pointed to the table next to him. He nodded and smiled back. As she maneuvered her suitcase into the small space, she smiled again saying, “Thanks so much. It’s really a zoo here today. I fly all the time and have never seen it this crowded. I’m Trish, by the way — headed to the APA conference in Washington.”
David figured he already knew the answer, but asked anyway. “APA?”
“The American Psychological Association. I’m a therapist. Twenty years now. Time sure flies when you’re worried more about other people’s problems than your own.” She said the last line with a chuckle and waved the waitress over.
While Trish placed her order, David wondered if this coincidence might actually work in his favor. What could it hurt to ask? And for the next 15 minutes, Trish listened patiently as David gave her the Coles Notes version of his divorce and the unsettling coincidences of the past two weeks. “Am I going crazy?”
Trish shook her head, “Of course not. First, people who are crazy never stop to consider if they’re crazy. Secondly, there is a name for what you’re experiencing. It’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. I’m not surprised this is happening based on what you told me about your recent stress. A painful divorce, the loss of a friend and your business all in the same year.” She looked at him with a matter-of-fact sense of compassion.
“What is the...”
“Badder-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s not quite the same as what you’re experiencing, so don’t cite me on this, but essentially, the stress of your situation has closed off your awareness to anything unrelated to those events. And anything that does relate to the events is magnified in your consciousness. Does that make sense?”
David nodded, feeling wholly relieved and grateful that the coincidence of meeting Trish actually cleared up the cause of the disturbing coincidences. “Yes. It makes perfect sense. I can’t thank you enough. Perhaps I could...” He wasn’t sure what the appropriate thing to do was in a situation like this. Should he expect a bill?
Before the moment could get too awkward, David’s flight was called for boarding and Trish shook his hand, wished him well and waved goodbye.
Staring out the window with champagne in hand, he felt another rush of relief knowing that not only wasn’t he going crazy, but his experience was a common, documented phenomenon. This was the first time in weeks he felt like himself; like things actually were going to get better...in the Bahamas.
He laughed out loud remembering the contest on the radio that instigated this trip and the series of coincidences that probably lead everyone through their lives without being aware of them. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the scroll of paper and unrolled it. The story began... David walked up to the kiosk and punched the 5 minute button. He waited anxiously as the machine spat out the long scroll of paper and wondered who came up with the idea for this contraption.