The Inescapable Life of an Empath

em·path ● ˈempaTH
noun: someone with the strong ability to feel the thoughts, emotions, and energy of others

I get Southern Hospitality. It’s waving to people you don’t know while walking down the street, and saying “How are you doing?” to the person standing behind you in line. That is not what happened yesterday.

I thought, foolishly, that once I was out of pet retail, I would get to stop hearing about people’s horror stories of dead animals, therapy their children went to, and recently deceased family members. I was wrong.

Yesterday, at my Kentucky hotel’s bar/restaurant, tucked away in the corner of the lobby, I sat down after a 14-hour work day for some shrimp linguine Alfredo and a Blue Moon. A middle-aged man approached me.

“Excuse me, miss, are you [indistinguishable]?”

“Um..no?”

“Vietnamese?”

Oh, we were playing this game. I let him guess a few more times because I was tired and didn’t have the energy, but when he didn’t guess literally the most populated country in all of Asia, I finally said, “Yeah, I’m actually Chinese.” Except I said it with a smile. After all those months at Petco, I had learned to smile at even the rudest of people.

What came next surprised me.

Him: “It must be hard for you. You aren’t from around here? You have an accent, probably up north?”

I told him I was from Michigan.

“Michigan? I’ve never been but I’ve seen some gorgeous pictures of the Great Lakes.”

At this point I just really wanted my take-out order so I could go back to my room, eat three bites, and go to bed.

He continued, “It’s a shame what’s happening in the world huh? Donald Trump and all. He gives a voice to those that are hateful and fearful. I have a five-year-old son and… I don’t want him to grow up thinking it is okay to be that way.”

I nodded, tired, but pleased that he had a good head on his shoulders. He kept on talking about how worried he is for the world, but he believes that good will win in the end — it was uplifting, but I still just wanted some food in my stomach and some sleep before I had to go into work at 6:30am the next morning.

The man stood up and shook my hand. He said “I hope you have a good evening.” I returned his kind thoughts and told him it was a pleasure to meet him.

My pasta came out on a plate. There was only one man working at the bar and restaurant, so I didn’t bother him and figured I’ll have a few bites and then ask for a to-go box.

The man on the other side of me, probably 60 or so, turned to me and said, “Wow, that smells great! I should’ve ordered that pasta.”

I honestly wasn’t in the mood for another conversation, but I managed to smile and tell him, “It’s pretty delicious, but your Buffalo Chicken Wings look pretty good too!”

He smiled: “I just couldn’t get much down tonight you know?”

I asked him what was up and how he was doing.

“Well, honestly. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. My mother recently died, I had spent a long time taking care of her, and before that I took care of my stepfather. Before that, I lived in Brazil for some time with the love of my life, Camille.”

I stared for a second, flashbacks of customers telling me about how their son died from cancer and younger sister recently got hit by a drunk driver, but then composed myself.

“That sounds really hard to deal with, sir, I’m so sorry that happened.”

He talked for a while about his life and how he was so used to taking care of everyone else, but never himself. It felt surreal to have this guy who could be my father talking about how he felt he didn’t have his life together.

I asked him about Brazil again, because every time he mentioned it he would get excited and describe all the sights and smells and tastes of the country.

“I went back to visit some buddies last year. They kept asking me ‘Do you hope you’ll see Camille again?’ and I tell them ‘I hope I will, but pray I don’t because saying good bye to her once was more than I could take.’”

I almost cried, but managed to keep it together.

We talked about China for a bit because he seemed interested in travel and cultures from around the world. Then he pulled out a business card and told me that I can email him anytime if I want more pictures of Brazil. He said something to me in Portuguese — the only word I could catch was “feliz” so I asked him what he said.

“If we do not meet again, may you live a happy and healthy life.”

I told him thank you and went back to my hotel room.

I thought about how strange it was that the waiter happened to forget I ordered to-go, but it didn’t matter because I got to meet the man with a five-year-old son who will grow up learning to love instead of fear, and the older gentleman who told grand tales of love and loss in Brazil.