Alan gingerly lifted the lettuce leaf on his sandwich, moving beneath and around each layer of condiment between the bottom of the bun and the top of the sliced turkey.
“Hmmm,” he muttered, his tone clearly voicing his disappointment.
“What?” His best friend, David smiled and chuckled. The light laugh was equal parts amusement and irritation.
“Oh, nothing…I guess.” Alan’s eyes continued to explore the plate as he slowly reassembled the sandwich. “It’s just that…I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but…” Alan bit and chewed a hunk of the sandwich without lifting his eyes.
“C’mon dude, spit it out. No! I mean, don’t spit it out. Swallow that bite but then tell me what is wrong?” David said. “It can’t be that sandwich, it looks fantastic. Look at that thing. It’s a Thanksgiving dinner disguised as a panini. Turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes. I mean, really, what’s not to like?”
Alan finally looked up and slurped a mouthful of coffee.
“No, you’re right, of course. It’s delicious.”
“I don’t know,” Alan stammered, another mouthful of turkey mixing with his words. “I guess I was just expecting more.”
David sighed so loudly the people at a nearby table peered over. He waved at them and smiled to warn them off. The warning was fake, but the sigh – and the frustration behind it – was real.
“Look man, we’ve known each other, what, thirty years now? And every single time you eat something, or read something, or watch something, or listen to something, you act like this.”
Alan’s eyes opened wide with sincere confusion. “Like what?”
“Like you’re disappointed that this sandwich isn’t perfect. Or that movie moved too slow. Or that song wasn’t creative enough. Or the band was too loud. Or that book petered out before the end. Or, whatever. It’s like you can never just be happy with the way things are.”
“No, that’s not true,” Alan weakly protested.
“Yes, it is true!” David insisted, again loud enough to draw attention from nearby diners. “And honestly, it pisses me off. Most of the time you’re a terrific guy, funny, smart, thoughtful…”
“Thank you,” Alan started to reply. “I feel the…”
“I’m not finished!” David said firmly, but in a more controlled voice. He lowered his head, leaned in over the table towards the man with whom he’d grown up. The man who stood up at his wedding. The godfather to all three of his children.
“We’ve been friends long enough that I feel I can speak honestly, hopefully without hurting your feelings too much. So, I’m gonna just lay it all out there.”
“Well go ahead,” Alan said. “Who’s stopping you?”
Hearing the clear ring of defensiveness in Alan’s voice, David leaned back, sat up straight and took a deep breath. “The truth of the matter is, you act like nothing is ever good enough, no matter how good it is. Including people. You’re especially hard on people. And it is irritating as all get-out! I mean, really man, what are you looking for? What in the world are you expecting to find? A golden ticket?”
Alan sat up as still and straight as if duct taped to the back of his chair. Hands flat on the table, eyes wide as if propped open with toothpicks, not a single facial muscle twitched. If not for the fact that he wasn’t turning blue, it would have been hard to know if he was even breathing. Finally, his lips cracked. Words crept out slowly, like a dog that’d been called but afraid of being kicked.
“So…wow…I’m not quite sure…how to take…I mean…I didn’t know I…didn’t mean to…not complaining…just, wow.”
“Listen man, the same friend brave enough to speak truth from the heart also loves you enough to give grace from the heart,” David said. He spoke quietly across the table that now seemed to hold a slightly larger divide than it had only moments before.
“I tell you this only because I don’t want you to expect so much from life – or at least, from this life. It’s not that you can’t find perfection or joy, or whatever it is you think you’re looking for, it’s just that you set the bar so high that it’s impossible for anyone, or anything, to meet your standard. And it kills me to see your disappointment and the frustration and the anger,” David said, plaintively. “And over what? A sandwich?”
Alan leaned back, still clearly shellshocked by his best friend’s grenade of candor.
“If I had known I was coming off that way, I would have never…” Alan shook his head. “Have others seen it too? Please tell me I haven’t hurt anyone…”
Now, David leaned back over the table until he and Alan were nearly nose-to-nose. “Of course, others have noticed, but we all love you. We love you when you bitch about books. We love you when you complain about records. We love you when you criticize movies. The common thread here is, we love you. So, we look past your bad behavior!”
David’s right hand darted to Alan’s plate and quickly hoisted the turkey sandwich before Alan knew what was happening. David took a huge bite and chewed it only inches from Alan’s face like it was the first – or maybe the last – turkey sandwich of his life. He laid the remnants back on the plate, sat back, and made a show of licking his fingers. “Mmmm, that is one delicious sandwich!”
Now Alan could only laugh in relief, his guilt rushing out of him like air out of a balloon.
“This is my whole point,” David said. “It may not be the best sandwich ever – although this one is pretty darned tasty. And that, my friend, is the meaning of life.”
“Wait a minute,” Alan said, his face swapping out guilt for confusion. “You’re saying a ‘pretty darned tasty’ turkey sandwich is the meaning of life?”
“No. And yes!” David said.
“What I mean is, you waste all this time being disappointed about something that isn’t there instead of appreciating what’s right in front of you. The artistry, the effort, the vision, the passion, the music, the magic of everyday life. Even the sweet tang of turkey and mayonnaise and cranberry sauce, mixing together juuuuussst right!” He licked a few more imaginary crumbs from his index finger.
“Not everything is going to be perfect. In fact, most things aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good, or even great,” David said.
“Finding the good in the bad, the joy in the sorrow, the love in the hatred, the light in the darkness, the exceptional in the average,” he continued. “It’s hard, man. It takes a lot of dedication and faith and patience and time and courage and effort,” David said.
“That challenge, that’s what makes this life worth something,” he said. “Our work to seek and see and create ‘good’ in a world that doesn’t give up its ‘good’ easily. That’s the meaning of life.”
David’s fingers snuck toward Alan’s plate, closing in on what was now a sandwich in name only: a crust of bread, a sliver of turkey, a hint of tomato, and the tiniest green blanket of lettuce.
Alan smacked David’s hand. “Hey, that hurt!” David protested melodramatically, waving his hand in the air like he’d been shot. Another nosy diner turned toward them. David chuckled.
“Leave that alone,” Alan said. He quickly reassembled the morsels and deposited them into his mouth. “That’s the best turkey sandwich I’ve had…well, today anyway!”