Once upon a time I knew a girl who spent every lunch hour at her desk reading romantic paperback novels. Every day. Romance and romantic fantasy was her food, and she ate every page as if starving. Sometimes she alternated between several books at once, as if feeding on different courses of the same fantasy meal.

One day I passed by her desk and asked, “Isn’t the plot always the same in those books?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I read them for the fantasy, not for the plot.”

She and I worked on an otherwise vacant first floor of a three-story office building. Engineers (I am one) and mathematicians worked on the 2nd and 3rd floors. The upstairs dwellers visited our first floor only to review test data on a secure database behind a heavily locked door in the back of the building.

They passed by our office spaces to enter and exit the building, but as is often the case with those types, they did so with almost no audible sounds and with eyes fixed upon their own shoes. This strategy minimized the potential for awkward interactions with other humans.

Sadly, The Big Bang Theory is mostly correct in its stereotypical portrayal of this group. I can say that because I am one, although my patient wife has given me several decades of rehabilitation training until I’ve become pseudo-civilized and something approximating normal (at least in public). She taught me that it’s not that bad to put myself out there, step off the ledge, and say things like, “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you”.

The co-worker girl worked on the first floor because she was our office manager, the first face of potential customers. I was on the first floor in the office next to her space because that was the only available desk. Since my engineering work required frequent travel, I didn’t mind. Even though I came and went often, she and I got to know each other pretty well over the years.

One day I accepted a promotion for a job in another city. On my last day working with her, she wouldn’t take her nose out of the romance book to look at me to tell me goodbye. She said she felt like she was losing her only friend at work, and refused to acknowledge my leaving until I was literally packed up and ready to walk out the door for the last time.

So, as obedient engineers do, I loaded the last of my stuff in my truck, and came back to her desk to say goodbye before riding off into the sunset. I leaned over to give her a friendly goodbye hug, but she flinched, raised her arms and turned away.

“Sorry, but I don’t do hugs,” she said. “I’m not a touchy feely kind of person. It creeps me out to be touched.”

I didn’t know what to say. None of my training to approximate normal-acting in social situations included a proper response to this situation. All of a sudden, I wanted to be one of the upstairs dwellers who grunted as they passed.

“I don’t even hug my own parents,” she said, as if that provided enough explanation. In that moment, my co-worker friend became less than a total stranger to me. Strangers are strangers, of whom we know nothing. She was someone I thought I knew very well, but in fact didn’t know at all. I felt I knew less than nothing about her.

I apologized for the attempt at a hug, then smiled and waved goodbye. She returned the wave and smile and acted as if nothing was wrong. As I closed the door, I glanced back through the window to see her attention return to her book. I left the office and drove away, and I’ve never been back since.

We didn’t keep in touch, which is something that seemed impossible a moment before the almost-hug. I was not attracted to her, but I cared for her as a friend and liked her as a person. Sometimes I find myself thinking about her, and wondering how life has treated her over these past 20 years.

I probably think of that last day more than she ever has. Our last day together in that office, just the two of us, alone, that was reality. Reality was not all those comfortable months and years we spent as friends before that last day. Reality was that awkward moment when it all came to an end, like the last page of a book.

Maybe fantasy really is the best part.

And if you’re out there somewhere reading this blog post, I’m writing about someone else, not you…