Bernard had a spark in his eye. I looked up from my morning paper and saw him looking at me with a grin.
“What?” I asked, wondering if I had crumbs on my chin.
“I’ve had an idea,” he said with a flourish of his hand, as if he were about to pull a rabbit out of his sleeve. And at that very moment, Maddie arrived, breathless and excited. Bernard seemed pleased she’d be here to witness this.
“You two already started?” she asked.
“He,” Bernard pointed at me, “never waits. In the morning it is all I can do to make him wait until we’re at a restaurant to eat. He wakes up hungry.”
“And you?” she said, “why couldn’t you wait?”
“I’m a social creature,” Bernard shrugged. “He eats and I eat with him.”
“What’s your big idea?” she asked. Bernard smiled, like he was about to lay down a royal flush after throwing in all his chips.
“It’s about universals in relationships.”
“You mean like alien abductions,” I asked. “Relationships across the universe?”
Bernard scowled. “No, you idiot. This – this I’m serious about.”
“Okay,” I folded up my paper. “Tell us.”
“Okay, it occurs to me that there are three universals across any kind of relationship – business, family, lovers.”
“Why three, Bernie?” asked Maddie who was now stirring one package each of splenda and sugar into her coffee.
“Why do you have five fingers?” Bernard gestured. “I don’t know why three. It just works out that way. Can I talk?”
“Sure, sure,” she said, looking for her waiter.
“Three universals: responsiveness, empathy, and inspiration.”
“That’s it?” Maddie said. “That’s your big idea?”
“Well let me explain,” Bernard said, drawing himself up. “The better a relationship, the more responsive two people are to each other – or a group is to each other. But it is not enough to respond. You can respond all wrong. You have to have empathy as well. Your response has to work for that person, show you know who they are. And ideally, in a relationship, someone inspires you – makes you feel more alive and more acutely aware of what great things are possible in your life. They respond to where you are now and have a sense of - and might even play a part in getting you to - where you could go with your life.”
Maddie and I chewed on this for a bit. Finally, Maddie spoke.
“Bernie, you are always abstract. What does this have to do with anything?”
“Relationships have to do with everything,” Bernard said.
“Well what relationship are you talking about, Bernie? How has this helped you?”
And with that Bernie looked deflated. He crumpled into his chair. Suddenly, he looked about 15 years older. He teared up.
“Maddie,” I said, starting to rebuke her.
“No,” Bernard waved her off. “She’s right.” He stared at the table cloth.
Maddie reached forward and touched his hand gently. “Bernie, hon. Ideas about relationships are not the same as real relationships. You might want to trade in your idea for a person. You think?”
Bernard just nodded. Sometimes ideas are kinder than the truth. I kind of wish that Maddie had just let him be, but then I realized that she couldn’t. She didn’t have that kind of relationship with her brother. And maybe that was the real lesson – our relationships never transcend who we are. Relationships are not things like responsiveness or potential as something that lies in the gap between us. Relationships emerge out of who people are and that might just be why we spend so much energy trying to change the people we’re in relationships with. Bernie did seem to have a good idea. The thing was, it wasn’t obvious that Bernie or Maddie or me or anyone was ever going to exploit that insight.