“What is the meaning of life?” may be the great unanswerable question of the universe, but each of us, in our own lives, every so often has been confronted by a humbler mystery that is just as befuddling. It could be something as emotional as “Why did he/she break up with me?” Or as profound as “What is my place in the world?” Or as baffling as “Why did this person just disappear out of my life?” Or as mundane as “Why didn’t the bus stop?”, “Why didn’t I get my promotion?”, or “Why won’t this computer work properly?” Every day, in every situation, mysteries large and small surround us, adding a dash of intrigue into our routines.
Perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, a mystery comes along that isn’t just a matter of philosophical debate or human nature, but a genuinely strange occurrence. Something that arrests you, that haunts you, that makes you go “Hmm…” A tragedy that sends you reeling and makes you ask why, no matter how futile the question seems. You witness an event that defies not only description, but all understanding. You become obsessed with something that seems insignificant to others, but which nags at you for days, weeks, years, until you find yourself manically searching Wikipedia at 3am and using your spare time to visit your local university library.
Thankfully, there’s now a podcast for that! The intrepid Starlee Kine created and hosts The Mystery Show, in which people write to her about mysteries great and small, and she plays amateur detective. And gets results! In its first season alone, Kine solved six mysteries, some of which appeared so obscure and improbable at the outset–“Did Britney Spears read this book that I wrote that she was pictured with one time?”–that you couldn’t help but wonder how she would possibly go about solving them. I promise that she does solve each and every one, but, as usual, it’s the journey, not the destination, that fascinates. Kine is almost supernaturally curious, and has never met an interview subject she can’t mine for gold. Even when those nuggets don’t pertain to the case itself, they still dredge up something profound about the person, their life experiences, their dreams, their worldview. It’s a frothy show that has more depth and richness the more you consume it.
Of course, everyone who listens to the show asks themselves what mystery they would like solved if given the chance, and I’m no different. It’s not often that the opportunity comes along to ponder the great mystery of your life and, being a diehard mystery buff in my own right, the answer came to me easily. So, Starlee, if you’re reading, here goes…
When I was 16 years old, my parents packed me and my younger sister off on a two-week, school-sponsored trip to Italy and Greece. Even though I didn’t want to go (What can I say? I was a wallflower), I ended up having the time of my life. It was one of those trips where you really grow up and learn a lot about yourself, as well as have a succession of firsts. Not to mention your first taste of real freedom, of what life will be like once you’re out from under your parents’ shadow.
Our French teacher Mme M organized the trip, and let’s just say she was a bit laissez-faire when it came to keeping an eye on us. My father was perhaps more right that I’d care to admit when he came home from the first planning meaning and decreed that we would not go because she’d committed the crime of wearing spandex. (My mother had the final word, thank goodness.) All this to explain how we ended up in one of Frankfurt’s major parks at 2am, trying to get into what I now understand was a fetish club.
It was our last night in Europe. We’d stopped in Germany just for that night because the flights didn’t work out to take us directly home from Athens. Tired and a bit exasperated with my companions, I left them for reasons I don’t really remember to go back to the hotel and get some sleep. As I walked along the sidewalk parallel to the park, but on the opposite side of the street from it, I saw a couple walking erratically just outside the treeline. At first, I wasn’t sure whether they were fighting or just being playful. Then I heard the woman scream.
The man she was with tried to pull her inside the park, but she fought him. I stopped to watch, but I wasn’t sure what was going on. Were they really fighting, or just horsing around? Did they know each other, or had he just jumped her? Was she screaming, or squealing with laughter? I couldn’t tell, but my sixth sense told me something was wrong. I looked around for some way to call the police or alert someone who might help, but I was in a foreign country on a deserted street in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t speak the language. I had no idea where in the city I was, or how to direct them, even if I could contact the authorities. I hovered, watching the couple, trying to decide what to do, until he did succeed in pulling her into the trees. I went back to the hotel, shaken, and tried to make sense of what I saw.
I still think about that woman to this day. Did I let her down? Should I have done more? Did my ignorance/youth/foreignness contribute to something horrible? Or was it all just typical adolescent aggrandizing, my overtired and overwrought brain inventing a story out of whole cloth? (Not like I became a writer or anything…) Memory is fallible, and so am I.
Regardless, I’ll always wonder what really happened in the park that night (other than a bunch of my friends getting drunk on cheap wine). Just like so many other mysteries in our lives, I’ll carry this one with me forever.
So what is the great mystery of your life? Don’t be shy to share a tale or two in the comments, and check out The Mystery Show!