How I Learned What "Approximate" Means

My phone rang. Again.

I mechanically brought my arm over the phone’s keypad and pecked the answer button. This was back at the law firm, where I made this motion anywhere from 15-25 times per day. What was it this time, I wondered? A parent trying to tell us their child had ADHD and needed Social Security? An ex-felon with a bad back wondering he “ain’t got his money?” What?

As it turned out, a federal investigator was waiting in the front lobby. For me.

Pardon my kneecapping the suspense here, but this meeting was pre-arranged. A friend was applying for a higher level of government clearance and I was being interviewed as part of the review process. I met her and we stepped into a conference room.

I hadn’t seen him in a while, I explained. I had moved to the Twin Cities three years ago and we had last seen each other at my wedding. Come to think of it, I don’t even think we had had contact since then (I still don’t think we have). I didn’t remember exactly when he lived in Virginia, but I did remember exactly when I lived in Eveleth. The two didn’t coincide, not really anyway – there was a three-week span where he stayed at my place, but otherwise he had gone back to Duluth.

The lights were sparse but hot in this conference room and she scribbled notes, and notes off notes, as I gave my half-certain testimonies. This woman’s appearance, in a word, tight: Her hair in a bun, the skin on her face, and the fit of her jacket, all tight. My appearance, in a word, loose: Even without a headset, my hair would have looked unkempt; I was losing weight faster than I could find fitting clothes; and I was repeatedly answering her questions with mile-long syllables. Ieeeeeee, ummmmmmm …

I wasn’t stupid yet, though. Ohhh, no, I wasn’t stupid yet.

We got to the end of the meeting and she explained to me that it was okay that I didn’t know the exact dates of his location at certain times, but she would simply write “All dates approximate.”

Don’t do that!” I said. “Those aren’t the approximate dates!”
So they’re the exact dates?”

Let me explain: When you go through your life, for instance, putting 10 cups of sugar in a cake when the recipe called for “approximately 10 cups of sugar,” the fact that approximate doesn’t mean exact gets lost on a fellow. It’s an easy mistake to make, when you think about it. Better yet, stop thinking about it. Just, go fuck yourself.

Back to this room, hotter than it was before; to me, gone from loose to unraveling; to her … I think she was having a hard time grasping the idea of a 31-year-old man who doesn’t know what “approximate” means. Will ‘till she finds out I’m a writer!

I don’t remember the words precisely, but this exchange lasted approximately three minutes. She would assure me that all dates would be approximate; I would panic and say I didn’t want that; she would ask if the dates were exact, then; and I would say no. Rinse and repeat, in a sauna, with a federal investigator, for the length of a boxing round.

I don’t recall how this was resolved; but I remember the sweat in my armpits and the assuring, almost parental, tone in her voice when she finished writing and talking. I didn’t know what I had said wrong, but I couldn’t imagine this was helping my friend’s case for clearance.

Later that day, I recounted this meeting to one of our attorneys. Her arms and her jaw went limp about halfway through.

What?” I said.

She then proceeded to tell me what approximate meant.