We need to talk.
Actually, scratch that. I don’t mean it. It’s a euphemism, and for me, in this moment, it means I am going to say some stuff. In print. Not out loud. Because I am…not good at that, per se. Let me explain.
For as long as I can remember I have been an awkward conversationalist. I was that kid who hid behind adults in social settings, whispered responses when speaking was necessary, and fell behind in school subjects because that was a more comfortable fate than asking a teacher for help. I didn’t make friends easily and preferred the company of grown-ups, who were too busy talking to each other to require my input. I appreciated my animals for their inability to say words to me. I never got in trouble for talking in school. (Staring into quiet space, yes. Talking, no.)
I was an avid letter writer in my youth. Words on a page felt like home to me–easy and familiar and natural. I wrote letters to people I saw daily, and people hundreds of miles away, with equal enthusiasm. I preferred bright white lined notebook paper to stationary, and I was very particular about pens. I would chose a pencil over a smeary ballpoint any day, and anything that bled through the page was out of the question. I didn’t know my process had a name back then, but I would spend days single-drafting (it’s a writing theory term if you want to look it up) lengthy letters, and then I would curl up with a stack of college rule and write it all out, starting over if I made a mistake, pondering words here and there, but rarely stopping to craft sentences–because I had already done that part in my head. It was never a matter of having nothing to say, because there was plenty. I just preferred to say it all at once in page after page of lengthy paragraphs, preferably out of the presence of the person to whom I was “speaking.”
Not much has changed. Even now I prefer texting and email over chitchat and small talk and most face-to-face communication. I can craft an epic text message, even though Husband assures me that is not what texting is for, could you please use email in the future. My ideal shopping experience ends with a DIY checkout lane or, better yet, an Amazon Prime shipping option. Sure, I chose a profession that requires an advanced level of oral communication skills, but talking to teenagers about literature and life and writing is very different from talking to a grocery store clerk about last night’s Republican debate or this hot weather we’re having. But lest you think I’m an anti-social hermit, hiding in my craft closet limiting face time to my immediate family and a scant few friends, let me set the record straight. Despite my natural preferences, I now manage to talk to people! Even minor acquaintances and total strangers! Every day! I chat with other soccer moms and preschool parents about our respective kids. I make small talk with colleagues about non-work topics. I do not avert my eyes at church or in line at the grocery store or when I’m watching my kids play at the park, just in case someone makes eye contact and makes a move to speak, because people like that are everywhere, aren’t they? The people who know no strangers, who can talk to anyone with ease, who can make you feel like they’ve known you for years? I married one of those people, and he is the perfect buffer for my wildly awkward introversion, but sometimes, when he has allowed me to get more comfortable in my skin than I am accustomed to, I think I must now be one of “those people” too, and things go awry.
Which is how it came to be that on Wednesday I may have told a woman at the gym that Husband is a violent, intolerant maniac, which is not even close to being true. Let me explain.
As I was leaving the gym post workout, my giant hobo bag slung over my shoulder, I tried to reach into the depths of my bag for my keys and sunglasses. I couldn’t get to them without stopping to lean into the abyss that is my bag, and when I stopped I felt someone immediately enter my personal space. There had been a woman a few steps behind me, and when I stopped she had to dodge and quickly walk around me. This is a huge pet peeve for me, and people do it all the time, on stairs and sidewalks and in airports and museums and stores. It drives me insane. Step to the side if there is something you need to do or see or say that requires you to cease forward progress. But here I was engaging in this violation, and I was immediately repentant. I apologized profusely to this woman, who was now just a step ahead of me, and she smiled pleasantly and said, “it’s okay” as we made our way to the door. But for some reason I didn’t stop there. More words came spilling out of my mouth, and they went something like, “I hate it when people do that to me.” If you’re picturing me making this statement in a pleasant, self-deprecating manner, you are sadly mistaken. I declared my hatred not so much in a “ha ha ha, I’m so silly, look at me committing my own pet peeve” sort of way, but in a tone said “I’m going to run over you with my car, random gym lady.” I immediately registered a flash of something–alarm? annoyance?–on her face, and it occurred to me that maybe she thought I was saying I hated it when people followed me too closely, or walked around me when I was standing inconveniently in the middle of a walkway. And even though the voice of reason in my head was waving the white flag and telling me to quietly exit the gym, that other voice–the super awkward one that started this nonsense in the first place–was insisting on clarification.
And that is how it came to be that as this woman and I stepped out into a beautiful April afternoon, I said somewhat loudly and insistently, “My husband would have just pushed me out of the way. That’s what he does when people just stop in front of him like that.” Then I laughed uncomfortably. And then I said, “I am so sorry.” And then I got into my car and asked Jesus to please never let me see this woman again, because I cannot guarantee that I will not spot her across the crowded cardio area and shout, “MY HUSBAND IS NOT ABUSIVE! HE HAS NEVER PUSHED ME OVER! OR ANYONE ELSE! REALLY! THERE WAS JUST THAT ONE TIME AT THE AQUARIUM WHEN HE RAN INTO THAT GUY, BUT IT WAS MOSTLY AN ACCIDENT!”
For the record, Husband has never intentionally knocked down, run over, pushed, shoved, or physically impacted in any way, any person, myself or a stranger, who has stopped in front of him in a public place. We JOKE about this. We speak hypothetically about how we should just plow into them from behind. We speculate about what people must be thinking when they just stop walking in a place where everyone is walking. (They are probably thinking, “I can’t reach my keys, I need to stop and find them,” I can now attest.) We do not actually “just push them out of the way,” as I stated in the final five seconds of what was essentially a 30 second interaction. And therein, I believe, lies the source of my awkwardness in face-to-face communication: time.
Even as I sit here in front of this screen, the words I am planning to use to wrap up this post have already gathered and are waiting in their respective places in my brain, even as I am still back here sorting out this sentence you are currently reading. But there’s still time. Plenty of time. I don’t have to get ahead of myself. I can linger here and lead you to the end slowly. I can make a joke, throw in another anecdote if I want. I can say the words I want to say without rushing them awkwardly into being. There is so much time here in the written word. But ask me to make small talk, and there’s a good chance weird things might happen. When all the words in my head try to leave at once, and their window for departure is so small that sometimes the end of the line exits before, or in place of, the front, awkwardness prevails. I need time, y’all. Just like when I was a kid, I have plenty to say–pages and pages of mental conversation already written and ready for dispatch–but when you try to engage me for a few minutes and my brain makes the mistake of downloading a 30 minute file, you are going to get bits and pieces of data that may lead you to think I need to be escorted back to my cell.
If I might take a moment to address that lady at the gym: listen, Jennifer. That’s what I’m calling you. I’ve thought about our encounter enough that I feel you should have a name. Anyway. Jenny. Look. I never talk to anyone at the gym. It is my ultimate solitude. Most of the time I don’t even take off my headphones until I’m in the car. I don’t know why I opted to pull you into my introverted small talk nightmare theater, and I am dreadfully sorry, but I feel certain you’ve learned your lesson, and I hope you can be an example to people everywhere who see me and think I am a normal person capable of exchanging a few lines of chatter in a store line. I hope they will read our story, and I hope they will look away when they see me standing there behind them all awkward and fidgety because the U-Scan line is broken. I hope they will smile politely and avert their eyes, like I do, because that is the only way they can make it home at the end of the day without a story about how some loon at Target blurted out that her son eats chalk every chance he gets, and did you know it turns his poop purple, and how is it he’s willing to eat chalk but not anything resembling meat?
Remember Jennifer, people. Learn from her mistake. And of course, know that I am mostly exaggerating–except when I’m not.
Because sometimes I’m not. Got it?
Okay, yeah. Good talk.