We're All Damaged

Monday, August 16, 2010

I Can’t Talk Right Now

I’ve never been very good at spontaneous conversation with strangers. You see it sometimes, people chatting on trains or at dinner parties who’ve never met. I always stare at them—part jealous, part fascinated—as they effortlessly yammer on with one another about where they went to college or which shows they like to watch.

I’ve typically got about 15 seconds of casual conversation in me before I spin into some ungodly verbal panic—45 if I’ve been drinking. At the first hint of awkward silence I inevitably try to make a joke, but because I’m nervous I don’t think to vary my tone and so the other person has no idea whether or not I’m being serious.

“When I was little, my mom drank a lot, so I kind of had to raise myself,” I might say to my wife’s boss, stoned-faced. Or, “I’m not saying I’d ever hit a women, but, the ones I know can get a little lippy sometimes, if you know what I mean.”

At that point, whomever I’ve been speaking with will suddenly need to refill his or her drink or say hi to someone who just walked in, and I’ll be left holding a lukewarm Amstel Light and wishing I had a do-over.

Socially speaking, I’m the kind of a guy who needs to be prepared. Speeches are good for me, particularly at weddings. They give me the opportunity to fiddle with and obsess over every word for months and practice my delivery in front of mirrors.

E-mail has also been vital to my success as a human being. The first time I met my future wife, I’m fairly certain she thought I’d just wandered in from some nearby support group for socially crippled misfits. At one point she was sitting on a couch by herself watching a football game. I noticed that she’d unlaced one of her shoes. It was sort of half dangling from her foot in this adorable tomboyish kind of way and I began to feel my anxiety level rising dangerously. “Look, your shoe is coming off,” I said, apropos of absolutely nothing.

She looked at me, unsmiling. “What?” she said.

I managed somehow to get her e-mail address a few weeks later. There, safely behind my computer screen, I was able to spend hours writing charming, seemingly breezy e-mails that would eventually help fool her into agreeing to spend the rest of her life with me.

Yesterday I was on an airplane flying home from Chicago. It was hot out and the plane was crowded and the boarding process, as it often is now, was just shy of a Rage Against the Machine concert. I was on the aisle doing my best to look like someone who didn’t want to talk to anyone as I clutched my book, stared at my iPod, and avoided eye contact. The woman next to me though was undeterred. She was about my mother’s age, and she was drinking from an enormous fountain soda. “You know, sometimes I wish you could just snap your fingers and you’d be there,” she said.

I was instantly uncomfortable. It was one of those comments that don’t lend themselves to a simple response. For about five seconds I stared at the seat in front of me. Then I said, “That kind of technology would be really bad for the airline industry.”

And that was the end of that conversation.

Maybe I should have asked her for her e-mail address. I’m sure I could eventually come up with something better than that.


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