I don’t think I’m a particularly friendly person. It’s not that I’m actively unfriendly. It’s more that I’m unsure of myself. I am shy and a bit afraid of strangers, and I tend to guard my opinions and emotions. I’ve never been a person who has a ton of friends. I have a few, who are very dear to me, and I’ve always counted myself lucky in that. I would much rather have a few really great friends than thousands of “sort of” ones. I wasn’t unpopular in school. In fact, it was rare that anyone had a mean thing to say about me. It was rare that anyone had anything to say about me, because I was one of those kids that no one notices — until they want something, like the answers to a test or help with homework or to borrow notes.
I’m terrible at parties and social gatherings. You know how, when you go to a party and things seem to be humming along fairly well, but, then, there’s this sudden pause in the conversation? It’s an awkward silence — the kind of thing that happens when two people, previously engaged in a very meaningful and in-depth conversation, suddenly look at each other, realize they have nothing in common and, even worse, that they don’t know each other all that well. And so, they fall silent. Perhaps one of them clears his throat and the other looks down at her shoes. Both of them wonder why one of them just told a perfect stranger about Great Aunt Hattie’s enormous goiter, which looks like two hamsters chasing each other around the poor woman’s neck. And then, if all goes well, “the party drift” happens. Each person pretends to see someone else they know or to hear something incredibly captivating — on the other side of the room, of course — so that they, regrettably, have to drift away from each other for the remainder of the evening. If things don’t go well, the awkward silence grows, moving outward from its point of origin until it engulfs the entire party. Then, people have no choice but to drift out the doors, leaving the hapless host or hostess with mounds of uneaten shrimp cocktail and pyramids of unopened bottles of booze. Typically, I am the person standing at the epicenter of the awkward silence. Ground Zero of party doom, if you will.
And here’s why:
Because, although I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly friendly, and I’ve never had much luck in getting people to listen to — or even show interest in — anything I have to say, it appears there’s something about me that certain people find comforting. I am forever finding myself in the position of having perfect strangers come up to me and tell me … stuff. Stuff that I don’t need to know. And don’t particularly want to know. Stuff that, once I do know it, it’s impossible to “un-know”. And, being the socially awkward person that I am, I’ve never managed to master either the fine art of small talk or the graceful execution of “the party drift”.
Like the time when I was waiting to have the oil changed in my car, and this man sat down next to me. I was busy reading a book and working very hard at pretending I was the only person in the room –which is how a shy person survives having to be out and about in public — but, even so, he decided to talk to me.
He told me all about how he had moved into the area from another state a few months previously. How he and his wife had been living apart for a few years, and how he really wanted the marriage to work. And so, he had quit his job to move here so they could be together. He was happy and excited about this new change, but it surprised him that his wife didn’t seem to feel the same way. He still didn’t have a job, although he was hopeful he would find something soon, because his credit cards were nearly all maxed out already. And now, he suspected his wife was having an affair because he could smell smoke on her clothing when she came home, but neither of them was a smoker.
It was a heartbreaking story. One I still carry with me to this day, a couple of years after the fact. I don’t know that man’s name. Or where he lived. Or what his favorite color was. And yet, I know some of the most intimate details of his life. I wish I could un-know them. Because it makes me sad. And, sometimes, I wonder if things worked out for him and for his wife, either together or separately.
I think he felt better, just for having told his story to someone else. It didn’t seem that he needed me to say anything. Which is good. If he had expected something — advice or a reply of some kind — I am certain I would have bungled it horribly. In my discomfort, I would have said something ridiculous and lame like: “Tea is nice. I love a cup of nice, hot tea on a dreary day. What do you think?”
Which, of course, wouldn’t have had anything to do with … well, anything. And would have caused the awkward silence to fall between us. And, because, instead of being at a lively party, we were stuck in a small, drab waiting room, there would have been no choice but to drift away — out of the doors and forever out of each other’s lives.