XX. Fucking Small Talk
Downtown the late afternoon sun ricocheted from building to building and the rays felt most concentrated on the top of my head and the bottom of my feet. We stood in the middle of the line to board the bus, behind two girls I recognized as my former college peers. Both were average height, but taller than me. One had mousy blond hair that blew wildly in the southbound wind. The other was brunette and chunky. Her denim shorts pinched the back of her legs, making a fold.
I'd met them, more or less, freshman year. I'd passed them on campus and in between classes. We'd waved to each other at bars. I began to sweat at the idea of engaging in small talk of any kind. I tried to hide behind Wheeler. Please don't look at me, please don't look at me, I thought to myself over and over and over again.
"Wheeler," I whispered, crouched down behind him in the line. "I know them," I pointed. "Please don't say my name."
"I wouldn't know what to call you even if I wanted to," he said, failing to adjust his tone for discretion.
They laughed to each other like little birds, and I imagined their conversation was about some bullshit social scenarios, some crappy details about their vacuous activities, or the stupid phony entanglements they considered relationships. This was going to be a long ride of hiding behind my seat. Yuck, I thought. I couldn't fathom the thought of the simple banter I'd have to partake in if they recognized me to my face. The whole garrulous production, the dialogue, the smiling. It was more precarious to me than the likely trauma of several physical endeavors. I almost thought of retreating from the entire mission just to overt chatting with these shallow ducks.
My elaborate distaste for common social interaction was intrinsically deeper than me just feeling dim for not having normal adult preoccupations to discuss. It was the idea of being identified that I hated. I could travel anywhere new, comfortably, as long as I didn't already own a formed persona. The moment someone recognized me, I became afraid of encountering them ever again. The more people who knew me or knew of me, the worse my fear became.
When I met Cait, she became an armor. I could go anywhere if she was there. She protected me. Her fearlessness was captivating, and it radiated off of her like light from a lamp. With Cait, not only was I not afraid of discussing the weather or my plans for winter break as usual, but I just knew the small conversation that I detested could never take place. She was too outlandish. She was unapproachable and impervious to the phony pretences the dialogue required. Wheeler served no similar function, and I regarded his presence more as a gaudy anchor or an un-coverable blemish than something remotely empowering.
I remember during the second semester of my freshman year in college, my immense hatred for small talk was severely affecting my grades. I'd lost points in my classes for truant attendance, a policy I always thought was complete bull shit, but could not successfully avoid. Some days I spent hours fighting with myself at the door to my building, debating on which route to class was least clustered. I wore headphones and hid the unattached cord in my pocket. What made matters worse was the size of my building. I lived in a twenty story dorm on the eighteenth floor, but could hardly force myself to take the elevator instead of the stairs.
If I was remotely tardy, I wouldn't attend class at all, specifically to avoid being looked at. I could only imagine the peril of that interruption...bumbling through desk rows and loudly retrieving my books. The professor would roll his eyes. The students would watch me move across the room. How awful! How embarrassing. I could not bear it. When I told my academic advisor about my social condition (after two missed appointments), she suggested I see a counselor.
The grad student counselor was a pretty Italian girl with olive skin and long, carefully groomed hair. She was polite, but a tad inarticulate and flushed. She spoke softly, and struggled a great deal with spouts of dry mouth between words. She had an ugly wound on her lip, caked in concealer and hid slightly by a few hanging curls of her hair. Was it a disease? Was it a blemish? Was it a cut from some domestic dispute? Perhaps it was herpes. I couldn't stop staring at it. I kept picturing her heading to the bar right after our session, or being the center of dozens of skanky poses on Facebook. She probably picked psychology as a major on a whim. She probably went to grad school because she wasn't quite sure what to do with her frivolous undergraduate degree. She probably had no fucking clue what she was going to do or who she was going to be, like everyone else I knew. She was only a few years older than I was, after all.
She flipped through a white binder full of paper. The room was like a closet with two modern desk chairs facing each other and a small side table against the wall. The window faced towards the shoreline of Lake Michigan, where beauty was inescapable, where nothing too warm or too cold could ever be imperfect, and no shade of day looked remotely dull. I watched the waves beat against the rocks while she cleared her throat and neatly sorted out her things. The water moved like music; low and subtle towards the lake and crashing unpredictably towards the shore. While she was busy setting up a tape recorder, I kept thinking about the notes and the octave jumps the water would create if it moved on scales and not sand. She tested the recorder dumbly.
"This is just a requirement from the department. Is it okay with you if I record this?"
"Sure," I said, too nervous and distracted to think it over.
She too would likely become a contribution to this progressing condition of mine, I thought. Look at that thing. That thing on her lip. I pictured myself seeing her and her lip thing in public. I'd sweat, ignore her, run away...At the very least I'd walk past her at a very fast pace. Consequently we only had 3 sessions total, even though I was recommended to see her for the remainder of the semester. I was at least a good sport for the first one, which was something.
She asked me simple questions. I nervously answered, explaining my hatred for small talk as logically as I could. I kept hearing my own voice and feeling completely crazy. The permeation of it all was reiterated with the circulating recorder. The tape moved around and around and around in the machine.
"So. You just...don't like small talk? To...anyone? You... don't like people seeing you?"
"Um yeah, not exactly. But, yeah."
"Hmmm," she said.
"Have you heard of something like this before?"
"Well...I've read about something...similar."
I hated that. This girl didn't know a goddamn thing. What was wrong with her? Not her necessarily, but with this institution? She has the professional standards to be my counselor? I could have looked up a better response on Wikipedia.
The second session went worse. She came in, set up the recorder, sifted through the binder like she'd done before, but this time she pulled out a handful of literature for me to look over.
"I got these for you. I think they may be a big help," she said.
In bold black font on a neatly folder pamphlet were the words: "12 Tips For Making Small Talk."
"Now before you say anything, I'd really just like you to read it. This may be a huge help to you. I really think so."
As crazy as I believed I may have been in session one, there was nothing crazier to me than this pamphlet. The tips were not only irrelevant, but the fact that she was so completely off base was infuriating.
'Be the first to say hello.
Think of three questions to ask before any conversation.
Use names frequently.
Have interesting contributions.
Use confident body language.
Maintain eye contact.
Offer a business card, a favor, or a cold beverage.
Draw from current events and popular culture to break the ice.
Have a compliment ready to go.
Be prepared to make a courteous exit.'
I couldn't decide if I should scream furiously, or laugh hysterically. All I could do was muster the word, "Fuck."
"I know. It seems like a challenge, but a lot of introverted people get over their social fears. I think you should take it all with you, read it, and practice it in the mirror. When you wake up in the morning, practice saying 'hello'. Smile at yourself. Compliment yourself. Work with your body language. Then try it on a roommate or a professor. It will take time, but I think you have it in you. I believe in you."
I left, with little else exchanged between us.
The third and final session was...almost unmentionable. I walked in. I sat down. She spoke to me.
"Nice to see you. Have you practiced your small talk in the mirror since last week?"
I said nothing.
She cleared her throat a few more times. After a few minutes...
"Are you ready to talk?"
I remained completely silent for the duration of the session. I watched the waves crash against the rocks. I pondered over the blemish on her lip. I coughed, twice. I could hear the deft sound of the tape turning in the recorder.
Thankfully my academic advisor never followed through with her about the sessions, and consequently my fear and hatred for small talk actually became worse. I couldn't imagine the type of person who would honestly appreciate the 12 tips I'd learned from the packet. Fucking weirdos. I continued to skip class, and spent probably the accumulation of one month's time over-walking my routes.
In fact, in retrospect I could argue that any and all gaps in my education, aside from the consequently low standards of my reputable institution, could all be attributed to small talk...it's likelihood- balancing sickly on the lips of my recognizable peers...it's standards- typed up in neatly folded packets...the weather and celebrity gossip, the plans and routines, the majors and minors and part-time jobs, the bars and the drunks and the Saturday parties, the articles and elections, the wind, the fucking wind, the traffic and the train, the traffic lights and cross walks and lack of cross walks, the pieces of paper and pens and sweaters and shirts and ties and busses and carpets and tiles and windows and doors and feet, the beer brands and wine tastes and the landscapes and the tests and tests and tests, the garrulous, the deplorable, the pending, fucking small talk.