In 2008, a woman in Chicago named Paige was reading my blog, and I was reading her blog. People did that kind of thing back then. One day, an email from her popped up in my inbox. It said, “Psst. I want to be your friend.”
Isn’t it nice when people just tell you what they want? Isn’t it nice when people don’t let their minds shackle, corrupt, or inhibit them? Isn’t it nice when people want to be your friend?
Psst. I want to be your friend, too. But I don’t really know how to tell you that — maybe this essay is my way of doing that. Of course, even if you wanted me to be your friend, too, I don’t know how to be your friend. I don’t know if you want closeness or distance, jokes or seriousness. I don’t know if you like diners or cafes, croissants or scrapple, which type of apple, coffee or tea, sugar or cream, silence or chatter. I don’t know anything, and I’ll make tons of mistakes, but I want to make them with you.
I remember the first time I was called “intrusive.” Well, the only time.
It was by a woman I didn’t know very well, and she didn’t know me very well either. Maybe, though, you don’t have to really know someone to really know them. People say things for all kinds of reasons; sometimes people even say things because they’re true.
Small-talk irritates me like a windy day. When it’s windy out, I want to punch the nearest person, repeatedly, until their teeth become embedded in my knuckles. I want to scream until my uvula bleeds. The wind provokes such rage in me that it actually frightens me to feel the feelings I feel so feelingly in the feels. Small-talk is the same. The barista. The acquaintance. My father. Don’t talk to me about the weather or what my kids are doing. I might kill you.
I used to think that I disliked people, but now I understand that I am utterly fascinated by them. When Thornton Wilder was staying in Peterborough, New Hampshire, crafting “Our Town” he took strolls every evening, remarking to a friend that he was intensely curious about what was going on behind those curtains in those homes. Daily life, of course, the deceptively innocuous happenings of small-town New England. Small-talk set against the stars. I am no less curious than Wilder about you and your curtains.
Our curtains are closed. As much as we talk about how revealing and oversharing we are as a society in 2019, we’re as closed off as North Korea. Facebook is our propaganda machine, but we are utterly hidden in our nakedness.
What stops us from sending out those “Psst.” emails? I guess it’s fear. Our email will go unanswered, and we’ll be left to wonder what it is about ourselves that frightened the other person away. Too forward. Social leper. Fucking imbecile. Asperger. Freak. Fuck-up.
“I scare people away,” my wife said to me, 300 miles away from me at the start of our relationship, after writing me a lengthy email missive that had captured my imagination and my heart, “and I was sure I’d scare you away, too.”
As Chevy Chase says in Fletch, “I don’t scare that easily; I’m too dumb.”
Small-talk is safe, and we like being safe. I’m sitting on the carpet of the second floor landing of our house. My back is killing me, and the freshly shampooed carpet is soaking through the ass of my corduroys, but sitting here is safe, because I know that, if I’m sitting here, the puppy won’t piss or shit on the freshly-shampooed carpet. I’m uncomfortable, but I’m safe, and isn’t that what life is for most people? It’s like driving with your seat belt on and the seat back up at a 90 degree angle and your hands at 10 and 2.
Uncomfortable, but safe.
Relationships must start safe, or people do get scared away. But how do you move from safe to dangerous, and once you have, is there a way to get back to safe again? How do you know when to disclose? Is it something their eye that says, “You can tell me. It’s okay.”? Is it social media stalking? Is it political affiliation? Is it a pin that someone has on their backpack? A little rainbow? A NAMI bumper sticker? That safety pin thing people were doing last year?
Sit next to me on the bus. The bus to Peterborough. Our town.
Mark Twain’s name comes from the line that riverboat captains drop into the water to make sure the water is deep enough for them to pass without slamming into reefs or rocks. “Mark Twain” literally means “two fathoms.” Twelve feet. The point where dangerous water becomes safe.
I want to know you mark twain.
You don’t have to know much about the backstory of this photograph to be pretty certain that everything is all fucked up. Twain’s (favorite) daughter, Susy, had just died at the age of 24. As a raging fever consumed Susy’s brain in Connecticut, Twain was in England, on the last leg of a back-breaking international speaking tour upon which he had embarked to save his legacy and his beloved Hartford home. The family, thanks to Twain’s impulsivity and legendary poor judgment, was perilously close to financial ruin.
It’s no wonder that Clara and Livy can’t look at the camera; or at Twain.
Sometimes I think that Thornton Wilder and Mark Twain were just as intrusive as Gabriel Nathan (though they were both a bit more talented, I guess). Through their work, which pulled open the skin of the nation and the skin of our teeth, they were, I think, dispensing with the safety of small-talk in exchange for something far more valuable, and far more dangerous. The story of who we are, and what we mean to each other. This is dangerous, and this is safe. This is us. This is the way we were.