Friendship

I am a lousy friend. I don’t often contact others to ask how they are doing or invite them to social activities. When we are together, I don’t know what to talk about. Half the time, I can’t remember what you told me last time—did you get a new job in Flemington or Florham Park? Did you move into a new apartment last month or last year?—and feel stuck in this limbo where we never grow or learn anything new from each other. I try to be a great listener, but my memory doesn’t usually cooperate. If we were in the Sims, our friendship meter would hover perpetually around 65 out of 100, cordial and lukewarm. Sorry, I suck.

I always have ideas for places to go and things to do, but don’t like to invite others along because I don’t know if those plans will be disappointing. I hate taking people to restaurants and hearing them complain or seeing sour expressions on their faces because the food isn’t to their liking. I hate the sinking feeling I get when, despite my thorough research efforts, we travel an hour to find the museum’s hours have changed, the park is closed for maintenance, or the special event was canceled today just because. I hate that whoever originally proposed the outing also tends to be responsible for contingency plans—your idea, your day, and your fault if you don’t come up with something else to save it. This probably sounds like some real passive-aggressive shit, but I assure you, it is 0% about anyone in particular and 100% about my own perpetual insecurities. I have always been paranoid, and I have always hated letting people down.

Once upon a time, I could talk your ear off about anything. I’ve written before about mysteriously losing that ability. Thinking about it further, I think I just can’t relate to most people anymore. I am the only one I know with my kind of job, so I can’t share daily little triumphs with a friend. I am the only classically trained musician serious enough to play paid gigs, but not to make a living off music. I am not the only writer, but I don’t like talking about works in progress, and you can’t really discuss the art itself with a group of largely non-writers. We don’t read the same books. We don’t watch the same movies or listen to the same bands. I don’t follow any sports (beyond the bare minimum for gambles). I no longer play any popular video games. And at the intersection of my gender identity and politics, I feel starkly alone, too. What else is left? Do you want to tell me about your personal projects, fears, regrets, dreams, ambitions? Hard to get to that in social settings. Or maybe you just don’t feel comfortable enough with me to go there.

It’s understandable if you aren’t. I can be fickle. I have no tolerance for any behavior I perceive as fake. I don’t like when people “out” my personal business to others I barely know. I’ve lose respect for, and interest in, people I witness saying contradictory things to different audiences. Even if they aren’t lying—as long as they don’t take the time to explain themselves to me, then I assume they are, and it makes me uncomfortable. I get frustrated by imbalances in offers and exchanges: I always share information with you, but you never tell me anything. We always only go where you want, never where I propose. I don’t even bother to confront anybody about this, because I don’t respect our friendship enough to try to save it. Instead, I try to act chill, but I’m sure it affects my demeanor in subtle ways. Funnily, that probably makes other people think I’m fake.

Because of this, I suppose, I am rarely on people’s short lists to call or text. I am seldom part of the sub-clusters that form within larger social circles. I know plenty of people like me enough, but I am not widely beloved. Sometimes I can’t help but wish I were one of Kerouac’s glowing firecracker people, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” That others shouted my name in joyous chorus when I arrived at the party, scrambled off their seats so I could sit among them and share my latest exploits. That they watched or listened to me in the midst of something incredible and exclaimed to each other, “I love her!” At heart, I know I am too introverted to revel in that degree of attention. I would honestly make for an unnatural life of the party. I just wish—sometimes—I knew how to be different. I wish I could stop being so easily irritated, at least, and simply be carefree.

I once went to an event where participants pitched ideas for a new technology application and then assembled teams to brainstorm how to execute them. At the start of the recruiting free-for-all, I had a dozen attendees crowding around me, clamoring to tell me what they had to offer and why we should work together. I was so excited and wanted to sign them all up. By the end, about fifteen minutes later, I had a team of four. What happened? Where did everyone go? “I thought you were already too popular,” someone admitted afterward, a woman I’d sort of befriended while waiting for the event to begin. I felt slightly betrayed. Though it was my first time attempting any activity like this, it somehow felt familiar, a pattern of my life.

The older and wiser you get, the more capable you become of assessing yourself objectively. You become more aware of your own true strengths and limitations. For me, this has meant realizing I am not nearly as great as I thought I was at a number of things, and likely never will be. I am not the best employee in my company, or even my department. I will never be the best writer or flutist I know. And—to my bewildering heartbreak—I am not the most fascinating person or the warmest friend. Is it too late to change? I know that, if it’s possible, I would need to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone to make it happen. It feels awkward and contrived when I try to be more outgoing or bubbly or laidback, but damn it, I want to be better.

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Small Talk

I was force-fed shyness as a kid. It was ground into imperceptible powder and smuggled into my introductions, peppered on my attempts at conversation. I was slow to speak, so this was the reason and the remedy. Because I took a long time to figure out what I wanted to say to strangers and how to sequence the words, my mother would confess hastily, sheepishly: “Sorry, she is shy.” I did not think I was. I wanted to talk to people and find out what they liked and how they felt—I just couldn’t get the words out right. I was prone to stuttering and skipping entire words, as if they were assorted jellies and some stuck my teeth together while others I swallowed whole.

When you don’t know yet what appeals to your taste buds but everyone else says your mother is a wonderful cook, you eat whatever she puts in front of you. Bloated on these truths, you no longer remember if things were or should have been different. You assume everyone else eats similarly in their respective homes. When your mother seems to know everything about the world and says something about you, you believe it, same as you would in gravity or photosynthesis.

My rebel teenage years were less about drugs and piercings, more about purging these claims that sat heavy and toxic in my body like stones. When my stutter dissolved and my speech slowed enough to smooth out the tangles of sentences, I wanted to be louder than everyone else. I always had a quip, riposte, fun fact, or one-upper: toppings I threw on everywhere, without discrimination or taste. I was talkative and weird and damn proud of it. It let me take up so much space for a change, and it felt good. Better than being shy.

When I went to college, everyone seemed so much smarter in ways I had never conceptualized. My school was full of social activists who asked each other every day if they were doing enough to combat the patriarchy, hegemony, heteronormativity, and neo-colonialism. All such big, important ideas I had never heard of before. I began starving myself of my newfound confidence, partly to make room for listening and learning, and partly because I didn’t believe I deserved it.

I had to re-learn the art of conversation, train myself on a new diet. It helped to work part-time in shops and cafes, where I was forced to make small talk with one stranger after another. Eventually, I felt the most balanced and likable I’d ever been in my life. I kept this up for several years, trying a lot of new experiences and making many new, diverse friends. The key ingredients: curiosity, genuine interest, thoughtfulness, no longer caring how others might judge me, and a generous pour of liquor.

In the past few months, I have felt myself sinking back into reticence. That “new” diet no longer seems to work, and I have been shrinking again to take up minimal space. I can’t be bothered to put myself out there anymore. When I meet new people, I am unable to pique or maintain their interest, much less befriend them. I can’t tell if it is because I have simply gotten older and more straightforward with my wants and interests, or if this is an inexorable return to my original state. Perhaps shyness is in my nature, and the latter half of my life was spent battling futilely against it. Perhaps it’s high time to accept this.

I do not hesitate to approach strangers or lead a group if the situation calls for it. I still like the idea of getting to know people. But if they answer in monosyllables or seem closed-off in any way, I automatically shut down, too. It may sound like a practical selectivity in where and when to invest my energies, but it’s nothing so sophisticated. Even among friends, I’ve been quieter. To my own disappointment, nowadays, I just can’t seem to think of anything to say. Yet still I hunger.