You’re probably familiar with a scene from a movie or sit-com when the camera focuses too late on a conversation and all you hear is what must have been the punch line to a good joke. Someone in the middle of a gathering — usually a handsome man holding a martini and smiling wryly — offers something like, “And then I said, “No, four chupacabras!” “
And the whole crowd breaks into fits of laughter. The man beams. Women throw themselves at him. Men want to be him or throw themselves at him, too. The camera circles and it’s clear: Everyone is having a great time — all because of the handsome, hilarious man in the middle of it all.
Well, that’s me.
Cocktail parties. Social hours. Bris Milahs. It doesn’t matter. I am always the most exciting, most interesting man in the room.
Sadly, all this excitement usually takes place in the bathroom while I am getting ready for said cocktail party, social gathering or painful religious ceremony. I’ll shave in front of the mirror, throwing off one-liners in my head and even smiling just so, as the make-believe crowd howls. And not just because they can see me naked in the mirror either. In the shower, I’ll think of interesting things to say, going over topics that do not include the weather or stocks or bonds. Putting on clothes, I’ll lose a little confidence, however, and by the time I get into the car, I’m usually wiping sweat from my brow and repeating a mantra of, “You can do this. You can do this.”
When I actually arrive at the party, I am such a nervous wreck that I’ll go stand in a corner for a solid two hours, checking my watch every five minutes and rocking back and forth on my heels like somebody who recently escaped from something. And you know how fun it is to get stuck talking to a sweaty lunatic.
“Can we go yet?” I’ll ask Dana. “Is it time?”
I once spent an entire dinner party in the bathroom.
I don’t think “shy” covers this type of neurosis. “Painfully, embarrassingly awkward” is more like it. I’m usually OK around friends but strangers frighten me. Dana knows when it’s time for us to leave a party, because I will begin to stutter and turn red at the same time. It’s probably like being married to Mr. Tomato Head, a Mr. Tomato Head who is more socially inert than his plastic, big-eared toy counterpart.
Dana was trying to tell me the difference between extroverts and introverts one time, explaining that while an introvert like me needs relax alone after a large gathering, an extrovert finds all the relaxation he needs at the gathering.
“What?” I interrupted, “Have you planned a party and didn’t tell me about it?”
“No, no –”
“Do we have to go somewhere?”
“What? No –”
“Oh my god, are people coming over?”
If Emmeline wakes up early from a nap, I usually take her to a narrow, run-down pocket park that is only a few blocks away. There’s a few swings, a beat up metal slide and a row of monkey bars with busted wooden steps that lead up to a set of rainbow bars that look as if they’d been painted in tetanus. This is not our usual park. In fact, and I was thinking about this the other day, we don’t actually have a usual park.
We do go to a playground in the Mission quite a bit now, but never on a regular schedule. Sometimes we’ll head over to a playground high above Noe Valley. Other times we’ll hop on a train and explore the downtown playgrounds, which are oftentimes devoid of people. But as much as I enjoy not having to make casual banter with other parents, I’m beginning to think I have set my child on a course to social ruin. A lot of days, we won’t go to a park at all. We’ll simply wander the streets, popping in and out of furniture or fabric stores. We’ll go downtown to see Dana and then explore dark alleys. I used to think it was fantastic that she’d walk into the museum and point out the Warhol. Now, now I’m beginning to think otherwise.
At our little pocket park the other day, Emme was walking up the slide by herself when a group of three other children came rushing over, tumbling over themselves and laughing their way to the slide. It was like we had been invaded by Pippi Longstocking’s younger siblings, the ones with a smack habit. These kids were all energy. They were also strangers to each other. I managed to fumble a few sentences with one of their moms and learned they had just met at the park. And yet, there they were, playing together like, well, like kids. One was about Emme’s age and two were just a little older.
Emme was almost to the top of the slide when one of the kids started to climb up, too. Seeing this, Emme backed down slowly, stepped off the slide and stood quietly off to the side, waiting for the horde of howling locusts to overtake another piece of playground equipment.
“It’s OK, kid,” I told her, “You can play, too. They’re just playing.”
Emme stood there, waiting. She refused to move and just watched instead. Up and down the slide and ladder they went, while Emme patiently watched. Eventually the kids went off to a row of scraggly bushes to play hide and seek. One would dip behind the row, so that only his feet were visible, while the others searched. Then, when it was someone else’s turn, that kid would also hide behind the bushes. By the fourth iteration, I felt badly for the poor sap who searched behind the swing set before the bush because it was clear this game wasn’t called “hide and seek” so much as “close your eyes while I go hide behind that bush. That one. Right there.” But still, it looked like they were having fun.
“Do you want to play, too?” I asked Emme. She was at the top of the slide again, watching the game. I offered to take her hand and lead her into the action, but she pulled away.
“Please,” she said, “Emme wants to slide. Emme wants to slide with daddy.”
She never took her eyes off the row of bushes, however, and I flashed back to countless parties spent huddling in a corner or pretending the read the wallpaper.
Please, I thought, please don’t let her be this part of me.
Emme moved onto the monkey bars, asking them when they had been tested last, while I watched the little locusts. They had found a new game pushing the swings but grew tired of it quickly. I watched as they ran off toward an unruly shock of yellow grass, and I must have been watching for a long time because when I heard a tiny, distant noise, I looked around and couldn’t find my daughter. I scanned the park and heard it again — a quiet, lonesome call.
The long, scraggly row of bushes had suddenly grown another set of legs, anxious little excited legs that couldn’t stand still. Miraculously, the bush began to speak.
“Where’s Emme?” it called in a voice muffled by leaves and a light wind, “Where did Emme go?”
It was all I could do not to cry. The kids were almost a football field away by now, and here she was, hiding behind a bush, trying.
The bush spoke again. Quietly. Earnestly.
“Where did Emme go?” it whispered, “Hello? Hello?”
It wanted to play so badly.