Dear Lily June,
When I tell the coworkers who I’ve known closely–for a few years now–that I’m an introvert, they laugh in my face. That’s not the version of me they know, seeing instead before them the loud-talking, loud-laughing, raucous and gregarious fool who entertains with inappropriate jokes about your poops or, more recently, your teething:
“So Ryan called me at work,” I tell them, “wanting advice about how to handle Lily’s teething. I told him, ‘In the old days, they used to use bourbon or whiskey.’ I said, ‘Just toss back a shot of that while you’re watching her, and it should make her screams a lot more tolerable.'”
Of course, I’m joking. Not only would I never encourage PUI (Parenting Under the Influence) based on my own past, but I’m also not immune to your little squawks of pain, Lily, which make my heart race faster than a hummingbird and my soul ache deeper than an existential papercut.
But I strut around the main office thinking up gags and quips with which to entertain my fellow
peons employees so often, that when I tell them I’m too shy to go to the big holiday shindig being thrown by the Dean, first they cackle at what they presume is a joke. Then they wipe their jaws off the floor when they realize, I’m painfully, seriously serious.
What they don’t see is the shyness scripting that goes on behind the scenes. I come up with a joke privately, in my own office, and I try it out in my head. Visions of my coworkers dance in my brain, and I try to imagine, “Will this make them laugh? Will they think I’m some kind of alcoholic, neglectful parent freak? Will they stare down awkwardly into their keyboards as I attempt to shuffle coolly back through the door of the main office without tripping over my shoelaces and faceplanting as I go?”
The joke gets revised and revised in my head because I’m a writer, and that’s what I do. I cut back words and run the gimmick again and again against the imaginary critics in my mind. The coworkers in my head stop being the sixty-something graying administrative coordinator whose humor is more biting than your new teeth, and the thirty-something assistant chair’s secretary with mousy brown hair who is goodhearted enough to laugh when I say her name just right.
Instead, they become Statler and Waldorf, the famous Muppet critics who sit in their balcony above a stage spewing heckling invective on any performer.
I re-script the joke and cautiously plan my approach across the hall to fire away. It lands. They laugh. I don’t push my luck with any off-the-cuff improvisation. I pivot and practically jeté back to my desk to get an early start on tomorrow’s quip. It’s a sad little brain I have to work with, but it’s the only one I’ve got.
They don’t know the script, but I assure them again and again that the character of fast-cracking coworker I play with them is all a facade. They disbelieve me and become neither secretaries nor Muppets but social scientists. The elder of the pair, Sherry, decides to test out my honesty at the holiday extravaganza that I’ve, for yet another year, failed to weasel my way out of by calling in “uncomfortable.”
I sit for a while in peace, a quiet Casper on a red leather chair chowing down stale Swedish meatballs and barbecue-laced cocktail wienies like I pulled them, not from a chafing dish, but from a trough. Rule #1 in the Introverts Handbook is to Always Be Armed with Snacks and Drink, the better with which to fill your silent mouth so that it at least gives you a gastrointestinal excuse for not talking. “I’d love to chat with you, but I need to focus on making my bowels move this processed meat through them,” said no party-goer ever.
But my peace is short-lived. Sherry has pointed the Dean, along with half a dozen secretaries from departments across campus, in my direction. Her grin is evil as she announces, “Alyssa’s daughter just started teething and cut four teeth overnight.” At least that’s what I think she’s said. I can’t actually hear her or read her lips from across the room, so for all I know, she’s introduced me as “the freak whose obsessed with her baby’s sprouting incisors.”
And I am, Lily. I love to look at your four, beautiful new “toofers.” I wish you were here, so you could scream bloody murder about them, and I could shrug and say, “What are you going to do? Babies. I have to go help her so her screaming doesn’t drive us all crazy.” And then I’d excuse myself into another location where I’d soothe you by covering you in kisses and saying over and over, “Thank you, Lily. Thank you.” But you’re not here. And instead the crowd comes to hover.
The Dean descends to my anti-social corner. He raises his plastic cup full of Coke as if in Cheers and asks merrily, “So I heard your daughter went from having one tooth to four overnight?” I know he’s trying to be polite. I know I should respond accordingly, but I have no script written for this. In my mind, I think sarcastically, The better to bite me with.
In my mouth, I find no words. I nod my head and stare down into my own Coke, as if the Dean has called me into his office and is attempting to come up with a suitable punishment for my having a teething baby at home.
He takes my hang-dog as an invitation for further query. “So how old is she?,” he inquires. “Six months,” I reply. I stare down into my Coke again like it, too, is growing fangs.
“My grandson is nine months already, and he only has two teeth,” he says.
This is when my brain decides to wake. “Then I guess we’re winning,” I say, attempting to sound…what? Funny? Charming? Human? Instead of looking bemused, he looks alarmed. Damn you showboating your physical development, Lily! I think. He responds, “Well, you know, girls develop faster physically than boys.”
My mouth is still saying things without letting my brain in on it. My ears hear me respond with something like, “Oh, those immature grandsons, hoarding their teeth in their gums so no one else can play with them.” Ummm, what? That’s doesn’t make a lick of sense. Abort, abort!, I think. Run back to the chafing dish to refresh your wienies. I look down at my plate again. Damn, still full. I take the word’s largest sip of Coke and choke a little for good measure.
At this point, realizing I’m a social dud, he turns to the secretary beside me, the fourth of my department’s team and the youngest, with hair the color of butter if angels churned it from clouds, and they begin to discuss the joys and miracles of motherhood. She, unlike me, doesn’t have a child.
They’re nodding and smiling and the thirty-something brunette coworker, Kat, is laughing into her own Coke and meatballs at me. She gets off the red chair next to mine and goes to stand by Sherry, the two of them cackling like rednecks on a Southern porch who’ve just sicced a pack of wild dogs onto an unsuspecting Yankee Honda in the wrong place at the wrong time (FYI: That once happened to your dad and I. Ask us how we survived!).
When it comes to my social awkwardness, I think they get it now, and that’s what I’m afraid of. How, in the future, will they use it?
For me, the difference between just being shy and being an introvert is a willingness to embrace it. Take it from me, Lily, you’ll have a rich inner life if you can just laugh at your own overly analytical and ultimately awkward attempts to say something perfect.
Or, you can just learn how to socialize by watching your mother like Goofus was scoffed at by Gallant.
At least us introverts have the age of the internet to tie us together. I can avoid conversation with my coworkers altogether today by sitting in front of my real friend, my computer, laughing at Awkward Penguin memes, listening to Alessia Cara croon on YouTube about how she’d rather avoid the party scene altogether, and looking up parenting articles on how to encourage your child to make friends that aren’t imaginary.
But sweet baby, if someday you find you’re no better with people than a wild dog raised in the deep woods by two mute hermits, at least you’ll know you come by it honestly.
- “Frederick Leighton – Solitude” by Frederic Leighton – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frederick_Leighton_-_Solitude.jpg#/media/File:Frederick_Leighton_-_Solitude.jpg
- “Statler and Waldorf” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Statler_and_Waldorf.jpg#/media/File:Statler_and_Waldorf.jpg
- “Goofus and Gallant – October 1980” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Goofus_and_Gallant_-_October_1980.jpg#/media/File:Goofus_and_Gallant_-_October_1980.jpg