Sunday morning, going on noon, and we were headed to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. My sister was in a long-distance relationship and we were picking up her boyfriend, flying in from Texas. Riding shotgun, I was in a groggy state of semi-consciousness, alternating between fifteen-minute cat naps and reading a few pages of the book I’d brought along.
We’d been on the road most of the morning, fighting the traffic, but we’d made it to the outskirts of Atlanta with time to spare. The boyfriend’s plane wouldn’t be landing for another hour. Since neither of us had wanted breakfast, we were now starving, and decided to stop for food. We had some time to kill.
As mentioned, it was a Sunday. I may have been aware of that fact at some point earlier in the morning, but by the time my sister pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot, that fact had slipped my mind. This wasn’t something I realized at the time, but looking back, I can tell now that I was in the grip of a powerful depression in those days. In those years. Keeping track of what day of the week it is, that’s not something you worry too much about when you’re having a years-long depressive episode. When you’re sleeping twelve hours a day. It’s a lot like being an alcoholic on a perpetual bender, in that regard. So it was Sunday, but I didn’t realize it was Sunday.
What I did notice was that the Wendy’s was unusually crowded. The line to place your order stretched nearly all the way to the door. Fortunately, I’d brought my book in with me, as I always do. I cracked the novel open and had read just a paragraph or two when I heard someone say, “Excuse me.”
I looked to my right, to the person standing ahead of me in line. She was a blond woman in her mid-30s, I would guess. A few years older than me. Attractive, but I paid little notice to that at first. I’m a staunch introvert with a strong case of social anxiety and borderline agoraphobia. Or at least I was then. These days, I’ve made great strides to eliminate my chronic shyness. But back then, I kept my head down in public and I minded my own business. That’s what the book was for. An excuse to shut out the world. And when that tactic failed, whenever some stranger spoke to me between classes or when standing in line at a Wendy’s, my M.O. was to avoid as much eye contact as human possibly and disengage quickly. So she was attractive, but that wasn’t something I noticed right off.
I looked up, and being my typical socially awkward self, I didn’t say anything. I just waited for her to explain what she wanted. Thinking all the while that this is going to be some pointless and mundane social interaction. Maybe she was about to ask if I knew what time it was, or if I could hold her spot in line while she went to the restroom.
“She had a nice smile. But more important than that, she had a light in her eyes that spoke of intelligence.”
Instead, she surprised me by saying, “What are you reading?”
Friends, is there any four-word phrase more exhilarating than that? Well, perhaps. “Here’s a million dollars,” or “New season of Firefly,” might be more stimulating. But for me, that simple question, “What are you reading?” was like magic.
For two reasons.
One, I don’t meet new people very often. Partly that’s because of my social anxiety, but it’s also partly because I live in Georgia, and the only place to meet people, especially in the tiny town I’m from, is either at church or at the bar. I stopped going to church years ago, and I don’t drink. So what I’m saying is that I’m shit out of luck in the meeting new people department, especially when it comes to meeting people with a shared interest.
And two, because I’m pretty much the only person I know who reads. I’m the only bookworm in my family, and I have few friends. So I never get to talk about books, and at least part of the reason for my social awkwardness is because I have so little in common with most of the people I come into contact with. But books are something I can talk about, if you give me half a chance.
I looked at her, and because of those four words, I for the first time saw her as a person instead of some annoying stranger I wished would leave me the hell alone. I saw for the first time that she was pretty. She had a nice smile. But more important than that, she had a light in her eyes that spoke of intelligence. And that’s huge. There’s no bigger turn-off for me than a lack of intelligence.
I closed the book and showed her the cover. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. A hefty tome.
“What’s it about?” she asked.
And now I was really starting to get excited. I told her it was a bit like if Harry Potter was written by Jane Austen. Except that doesn’t really do it justice, because it’s not about kids attending a magic school, it’s about a secret society of magicians in 19th century London. Except they’re not real magicians, they’re more magic historians, a group of nerds who study the history of magic but have no magical ability themselves. And then one day they stumble across a real magician, someone who can actually do magic.
Yeah, by that point I was rambling a little. I’ll cop to that. I’m a quiet person by nature. Not much of a talker. But books are the subject that gets me going. And I may have kept on talking, except I noticed something. That light in her eyes had dimmed. Her eyes had glazed over, in fact. But she hadn’t looked away. She was still looking at me, but I could tell she was no longer listening, and was instead just waiting her turn to speak. I finished my sentence as quickly as I could. There was more I could have said about the book, but there was no point.
“And that was that. For her. Me? I was annoyed. I was crushed. I was kind of furious. At myself, more than anything. Because I should have known.”
When I was done, she said, “Have you ever read the Bible?”
Ah. There it was. I should have known. I resisted the urge to shake my head in disappointment. Instead, I told her yes, I had read it. That I’d been raised Baptist, and was very familiar with it. It was then that I looked around the restaurant and noticed how dressed up everyone was. It seemed that everyone had on a jacket and tie, or a nice dress. That’s when the pieces clicked into place. It was half past noon on a Sunday. This was the after church crowd. And there I was, in my t-shirt and khaki shorts, clearly having not just come from church. My clothes made me an immediate target.
I don’t recall what was said after that. Some pointless social niceties, I’m sure, and I went back to my book, and she went back to staring at the bald spot of the guy ahead of her in line, and that was that. For her. Me? I was annoyed. I was crushed. I was kind of furious. At myself, more than anything. Because I should have known.
A message for the proselytizers, the missionaries, and the evangelists of the world: stop being phony, stop being coy, and just get on with it. Some part of me would like to tell you to stop what you’re doing altogether. It’s the equivalent of spiritual telemarketing, after all. But I get it. I know why you do what you do. From your perspective, we’re all going to Hell. The entire human race is on board the Titanic and soon it’ll be sinking down into those icy waters, and it’s your moral duty to get as many of us into the lifeboats as you can. So I get it. And because I get it, I won’t ask that you stop.
What I will ask is that you get to the point as quickly as you can so we can stop wasting each other’s time. Don’t bother asking how my day is unless you really want to know the answer. Don’t bother feigning interest in the book I’m reading unless you genuinely want to hear what I have to say. And I don’t say that to be an asshole. I know you don’t mean anything by it. You’re just looking for a way to break the ice. But imagine being on the other side of that conversation, when the person whose day you’ve interrupted notices that you have zero interest in what they have to say. When they notice you’re just waiting for your turn to talk. Imagine how that feels. Manipulative is how it felt to me. And a little hurtful.
So, I’m asking. Can you do better?