You know how you feel during a job interview? You know that strange combination of anxiety and tedium, that sudden discomfort about your posture, your expression, your hands, that fear that you’ll reveal the stupidity and bad manners that come so naturally to you? That you’ll find yourself gaping across the conference table like a freshly lobotomized criminal, for example, or braying with laughter over an allusion to flatulence?
|Did you say GAS company?|
Well, that’s what it feels like to be a man talking to a woman.
Or maybe job interviews don’t have that effect on you. Maybe you spent your childhood practicing polite conversation with dolls and teacups while we were burning up ants with our magnifying glasses and pelting each other with various projectiles (most likely aiming for the crotch).
Maybe you spent lunchtime deep in conversation, deconstructing the social dynamics of your middle school, while we dropped Mentos in a Coke bottle, screwed on the top, and ran.
Maybe you stayed up late to commiserate over boyfriends who cared only about cars and sports while we stayed up late working on cars, watching sports.
In other words, maybe you have practice.
For us, sitting down to talk with you is like sitting down to share a dessert with Joey Chestnut, who had crumbs in his eyelashes after shoveling down sixty-nine hotdogs to win this year’s mustard belt. We don’t stand a chance. You’ve spent your whole life honing your skills at graceful conversation. We, on the other hand, have been following the mustard belt.
|Joey Chestnut uses his mouth to win big impractical belts, not communicate.|
That’s why when you ask us how our day went, we have to look around the room, as if for suggestions, before tendering a nervous, “Fine?”
And it’s why we get that drowning look when you tell us about your day. To us, this is like having a hoarder show us around the house, heaping junk into our arms. “And here’s my Cincinnati phone book from 1989,” you might as well be saying, “and here’s my orphaned blender jug, and here’s my traffic cone.” We wonder what we’re supposed to do with these things. We wonder why on earth you’ve kept them. We wonder how to put them down without being impolite.
“Of course I care about your traffic cone,” we say.
We resort to this lie because we know that the failure here is ours, that our palettes for conversational pleasure are underdeveloped. Where you note undercurrents of oak and butter, we just taste wine. Where you see a carefully prepared delicacy, we just see snails.
So we try brushing up. We order the self-help books and grunt knowingly though the chapter that says, “Men go to their caves and women talk.” We heed the advice: don’t fix, just validate. We understand vaguely that talking about your problems helps you find relief from a hard day, that all you need from us is our attention.
So we crumple our faces into grimaces of concentration and say, “Go ahead.”
And say, “Mmm.”
And say, “That sounds hard.”
The problem is that this takes a lot of effort. We have an entirely different way of relaxing. We prefer to play softball, watch the news, adjust our fantasy football roster. These activities give us small, manageable challenges that release us from the irritations and setbacks and failures that made our day hard in the first place. We’re not eager to relive those greater challenges right after surviving them. We just want to hammer some boards together and forget.
And so confronting the details of your hard day is kind of like being forced to do strenuous yoga right after running a marathon. Our legs are already trembling with fatigue. Our faces are crusted with salt. But here we are, holding this poor imitation of a downward dog pose just because we care about you. When we finally succumb to gravity, please don’t say that our heart isn’t in it.
|Am I doing it right?|
This is when we gape stupidly. This is when our eyes begin to search the room, as if for escape. This is when we say, “Sixty-nine hot dogs,” and wiggle our eyebrows. “Sixty-nine. Get it?”
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J.T. Bushnell lives and works in Corvallis, Oregon. His stories have appeared most recently in the South Carolina Review, New Madrid, and Iron Horse Literary Review. He is currently at work on a novel.