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Oldie, 7/25/09: Breaking Through Silences

I'm cursed with a long memory that allows me to revisit unpleasant moments from long ago and get upset about them all over again.

The encounters that are most likely to come back and haunt me are those in which I have allowed myself to be rendered mute. That would seem almost counter-intuitive. Certainly, there are plenty of episodes in which I shot my mouth off and caused problems for myself, but even in those cases, my words kept the conversation moving toward a resolution, for better or for worse.

It's the times where I said nothing and walked away because I couldn't sort it out in my head fast enough that leave me with that indelible aftertaste of frustration. What lingers is that feeling, if only I could have gotten the words out and made the other person understand me, it would have had a better outcome.

One incident I remember: This was way back in my freshman year of college, at the Rathskellar (doesn't every college have a Rathskellar, and why is that?...). It was peak lunch hour and crowded. I saw a small table with four chairs -- three were empty and one woman was sitting by herself.

I approached the table and asked the standard question that people I'd grown up with and gone to high school with always asked: "Is somebody sitting here?" Or, to be more precise, "Somebody sittin' here?"

What the question meant was, "Is one or more other person(s) with you, just not in the immediate vicinity, who will return from getting food and be dismayed if they find that I am sitting in the chair that they had reserved for themselves? In other words, I need a place to sit; this chair looks empty, but I am inquiring of you as to whether this is the case? Will I be able to sit at this table and eat my lunch, or will my food get cold and probably spill onto the floor as I wander around trying to find another place to sit down?"

The answer I expected from the woman was either "My friend(s) will be back in a minute, sorry," or "No, have a seat." In other words, I was welcome, or I wasn't. I could have dealt with either one.

Instead, the woman looked at me and replied "Yes, somebody's sitting here." She wore a small smile when she said it.

I had absolutely no way to reply to that; I was utterly tongue-tied. Words were flying back and forth through my mind, of course:

Okay, are you trying to tell me I insulted you with my question, which sounded like I was implying that no human being ("somebody") is sitting at this table, when obviously you are?

Or are you answering my question the same way anybody in high school might, meaning yes, somebody (else) is coming back any second and therefore I can't have their chair? Is it three other somebodies who will need all the chairs, or just the somebody who would most likely be wanting to sit in the chair closest to me?

But the way she just answered with that one statement, and fixed her steady, small-smile gaze on me completely unnerved the unsophisticated 18-year-old me and conjured up all those high school moments of being told I wasn't welcome at the cool kids' table. I stared back at her for what seemed like a really long time, hoping she might clarify the statement (of course she didn't), or that I would figure out a good answer (I didn't), and then just silently turned away and went somewhere else. I don't remember now whether I did find another seat somewhere or stood over the trash receptacle and wolfed my lunch, or maybe took it outside. All I remember is the woman, the look on her face, what she said, and what I didn't say.

Nowadays, happily, I'd have handled it much differently. First, I'd have asked "Is there a space for me to sit here?" or something more specific and less Long Island than "Somebody sittin' here?" College was where I began to meet people who weren't from my lower middle-class hometown, who were better-spoken and better-mannered.

And even if I'd kept the same opening and gotten that "Yes, somebody's sitting here" answer, I'd have the words to break through: "Well, you certainly are sitting here. What's your name? I'm Volly," with an offered handshake as my Philly Cheesesteak slid gracefully off the tray and onto the floor, inducing guilt and forcing her to offer me a seat at her table.

I'd also have come up with something like "It sure is crowded here," or some other standard conversational opener. And even if she'd flat-out rebuffed me, that would have been okay too. Especially if we were here in the South. I could have told her to "have a blessed day" before walking off.

But those moments when someone else's words blocked my own are the ones that fill me with a lot of anger -- always toward myself, of course. Anger that I didn't do my job and come to my own defense, whatever the circumstances.

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