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September 6, 2011

We had some friends over for dinner this weekend, C. and A.  They’re friends we have over a lot, because whenever they come over and my kitchen isn’t quite tidy and I’m still in a tank top and old shorts, they say, “Oh, good, let’s cook together,” and then they pitch in and know just what to do. We’re crazy busy and they’re crazy busy so we do this thing, every time we get together, which is to pull out our calendars and schedule the next time. Then we all say, “synchronize watches,” because if there is a family that is nerdier than we are, it’s our friends.

Even better, they have kids, and our kids all get along. And their kids are seven years older than our kids! They’re neighbors, and so the kids have all grown up together, and I think it just goes to show that personality counts more than developmental stage because the four of them play amazingly well together, and always have, and the age gap has never even been a blip on the radar.

This afternoon, C. and I were talking about how well our kids have always played together. She mentioned that her younger son has a hard time coming out of his shell, and that when he is around people he feels uncomfortable with, he clams up in a visibly awkward way.

“I do that,” I said.

She looked at and said, “No, you do not, I know you and you are always perfect and witty and smooth as silk.”  I called for backup from Chris, who was kinda in the other room.

“Hey Chris,” I kinda yelled.  “Am I embarrassingly awkward and lacking in social skills?”

“Yes,” and then he went into a riff about the awkward things I do:

You always push the limit on TMI.

You get everyone’s attention like you’re about to tell a great story and then you say two words and just sit there and stare, and you stammer, and once you tell the story, it’s not funny.

You get up and leave the room any time anyone ever says anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, and the most mundane things make you uncomfortable for some reason, so it just looks like you’re pissed off all the time.

You make puns in two languages, only the second language is one that no one knows, and it’s always a bad pun even for people who get jokes in ancient Greek or Sanskrit or Japanese.

You laugh too hard at other people’s jokes.

You have no tact.

You are so inarticulate it is a miracle you have any friends at all. I don’t know how you do it.

I’ve read stuff on the philosophy of love that can be summarized, “He knows me, and he loves me anyway,” and that describes my relationship with Chris. Everything he said was the absolute truth, unvarnished. But it’s a side of me C. has never seen, because I do like her so very very much, and so I don’t do any of those things around her because I’m never uncomfortable and therefore never awkward.

Before I got cancer, I had a pretty good handle on the Awkward Me, but the circumstantial quicksand that has been the past decade of my life (miscarriage, pregnancy, move, baby, transcontinental move, pregnancy, transcontinental move, baby, move, toddlers, cancer, cancer, and more cancer, voilá no cancer, pick up the pieces) has left me back-against-the-wall in survival mode so long that I have shed from my persona everything that is not absolutely necessary, and what’s left in the crucible is sometimes awkward.

I remember saying to someone once, “I have no details. I paint myself with a very broad brush.” This was during the horrible months after I got sick but before we knew it was just cancer, just something curable, or at least treatable, or at the very least identifiable.

I’ve gotten a lot better. In theory, at least, I recognize that social skills are important. I try. I really do. I even read self-help books, which I used to on the sly through snark-colored glasses, mocking the foolishness of people who would need to read a book to figure this stuff out. When I look at myself in the mirror now, not just the looking glass in the bathroom but the larger mirror into my psyche, I’m forced to confront the honest truth that while I might look normal on the outside (now), I’d better keep my mouth shut most of the time so that people don’t know how broken I still am beneath the surface. The worst of it, the very worst, is when I meet someone who knows me primarily through my writing, and I can’t speak, and I can feel their disappointment. It’s palpable, and all I can do is be glad that I have hair and eyelashes and two breasts, not just one, so at least I don’t look as frightening as I used to, and as I still would if my outside looked like my inside.

C. knows this about me, because she is one of two close friends here in Dallas who have had the courage to maintain an unbroken friendship with me beginning before I got cancer, during my treatment, and during my recovery. I’ve confided in her in ways that I’ve not been able to confide in anyone else, and yet she still likes me — but she has never seen the worst of me because when I’m with her, Awkward Me goes into remission.

And around our family, my children, in a comfortable setting where people know him and like him, C’s thirteen-year-old son’s awkward self also fades away.

I could see the little gears in her head turning. She looked at me with new eyes, and then she looked back at her son, and then back at me, and I knew that all of a sudden, she realized that her son — her brilliant, quiet, kind, handsome son, would also be okay. It’s hard to be thirteen. I think it’s harder to be thirteen than it is to have cancer.

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  1. A and C, and A and C permalink

    Wow, your writing expresses exactly why loving you is like breathing, done, no thought required.
    you rock, love, A (of A and C)

  2. Yeah, A, but conversation with you guys is like a CAN YOU TOP THIS TMI contest. And you get my weird jokes in three languages… synchronize dictionaries! Lubs you all right back.

  3. You forgot to mention your uncanny ability to come up with Halloween costumes so obscure no one could possibly fathom.

  4. Quetzacoatl, god of the interwebz (the blending of art and technology). That is a good idea for a Halloween costume. Is that what you mean? Although everyone loved it when I dressed up as a Mai Thai.

  5. joel permalink

    This—all of it—is gorgeous.

  6. Elaine permalink

    As an awkward adult myself, I love this post. And for what it is worth, I have always said that the very best thing about being 13 was that I didn’t appreciate how desperately awful it was until I was 17.

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