Being at a social event…it never feels like you’ve simply entered a space with other people. It feels more like waking up in another person’s dream…like being thrown there. You find yourself in an unfamiliar space. The context and reality are inscrutable, cryptic. Nothing works the way it’s supposed to. At a basic level, you don’t know how to be.
But you are concerned about unseen consequences…about what happens if you make unintentional mistakes. So, you do your best to get by. The dream proceeds around you- an amorphous, alien thing- and you try to proceed along with it, hiding your perplexity.
A co-worker enters the facility where I work, asks if I want to do something for New Year’s Eve. It’s surprising, because I work alone on a graveyard shift precisely so that I can avoid other employees.
In the rare instances like this, when someone tries to speak with me, I usually try to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I just mumble a few quick responses, then walk away.
If that fails…let’s say the employee follows me, keeps talking…I have to utilize more drastic measures. For example, sometimes I say, “I’m tired,” drop to the floor and start writhing around, screaming incoherently about needing coffee. It’s effective. I can really clear out a room with that one.
But in this instance, I’m intrigued by the possibility that I’m being asked on a date. I never know how to flirt or pick up on the flirting of others. I always feel clumsy-headed when people are communicating; my mind has a way of turning their meanings into unknowable glyphs. I’ve had a terrible time initiating a dating life as a result.
I could ask directly if this would be a date…but I worry that “date” is an old-fashioned word (and I don’t know the new-fashioned words). So, I just answer her question about doing something by saying, “Yes”.
She tells me where to be. It’s a pub. A few nights later, on New Year’s Eve, I show up there. She’s with a large group of people, men and women. It’s not a date. It’s just a large social gathering.
Everyone is appropriately dressed up. I’m wearing my traditional introvert garb of tattered, over-sized clothes. Their look conveys “celebration”. My look conveys an even mix of comfort and social deprivation. (I don’t know what happened…even though I was wondering about a date, I forgot to think about clothes.)
The group begins sitting at the longest table in the room. I dart for the corner, wedge myself between two walls and a stranger. Co-worker sits across from me. Then she and everyone else suddenly begin speaking at the same time- to one another, over one another- multiple conversations wrestling, vying for volume dominance.
I can’t tell if anyone is actually speaking to me at any given time, so I just stare at an indeterminate space on the table and try to nod my head every five seconds or so. (The bigger the group, the easier it is to get away with social animatronics like this).
The pub is very crowded, almost shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes the co-worker pelts me with a question, but I can’t hear her over the cacophony. I always respond by giving her a thumbs up and yelling, “Yep!” Then it’s back to staring nowhere, nodding my head.
The middle of my chest begins to feel wrong. Like loud white noise. Like static. I think about leaving.
And then I notice that the conversations in the room are collectively meshing together, into one vast murmur. It’s overwhelming, but I always like it when this happens.
I ignore the group I’m with. I close my eyes…listen incorrectly…and start to unfocus. The sound of a crowded room…it’s difficult explain. It’s like being at the beach:
If you sit on a beach long enough, at the edge of the water, your body begins to anticipate the waves. That moment of contact: it’s repetitive…then expected…then hypnotic, like a tactile metronome.
The same thing can happen with the human voice, in a crowded room. At first, the separate discussions sound like a collection of fragmented noise. The voices are random, scattered, disconnected. And then the murmur thing starts to happen. The voices slowly coalesce into one, rhythmic sound. They increase in volume, simultaneously. They decrease in volume, simultaneously. A rhythm takes hold, subjugates each voice to it’s shape.
I’m hearing this happen in the pub. I think: it has to be the room doing this. The room is mumbling to itself, trying to remember something. Me and the other people, we’re vowel sounds here, strange iterations of a thick tongue.
Co-worker reaches over, taps my hand. “Dude! You okay?”
“Probably,” I tell her. I open my eyes. “Do you hear that?” I point at my ear. “The way the room sounds?”
She shrugs, goes back to conversing with others. I hold my hand out, palm down. When the voices in the room all grow louder at the same time, I tilt my fingers up. When the voices grow quieter, I tilt them down. I try to mirror the volume of the room-noise. I yell, “The volume falls into patterns! It’s a rhythm; consistent! Why does that happen?”
No one seems to hear me. They talk and talk.
I listen. Sometimes everyone in the room goes quiet at the exact same moment. So weird.
Co-worker looks at me, says, “Oh.” She starts digging in her purse, holds up a tissue. “You do this at work too. What’s that about?”
I tap my nose. Blood. “Sorry. Nosebleeds.”
It happens when I’m stressed. It’s embarrassing.
One hour till midnight. I stand, yell, “I’ll be back!”
I leave, roam around outside for awhile, clear my head by walking.
At some point, the world makes noise, yelling and horns…the new year. I never return to the pub.
I go home, steep in silence, then sleep.
I always wonder what it’s like for most people as they leave home or any place familiar and enter social spaces. I don’t know what kind of transition happens for others…how it feels. Maybe it’s less jarring, but I always suspect that most people feel at least a modicum of strangeness. I could be wrong. But I do watch and try to puzzle it out. I see it, constantly: people gather and I can sense all of these masks going up.
I think, to some degree, we’re all hiding from the dream. The one that isn’t ours. We all feel thrown there, vulnerable.
The Social envelops us..and it’s disconcerting, but there is also beauty there and perhaps even commonalities that we all secretly share.
I can’t know that for sure. I just watch as the dream proceeds, try to proceed along with it.