I am a nervous person. This is not news to anyone who knows me. My neurologist is convinced the reasons are purely physical, and perhaps she’s right. I don’t know if what happened to me on the first day of kindergarten is connected with my public unease, but it probably didn’t help. All I know is that there are times in social situations I lack composure and style. And there are also times I could only describe as embarrassing disasters.
I have every confidence when I met Valerie (to whom I am happily married), I made a fool out of myself during our first conversation. I remember loving the sound of her voice. I also remember being enthralled by her gorgeous looks and irresistible smile. I also recall feeling entranced by her humor and intelligence, and how much I didn’t want our time together to end. But I don’t remember a single thing that I said to her. My brain, in a heroic gesture of compassion, deleted that part of the memory from my mental core. I once asked Valerie, in spite of how I must have sounded that first meeting, why she still wanted to see me again. She smiled kindly, patted my hand, and said “I just knew you’re the one.” That is perhaps the sweetest way imaginable to be told, “Yes, you did you make a fool out of yourself, but it was okay with me.”
There is, though, a story from a few years B.V (Before Valerie) that still causes me to shrink and tremble every time I think about it. So, naturally, I’m going to share it with you.
I was at the Strand Bookstore in New York City, one of my favorite places on earth. Fifteen miles of books, and I could spend months exploring every inch of the place. Just seeing the street sign from Union Square puts me in a good mood. When I die, and my ancestors welcome me to the afterlife, I’m afraid I am going to march right past grandma and the sweet scent of her rhubarb pie to the guy in the red shirt with two toned hair and a nose ring directing me to the table of new arrivals. That’s right—The Strand is heaven.
Although one night, it pretty much turned into hell.
I was there on a crisp March evening, and I did what I usually do at the Strand—I closed the place down. It was a few minutes before ten, so I headed over to the cashier’s line and waited my turn. Miraculously, I was leaving with only five books. Pretty good for me.
I heard the shout of “Next,” and approached the till. A friendly voice offered a warm “Good evening,” as I dropped the books on the counter. I smiled and my eyes shot up to the cashier, ready to say a polite “Good evening” back.
But then I saw her.
Outside of Valerie, she was the single most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was luminous. I think it was probably the track lighting, but I swear there was a halo shining down upon her. She had lustrous shoulder length black hair, perfect olive skin, one eye colored gentle hazel, and the other colored a soft blue-green. When she smiled at me to ask if I had found what I was looking for, I actually gasped.
Surprised and concerned, she narrowed her eyes at me. No doubt she was wondering if I was having some sort of asthmatic attack. Had I been smooth, I probably would have just coughed, and pretended allergies were getting to me. If I had a bit more poise, I would have just simply said “sorry,” and proceeded with the transaction. We could both pretend it wasn’t awkward, and get on with our lives. But instead, I followed up the gasp with:
“Oh my God! You are stunningly beautiful!”
This time, her eyes widened in shock and confusion. In spite of her looks, she actually had the good grace to be humble. Had I had just the slightest amount of social skill, I would have proceeded with the transaction in an uncomfortable silence. Then I could slink out, and neither of us would ever discuss this again with anyone we knew (at least I wouldn’t). At this point, that would have been the best of all possible outcomes.
But I couldn’t believe what I had just said, so I panicked. I gazed straight down at the floor, no longer able to look her in the eye. If there was a part of my brain shouting “STOP TALKING! JUST STOP TALKING!” I couldn’t hear it. Instead, I tried to explain myself:
“I’m sorry I mean I’m not sorry you’re stunningly beautiful I’m sorry I said that to you I mean I’m not really because it’s true and someone should say that to you but it probably shouldn’t be me since I’m a total stranger but I don’t know maybe it’s nice to hear it from total strangers but I guess it can be kind of annoying how much is it?”
Still studying the floor tiles, I handed her a large bill from my wallet. I then grabbed my books and raced out of the store. I have a vague recollection of her shouting about my change, but there was no way I was going back. I sprinted towards the Union Square subway station, wanting the earth to literally swallow me up.
Postscript: A couple of years ago, I told a group of 12th grade girls this story, and asked them to rate my behavior on the Creepy Scale: 1) being awkward and harmless and 10) being I’m reaching for the mace can in my purse. They all agreed on “2”, because I was embarrassed and apologetic and clearly not trying to hit on the woman. I felt a bit better after that, but I still sometimes wish my neurologist had a pill I could take.