Listen, I am a nice person. Fairly nice. Say, not nearly as nice as my grandmothers (they both had That Face too) or as nice as my mother, but one heck of a lot nicer than Kim Jong Il. I'm not insensible to the needs of others to unburden themselves of painful experiences, or find a shoulder to cry on. I understand that, I really do. And I'm not actively opposed to being the person who holds the burden or offers the shoulder. At least until last Monday, I wasn't.
People have told me stuff ever since I was sentient enough to sit up straight and say, "What happened next?" (Note: It is ALWAYS a mistake to ask this question. A better question to ask might be, "Do you hear that tornado siren?") One time I remember in particular was when I was a Ball State student and a fellow co-ed from a class on modern poetry followed me to the student center, talking. And talking. I bought a Tab, she bought a Tab. I went to sit in a booth, she accompanied me. And while we were sitting in the booth drinking our Tabs, she confided in me, "When I was in high school, my acne got so bad, I tried to dry out my skin by soaking cotton balls in lighter fluid and using it on my face."
I told the world's record for the fastest speed at which one can exit a booth while babbling, ""I'msosorrybutIhavetogo.IjustrememberedIhavetocatchaplanetoMadrid.BecauseIjustdecidedto
Episodes like this have continued to happen over the years since I received my diploma, which was for English literature, but maybe should have been for psychology. But one of the worst in recent memory happened last Monday.
I was at the YMCA, in the swimming pool, getting ready to start the hour-long water aerobics class I attend. It's a pretty big class, about twenty-five people, so we're all crowded into the water like a school of little fishies. It makes it easy - FAR too easy - to strike up a conversation with people nearby. Now, listen, when I go to the gym, I don't mind trading pleasantries with people, but I go there to work, and my feeling is that if I'm in the pool conversing with my fellow splashers, I'm not really giving my all to the cardio, know what I mean? So I try not to get involved with the talkers.
Try as one might not to get involved, sometimes the talkers will just HAVE YOU. As I was warming up for the workout, one of them made her way over to me and said, innocuously, "So how are you this morning?"
I smiled at her, swishing my arms back and forth through the water, warming up those muscles. "I'm great! How are you?"
MISTAKE! MISTAKE! BAD MISTAKE!
If you get the vibe that someone might tell you a bunch of personal stuff about themselves you definitely do not want to hear, it is a very, very bad idea to ask them, even out of social politeness (the kind where you don't really care how they are, but ask anyway because that's just what we DO) how they're doing. You know why?
THEY'LL TELL YOU.
The water aerobics instructor, Becca, waded through all the people in the pool and started the class, saying, "Let's start with a jog. Move those arms and get your knees up high!"
"Well," my pool friend said confidingly over the splashy noises going on around us and the sound of Bachman-Turner Overdrive singing "Takin' Care of Business" in the background, "You might have wondered why I don't have any teeth."
Honestly, what do you say when someone says something like this to you? I mean, you have to be nice to people. Yes, you do. Don't argue with me. The world is bad enough as it is without people like you and me responding with something like, "No, I can truly say to you that I have never even once wondered why you have no teeth and I don't want to think about it right now, so move on, sister."
Becca yelled out, "Jumping jacks! Arms UP! MOVE that water, ladies!"
I said, "Uhhhhh.....welll....err......"
"I don't have any teeth because I used to do crack," my pool friend said at high volume.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, hoping that was the right thing to say. It hardly seemed appropriate to say something reassuring like, "That's okay. I know a lot of people wholost their teeth because they did crack" because I don't. Thank goodness.
"Yeah, me too," she bellowed. Becca looked inquiringly over her shoulder and then said to the class, "Back to a JOG, high knees! PUMP those arms!"
"Yeah, the guy I live with did too, but we quit."
"Oh, good!" I offered plaintively, wishing that Becca would tell us to do the remaining forty-five minutes of the class under water.
"It was bad," my friend hollered, shaking her head dismally. "I have four kids, and they had to go live with my mother."
"I'm so sorry!" I yelled back, splashing. I tried to put a little distance between us by craftily moving back in the water, but she caught on to me right away and followed.
"Boy, you really move around in the water!" she observed. "Well, anyway, where was I?"
"I have no idea," I said firmly, but she'd already recalled that she'd left off at the part where her kids were with her mom because she and her live-in boyfriend were both doing crack.
"So anyway, they're pretty much grown up now and I wanted to get some teeth, but now I have TMJ and osteo-arthritis in my jaw, so it isn't going to work out," she said, confusing me with her slightly garbled story.
"Oh, I'm sorry...."
"So my son? The one that's twenty-one? He came over to our place the other night and he stole about eighty vicodin pills out of our bathroom medicine cabinet."
At that point, I nearly just stopped in defeat and drowned myself. I mean, what the heck? Who was this woman? The other ladies in the class are retired teachers. Retired nurses. Current nurses who work non-day shifts. Ladies who serve Meals-on-Wheels and volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul. Ladies who finish the water aerobics class and shower and go to bridge club together. I'm familiar with and comfortable with all those people, and most definitely out of my sheltered league when dealing with former crack addicts and the toothless mothers of pill-stealers. Not that I don't totally applaud her for being able to beat the crack thing, and not that I'm not sorry that her life took such a bad turn that she couldn't even raise her own children - that's a tragedy no matter what. But....but...why can't I just do my exercise? WHY?
"Cross-country SKIS, ladies! Get those arms and legs MOVING!" shouted Becca. The other members of the class obediently began thrashing around in the manner of skiers on an open field of snow. I felt like I'd just been hit in the side of the head with one of their poles.
"He's probably gonna sell them," she predicted gloomily. "And my arthritis is going to be kicking my butt tonight."
"I'm...so sorry," I offered inadequately. "Listen, I need to get out of the pool. I have to pee." It was a frantic bid for escape and a total lie. But at this point, WHATEVER it took to get away, anywhere.
"Oh, me too!" she exclaimed brightly. "I'll go with you!"