“I Was Just Joking”

Warning: big time vent ahead. Read with caution because the shoes are off and are about to be thrown!

This morning, I got into an elevator in the parking deck’s fourth floor and stood in the center to give a modicum of social distancing-space to the four men standing in each corner. Being the only woman in the elevator car, I felt a bit out of place. And given all of the men were taller than me, I felt like a tiny being surrounded by giants.

I stared straight ahead of me, my book and paperwork folded in my hands in front of me. The man in the front left corner turned my way. I could feel it. He was going to say something to me.

I am an introvert who sucks at small talk. I hate going to parties and social events because, invariably, I cling to the wall and feel out of place and, frankly, lonely and mad at myself because my inability to feel comfortable isolates me. I watch people congregate and laugh and chat and I can’t get beyond the simplistic points of “How are you doing?” “How is work?” “How is the world treating you?” “How is your family?”

And when I have exhausted that repertoire and can think of nothing else to ask, I am at a loss. I will reflect questions back to the person I’m talking to, but even that stops working after a while. I just don’t do small talk.

Most of all, I despise small talk with strangers in areas not conducive to small talk. I loathe standing in line at Wal Mart, waiting to check out, and the person ahead of me will turn around and start making comments about:

  1. The cashier taking too long.
  2. How packed everything is and the wait is ridiculous.
  3. The contents of my cart (yes, it’s happened).
  4. Politics.

I must have a facial expression that invites small talk. Maybe I smile too much? My eyes are too wide and reflective like a Disney princess? When I was pregnant, strangers thought it was perfectly fine to touch my belly. I really wanted to touch their faces or make a snarky comment that I’m not pregnant and that I was just fat.

I think half of my problem with stranger-small-talk is that half the time I have no idea what to say or how to respond. I was happy in my silence, relaxed within my mind and the words I am unspooling. Maybe I agree with the person that the long wait is frustrating and that it’s ridiculous that only one cashier is working the front. But I’m not about to say anything about it because it’s not going to change anything and might upset the cashier who is only trying to do their job.

Now, if you are a person who loves stranger-small-talk, then I probably owe you an apology.

Sorry.

And I mean it. I know that you are just trying to be friendly and to pass the time. Just like the man in the elevator was trying to be friendly and to pass the time.

By turning to me and saying,”You know. In West Virginia, you can’t get a date if you can’t prove that you have all of your teeth.”

Uh. Excuse me?

No. I didn’t say that. I think I said something like…”Okay?”

Insulted at my lack of response, the man’s voice became defensive and he claimed, “I was just joking” or “I was just making a joke.”

And I think I said something like “Okay.”

The elevator door opened and I hesitated to let the two men ahead of me leave. The joke-man opened his arm toward the door, his back slightly bent, a gentleman’s gesture. I thank him, wished my fellow elevator riders a good day, and left.

The responses in my mind, though, were a bit savage.

First of all, let’s talk about West Virginia. A beautiful state of cascading mountains and wide forests, I own twenty acres of a mountain there and love it. And, yes, some residents of that state are missing their teeth, much like residents of every state are missing their teeth. And I resent that stereotype.

I resent the stereotypes about West Virginian family relationships and intelligence. I despise the fact that people will immediately don a twang and make snide remarks about incest or eating road kill. I loathe how a locality immediately creates definitions that are impossible to breach or redefine.

So, my first thought was to tell the man about my property in West Virginia and see how he would respond to that.

But then, I thought about the fact that he’s also discussing missing teeth.

What is it about missing teeth that makes a person less than others? Does missing teeth confer a lack of intelligence, a suggestion that they are hygienically ignorant that they can’t even brush their teeth? Are missing teeth a symptom of a greater evil?

I am missing teeth. Four. Because twenty-five years ago, I was bulimic and my eating disorder lasted for two years. I destroyed my teeth and I am absolutely humiliated by it. I brush. I floss. I go to my dentist. And when I am told I have a cavity, I feel like my mouth betrayed me .

Twenty-five years ago, my confidence in myself and my appearance was so destroyed that I destroyed my body. I dropped sixty pounds in about two months. I learned tricks on how to make purging easier. I figured out what foods were the most difficult and how to avoid eating them. I learned how to use water as a way to ensure that my stomach was fully empty.

I learned that taking a shower was an easy way to hide that I was purging.

Now, in that man’s defense, he had no idea that I was missing teeth or why I was missing teeth. I was wearing a mask, so he had no way of knowing the impact of what he was saying.

But I feel like this comes back to so many points.

Why me? Because I was the only woman in the elevator car? Because I was standing dead center to try and be respectful of the people surrounding me? Because I was shorter than the rest which made me stand out as well?Because I was younger than him which meant that he felt like he could turn around and speak to me?

And let’s not even go into the fact that he was bringing up my ability to date was based on my teeth and not my mind or my personality (even though it’s introverted which might make me seem unfriendly).

I know he was trying to be harmless hence I didn’t offer any of my initial sarcastic remarks. I was likely never going to see him again and I had no desire to create a hostile environment and make the ride more unpleasant for the other men.

But telling me “I was just making a joke….” doesn’t sit well with me either. Too often, we as humans (and I am guilty of this too) will make cruel and cutting remarks at one another and then laugh it off with “I’m just teasing.” I think back to points when I have made these egregious errors and am ashamed of my lapses in judgement.

I feel lost and mired within these points. I keep seeing him and his eyes over the pleats of his mask. I want to shake him, tell him to leave me alone. I want to rip off my mask and give him my mostly toothy grin. I want to show him pictures of my children playing on my West Virginia mountain. I want to shake myself for being upset and then I want to shake myself again because I think I have earned the right to be upset.

I’m sitting in my living room with my daughter, and I keep thinking about the man and his comment. If his stranger-small-talk had been something about the weather, I would have been fine even if I didn’t care to discuss the weather. It’s harmless. It’s someone filling the silence.

It’s inviting all members to respond as opposed to informing me of my dating eligibility thanks to my teeth.

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