I met him for the first time on a warm summer night several years ago. I was relishing the opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine outside one of my favorite establishments with the sun on my skin and the cool of the evening brushing past my face. A dear friend of mine joined me at the table and introduced me to her friend, a gentleman I’ll name John, and a gentleman in every sense of the word.
He spoke about his lovely wife, his young family, his career and as we chatted I liked him more and more. He was a man. A wonderful man, from what I could glean, a man I wished, at the time, would give lessons to the adult boys of my own generation.
When he mentioned he was in an upcoming theater performance, I burst forth with what I intended to be warm representations of my admiration for this undertaking and the great respect I had for him in general. But as each sentence spilled from my lips I felt my stomach twist.
How brave he was! Standing up in front of all those people, playing a role so far outside himself!
“I’ll be fine though, right Jaci?” he responded with a smile.
I laughed nervously, feeling flush in the face and light in the head. I hadn’t presented myself accurately. I was going for RESPECT here… awe, even. I tried again. How much pressure he’d be under, and so new to the theater community!
“I’ll be fine though, right Jaci?” this time with just a touch of desperation.
Again, the shrill discomfort of nervous laughter and a contraction in my stomach. I’d get it right this time. I’d say ‘of course you will be!’ and leave it at that. But I didn’t say that. I said something else, something I don’t even remember, something I heard – even as it was coming out of my mouth – as more of a you-should-be-terrified-of-falling-on-your-face kind of comment.
“But I’ll be FINE, right Jaci?!” I’m fairly certain at this point the man was incredulous that I – a relative stranger – was essentially telling him to drop out of the performance and become a hermit for fear of failing at everything he’d ever attempt.
Quite literally about to be sick and surrender my wine to the sidewalk next to me, I stood and gave some flimsy explanation and veritably ran from the table.
That was our first encounter.
For the next several years, on the rather rare occasion John and I would find ourselves in each other’s company, without fail I immediately opened my mouth and inserted my foot. Just like the time I asked the teller at my bank when she was due, sure a woman that was otherwise so skinny must be quite pregnant. And each encounter was just as embarrassing as when the teller responded curtly “I’m not.”
I could not imagine why my otherwise apt social graces so swiftly left me when I was in his presence. I was not attracted to him, I was not shy or compensating for feelings of inferiority… at least until the fifth or sixth time. By then I was feeling quite inferior. Not as a person, but as the person interacting with him.
I hadn’t seen him for nearly a year when our mutual friend invited me to be her guest at a party he was hosting. Nervous? Yes. But equally determined to make up for all my prior foot-in-my-mouth conversations.
His house was packed. Some guests I knew – peripherally albeit – others were strangers, and I made successful small talk with many of them.
As we made our way across the back patio just before we left to thank our host for a lovely afternoon, I was sure I had beaten the curse. All I had to do was say thank you and I would get out of there alive. All I had to do…
“Thank you so much for letting us crash your party,” my friend joked as she stepped forward to shake his hand. “You aren’t crashing, and anyway everyone is welcome,” he graciously responded with a grin.
“Except for me,” I interjected. “I wasn’t invited.”
The whole of the backyard-portion of the party stopped and stared at me.
I meant it to be FUNNY! I wanted to scream. I meant ‘thank you for welcoming me even though we aren’t super closer friends!’ I meant, THANK YOU!
But I didn’t say any of that. Instead I pushed my foot further and further into my mouth and felt my head about to explode from the pressure of the blood in my temples. I made a clumsy exit, nearly tripping over the threshold and out the back gate.
SERIOUSLY??! I couldn’t get through a SINGLE interaction with him without making a complete fool of myself? That settled it. I vowed utter silence and decided I would only nod and smile in any and every future moment I shared with him.
Two weeks later I received an assignment. John was the perfect subject for the piece. I had to talk to him. I read and re-read the text I would send asking if we could meet to be sure there was nothing in it that could be misconstrued as anything but respectful. Adoring even. I didn’t care if it came off as desperate. Quite frankly, I was.
I excepted my recently established rule and gave a quick hello, with my shiningest smile and a warm hug. When he sat down across from me at the breakfast table several days later he was completely relaxed and so kind.
I took a big breath, looked up at him, and then stuttered for a couple of painfully long moments before I finally said “John, maybe it would be best if I just gave the little speech I’ve been working on for a couple of days.” He nodded, smiled, and sat back to listen.
In perhaps the most awkward delivery style ever heard, I sheepishly reminded him of all the times I had so deeply reddened my cheeks in his presence in the past and once I had laid it all out and apologized profusely and desperately made my case for humor and finally took a breath, he leaned forward, crossed his arms on the table and said with a smile, “Jaci, your energy could never be received negatively.”
Maybe the lesson is to let my energy talk and reign in the words a little. Maybe it’s that what we say doesn’t matter as much as how we show what we feel. Or, maybe it’s that the more I worry about how others might perceive me… the harder I work to say what I mean… the less I’m able to actually do it. Maybe if I can remember to just relax, my energy really will do the talking, and I can keep that stinky, misshapen foot out of my big mouth.