Essay Six: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

by rosalyster

There are those of us who can tolerate social discomfort, and there are those of us that cannot.[1] The first group are strong and hardy; the second group are weak. The first group are powerful community wizards. The second group (of which I am a lifelong member) must find consolation in our belief that being “sensitive” is the same as being good. This is called making a virtue out of necessity. Please do not take it away from us.

A lengthy silence at a dinner party feels to us like being hit with little sticks. It is like having many drawing pins pushed into our ears. A person tells a poorly-received anecdote, and we watch as their blush creeps up into their hairline. We come to their rescue – not because we are so kind and saintly, but because we cannot stand it. We frantically start to chatter about anything at all. We feel ourselves to be taking on the gestures of a popular stand-up comedian. Will we stand up and pace the length of the room like it is a small, sad stage? We look down quickly at our laps and see our hearts pounding away through our red t-shirts.

We become accustomed to lighting our dignity on fire. Maybe we start to think it is our special job. We look around the table at the ingrates that are our dinner companions: These people have no idea what it takes to keep this show on the road. This is what it must feel like to be a spy during wartime, we think, to possess a heightened and specialised understanding of the dangers threatening our fragile gaiety. We come to relish the burden that we have placed upon ourselves. And then we fail. This happens to us all, eventually: some parties were just born to die. It gets very quiet. Someone is rude. Three bad stories are told in a row.

It is not really our fault, because it was never really our responsibility. Still, we take it so, so personally.  We turn our butter knives over in our hands – would it not be better to just plunge them into our knees right now and get it over with? We assume that the high whine of collective tension will become unbearable to everyone present. Soon, someone is going to buckle under the weight of it. He will stand up and, with one economical movement, sweep all the plates off the dinner table and onto the floor. He is going to wrap the tablecloth around himself so that only his rolling eyes stick out.

There will be a strangled silence, and then we will all start to scream with either fear or joy. Ivy will start to creep in through the windows as the dining room table turns into a tree. We will all suddenly be wearing togas. Our knives and forks will have turned into flowers. All the dogs will undomesticate themselves. The most attractive among us will turn into deer.[2]  Everyone will go immediately and productively insane as the new age dawns.

For those of us who belong to the second group, something resembling this scenario seems always just about to happen. It will be like a dam bursting, we think, or everyone’s heads exploding at once. It’s not that we want it to happen, at all. It just seems as if it surely must. So we wait, tearing at our cuticles and looking at our hearts as they pound away there under our red t-shirts.

And then it never does. The conversation just keeps on going, or another one rears up to take its place. The show somehow gets back on the road. As much as we members of the second group feel that the wheels of social cohesion are ours alone to oil, the fact is that nearly everyone participates in making it okay. No one except a true maniac welcomes an awkward silence.  Isn’t it pretty to think so, at least?

We are all just trying our inadequate best. This is what I tell myself on the way out the door. It sounds more real each time I say it.

[1] There is another whole class of person who doesn’t even notice that anything is happening. This type is the mightiest of all.

[2] My understanding of Dionysian rites comes from two books only, and one of them is Prince Caspian.