A woman in a green visor and apron asks me what she can get for me. I tell her a six-inch tuna on wheat. She assembles my sandwich automatically—bread, cheese, meat—but I am anything but automatic. I am trying something new; I am breaking old habits. I am following advice.
“Easy on the lettuce, please,” I say with an exaggerated smile. I’m trying too hard, but she doesn’t look up. “I’m a bit of a delicate flower.” I laugh at my words. Her head remains aimed at the bins of vegetables in front of her.
Great. Now she thinks I’m hitting on her. Maybe this is the wrong place to do it. Maybe I should try it with a co-worker first.
The sandwich artist’s eyes are suddenly on me, her eyebrows raised in question. Shit. Okay. She must have asked me what condiments I want.
“Extra extra extra mustard.” I cue her again with a smile. “Can’t have too much.” Yellow splatters the thin layer of lettuce. It’s too much mustard.
This is work for her. Listening to me is her job. Making me engage with someone who seems miserable at her job is unfair. It’s setting me up for failure. No. You’re going “back there” again. Be present. Listen to her.
I shake my head and she rings me up. Something on the other side of the cash register catches my eye. I stick my bottom lip out. “Those look good,” I say, pointing sheepishly to a display of cookies. “Could I get one, please? No, no, two. Two chocolate chip cookies!” I say it like the Count on Sesame Street.
She gives me a little laugh. I wonder if it’s pity.
“Back here” is the place I go during most conversations. On the rare occasion I tell someone about it, I point to a place behind my right ear and make a small circle. It’s the place I mull everything I’ve ever said to anyone ever. Ten minutes ago, fifteen years ago, it doesn’t matter. It’s my body language analysis chamber, my “What-I-Shoulda-Said” think tank, my “social faux pas” panic room.
My therapist, Esteban, reassures me that everyone has a Back Here, but some people stay locked back there longer than others. Or that’s what I read as his subtext at least because I’m pretty sure I’m the only person I know whose therapist recommends purposefully getting everyone they talk to in a day laugh.
“You do understand that I already put enough pressure on myself in social situations, right?” I asked Esteban when he suggested it. My scapulas prickled with sweat at the idea.
“Yes, but the logical solution isn’t to never speak again, is it?” Esteban has a bit of an attitude. Usually, I like it.
“Well, no. But this seems like adding kindling to the fire.”
“Let me ask you this: How well are you listening to the person you’re talking to when you’re ‘back there’?”
I’d never thought about it. I am usually so anxious about what I say that I can’t process the other person’s words. “Not very well?”
“I think making someone laugh will force you to be present in the moment, really listening to what is being said and relating to it.”
“But what if laughter isn’t appropriate?”
“Then I want you to consciously be kind to them. If you’re walking away from people after making them laugh or giving them a compliment, then it will be harder for you to fixate on any perceived mistakes. We need to associate conversations with good things, not punishment.”
“But it sounds exhausting. I’m not a comedian.”
“More exhausting than making yourself feel bad about something you said a decade ago? I’m not asking you to do stand-up. I’m asking you to stay in the moment. Have some fun.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You’ve made me laugh three times so far this session. Of course, you can.”
Three weeks later, my co-worker, Andrew, greets me with a Good morning.
“Hi, Andrew. Can you show me your feet, please?”
“Yeah, just checking something.”
He swivels in his chair and raises one penny-loafered foot, then the other.
“Good. No chains. You were sitting there when I left last night and you’re here now. I wanted to make sure you aren’t shackled to your desk.”
He fills the room with his chuckling. His laugh is a trophy.
*Names changed to protect the innocent.