How to Talk to Humans
It helps to be born to devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. That way, when your parents notice your tendency to hide behind your mother’s skirts and the arms of couches when you’re a child, they’ll push you out of the nest early by stuffing a Watchtower magazine in your hand and pressing a doorbell, stepping back a stair or two so your head is level with theirs.
When the door opens and the floral pattern of a woman’s skirt fills your horizon, look down at her shoes until you feel a little push at the small of your back and she stoops to ask you, is that for me. Hold out your arm, your hand a vise grip leaving sweaty fingerprints on the thin paper cover. After she has wrenched the thing from your hand, and it is obvious you have lost the ability to speak, your mother will come to your rescue and deliver the line about the cost of the magazine being twenty-five cents. The householder will scan your parents for a moment before retrieving her wallet from the kitchen counter, unzipping the little coin pouch on the back, and handing you a quarter.
Back in the car, your father will ask you to recite your presentation to him, the one you practiced at home that morning. The one that had seemed so short and simple only hours before but had been replaced with blank space, dead air.
“I don’t remember,” you’ll wail helplessly.
“Yes, you do,” he’ll reply, his voice stern as concrete. “Now, come on. Pretend I’m the householder. What do you say when I open the door?”
Shake your head, scrunching your face into a silent sob.
“Thomas,” your mother will intervene.
“She knows this!” he’ll reply and turn back to you. “What are you going to do in the Great Tribulation when you have to speak up for Jehovah and we aren’t here to help you?”
That last sentence requires explanation. That is why as an adult you rarely tell people about the religion of your childhood. The conversation quickly turns into you having to explain the terminology and doctrine, once again bearing witness as a representative of some quirky Mr. Roger’s cult, all cardigans and smiles. You want to tell people to just freaking google it if they really want to know. But on the off chance their interest is in you, and they don’t just have a Dateline-esque fascination with the religion, you usually oblige.
When you tell the story about being enrolled in the Theocratic Ministry School when you were five years old, pause to explain that the school is a weekly public speaking class used to train Jehovah’s Witnesses on how to deliver sermons and overcome obstacles to conversations at peoples’ doors, such as, I’m not interested, or I have my own religion.
Say, this is how I learned to talk to humans.
The school goes like this: men and boys deliver short sermons from a podium on the stage; women and girls act out a five-minute skit in pairs. One pretends to be a householder and the other a door-knocker. Between sermons and skits, the school coordinator (a middle-aged man in a gray suit with the voice of Dan Rather), provides counsel to the previous speaker. At the end of the program, each speaker retrieves a slip of paper from the coordinator on which she has been graded on her oration skills: eye contact, pitch, volume, use of gestures, etc.
For the first couple of years, you are only assigned householder roles. When you get your first speech assignment, your mother will write it for you and call you to the kitchen table to practice. She’ll have every word written on lined notecards with your bit highlighted in orange and the kitchen timer set for five minutes. You’ll finish in three minutes twelve seconds. She’ll sigh, shuffle through the notecards, and mark places to add more text. The last time you practice the revised version, it times out to five minutes twenty-four seconds.
“That’s good,” she’ll say. “Most people talk faster on stage.”
The only thing you’ll remember about being on stage is the movement. The faces and colors of the audience swirl around you, the floor ripples and vibrates, and the enormous thumping in your chest rocks your skeleton like a tiny boat in a storm. You hear a faint wah-wah of voices like something underwater, and you start to wonder if this could be the end of you.
And then you are walking back down the aisle to your seat, a wake of eyes following you. The inner trembling has become a violent shiver and you struggle to keep your feet untangled. Your parents half stand to let you in the row to your seat. Search their faces for clues about how it went. Your mother will give you a weak smile. Your father won’t look at you.
The school coordinator will announce your time at three minutes twenty seconds. He’ll commend you for your effort and encourage you to practice pace and volume.
At home, your father will pull you aside and tell you did well, for your first time. He’ll say next time you need to slow down and enunciate.
You don’t ask him what enunciate means.
Your father is a restless man, and you will change schools often. The first couple of times you won’t understand the liability that is being a new kid in a small town who is also shy and wears handmade clothes and doesn’t celebrate holidays. You’ll be friendly with the cool girl and she’ll pretend she’s interested in you. You’ll talk excitedly to her about books you love and she’ll get you to confide in her that the reason you can’t attend the class sleep over is you still wet the bed. On Monday, you’ll realize the joke. Too late.
Fight your attraction to bright colors. They will only serve to pull you into the gravity of the circles of board girls standing around the playground waiting for something to torture. Stick to navy blue, forest green, maroon. Work on acting irritated when someone talks to you. This will be your new vetting process for friends. Bury your affection and enthusiasm under a thick, gray indifference.
At recess, seek out the sanctuary of the library. The librarian is a serious woman who has no patience for hooligans. You are not a hooligan. Find a table in the corner where you can keep an eye on who is coming and going. See the years of hours spent here stretching out before you. Decide to start with Biographies and Autobiographies. The first book in the section is the biography of Anna Anderson. It’s a Barbie-pink hardcover with lots of old photos of the Grand Duchess next to photos of the imposter. To this day, you still believe her to be a member of the Russian imperial house.
“She just knew so much about them,” you’ll prattle on to your father as he keeps his eyes on the Bronco’s game. “How could she know all of those things if she hadn’t been one of them, or at least a close servant, or something? I mean, how could she?”
He’ll hear the question mark and turn toward you, blinking.
“I have such a hard time following your stories, sometimes,” he’ll say.
“I know, I know,” you’ll say. “Slow down and enunciate.”
This is the part of the story where you discover drugs and alcohol. Specifically, Alprazolam and Southern Comfort. The Alprazolam is prescribed to you by your doctor after you check the “Yes” box next to “Do you have suicidal thoughts and tendencies?” on the intake form when you go in for your annual physical. She also refers you to a mental health specialist, who you call Dr. Jan.
You tell Dr. Jan about the way you alternate between freezing up and rambling on and on, alienating people you want so desperately to be close to. You tell her about your deep self-hatred and the pressure that builds behind your skull and how the only thing that provides relief is pain and the sight of your own blood. You show her the parts of your body you like to cut, expecting her recoil at this, quickly shuffle out of the room, and return with two large men in white. But she only says, mmmhmmm, yes, that’s quite common, and reaches into her filing cabinet and pulls out a preprinted flyer containing a list of healthy responses to the urge to self-mutilate. She’ll casually point to a few she thinks would be especially beneficial for you: running, masturbating, petting a cat. This makes you cringe, but you keep the handout in a stack of books next to your bed and read it over from time to time. Mostly you still prefer pain. And Alprazolam.
Alprazolam, also known as Xanax, is a little pink pill that can take you from freaking out like the brunette best friend of the cheerleader in a horror flick right before she gets her head chopped off to chillin’ like a shirtless red-neck drinking a beer on a lawn chair in his front yard on a Sunday afternoon in three to five minutes. Even faster than doing shots. It’s fucking awesome. But one day, after you’ve gone for months without a panic attack, you start to hyperventilate when you realize you forgot to transfer the pill bottle to your new purse. Convince yourself that holding down the thrashing thing inside you without chemical assistance is good exercise for your mind. When you get home, toss the remaining pills, except one you’ll keep in a tin of Altoids for an emergency.
Shortly after your 20th birthday, move to New York City to live with a girl from Buffalo named Suki Saunders who hinges her identity on the exoticism of being half Japanese. She’ll invite you to go bar hopping with her and her friends. The first time you go out, one of her Jersey friends will suggest doing shots. Even though you’ve never done shots before, say sure, why not. When he asks you what you like, shrug with your practiced indifference. Pray he doesn’t realize you don’t know the names of the bottles lining the shelves behind the bar. Your father was more of a beer man after all.
Jersey boy will line up five shots of Southern Comfort in front of each of you. Don’t hesitate. Slam those things. You will be an instant hit. Strangers will cheer for you.
You won’t remember much else about that night except the movement. The faces and colors of the people in the bar swirl around you, the floor ripples and vibrates, and the enormous throbbing in your head rocks your skeleton to the rhythm of your heartbeat. There is a thick gurgle of voices all around you. And then you are standing in line for the women’s bathroom, focusing on a maroon stain in the cream and beige flecked linoleum floor to keep your bearings. The bathroom door opens and as you turn toward it, something happens and there is a woman peering down at you. Behind her, the asbestos ceiling tiles.
“Are you okay?” she asks, her voice as fizzy as cherry soda.
You wonder if she is prettier than you.
Jersey boy peels you off the floor and takes you outside for air. You’ve never done shots before, he’ll say. Drape your body over one of his dense shoulders and bury your face in his neck. The sweet musk of boy skin in your nose. No expensive cologne like city boys wear. Just flesh. He’ll hold you there all familiar-like and say he’s glad he came out that night. Next time, he’ll say, you should pace yourself.
Repeat those two words like a mantra over the following week. Start referring to yourself a “social drinker.” Discover the pinnacle of popularity is in buying a round. Go through stacks of 20’s.
Decide you are better at forming meaningful dialogue through the written word, where you can take a good look at the shape and tone of what you are saying, the little vertical bar pulsing at the end of the sentence, so easily swept back over the text like nothing ever happened. You can rearrange your thoughts entirely by holding down the left button on your mouse and dragging your cursor across the page. Always thoughtful. Always articulate.
Develop a strong preference for text and email, allowing all callers to leave a voicemail and door knockers to leave literature. At work, send emails to people who inhabit the next cube over. Hire a contractor to remodel your bathroom solely because he prefers text communications over phone calls. Imagine all of the missed missed phone calls and smile.
Take classes on composition and rhetoric. Online classes. When you get a paper back from the instructor with gushing notes on your analysis of a letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., notice the mark of his character and preferences in his comments, the human residue, like virtual skin-smell, and think about all of the droll essays he reads in a year and what a relief it must be to read something interesting. Write your next essay especially for him. Make is smart. Make it funny. Get even more gushing notes. Pick up even more of the human residue. Hone the thing. Next time he writes that your words made him laugh out loud and he’ll never be able to read Kipling the same again. This is not about a grade anymore. It’s about the image you have of him shuffling through the assignments to find yours. To read it first, or save it for last.
Become addicted to this feeling of intimacy through prose and response. Take a creative writing workshop on vulnerability in which the instructor reads from the work of a local writer who addresses the reader directly in the narrative. Think, YES! Take several workshops with the Writer. Start mining your life stories for themes and metaphors. When you write, be thinking of one particular person as your audience. Craft your words especially for that person, as if you were embroidering their initials on a handkerchief.
Know that you will eventually have to read something you wrote at one of these workshops. Avoid it as long as you can without making your reluctance the center of attention. Pick a piece you especially like. The one about the girl with daddy issues that you limited to 350 words to keep the heat compressed. Clench all of the movable parts of your body when you read it: hips, shoulders, neck, elbows. Be prepared to die when you are done speaking, like Philippides after the first marathon. Hold down the quivering, trembling thing that is trying to slither up your throat. Keep it in your belly. Churning. It will want to turn around and escape through your guts. Clench those, too.
Pace your voice with the writerly rhythm you’ve picked up from listening to all those readings at the bookstore downtown. Elongate your vowels. Channel Dan Rather’s voice reminding you to pause, make eye contact, project. And when you read the last word, don’t sit down. Look up at the Writer, straight into her eye sockets, and wait. Wait for her to respond, to dismiss you, to release you from the spell of frozenness. Be prepared to die when she is done speaking. Like nobody.
She’ll ask you if the piece has been published. Shake your head bashfully and gaze at the carpet in front of her feet. Then glide your eyes back up her body, past her loosely clasped, elaborately ringed fingers, back into her eyes. She’ll wait for you.
She’ll say, maybe you know this already, but I think you could slow down…