“So,” Jessica’s dad says as I pick up her meds and medical equipment from him. “How was the conference?”
I’ve been out of town for a business meeting and he is being his usual polite self. Even at the height of our discord, when I had the butcher knife in my hand and insanity in my eyes, he was polite. (“I completely understand your frustration. Let’s talk about next steps, okay?” While backing away slowly.)
“Fine,” I say. “Tiring.”
“Mmm,” he says with a look of sympathy; he’s known me for twenty years and in all that time has never cherished one single illusion about me. “Having to be with people all day.”
I like people, I want to tell him, because I do. Really. Really.
Later, I stop by the coffee shop. See? Plenty of people at the coffee shop and I go there anyway.
One of my friends is sipping a latte at a corner table and waves me over. “How was the conference?”
“Fine,” I say.
“I bet it was exhausting. Can’t imagine you with all those people.”
It’s actually quite safe to let me out in public, I want to say but don’t. It’s true that I’ve worked from home for fifteen years, and there’s a reason people don’t ask me to come into an office, and why they preface phone calls with, “I’m really sorry to bother you like this.” Still, I go to at least one party a year, and no one has debilitating nightmares afterward.
“Listen,” I say to Jessica when she gets home from school. “Do you think I have a hard time being around people? Because I like people. A lot. Really.”
“I do not know what you are saying.”
“Well, I went to this conference.”
“Yes. You called me three times.”
“Exactly! I called you three times because I value meaningful human connection! I like people!”
“Well,” she says. “You like me.”
“So I went to this conference, and everyone is acting like it must have been really hard, like I am incapable of dealing with people! It isn’t that hard to deal with people! I can be perfectly polite all day long! For hours at a time! I can!”
“Yes,” she reassures me. “You are very nice at people.”
“‘At people’?” I say. “I think you mean ‘to people.’ I am nice to people.”
She gives me a level look and shrugs.
“What does that mean, nice at people?” I demand.
“Is there any Diet Coke?” she asks, going into the kitchen. “I am thirsty.”
“Nice at people,” I mutter. “What does that mean, everyone knows it’s just an act?” I follow her into the kitchen. Jessica reaches a glass down from the shelf. “Because I am genuine,” I tell her. “I am.”
She gives me the look again.
“Okay,” I say. “Small talk irritates me and I get very impatient with superficial conversation, but I try very hard not to show it.”
“That is work for you,” she points out. “That is hard.”
“Well,” I sigh, “at least I wasn’t screaming obscenities at everyone, right?”
“Exactly,” Jessica says, getting out the ice. “Good job, Mom.”