I think a lot, but it is not always wise to think too much. I’ll give you an example. One time many years ago, when I was twenty years old, I was playing tennis in a park in Georgetown, a city neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
When I say I was “playing tennis” I don't actually mean I was playing with or against anyone. With me, the game is not the thing. Form is what's important. I had been practicing my serve, into an empty court.
Some of my practice serves—the ones I chose to remember, at least—had been magnificent, making me feel proud and competent. After an hour or so of this exercise I tired of it. I was collecting my things to go home when I looked up and saw a beautiful young woman and her dog walking toward me. I had seen her before in the park, but without the dog. Each time I’d seen her I had thought about talking to her, but I’d never had the nerve. Sometimes beautiful women made me nervous.
This time, however, when I saw that beautiful woman and her dog, a plan leapt fully-formed to my mind—a game plan, you might say.
Not only was a career as a tennis professional fully plausible for the time being, but the momentous journey of a full-fledged relationship with just such a stunning beauty seemed a perfectly reasonable expectation as well.
Approaching strangers and picking up girls are things that some men do all the time. They were also things that I almost never did. But the notion flashed into my head that at that moment, that particular moment, I probably looked as attractive, handsome, and masculine as I would ever look. I'd go over there, talk to her, introduce myself, and flirt, just as if it was what I did every day of my life. As if it were the most natural thing in the world for a guy like me. Why not? I’d been working out three times a week; I was well tanned and, at that moment, glistening with a healthy light sweat. I am tall and good looking—or, at least, I was when I was twenty. If I wasn’t smooth enough to pick up a girl just then, I thought, well, I never would be.
Of course, the real key was the dog. Everyone feels more at liberty to approach strangers when they’re walking dogs; dogs say, "come meet me." If I struck out with the girl, I figured I could probably cover by being nice to the dog.
I like dogs. Dogs like me. Self-confidence was all well and good, but the dog was my ticket.
So I strode toward the two of them full of an unaccustomed swagger and confidence. I gave the beautiful woman a big smile. I said, "Hi!" in a very friendly tone.
The beautiful woman smiled back, and said, "Hello." So far so good.
Indicating the dog I said, "So, who’s this?"
She flashed at me what I thought was a very warm, sympathetic look with her lovely big brown eyes and said, brightly, with just the merest touch of a silvery little laugh, "Oh, this is Jo."
...Or at least, what I thought I heard was "Jo," the feminine name, which could be short for Josephine. But of course it could also have been "Joe," the masculine name, short for Joseph. So the next question that naturally popped into my mind was very simple. All I intended to inquire about was the sex of the animal, and all I had to say was, So, is Jo a boy, or a girl?
Not so fast.
I began to speak. "So, is Jo a...."
But this is where my brain kicked in. I began to think. When I start thinking, as I have said, it is not always a good thing. Well, sometimes it's a good thing; for instance, when you're writing a paper on Heidegger or contemplating an ambiguous move in backgammon or engaged in a timed formal debate about the efficacy of blind vs. double-blind testing. But not always when you're trying to make small talk and you happen to be very bad at it.
So here’s how my thought process went. First, it occurred to me that saying "boy or girl" might sound juvenile. Seeing her up close for the first time, I judged that the beautiful dog-walking park-woman was a few years older than I was, and I didn’t want to sound immature and inadvertently call attention to the yawning chasm of the three or four years that probably separated us. So I thought perhaps I should say "male or female" instead of "boy" and "girl." Then I considered that that might sound cold and clinical. My brain naturally jumped to the desirability of using technical terms, to make me sound smart, which I more or less am.
To ask if Jo was a female in the technical argot of canines, though, I’d have to say, "...is Jo a bitch?" But of course the polite and accurate word for a female dog is an impolite term for a human female. What if I inadvertently offended the bitch’s owner? That would never do.
Meanwhile, I was struggling to recall the technical term for a male dog. It didn’t come to me right away.
All this ratiocination took only a few seconds. Even so, not saying anything was already becoming awkward. Small talk has to flow. Long silences are creepy. I felt a twinge of a panicky feeling. My false confidence, shored up in advance, had already begun to break down.
Meanwhile, I was patting Jo, or Joe. Now, even when they’re crazy about their own humans, most dogs generally like meeting other humans too. But this dog, having gone through life in the company of an unusually beautiful and sexy young woman, had obviously seen my kind before. It showed little enthusiasm for being patted. It seemed to sense that I was a pretender, and not destined to become a feature of its life.
Abruptly it came to me—the technical name for a male dog was, in fact, dog. Jo, or Joe, looked up at me balefully. I framed my question: I was going complete my sentence by saying, So, is Joe a dog, or a bitch? But at the last instant, I chickened out when it came to using the word "bitch" at all. And before I could do anything about it, I swear this is what came out of my mouth:
"So, is Jo a…dog?"
Ah, well. It was one of those moments.
The pretty woman gave me a very strange look. Her smile withered away.
A troubled look came into her eyes. "Yes, she is a dog," she said, loudly and clearly, in about the same tone of voice she'd use if she were talking to an eleven-year-old with Special Needs. "Excuse us, please. Come, Jo!"
As they walked away (rather briskly), the damned dog turned her head and shot me a look of perfect contempt, as if to say, I have seen stronger work by old men and boys....
So that’s about it, right there: story of my life in a nutshell. Pathetic. I just think too much, sometimes, and that's all there is to it.
Copyright 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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