Circles of awkwardness

I’m back on the Tempe campus today to show an incoming State Press staffer around the newsroom, and I stopped by the Memorial Union for some conflict chicken and waffle fries because I had a free hour, when this happened.

A kind of dirty-looking boy in his late teens walked by and asked if he could have one of my fries, and, not seeing any good reason to tell him know, I handed a couple over. He said thanks, told me I looked pretty today and then wandered off, and I went back to reading my book (I’m rereading “Prep,” by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a really well-written story about a rather unlikeable girl’s time four years in an New England boarding school).

So far, it was a pretty standard social interaction, the kind I tend to have with lots of strangers at the bus stop or on the light rail. They ask for something, I hand over the extra quarter for fare or whatever and then they say something flattering and we either make a few minutes of polite conversation or go on with our days.

This boy came back with a friend and asked to sit down. They introduced themselves, but because boys my own age who I don’t know put me on edge more than any other groups of people, I wasn’t paying too much attention and can’t recall their names. The original boy was wearing a bro tank, and his friend had an afro.

So they sit there for a while and keep asking questions about ASU, my major (journalism), whether I wanted to be an anchor like Ron Burgandy (no), what I most liked to write about (politics), whether I would write about the paranormal or alien abductions (I’m not really planning on either), and they were in the middle of trying to figure out whether Area 51 and the aliens were in Nevada or New Mexico (Area 51 is in southern Nevada; New Mexico has Roswell and also the Very Large Array, which is more earth astronomy than aliens) when a woman came up to us.

She told the boy with the afro that his hair was great, and that it was a halo. He looked confused, and she went on to explain how halos went on angels, but that the image most people have of halos as golden circles like something on the Village People is wrong. His afro was a real halo. (Also, I wasn’t able to find any pictures of any of the Village People with halos. Plenty of other crazy outfits, yes, but no halos.)

After she’d passed her message on and walked away, the boy looked back at his friend and me and made a comment about how people always said weird things to him about his hair.

It was a weird comment. However, I thought striking up a conversation about alien abductions with someone you’d never met was weird too.

And then it hit me: What if everyone is weird and we all just think we’re not and tolerate each other because we’ve been raised to know that it’s the polite thing to do? That woman seemed weird to that boy, he and his friend seemed weird to me, and I’m sure I seem weird to other people I meet. If I’d had this realization at home, for instance, there’d be five people ready to tell me that it wasn’t an epiphany at all and that they already knew I was weird. The sixth, my youngest brother, would probably assure me and everyone I wasn’t weird and then end up whispering something like “but sometimes you’re silly,” because that’s just how Z operates.

People, especially people in roles like guidance counselors, spend a lot of time assuring other people that no one really cares about them as much as they care about themselves. They say that everyone’s too wrapped in himself or herself to really notice if your normally clear skin developed a zit that looks to you like Rudolph’s nose had a kid with the Abominable Snowman, or if you laughed at the wrong moment or made a joke that actually isn’t that funny.

But maybe the reality isn’t that people don’t notice — they do, but then they all just go on living life in their own weird ways.

Or maybe it’s just dumb to be in the middle of a mostly-deserted campus on a Friday afternoon when it’s 102 degrees outside.

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