I dread meeting excessive amounts of new people, not because I don’t like people (though… fair point, there is that), but because I’m terrible with names and faces. When someone is introduced to me it’s like my brain does a 5 second samba to the tune of a foghorn, drowning out all possible information in that window. By the time the window is closed it simply cannot be re-opened. And just like that, you’re screwed. You’re left to make do with elongated “Hiiiiiii”s and ill-fitting nicknames and calling women 20 years your senior “playa” in a total blind panic.
I have worked with people for 3 years and not known their names. And these weren’t people I was on mere nodding terms with, these were people I used to have in-jokes with. I knew the in-jokes, but not their names.
Once I decided to cheat, and drew myself a diagram of desks and got a sympathetic friend to fill it in with names. It worked a treat for 2 weeks and 3 days, until everyone swapped seats. It was like a cruel game of musical chairs. Suddenly I found myself approaching a man I was fairly certain wasn’t called Kirsty, and mumbling a slurred version of the word “Ribs” before barrelling into conversation to avoid being asked to clarify what I’d called him.
I’m an equal opportunity offender when it comes to faces. Today I decided to change it up by going to the Woolworths across the road from the Woolworths I usually use (I know what you’re thinking, STOP living on the edge with such bold life choices Painefull, you’re playing with fire). At the check-out the woman serving me asked how I was with that tone of familiarity that implies more than ‘I’m trying not to look at the clock as I wait for my shift to end’.
ME: Um… good? Thanks…
CHECK-OUT LADY: You’re my neighbour.
ME: Am I?
APPARENTLY MY NEIGHBOUR: You live in a flat at 98.
ME: I do…
HOPEFULLY MY NEIGHBOUR OTHERWISE HAS TOO MUCH INFORMATION: I’m in 96 – you park out the front of my place all the time.
ME: Oh. Hi. Sorry. Yes. How bout that…
As a sidebar, this is why, despite my aspirations, I have not talent for crime fighting. If this woman had committed a crime repeatedly as I parked my car outside her house every day, and after a year the cops had asked me to describe her, their notes from that interview would have read…
Suspect has hair. Is definitely a woman. As tall as this-ish. Hair might be brown. Has face with nose.
But perhaps it’s even trickier when you do recognise someone, they recognise you, but neither of you has the will to go through with the socially mandated interaction. Then, as if by magic, somewhere in the empty air between you, an unspoken agreement is formed to each pretend the other person is invisible.
I lived in perfect harmony with such an agreement for over a year, studiously avoiding eye contact with a former colleague on the non-explicit understanding that while he and I don’t have a problematic past, there is simply nothing to say now. We had worked together, but never socialized, and neither of us had remotely enough information on each other to sustain even the smallest of small talk.
And then, for no apparent reason, after 14 months of harmony, he broke our deal. He addressed me directly while we both stood in line to get coffee last week. It was such a betrayal of everything we had been through together. It’s like I don’t even know who he is anymore… all over again.
What followed was an awkward non-catch up, a barista who seemed to slow down just to spite me, and that classic, hurried spasm of a farewell: ‘We should totally do coffee, I’ll call you or you call me, and we’ll make it happen, we could grab a drink or something!’ I like to think he understands the unspoken contract we both entered in that moment to do none of those things, but it’s hard to say with this guy. He’s clearly changed. I guess. Barely knowing him at all it’s a little hard to say.
Life goes on, unspoken agreements to never speak continue to be made. Just this week I entered one with a girl at pilates I suspect I went to school with. Now, once a week we will sweat, breathe loudly and do exercises that will make us feel like we’ve been punched in the stomach the next day. We will then busy ourselves rolling our mats, gaze listlessly at distant corners of the room when passing each other and leave in a staggered formation to avoid any possible risk of exposure.
I think it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.