I dated the nicest boy once. He had pretty eyes and a habit of opening doors for me. Above all else, he was the only person I’d met who matched my awkward and then raised. So we said sweet things to one another, held hands, and ran into walls together. For a brief time, we were just two dorm-crossed lovers making our way through this wild campus, faithfully chanting “Awkward is as awkward does, and awkward ain’t so awkward after all” as we tripped up stairs. For a minute I found a person who could out-face-plant me, a soul who managed to accidentally tuck his shirt into his underpants and step in dog poop without nary a canine around. I didn’t overreact when he misguidedly wore mismatched socks. He always came to my rescue when I would ask perfect strangers if they were pregnant and not catch their humiliated head shakes until the hefty women were fighting mad. The difference between us, it seems, was that I failed to see the irony in mocking others’ misfortune. I could forget to wear a bra in the dead of winter, shrug off the awkward moment, and within minutes point/laugh/construct all kinds of evil nipple-related jokes at that other poor girl whose girls needed padding. Foolish was and is my everyday. I can hardly remember to be embarrassed. The Nice One, however, recognized his bumbling, fumbling ways and made every effort not to contribute to the humiliation of those who’d tripped before him.
I quickly learned how seriously the boy took to heart the phrase “I feel your pain”. He channel surfed.
He had such empathy for perfect strangers that even the slightest tense or humiliating situation faced by television personalities (reality, soap, talk show, newscast) sent him wildly fidgeting for the remote. Their divorce was his own family falling apart. The young pop star with comically visible thong on the red carpet brought to life that age-old nightmare of showing up to class naked. That poor, poor toddler with a mother out for blood and a tiara made him curl up in the fetal position and ask for a binky. After an adolescence spent bumping, tripping, embarrassing himself, he knew too much of that awkward curse. He really felt their pain.
After one particularly hilarious night of TV, I tried to reason with him, explain to him that my laughing at pre-recorded discomfort was not, in fact, like “kicking an innocent puppy”.
About that Real Housewife who might have just been outed as a hooker: “Listen. You’re Christian. Whores deserve shame, right?”
That Time Tom Cruise took off the sane mask, put on the crazy pants, and went all Kujo The Leprecaun on Oprah’s couch: “Good news! Tom Cruise is so nuts he doesn’t even know he just humiliated himself. Crazy is practically like a built-in Awkward Shield!”
As it turns out, our natural inclination to make fools of ourselves was what brought us together. Our opposite ways of treating others suffering from chronic awkwardness set us apart. He wanted to cry, to hug, to empathize. I wanted to laugh, to point, to distract from that gnarly, two-flight tumble I just took.
Years later, I was the Giant Leasing Lady. Neighborhood kids affectionately gave me the nickname as I click-clacked around the property, wheeling, dealing, and givin’ you a steal on your next luxury apartment home. I was pregnant, now looking like some dangerous egg on stilts as I weeble-wobbled on stick-thin pumps. Those days were full of sweaty hauls to show a curious customer every third-floor apartment on site. They were full of unusually hideous falls as walking is hard when one can’t find one’s feet. There were those uncomfortable squeaks and cracks every time I plopped into a chair. More than a few prospective clients scattered and gave me The Nice One’s empathetic eyes as I rammed a sloppy baby bump into walls, cars, lamps, and other such innocent victims. I felt, for the first time, completely awkward in my awkwardness. After twenty-plus years happy and oblivious in my daily dumbness, I finally felt the sting of looking like a joke.
One ugly afternoon, I desperately sought to make myself feel better by laughing at some other klutz’s demise. I stuck a note to my desk with a list of the most winningly embarrassing shows to watch after work. I would troll for hot messes on cable, less hot but far messier than myself.
The door swung open.
I trashed my list.
If I was searching for someone to take the title of Awkwardis Maximus off my hands, I found her. I call her Ruby.
My co-worker was finishing her tour of the property by showing a new client around the clubhouse. Ruby, I learned, was looking for a ground level apartment. Ruby, I saw, was morbidly obese. The woman struggled to move, bearing down with such force on a walker that the flimsy metal threatened to give way. I knew from years of practice in immaturity that nothing made me feel better about myself than seeing someone so blatantly worse off. In college days, if she had been a television show I surely would have cracked a fat joke. If she had been out of earshot, I surely would have pointed. The same jokes and points I always hoped my bumbling and fumbling would never attract.
But, oh God!, she was a person, right there in front of my desk as she lost her footing and tumbled down, down into a credenza, down in a messy splatter onto the office floor. Ruby fell down. I wanted to change the channel. Perhaps it was this new “act like a grown up” kick I’d been on or maybe the constant display of empathy I’d absorbed from The Nice One years before, but there was no joke here. Breathless but trying, Ruby attempted to mumble a little self-deprecating humor from her spot on the ground. Eternity ticked by. Everyone stared. I wanted to die. No. Wait. I wanted to change the channel and then die. I knew full well how difficult the business of laughing at one’s self can be. Slowly -with aid from her tiny daughter, a rickety chair, and the sheer force of my little prayers from the corner- Ruby was on her feet. She looked around the room, a small crowd of silently shocked witnesses, and I wanted to turn the TV off and die for her all over again.
My co-worker and I tried to laugh off the face-plant debacle.
Within seconds the panicked laughter turned to hiccupy crying, no emotion totally getting the point across that we witnessed the most embarrassing moment of all time and everything felt rotten.
Ruby never came back.
I understood in the way that I abruptly stopped shopping at a particular store after I destroyed one of its bathroom stalls in a Mexican-induced gut fit. No use returning to the scene of the cringe, I always say. I consider my encounter with Ruby, The Day I Stopped Laughing Like An A-Hole. I consider her misfortune the greatest trauma of my adult life. What strikes me about this fall (say, compared to the eight I took yesterday) is that I count Ruby’s fall the most awkward moment of my life. For those awful minutes, I was one with her humiliation. I was the youch! to her yang. I would have flipped the channel away from The Ruby Show faster than the blink of an eye. As The Nice One squeamishly muttered to countless televised hookers and couch-jumpers before, I can now confidently say, I feel your pain.
Writing Prompt: An awkward moment