There’s always a chance that the stranger you decide to talk to won’t let you get away, that he'll develop an instant desire to put you in a container and hang it around his neck, as Bill Murray does with his goldfish in What About Bob? As Angelina and Billy Bob did with their vials of blood.
You’re on an airplane and you wave at the two-year-old peeking over the seat in front of you. He waves back, you smile, he bats his eyelashes, you bat yours. Pretty soon you’re committed to interacting with him all the way to Atlanta. If you stop, he cries, and his parents, along with the rest of coach, wish you’d minded your own business.
While walking your dog you strike up a conversation with a woman digging in her flowerbed. Your dog smells her dog’s rear end and in ten seconds they’re fast friends, bowing and barking and running in circles on their leashes. So you go on chatting, and you don’t mind at first, because she’s friendly and forthcoming. She’s lived in the neighborhood for twenty years—one of the first things she tells you--and you, a relative newcomer, want to learn some of its history.
Then she starts delivering set speeches, stories so perfectly worded, sentences with so many clauses that you know she’s told these stories the same way hundreds of times. Maybe they make her look a little too good, a little better than most of us really are. Maybe they involve certain judgments about others that you’re not comfortable with. In any case, you’re not part of a conversation anymore. You’re an audience.
Before I map your escape route, I would like to pose a question.
Have you and I never been this child, this woman? Have we never tried someone else’s patience, or told the same story over and over, each time in a rosier light? Have we had no tiny narcissistic moments in which someone we just met, because she’s listening, because she hasn’t yet insisted on any reciprocity, seems like exactly the right person to confide in, to learn that our mother’s dying words to us were, “Aren’t you overdue for a haircut?”
Enough soul searching. Here’s what you do. You remember that you have to go to the bathroom.
In the case of the kid on the airplane, you head down the aisle as soon as possible and after using the facilities at length, you chat with the flight attendants or migrate from empty seat to empty seat until the two-year-old’s face is no longer visible, until he’s disappeared into a parental lap, settled down, maybe even fallen asleep.
In the case of the woman, you just say, I’ve got to go. And you won’t be lying, because you do have to go, at least some time soon. Bob might invite you into his house to use his own facilities, but the woman with the flowerbed and the dog probably won’t. And if she does, you just say no, thank you, that you’re weird about some things. Which of course you are.