I break it down this way. First, the girl is great and I feel like an idiot around her, which is for various deep-seated reasons. Second, off by myself I rehearse lines and moments that might go down with her. I do this endlessly and helplessly, the way I twitch my coccyx because I think now it’ll lie smooth. Third, the repetition has turned into company of a sort: I consider the girl’s outlook so many times that she’s there in my head, or my facsimile of her is. Fourth, by now this facsimile has been worn down to an essence, namely the sense of a pair of eyes deciding whether I’m good or no good. Apparently that’s what I get out of being around someone. Park me near this incredible girl and I’ll come away with a phantom measuring device of my psychic worth and social viability. That’s what I do with people. The difference in her case is that this particular device—the girl, I mean—is superb. This girl is some person, and a yes reading from her would grant me a lifetime of emotional security. As it is, I’ve got… oh God. Which leads me to point five: I’m alone a lot.
In past weeks I kept replaying our car crash moments, the incidents that landed me on the girl’s bad side. Soon I added non-existent speeches where I put things right; these I polished and combined until arriving at a formula that’s satisfied me. Now I’m in a new phase. I still think of her every day, but she gets just a few moments of face-time and absolutely no speeches. On the other hand, she remains what I measure my life against. Each daily experience presents itself to a search committee and is looked up and down. Will this moment do for my audition reel? If she saw me right now, would she think I was her kind of person?
Probably not, at least if I understand her properly. I’m going nowhere and tend to get my feet tangled in problems. But that does nothing to stop my ritual. I wave her doll at whatever circumstance is up for review. When the doll reacts unfavorably, I consider the need to straighten up and fly right. But often the doll’s reaction is favorable and I take comfort from that. In the meantime, socks on the floor get picked up. I think about going back to my novel.
The downside: I have a stranger soldered into the center of my day-to-day mental apparatus. Arrangements like that strike me as useful but disreputable, like a safety pin and clothesline keeping up pants. Normally, I can avoid this kind of shabbiness. Decades of self-control have brought me to that point. But the slant of my emotional set-up still goes the wrong way. Since I was eight, I’ve been off by myself, and spend my energy hyping myself into the thought that won’t last. I map out things I could say that would show this acquaintance or that how socialized I am. I remember good moments, my peak socialization moments, and run them through the projector. Habits like this make up a mental climate, one that’s been atop me most of my life. The weather is always itchy, sometimes brutal. In junior high I told myself scenarios under which my latest item of weird behavior wouldn’t count as weird. I panicked as I told myself these scenarios, because I could feel their implausibility closing in. But I couldn’t do without them.
What all the habits come down to is that I do a lot of talking and behaving, but with nobody to see me. In my head I rehearse what it would be like to be the way people are—that is, to live socially. Sometimes I imagine my audience as being one particular person or another, or a group of particular people; other times there’s no one but a generalized humanity. But always I try to persuade myself that I belong, that I can do it too and be a person who talks to people. That’s what all the rehearsal is for: to get myself ready so that next time I won’t blow it. Or so I think, the way I think my next fidget will get the coccyx lying right.
So, if you see Eulalie, tell her this. She might as well know.
—Follow C.T. May on Twitter:@CTMay3