Sleeping and showering and eating and hanging out with the same people all day, every day, I am reminded how much I hate smalltalk. I go sit with Carlos at lunch. I hang my head over my same-iceberg-lettuce-ad-infinitum salad and ask him how his suite is. Good. He asks me how I am. Good. Leanne arrives with a tray of pizza and we ask her the same questions. Good. Everyone sips their iced soda in the icelike plastic cup between sentences.
There’s more we’d like to say. Sometimes we manage, and talk about Don DeLillo, or journals to get published in, or we open the pressure valve and let some hormones leak out over each other. We need the smalltalk, though; I hate it, but we do. We are tired of thinking of ways to convince our students that marauding through Charlottesville unchaperoned is not a vital part of the writing experience. We are exhausted from obsessing over where we’ll live when the program’s over. We need some way to reassure each other quickly that we’re alive, despite our complete sacrifice of our waking hours to younger writers, and concerned with each other’s well-being, I guess. Still, I always want the deep stuff.
When did smalltalk start? It’s only recently that I’ve found myself among big groups of people trying to hit my mark. I feel like I’ve written this before, but the part I hate most is adult kinds of parties. I used to love these when I was little. In elementary school I used to be at all my dad’s parties with his running buddies, or in junior high, parties thrown by the USC Slavic Studies department, where my mother was studying for her Master’s. I’d huddle in a corner, sneaking Doonesbury or Bloom County books off the bookshelves, reading them cover to cover. I got to be invisible and listen. One time at a 24-hour relay my dad was running, I stayed up long past midnight under the daylike lights of the track and wrote down snippets of conversations I heard outside our tent, stringing them into a long, impressionistic piece as the dew condensed on the tent sides. Every now and again I’d drop into the circle of conversation, make a precocious comment to a grad student some twenty years older than me but cute anyway, wow ‘em with my early adulthood.
Being smart doesn’t have the same charm at parties anymore. I don’t turn invisible if I curl up in the corner with a book. That comes off as antisocial now. I can’t just start talking about Star Trek, either, or whatever else is on my mind. There’s new protocols for approaching people. It’s awkward, and unreal, like there’s some cardboard cutout of me in the room, a placeholder, and people feel inclined to interact with it. Behind it somewhere I’m still in the corner, listening and wondering who Jeane Kirkpatrick is when she’s not dating Bill the Cat.