I approached the window, falling into line behind several other kids. Speak up when you get to the window I coached myself. Otherwise you’ll have to repeat yourself. The line was shorter now. Another kid stepped up on the stool to reach the counter, announced her order, handed over coins or bills, and received candy or popcorn or ice cream in return. Don’t forget to smile because you want to be polite. My palms were sweaty. My heart beat like a bad case of hiccups.
I spent many a summer night at the ballpark where my mom played on a church softball team. It was the first place I remember being allowed to wander around on my own. My ultimate goal most nights as a seven- or eight-year-old was to obtain candy. Armed with several quarters or maybe a dollar or two I’d sweet-talked from my dad’s wallet, I often journeyed alone to the center of the complex where a squat brown building housed bathrooms, offices, and a concession stand complete with soft serve ice cream machine. But this was where the trouble started. I was afraid.
A naturally quiet and reserved child, the thought of completing a monetary transaction with an adult terrified me. In my everyday life, my parents handled ordering at restaurants or chit chatting with bank tellers. But alone at the ballpark with a FunDip in sight, taunting me with its delicious promise of sugar dipped in sugar, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands.
I slowly approached the open window, eyes downcast so as not to rile the cashier, when another kid mercifully zoomed into my peripheral vision and I backed away, happy to let him go first. His order completed, I crept forward again, repeatedly counting and recounting my coins and doing my clumsy version of mental math to make sure I had exactly the right amount of money for that sweet packet of powdery sugar. God forbid I have to go through the embarrassment of being five or ten cents short and having to either amend my order or run away.
As I counted and tried not to make eye contact, I’d quietly practice what I was going to say when I finally made it to the window. “Hello,” I’d murmur under my breath. Now, the cashier might just say hello back, or she might ask what you want I’d coach myself. Be prepared for both possibilities. “I’d like a FunDip, please.” Don’t forget please. Oh, and don’t forget to say you’d like the smaller one. Otherwise she’ll have to ask and you might say the big one on accident and then you won’t have enough money.
And that’s where it all started. Talking to myself, that is. And if you know me well, you might be surprised by this revelation. That’s because I’m sneaky about it. An empty house or classroom, my car, a whisper while the radio’s playing in my room—I never let these conversations be overheard. But give me a quiet moment alone and I’m off on a tangent that could last anywhere between five and thirty minutes. And I don’t just give myself pep talks or work through a grocery list. It’s not so much that I’m talking to myself—I’m voicing my half of a conversation with someone who’s not there.
I talk through real and imagined situations. I’ll rehash events of the day, modifying my stupid responses to questions or taking back an unkind word I said in anger to a student. I’ll practice conversations for tomorrow, trying out different ways to explain what a participle or a gerund is to a thirteen-year-old or rehearsing what to say on the phone with the garbage collection service.
If we’re good friends, I talk to you every day, whether you know it or not. We share the mundane details of our workdays, or we talk about where to have dinner, or we discuss whether Bernie really has a chance in the Democratic primary. I say things out loud, and you respond in my head. Don’t worry, you’re very well-spoken.
And then, of course, there’s the stuff my paranoid brain makes up. My natural state of being is worry plus introversion, and that means I’ve practiced exactly what I’d say to the other person if I got in a car crash. I know what orders I’d bark if I came upon a medical emergency. I have several lines prepared that would get me out of an uncomfortable conversation with a stranger at a bar. Oh, what if I casually run into Ryan Gosling getting a cup of coffee downtown? Better practice that. What if I’m suddenly called upon to give a tour of the local Meijer to President Obama? I’m prepared.
Is this all a terrible manifestation of self-consciousness? Do I let this faux-socializing replace the real thing too often? Yes and yes. But probably once a week I end up actually having a conversation I imagined earlier. It always goes better the second time around.