I Would Prefer Not To
Bartleby the Scrivener is not the typical character to come to mind as a shining example of a successful life. But there is one thing Bartleby had that I have always envied, and that was his ability to meet any and all situations that were not to his liking with one simple and stunning phrase : “I would prefer not to.” Among humans whose nature it is to demand “why?” Bartleby had the one answer after which there could be no further questions, leaving his questioner neither offended nor provoked, merely baffled into silence. Long after Bartleby had gone on his way, maintaining his impenetrable demeanor, had it been me, the space between me and my questioner would have been piling high with qualifications, self-deprecations, and worst of all, the sort of impulsively revealed personal information that has the effect not of discouraging but inviting and justifying even more revelations.
I’ve tried the Bartleby maneuver. I remember two years ago, after the four thousandth detailed description of why I was leaving my job and what sort of life I hoped to pursue afterwards, I answered my unlucky Interlocutor Number Four Thousand One with an abrupt “I’d rather not say.” Had I knocked them over the head with my office chair, they could not have looked more shocked, hurt and betrayed. Clearly this sort of thing works a lot better in 19th century fiction than 21st century reality. But worse than the reaction were my own feelings of guilt, as if I had somehow broken the human contract by allowing my sense of loyalty to myself take precedence over my obligations as a compliant and well-mannered member of society.
Don’t get me wrong. In the right mood, when all the bluebirds are singing above my head, I can smalltalk and socialize with the best of them. I can cheerfully volunteer whole chapters of my life story when clearly a brief summary would have been adequate. I can be the first to accept an invitation to a social gathering and the last to leave, and greet everyone I meet with an open mind and heart and indefatigable energy to offer both. I can be a tree in spring bursting into bloom. And I can go home with no one the wiser and collapse for three days afterwards.
Please Don’t Talk to Me
Then there are other times, and I seem to be having a lot more of them lately, when I feel I am about to shatter into a million pieces if the pleasantries with the bank teller persist beyond three sentences, or a passing stranger maintains eye contact longer than I can hold my breath. Times like those, I know what’s best for me, and that is to stay far far away from other human beings until I am fit to be among them again. It will do no one any good to have as a party guest a tense little stormcloud who can’t hear what you just said because all she can hear is the mantra inside her head pleading “please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me…” Last week I attended a barbecue at which I sat poolside in a plastic chair, donned dark glasses and did my best to become still as a statue or flat as a shadow, hoping no one would ask me why I moved to Rutland. It didn’t work. I managed an early escape, still feel exhausted by the effort, and have burst into tears several times since then. And why did I not stay home? Because to decline seemed rude. Because it was easier to go than explain why I couldn’t. The hosts were kind people, they fed me food, they did nothing that could be interpreted as unpleasant, except that I preferred not to be there, and was.
Oh What a Tangled Web
I’m getting better at the necessary refusal. I still feel guilty. I still feel that I have broken my faith with the world by shunning its people when their only offense was to seek my company. But instead of going ahead and placing myself in an uncomfortable situation to spare the feelings of others, I now have the occasional summoned self-respect to spare my own feelings instead. What I still have trouble with is the explanation, for there is always that horrible moment, the fee if you will for the night of solitary freedom I am buying myself, of needing to provide an excuse, one that comes out with such incontrovertible confidence it allows for no further negotiation. I hate spinning stories, and find that even a good lie can come back and haunt you, such as pleading emergency or illness, only to be visited later by well-meaning self-appointed and utterly unwelcome bringers of relief. Pleading busy, especially more than once to the same inviters, can’t help but come across as rude and rejecting, and will be tucked away until the next meeting for the purposes of teasing, good natured and not. One thing is certain, whatever you plead, you will not be allowed to forget it anytime soon.
That leaves the truth, which always sounds pathetic, such as I’m just not up to it, I’m feeling a little down, I’m not in a party mood, I need to be by myself, maybe next time. Even friends that know and understand me have been reluctant to accept such lines. The two most common reactions are outright dismissal (“oh get over yourself, stop wallowing, come out and have a good time, you’ll feel better!”) to undue concern (“Are you alright? Is there anything I can do to help? Will you be okay alone?”) Face it, there is really no way to make “I don’t want to be around other people” NOT sound even the slightest bit offensive to – other people.
Setting a Pattern
As I write this I am still recovering from that one acceptance to a social occasion I foolishly made among a recent necessary flurry of refusals, the last of which is allowing me to be sitting here writing, something I know is much better for me than holding onto a determined smile and a glass of wine at a reception trying not to visibly wince in the crossfire of new names, enthusiastic handshakes and oh, the questions, being thrown like showers of hailstones at me. The ones that demand quick biographical summations I wish I had on a tape recorder concealed on my person and could recall with a press of a button instead of making my mouth pronounce the same words for the millionth time. And then of course the greatest hazard of multiple refusals – setting a pattern that itself opens me up to a line of questioning I have faced far too many times. Where have you been? Why don’t you come to these things more often? We missed you.
Sometimes I wonder when exactly I became such an old curmudgeonly misanthrope. But now that I've arrived, I'm waiting for them to send me the necessary paperwork, in triplicate, that releases me, especially in times of vulnerability or low spirits, from defending, explaining and otherwise apologizing for who I am. Perhaps then I will acquire the grace and privilege of uttering with no possibility of further explanation to myself or others -- “I would prefer not to.”
On the occasion of my 100th blog post I'd like to thank all of my readers, old and new, who have never expected me to be who I'm not, and have even made me feel pretty damn good about who I am. Much love to you all.