What I Think About When I Worry About Talking (2)

This is the second of four loosely related posts that can be read in sequence or separately. The first described how fresh conversations about mental health helped me acknowledge, rather than play down, the validity of my own experiences - however small those experiences might seem. As a result, I decided to relate the following two stories as well.

Unreserved reservation

Last May I gave myself an afternoon off to watch Avengers: Infinity War.

It was a normal working day in term-time and I was looking forward to a less-than-packed screening for the biggest film of the year. Using a self-service ticket machine meant I could avoid speaking to a person at the refreshment counter and feeling rushed into my seating choice.

The machine showed five seats together at the far end of the back row, all available.

The one next to the wall, right in the corner, was unappealing, just in case I got hemmed in by a party of four. Fifth from the wall was little better, since it put me next to a seat that was already booked. You always want a buffer of an empty seat when you can get one, right? What if you end up next to somebody with a mountain of snacks?

Okay, I always want the buffer of an empty seat when I can get one. And yes: I’m a cinema behaviour snob and unapologetic for it.

The choice, then, came down to the second or third seat from the wall. It was all about balance, trying not to be completely unfair to other patrons buying tickets after me, but trying to engineer that all-important buffer. With an hour before the advertised start time, I went for lunch with the misplaced confidence of someone who had booked the middle seat of the five and thought they had chosen well.



Fifty minutes later, shuffling along the back row of the screen to take my place, that confidence turned into an ice bath of realisation at my terrible error of judgement.

Two people occupied the two seats nearest to the wall. Another pair occupied the fourth and fifth seats away from the wall.

In the middle: the sorry sight of my cramped, lonely seat - complete with a couple of coats draped over it from either side.

It was too much to take. Unable to face the prospect of wedging myself between two pairs of people, I panicked and did the one thing no self-respecting cinema-goer does: I took an unoccupied chair down the row.

From memory, the ticket machine showed the rest of the row was reserved, so I knew someone could arrive any moment expecting to sit in their rightful place.

Taking another seat was only making things potentially worse. The chain reaction of awkwardness played out in my head: the embarrassment of apologising to the person whose seat I was in. The embarrassment of moving to my booked seat … and spending three hours between people who I’d clearly decided against sitting next to in the first place. But I took the chance.

My reward was spending thirty minutes of adverts and trailers, plus the first ten minutes of the film itself, nervously watching for latecomers who might want to claim the spot where I was perched.

Mental fuzz.

Mental fuzz.

It was an horrendous experience, a crash course in self-inflicted social anxiety that I could only laugh about afterwards because I got away with sitting in the wrong place. The person whose seat I was in must have already thrown a spanner in the pointless system by recklessly sitting elsewhere before I’d arrived.

Reserved seating in cinemas is annoying and frustrating. Being too paralysed by the fear of interacting with others, and trying to avoid in advance the entirely imagined problem of how those people might behave during the film, is even worse.

Free refills

Breakfast is the best meal of the day. I would add ‘IMHO’ but I’m taking ownership of my feelings and opinions. So, damn it, breakfast is the best meal of the day.

Pancake breakfast at the Sweet Maple cafe, Chicago.

Pancake breakfast at the Sweet Maple cafe, Chicago.

In an authentic American Midwest diner serving big plates of pancakes, it’s also a chance to imagine yourself in any one of a million popular culture references. Pick your favourite.

Mine is Jack Reacher, lead character in a series of novels by Lee Child. Reacher is frequently depicted starting his day with breakfast and several cups of strong coffee, before finding a ne'er-do-well or three to headbutt.

One of the attractions of the authentic diner experience is that ritual of having your coffee cup repeatedly topped up. On my first morning in Chicago last autumn, taking a seat in the Sweet Maple Cafe, I realised I could partake in that ritual.

There was just one problem: I don’t like coffee. My excitement at getting a proper American breakfast meant I didn’t contemplate needing to refuse coffee until I saw the server heading toward my table.

Fleetingly, I considered going along with the social convention. Coffee is the system, it’s how things work in a place like that. Who am I, with my dislike of coffee, to come along and break this perfect pop culture scene? I considered giving into the self-inflicted pressure despite knowing it could ultimately ruin the experience.

What was I going to do? Force down half a cup of something I don’t enjoy for the sake of appearances, only to then have it topped back up? As my brain computed all this, before finally realising it was ridiculous, I forgot to keep breathing. Exhaling broke the tension of the moment, and I said, rather meekly, “No coffee, thank you.”

Of course, it was not a problem. The only person who made it an issue was me.

There was so much about travelling solo in America that I could have been scared of, but which never bothered me a jot. For the first thing to worry me be whether I should accept a cup of coffee or not is the perfect illustration of our brains’ (okay, my brain’s) capacity for irrationality.

Unlike in the cinema a few months before when I elected not to take my chosen seat, this time I dealt with the fear as soon as it happened.