Please Stop Talking, I Have to Use the Bathroom
Some people never stop talking, and some people, Lisa Lutz among them, just can't get away from these ramblers to find some peace and quiet. Lutz has "always felt powerless when confronted by someone who demanded an audience... always felt an inexplicable need to be that audience." The author's life has been filled with a talkative high-school teaching ex-nun, an aspiring poet coworker who wouldn't stop spewing bad lamentations, and a communicative painter roommate wishing for endless chats. Lutz endured this need for communication until reaching the breaking point one night, when she told the roommate that no, she did not like her art or her unstoppable chatter. And by saying she did not enjoy the paintings, it seems that Lutz expressed everything she had been holding in, as soon the art came down and the roommate decided to move out; "The bare walls providing a kind of calm I cannot describe." (Erica Sagrans, Utne).
I know it has happened to you. You're backing away slowly. But their story isn't finished. You nod your head quickly, as if to say, "That is fascinating. Please let me go." They don't get the cue and keep talking. You smile and force an appropriate expression onto your face. You pride yourself on how adept you have become at choosing the right expression. But all the while, you can hear the voice inside your head saying, "My God, do you ever stop talking?"
In The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson's 1952 noir classic, Sheriff Lou Ford, the novel's sociopath antihero, ostensibly bores his victims to death. Then he kills them. I read the novel over fifteen years ago and, for a seventeen-year-old, the parallel of a verbal and physical assault seems appropriate. At that age, authority figures seem to pop up at every turn, foisting their well-worn wisdom upon you. But there was another element at work. Ford was deliberate in talking his victims into a corner. He knew that he had a truly captive audience, and it amused him to watch them squirm as he rambled on.
In reality there are no Lou Fords. In reality there are people who simply don't recognize when to stop. There's nothing inherently wrong with the garrulous, but sometimes they cross the line. Granted, your average listener learns to draw boundaries and discovers polite and impolite methods of escape. But sometimes you don't know what to do. I've always felt powerless when confronted by someone who demanded an audience. I've also always felt an inexplicable need to be that audience.
I had one teacher in high school, a former Catholic nun excommunicated for (as she put it) radicalism. In her fifties, she met a man at a nightclub. They danced, and sometime later, married. In high school, he'd been the star quarterback. Now he stayed home and read all her books while she taught Latin, French, and English to a bunch of students who found her too strict and too strange. She could talk your ear off, but I liked her, even as she complained to me about the high school bureaucracy and her pupils' apathy. My classmates would wriggle out of her verbal grasp, but I stayed. Even when her diatribes lingered into the lunch hour, I kept listening, thinking that if I left, I'd miss something important. It was a thrill hearing a former nun swear, and I guess I always hoped she'd tell me whether she had really been a virgin at fifty when she finally married.
However, foul-mouthed ex-nuns were not my problem. It was the novelists, the poets, and the painters—they were my problem. I had a college roommate who wrote the beginning to a number of novels. They had no plot. They did, however, never fail to mention what the first-person narrator was wearing. Write what you know, they say. Her novel was full of narrative like, "Wearing only a t-shirt and socks, I lounged about in my apartment all day long," and "His long, lean, muscular arm reached up to the top shelf of the cupboard and removed a mug. He poured himself a cup of coffee. He was built like a swimmer." I'd like to point out that a) these were not romance novels; b) she was aiming for edgy/avant fiction; c) I'm giving you the best stuff.
So when above mentioned roommate started reading excerpts from her novels to me, often before bedtime, a certain kind of panic set in. What do you say in a situation like this? Is there any form of constructive criticism that would actually work? I imagined the two of us as a couple in marriage counseling. Try to be constructive, the therapist says. When you read to me, I feel angry, I say. You are a terrible writer, but I bet there are other things you do well. But instead of giving it to her straight, I learned to sleep. I slept a lot that term—sometimes it was fake and sometimes it was real. And it worked for a while. But there are only so many things you can sleep your way through.
Years ago I worked at a telephone help desk for gas station attendants around the country. Mainly it involved being yelled at by people who couldn't get their pumps to work. There was one coworker I particularly liked because she yelled back. We made plans to have drinks one night after a day when it seemed all the pumps in the world had broken. We went to a tropical theme bar that included a real crashed airplane. Inside the cabin, televisions playing looped travel videos filled the windows. Plastic macaque monkeys hung from the side of every drink. I believe the word Paradise was in the name.
We ordered drinks and bitched briefly about work. Then she pulled out a notebook and casually mentioned that it's some poetry she's been working on. Can she read me one? I said yes because I didn't know what else to say. She read the poem, which was long and sounded like the lyrics to a bad Metallica song. (I think she was aiming more toward the lyrics to a good Metallica song.) She finished and I said, that was nice, thinking the word nice wouldn't unduly encourage a person writing Metallica lyrics, and she'd stop.
As she read the next poem, I tried to distract myself by studying the view of Maui out the window. I've never been to Maui, so it was a nice distraction. But my vacation was interrupted because I was required to provide commentary after each poem. I found myself saying encouraging things like "you should try to get published," thinking this should be a publisher's problem, not mine. I was angry that she couldn't read my mind and decide to stop. I was angry that I'd chosen to sit there and be angry rather than excuse myself from the situation. In the end, I found some solace in pocketing all the monkeys from the night.
But sometimes you don't get a consolation prize. Sometimes you're trapped and there is no passive-aggressive method of getting out. Sometimes you're backed into a corner and you have to fight. I'll admit up front that it was my fault: I chose her from a long list of people interviewing for a room in my post-college apartment. I chose her because she said she owned power tools. I chose her because she was wearing an unflattering dress and too much makeup. I chose her because she was upset that the apartment didn't come with a bathtub. I was upset too. I chose her because she was short enough to fit into the shower.
Imagine coming home to find that all your furniture has been rearranged. Now imagine coming home to find a motley assortment of hideous artwork covering most of the wall space. My new roommate had failed to mention her plans to turn our home into her own personal art gallery. She'd failed to mention that all her paintings were self-portraits. And she'd failed to mention that her paintings were fall-down-on-your-knees-laughing awful.
Now imagine that roommate is silent only when she sleeps. If she wasn't talking to me, she was talking to a guest she'd invited over, or my guest. When there was no live human to talk to, the phone was attached to her ear. It stayed attached while she cooked dinner, while she painted pictures of herself, while she relieved herself in the bathroom, and presumably, while she used those power tools. Her need to communicate was stronger than my need not to, and I endured this imbalance for quite some time. But everyone has a breaking point. One morning, I answered a knock on my bedroom door to find her stark naked, just wanting to chat. At that moment, I couldn't disengage myself, but I knew then that my reticence was coming to an end.
A few nights later as I was nodding off to sleep, I heard the sound of hammering, which could only mean one thing: the completion of another painting. I got out of bed and walked into the living room. No. Not another one, I said, shaking my head. Why not? She asked. Because I don't like them I replied. She looked truly shocked and then told me that I'm the first person she's ever met in her entire life that doesn't think they are beautiful. I don't tell her that I could fill the state of Texas with such people. Instead I said, rather coldly, I don't like them and I live here. So if you could take them down, I'd appreciate it.
And by saying that I didn't appreciate her art, I was saying all the other things that I needed to say, and ultimately I communicated what I really needed to communicate. My roommate removed the paintings that night, and herself a few months later. I didn't do much decorating after that. The bare walls provided a kind of calm I cannot describe.
At some point, we've all kept another person from escaping as soon as they'd like. My friend Morgan, who teaches Special Education, does her part to help us all escape. She explained to me that some of her students' disabilities extended into the sector of non-verbal communication. I'd always thought that something deeply unconscious had to be at work with people who never stop talking, but it was Morgan who explained that understanding when to stop was a skill that could eventually be learned.
One night after dinner, Morgan and I were walking to meet a couple friends for a drink. I asked her what she'd done at school that day. She explained that she'd played a kind of charades with her students that centered on non-verbal communication. She'd made flashcards, each of which designated a non-verbal cue. One student would silently act out the message while the other tried to guess it. She gave me a few examples:
You have something in your teeth.
I think this milk is bad.
Please stop talking, I have to use the bathroom.
Wait a minute. Those first two sound easy, but how do you non-verbally communicate "Please stop talking, I have to use the bathroom?" We stopped and she demonstrated. I will try to describe what this looked like, but words indeed fall short. Morgan crossed her legs and started hopping up and down. Then she raised her arm straight out and waved a hybrid of goodbye and stop, all the while nodding her head quickly with a forced but friendly smile that said "It's been nice knowing you." It doubled me over immediately. I was laughing so hard I could barely stay on my feet, as I staggered along the sidewalk in slow motion.
Then I felt a hard blow to the side of my face. I could make out the sound of a car screeching off. I reached up to touch my cheek and felt a slimy substance covering my mouth and threatening to get into my eye. It was raw egg. It had hit the side of my face and exploded all over both of us. After we came to our senses, Morgan asked if I was all right. Strangely enough, the first thing that popped into my head was the threat of Salmonella. I was afraid to open my mouth. I started making monkey noises, trying to non-verbally convey I can't open my mouth because I don't want to die of food poisoning. Morgan's interpretation was close: I can't talk, I've just been egged. I started laughing again, which was hard, trying to keep my mouth and eye shut. Morgan realized that our friend David lived just up the street and she grabbed my arm and started running. Weak with laughter and half-blind with egg, I could barely keep up.
We cleaned ourselves up at David's, and as the shock of the incident subsided, we found ourselves invigorated by it. I insisted, despite the straw-like texture of our hair and the bits of eggshell that continued to surface, that we stick to our plan and go out anyway. It was a great night. A night filled with free drinks because, well, we were the victims of a random egging. It was a night filled with me insisting that Morgan repeat her lesson on non-verbal communication. Everyone laughed just as hard as I did. To familiar and unfamiliar faces, Morgan, David, and I each told our version of the events. It was like Rashomon with eggs. And I stayed out as late as I could because I wanted time to stand still. And I thought how strange it was that some kids driving by thought they'd ruin our evening and they gave us one of the best nights in years. I kept thinking about Sheriff Lou Ford and how bent he was on taking time away from people, as if to punish them for wasting what time they had. I decided to think about time more and to try to have more times like this. As Lou Ford says, "You've got forever, but that's no time at all."