One time I was in line getting a cup of coffee. These two guys in front of me were having this conversation about how one of them was about to go spend a semester at sea. So there were a lot of questions back and forth, like what kind of stuff are you going to bring, how big is the ship you’re going to be on, questions like that. And then they got their coffees and left.
And then it was my turn to order coffee, and as I stood there and waited for the barista to make my drink, this guy to my back tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You know, I spent some time at sea.”
Usually I’d at least respond, maybe with a, “Really?” or some sort of acknowledgment. But this stuff always happens to me. People start talking to me about random stuff while I’m waiting on line. And I could see where this was going. He’d get into a crazy story about life on the high seas, I’d probably have a lot of questions, I’d wind up staying and talking to this guy a lot longer than I ever really wanted to.
So I looked at him and said, “Yeah man, well I lived on a boat for five years. A really small boat. It was just me and the ocean. Just me and this really tiny boat.”
And he looked at me and said, “OK man, way to make everything about you.”
I said, “Excuse me?”
“Yeah man, I hate it when people do that. When I start to tell a story, and someone else just has to butt in with their own story. You could have at least heard me out first.”
And now I was already putting milk into my coffee. I should have been gone, that should have been it. But here I was, still standing here. Obviously my attempt to pivot out of the conversation hadn’t worked out. But why should it have? I could have started talking about basketball. That would have been a nice pivot, something that didn’t have anything to do with the sea. But now I wasn’t even talking to this guy about the ocean or boats. I was getting scolded for poor conversation.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I just get really emotional when people start talking about the sea.”
“I hear you, brother.”
Jesus Christ I could not shake this guy. Now he was nodding in sympathy, patting me on the back, and what was with all of that brother business? I’m not this guy’s brother. I’ve never been on a boat for more than two hours at a time.
“Did you feel it?” he asked.
“Did I feel what?”
“When you were alone out there, did you feel it call out to you?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Sure you do. The ocean. The eternal sea. The abyss.”
“Listen, I think you have the wrong idea.”
“I don’t. Not many people know what we’ve been through, you and I. I know you felt it.”
This had to have been the worst conversation pivot in the history of small-talk. I felt like anything I threw at this guy, he caught it, turned it into something even weirder to say right back to me.
I tried to pivot toward the truth, “OK, look, I’ve never been out to sea. I just said that before. I’m really sorry. I didn’t know how to react when you told me you spent time at sea, and so I just made something up. I don’t know why I did it. It obviously wasn’t cool of me to lead you on like that. But I really have to go, OK? I just came in for a cup of coffee, and now I have to leave. So goodbye.”
And I started toward the door, but he just followed me. I didn’t want to exit now. I didn’t want him to find out what direction I was walking in, or where I lived. So I stopped.
He got uncomfortably close and said, “Now I know you still feel it.”
I took another step. He took the same step.
“Come on man,” I said, “I really have to go.”
“Are you going to leave me alone?”
“Just admit that you felt it.”
“The sea. Tell me that you still feel it.”
“OK, fine, I still feel it.”
He just smiled.
And then I opened the door and started walking. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was following me maybe. That psycho. So I walked way out of the way, and then I got on the subway and took it two stops toward the city. And then I got out and took a cab back to my house.