Hypothetical situation. You’re in a restaurant, one of those gimmicky joints that serve authentically inauthentic international foodstuffs. Let’s say it’s Australian—boomerangs and digeridoos and taxidermied kangaroos hanging on the wall, that sort of thing. A chipper brunette waitress stops at your table and gives you that token I’m-forced-to-do-this-or-I’ll-get-fired smile, and you smile back in sympathy as you glance down at her nametag. Andrea, got it. “My name’s Andrea, and I’ll be your server today,” she says as she hands you a menu. Damn, if she was going to tell me her name, why did I look down there, what if she th—“Thanks, Andrea,” you respond. You pick up the menu, feel around for the first two or three pages, and automatically flip past the starters, soups, and salads. Won’t be needing any of that tonight. You finger down the rest of the sections on the menu. Steak? Too heavy. Chicken? Had that for lunch. Go fish. The salmon seems to be the least inedible thing on this particular menu, so you decide to order it.
Things are going well—with the exception of the nametag incident—until you catch another glance at the name of the salmon dish and almost wish it weren’t true (this is a flagrantly un-Australian Australian attempt at seafood, so let’s call it the Ace Bikkie-Bodgy Slammin’ Salmon). Andrea’s going to think I’m an idiot if I say that. Okay, not a problem, just say “I’ll have The Salmon, you know, the-one-and-only salmon,” and I can avoid this mess. You bask in the problem-solving skills you inherited from your mother until you see another salmon dish in the very same section of the menu, clearly another lovechild of a late-night managerial meeting and an Australian slang dictionary. Crikey. Alright, so maybe if I point to the Ace Bikkie-Bodgy Slammin’ Salmon with my finger and say ‘I’ll have The Salmon,’ she’ll know that I want that salmon and not the other o—
“Are you all set?” Andrea appears out of nowhere. You move in for the kill. Alright, I know my rehearsal session was cut short by little-miss speed racer over here, but I think I can give it a shot. “Yes, I’ll have the salmon,” you say confidently, nearly jamming your patented menu-finger combo move into Andrea’s painted smile. Bingo.
“Oh,” says Andrea, stupefied. “But I asked if I could start you off with something to drink.”
This entirely hypothetical incident has been my absolute worst nightmare for as long as I can remember. For the first half of my life, I relied on my mother to order for me at restaurants. That feeling of genuine relief, that discharge of adrenaline when my mother agreed to do something that must have been so embarrassing for her as the parent of a 10-year-old, is one I will never forget. It wasn’t just for ordering food, either. It was for every little, insignificant incident that might’ve required me to speak to someone I would never again see in my life. I would draw the literal shortest straw and my mother would ask for another one on my behalf, as long as it meant I didn’t have to risk slurring my words in front of someone who frankly couldn’t care less.
I can’t talk to strangers. It’s funny—my kindergarten teacher would be beaming if she heard me say that. It’s as if one of her crisscross-applesauced five-year-olds stopped picking his nose for just seven minutes, creaked his head up to that enormous CRT television set in the library, and watched intently as actors pretending to be mustachioed pedophiles lured brainwashed schoolchildren into the back of their vans with the promise of candy. Then they’d all come together at the end to sing a song about how I should never talk to strangers. If only it were that easy.
I was born without family, without friends, without acquaintances, without a knowledge that anyone else in this world exists other than myself and the mother whose flushed, tear-stained face I stared into for the first time nearly 19 years ago. Every single person I have seen in my entire life—every member of my family, every friend come and gone, every waitress who would serve me at a restaurant—started out as a stranger. Maybe if I had never said a word from the time I was born until now, everyone would still be a stranger. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this very sentence that you’re reading right now because the executive staff of The Crimson would still be strangers and never would have commissioned me to write this piece. And I guess that would make me a stranger, too.
And yet, there is something so blissful about the thought of being a stranger, living with yourself and only yourself. You become a long-forgotten painting in an art museum. Each and every day, thousands of spectators look at the time period and location you come from and try to extract meaning from just about everything surrounding you. They attempt in vain to look deep within you and analyze you, inject their own interpretations of your voiceless being into you and brandish them as ultimate truths without even meeting you. But you never bear the burden of being you anymore. You flex and extend to whichever interpretation an onlooker wants you to be, from that of an 80-year-old art critic to that of a three-year-old girl who’d rather not spend her Sunday at an art museum. You become sheer perfection, a silent imprint on canvas. You never mess up. You never have to answer questions. And most importantly, you never have to order food in a restaurant ever, ever again.