I went to the theater on my own over the weekend. Seated next to me was a guy who was there on his own as well, and it felt like our anxiousness was bouncing off each other. Let’s dissect the whole event.
I was there early and was seated in the middle of a row of empty seats, reading. He came soon after and immediately the nervousness on both sides — mine and his — spiked (or so it seemed from my perspective). It could have been the general awkwardness of sitting right beside a stranger in a row of empty seats, much like the unspoken rule at men’s urinals. Since I was there first, I’d claimed that area as my personal space so it must have seemed like he was invading another’s privacy. It could also have been the awkwardness of having to interrupt someone reading and both of us shuffling about in the tight space for him to get to his seat.
When I’m anxious, I try as best as possible to control my body and limit my movements. Each movement is a conscious, calculated, and deliberate process in an effort to minimise twitching. Thus, I tend to come across as calm and confident — intimidating even — to the undiscerning eye. He had his nervous tics — at least, that was what it seemed like to me. He was fidgety and fiddled with his phone a number of times, carefully manoeuvring around to slip his phone in and out of his pocket without elbowing me on accident. The seats were narrow and packed closely together, so it was quite a tight squeeze, especially for him. He was tall and his knees were right up against the seats in front of us. Soon, the theater filled up. With our elbows tucked in, we waited for the lights to dim and the show to start.
The entire time during the show, it felt like we were both acutely aware of each other’s presence and movements. And because he was feeling tense, it made me even more tense, which in turn affected him, and it was just a constant ping-pong of tension between us. (Again, all this is purely from my perspective alone.) The seats weren’t very comfortable so everyone shifted about in their seats from time to time. He smelled of sadness, or perhaps that is what I associate with the faint lingering scent of alcohol, cigarettes, and cologne on someone. It was a weekend evening after all; he could have just come from dinner and drinks with friends.
During the intermission, I went to the washroom and came back to a row of empty seats once again. This time, when he shuffled back to his seat beside me, I took a quick glance at him. In that moment, he cast his eyes downwards, not making eye contact. I wondered if he felt inferior to me, and if he did, I was puzzled as to why since he’s the intimidating one physique-wise. He’s very tall, physically fit, good-looking, Caucasian, and had a deep voice. I wished I could tell him somehow that he needn’t feel that way. If only he knew the turmoil that was happening inside. But I couldn’t speak. Besides, what could I have said? I was very intrigued by him though and wanted to know more about him. He struck me as a model, or a dancer. A thought popped into my head. Maybe I could communicate with him by typing “What’s your story?” on my phone and showing it to him. In an idealistic scenario, there’d be a strong, instant connection and a deep understanding between us and we’d become the best of friends for the rest of our lives. But, of course, that’s unrealistic and all other possible outcomes raced through my mind.
What if he thought it was strange of me to “talk” to him this way? What if he responded verbally and expected me to speak as well?
Was it an odd question to ask, especially of a stranger? Would he perceive it as an invasion of his privacy? Would that make it even more awkward between us?
How would he react? Would I worsen his anxiety? Would he be offended and react angrily? If so, how could I escape after that?
What if I misinterpreted the entire situation? What if he wasn’t feeling anxious at all and was just a naturally restless person?
What if it was just transference? What if I were misattributing his behaviours to anxiety since that’s the case for me?
What if… What if… What if…
No, it wouldn’t have worked. I chucked that thought aside.
I decided to sit more comfortably when the show resumed. My tailbone was aching by then, and I suppose others’ were as well. I shifted about in my seat more often, trying to relieve the ache. At one point in time when he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, I took the opportunity to lean against his seat and rested an elbow on the armrest, being careful not to invade too much of his seat or else he’d bump into me when he leaned back. We remained like this for a while. Then came a really awkward exchange, or a lack of one, I suppose. He turned to me, muttered a quick “sorry” and leaned back in his seat, without bumping into me. It all happened so quickly and abruptly that I was taken by surprise and didn’t react — I didn’t know how to react. He felt awkward, and perhaps offended, that I blatantly ignored him — ignored his presence, his existence. In my peripheral vision, I see him looking down, as though in defeat. I felt so bad, but I still sat there like a statue trying to wrap my mind around what had just happened. He must have already been aware of where I was — my presence, how I was seated — in his peripheral vision when he was leaning forward. It explained why he apologised first, before he leaned back in his seat. The amount of tension building between us was almost unbearable. I didn’t know what to do — what I could do. By the time I was able to wrap my mind around it, the moment was long over and I didn’t think it’d be applicable anymore for me to do anything about it, even if I had known what to do or say. I shifted back into my seat feeling guilty and took my elbow off the armrest. At the end of the show, we left and went our separate ways.
It only occurred to me the next day that perhaps the best thing I could have done — and should have done — was to stop him at the end of the show, by lightly touching his arm, and typing “Are you feeling anxious as well? I have social anxiety. What about you?” on my phone and gesturing for him to respond by typing on my phone as well. If things went badly, we could have easily just gone our separate ways. If he was really feeling anxious as well, then the self-exposure, the intention to interact, the commonality of our internal states, and the mutual understanding would bring about a sense of comradeship, even if fleetingly. It would have been a personal moment between us as the crowd vacated the theater.
Alas, I’m left with daydreams of what could have been. I sometimes wonder if this is what I prefer — living vicariously through the could-have-been’s. It is like a cocoon that protects me from external harm, but also prevents me from experiencing life firsthand. And like a cocoon, this barrier, this barricade, isn’t indestructible. It has hardened and thickened over the years, and will continue to do so, but perhaps I’ve built the walls not just to shield me from harm but also to see who would bother making the effort of bringing them down or climbing over each one of them. This doesn’t give others nor myself much of a chance, so I’m left alone surrounded by walls that push people away and keep them out.
I wonder whether I’d be able to recognise him if I were to see him again. Not unless he dresses in exactly the same way, perhaps. I only had that split second of looking directly at him. Would he recognise me or even vaguely remember who I am? Even if he did, what would I do then? I’d make a fool of myself if I were to go up to a wrong person or if it was just all in my mind after all. Being of opposite genders also complicates things. What if he were to think I’m insinuating for something more? What if he responds by saying that he already has a partner? And so, the overanalysing and overthinking of every little detail continue…