It was at a dinner party, a sheva brochos. Everyone there were our friends, or they could be: Musicians, artists, young couples who sometimes escaped to the city to hear live music, parents from the Montessori school where we send our kids. It was a heterogeneous crowd, rare for our neighborhood, where black hats mingled with knitted yarmulkes, bushy beards the size of stuffed animals brushed up against the two-day stubble of the guys who shaved but felt guilty about it. Men and women stood together, but apart, talking to each other in couples and in singles, ever mindful of Jewish law but not excessively anal about it. People are drinking, mingling, trading stories. People are laughing, dammit. I love it when people laugh.
These should be my people. I should be one of them.
Instead, I’m in a corner, thanking G-d I finally caved in and bought a smartphone. I have my reading app loaded. I’m relatively important at work–I get emails at all hours, and I’m usually expected to reply at once. It’s a good cover story. I scroll down, pretend I’m typing. Instead of spending time with these cool people, these friends and sort-of friends and potential friends, I’m deep into reading Jacob’s Room.
I thought I’d always be one of a kind. When I was a kid, the one who didn’t care what he wore, whose mother stuck a collared shirt underneath a knit sweater for school days. Later I was the kid who davka cared what people thought. I dressed to express: mismatched patterns that my best friend Mike and I found at downtown thrift stores, bright purple paisleys with caddy-corner tartan, vests, top hats, clothes I didn’t even know the names of.
I was like the star of a VH1 Behind the Music for nerds: Damned and excommunicated by popular-kid society, Matt Roth was banished to the back of the study hall. And then he turned the study hall…into the coolest, most happenin’ super-Batcave study hall the school had ever seen.
I’ve always been an introvert — better inside my head than out, better at hanging out with G-d than talking to other people. The fact that I was a wussy boy, inclined more toward books and games and long walks and solo pursuits than sports and girls, only contributed to the social damage. Somewhere along the way, probably because of my hermitude, I became more confident in myself — I never deluded myself by thinking I was good at baseball, but when you’re the only person in the room who’s ever read an issue of X-Men, it’s pretty easy to feel confident that you know more about the X-Men than anyone else in the world.
On the good days, I can convince myself I’m doing alright. I have a day job making video games. I write weird picture books about kids who fight killer aliens. I know all the words to “Let It Go,” and I have a kickass solo song-and-dance routine that’s so bad that my kids run away in horror and turn off the stereo, and that’s how I trick them out of playing it on repeat all day.
In the Ice Age, I would’ve been the worst Neanderthal in the world. Velociraptors would’ve outrun me in five seconds flat and julienned me before you finished reading this sentence. If I were alive a thousand years ago, I’d be one of the first casualties of Amalek or Haman or the Seven Nations. A hundred years ago, I’d be overworked in a factory on the Lower East Side, so trapped inside my dreams that I wouldn’t notice the machinery catching me and grinding me up inside its steel teeth.
I don’t want this to be a plea for myself as a total misanthrope: I’ve worked myself into a place in this world. I’ve learned to feed off my anxious energy as a way to be louder in groups; I can make fun of my awkwardness in a way that’s totally not awkward and makes people think I’m totally at ease with it.
But I still feel alone among friends, out of place practically anyplace where there are other people. I don’t want to. I don’t know why. I want to think that it’s some kind of purity buried inside me: the fact that I don’t care about the earthly pleasures everyone is hobnobbing about; that talk of business and spending and Netflix. It’s not, of course. If there’s one thing about me that I can honestly say is holy, it’s in that I have no illusions about my lack of holiness. I talk to G-d most in the blank and empty moments, the ones in which I have nothing else to think. When I should be praying, though, or laying myself raw or bare or emotionally honest, I get just as distracted as everyone else. Only, instead of the stock market or what clothes everybody’s wearing, I’m thinking about imaginary worlds or mystical powers or what nifty way the Doctor will next defeat the Dalek forces.
And maybe that’s what I should just say. Who am I to judge all these people, the ones whom I’ve already decided don’t want to talk to me, the ones whom I’ve already written off? I should just shut off my brain and listen to them, see if in their earthly ponderings I can decipher the hidden ways of G-d. Or maybe I should just tell them about the X-Men. G-d knows, if the rest of society has opened themselves up to the movie adaptations, these people might be willing to, too.
I know that all these things are a smokescreen. When you talk about a sports team, you’re not really talking about the people, the plays, the game being played. It’s a way of communicating — of relating to each other, of finding common ground beyond the mere fact of us being human and being Jewish and being alive. Everything we know is a code, like a spell or a prayer. Behind it all is the very simple message, you, like me, are alive.
One day I’ll get to that point — the point where I can say that to someone else, the point where I can gladly (and willingly) receive that from other people. Maybe that’s what an introvert means. Instead of normal conversation, maybe my way is starting from the inside — the mind of the mother from Jacob’s Room, my own mind — and working outward.
But for now, you’ll know where to find me.