My name is Zoe Tate and I can’t speak. Well, wait. Maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. Every time I use that word – melodramatic – I think of some grand southern belle in flowing skirts and dripping curls flinging her wrist to her forehead and collapsing into the waiting arms of her lover.
Anyway. I totally can speak. Like, I can open my mouth and make words on purpose. Just like you. Kind of. Thing is, let’s say I’m trying to have a conversation with you. I’ll look you in the eyes, have a miraculously witty remark all loaded up and ready to go only for the stupid words to get stuck behind some awful barrier in my throat. Or maybe it’s my heart. You know, like I’m too afraid you’ll find my witty remark dumb. Or maybe it’s my head and I’m just overthinking everything over and over and over until there’s just nothing to think about anymore and it’s all just analyzed down to this great big pile of worthless mush.
Whatever it is, while my words are striking that barrier, this awful, red-cheeked, maddening silence is stretching out ever more awkward between us and everything I thought I could say vanishes. So I smile. Or I giggle. Or I play with whatever there is in reach of my fingers. I’ll probably ask you a question about yourself and smile as you find some measure of relief in the sound of your own voice.
Thing is, I’m glad you’re talking. It means I don’t have to.
But I’m also jealous as all hell. ‘Cause I sure do want to.
It’s like I have this tiger inside me, just pacing the confines of the cage that is my silent mouth, roaring in frustration every time I clam up and pass the conversational ball off to someone else. That tiger wants out. I have a voice and she, in all her ferocious elegance, needs me to learn to use it and utterly resents the fact that I seem to refuse.
That’s the word. Seem. I’m sure it seems like I won’t talk. Like I have an option and I’ve chosen silence. But what’s happening is that I can’t talk. There are words in my head going a mile a minute and a lot of them are busy calling me all kinds of mean names for not just letting my voice fall from my parted lips like any normal human being. You’ve formed the words, I say to myself, now use them. You know what you want to say, now say it.
I just …
I try. Believe me, I try. Because I know my silence is part of the reason I’m so often alone. And for all my introverted awkwardness, I don’t want to be alone. I get it, it’s hard to be around me when I’m constantly blushing in frustrated silence. I bet some people even think I don’t like them or that I’m some super judgmental bitch. It’s not that. (Well, I don’t feel like a super judgmental bitch, but do we ever actually know the truth about who we really are? It’s way too easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re something we’re not.)
It’s like I’m trapped. I have all these things I want to say…
I want to participate in everything that’s going on around me…
I want to be seen…
If only I could speak.
“Zoe. Where’d you go? You in there?”
That’s Becca. The one leaning across the table and widening her eyes, trying to get my attention. If my introversion was a disability – and I sure think of it as a disability – Becca would be like my seeing-eye dog.
“Just daydreaming.” You know, about tigers and roaring and being seen and heard and all the thoughts in my head I wish I could get out into the world for others to know.
“Ya.” Becca blows air through her nose. “I’ve come to learn the signs.” Oh man. Is she irritated with me? I don’t like it when Becca’s irritated with me. She’s my lifeline to the world. “Now, don’t go getting all weird and embarrassed on me, Zoe.”
“I’m not getting weird.”
“You’re totally getting weird. Your cheeks are all red and you can’t even hit me with those baby blues.” She smiles and I know we’re in the clear. That icky-sickly nerves jangling in my stomach feeling dissipates. I wish I didn’t get that way. All nervous tummied just because she sighed a little extra heavily. “You gotta stay in this world,” Becca says for like the hundred millionth time. “It’s that zoning out that weirds out the rest of us.”
She says it ‘cause she’s trying to help. She says it ‘cause she thinks if she says it frequently enough, it’ll fix me or something. I’ve told her that I’d stop it if I could. She just doesn’t get it. She lives in this vibrant world of free flowing conversation and people that command her attention more so than the thoughts in her own head.
“So,” Becca leans in all conspiracy like, her chestnut eyes catching the light from above the table and I swear to God they just twinkled. Is that even supposed to happen in real life? She’s so flippin’ cute. Tiny. Perky. Makes it to five foot five only when wearing four inch heels. Her thick brown hair hangs in looping curls down her back. I run a hand through my not so thick, kinda strawberry blonde hair and gather it over my shoulder. “That guy over there?” Becca indicates someone behind me with a little jerk of her chin. “He’s been totally checking you out all night.”
She sits back in the booth with a self-satisfied smile and takes a sip from her beer. I run a finger through the condensation on my own glass as a new song comes on over the speakers. It’s harsher than the one before it. Grates on my nerves a little. Especially now that someone just started playing pool in the back of the bar. The click and clank of the balls bouncing off each other combines all helter skelter with the music. Sometimes it gets really hard for me to concentrate when there’s too much sound. Like, I swear I can hear the buzzing of the fluorescent bulbs lining the ceiling placed in sporadic but perfectly spaced little lines. Ya. I notice everything.
Becca lifts her eyebrows and throws up her hands. “Zoe.”
Ugh. I hate it when I’m so stuck inside myself like this. She hates it, too, so I hate it extra because it upsets her. I’m driving her a little crazy tonight. She wants me to acknowledge the fact that she pointed out some guy that’s supposedly checking me out. I give my head a little shake and wrinkle my nose. “No way. He can’t even see me. You know he’s looking at you.”
“I know when a guy is looking at me, my friend. And he,” she tips her beer his direction before taking another drink, “isn’t in the mood for brunettes.”
“Should I look?”
“Whoa! She speaks immediately after being spoken to. How nice.” Becca’s earrings swing near her jawline. My hand snakes up – almost of its own accord – and plays with one of my own earrings, spinning the last bead between my thumb and forefinger, while the other hand wraps itself protectively around my stomach – also of its own accord. “Stop fidgeting. Sit up straight.” The words hiss through Becca’s clenched teeth and I obey more out of surprise than anything. “He’s coming.”
It’s that simple. There was a guy, and he’d been looking at me, or so Becca says anyway, and now he’s coming over here. My cheeks grow hot and I feel the flush racing down my hairline and across my neck and chest.
I’m embarrassed. What a surprise. Plus, now I’m getting mad ‘cause I’m embarrassed which only makes me turn even redder.
A drink would be so nice right now, but the alcohol won’t do my red cheeks any favors. The good thing is, I’ve got Becca with me. She’ll do all the talking and I can hide behind her normalcy. It’s these kind of moments that make me extra grateful we’ve been friends for our entire lives.
A pair of jeans hanging just right off a fantastic ass struts past. The thin fabric of a t-shirt clings to a well-muscled back and a pair of broad shoulders. I barely have time to let my gaze finish wandering up his body to notice that, for one, the guy has great hair like Becca and, for two, he never even turns to look over his shoulder before he rounds the corner towards the bathrooms at the back of the bar.
“See.” I wipe my sweaty hands across my thighs and pick up my napkin to start worrying it down into a tight little ball. “Not interested. Not in me at least.”
“He’ll be back.” Becca smiles and tosses her hair. Her earrings flash like fish flitting through water. “He just needed to give you a chance to see him.”
“Becca …” What could I say? Even if he does stop, he won’t stay. I’ll stammer and blush and say something stupid and off he’ll go. He’s way too hot and I’m way not cool. I take a sip of my beer.
And he rounds the corner. He meets my eyes and smiles as I put my beer back on the table and clutch it with both hands. Oh shit. He’s totally coming this way.
If I could just hold eye contact … you know, flash him a smile and toss my hair over my shoulder … basically just channel Becca. Hell, Becca’s a pro. I’d be satisfied to channel a normal person at this point. Anything that would make the conversation we’re about to have any less awkward than I know it’s going to be.
Somewhere inside me, the tiger is pacing, roaring at my inability to express myself. I want to talk to this guy. I manage a smile in return before my eyes drop to the table. Totally against my will, damn it!
He stops and leans all casual like against Becca’s side of the booth. “Hey.” His voice is smooth and quiet, almost hard to hear under the clickety-clank of pool balls and raucous laughter at the back of the bar. God! If the lights would just stop buzzing!
I smile and dip my cheek towards my shoulder. Speak! Please. Just speak. The condensation from the beer has gotten my hands all wet and my napkin is a balled up disaster. I press my palms into the table and with a little flex of my fingers, wipe them dry.
“Hey.” My chin is still ducked towards my shoulder, but I manage a glimmer of eye contact and the briefest of tight lipped smiles. There’s a flicker of eye lashes as my gaze drops to the table, and then to my hands, and then to Becca. I smile at her. Hand her the conversational ball.
“Well, hey there,” Becca chirps. “I was wondering how long it’d take you to come for a visit.”
“Oh, ya?” Mr. Super Gorgeous turns his eyes – blue, almost the exact same shade as mine – to Becca and unleashes a blinding smile. Her eyebrows raise a fraction of an inch and she fluffs her hair.
Oooh. She thinks he’s hot, too.
“Yep. I’ve been watching you, watching her.” Becca indicates me with a jerk of her head and I think my heart skips a beat when our visitor hit me with a less blinding and more igniting version of his smile. His whole face changes when he looks at me. It goes from charming to sultry. I feel hunted. Exposed. Adrenaline hits my bloodstream and I manage to hold eye contact, but my mouth is open and I’m just staring. Transfixed. I take one breath. I should smile.
His brow crinkles. I know that look. I’ve disappointed him. Weirded him out. “Caught me, did you?” he asks as he turns back to Becca.
“Sure did.” She tilts her head towards her shoulder and shoots him a look dripping with condescension. “So, are you gonna ask her for her name or are you just going to keep leaning on the booth and freaking her out a little, you know, like you’re doing right now?”
So, I don’t know how to describe what happens next. It happens to me all the time. It’s one of the reasons I find it so hard to interact with people sometimes. It’s like every single sense I have is on fire, and each one of them is trying to see how much information it can give me all at once.
I hear the music that’s supposed to be unobtrusive and the lyrics in the song hit me like a pulsing neon sign. I hear the way my earrings jingle when I turn my head. I hear the conversations from everyone else in the bar mingling with the sportscaster on the television in the back. The damn buzzing of those stupid fluorescent lights sounds like a swarm of angry bees and for whatever reason the neon lights of the beer signs stuck to the wall decide to join in.
My peripheral vision expands. I see Becca fidgeting, and the menus leaning all haphazard like in their little stand thing on the table. But not just on our table. On all the tables. I see the light change as the front door opens and closes. I see the guy at the table next to me kiss his girlfriend. I see the hundred different shades of red and brown that trace through the brick walls of the place and the way the mortar is gray and chipping between them. I see the waitresses pacing between tables in their too tight Flannigan’s t-shirts.
I’ve got all this extra information that I don’t need taking up my ability to think. How do I focus on what’s going on at our table when my brain wants me to focus on everything in the room around me?
I’m so uncomfortable.
I smile. And swallow.
Mr. Super Gorgeous pushes off the booth and leans forward. He touches one finger to my hand and I swear there’s this flash of contact. There’s this gold ping of light and sound and it echoes off my hand in ripples.
Except that’s not possible.
The whole world settles down and I meet his gaze and hold eye contact. In this instant it’s just me and him. If before, it was as if my senses expanded to take in everything all at once, then now they’ve contracted so that I can only take in him. And his eyes settle on mine and for the first time in my entire life, I feel like someone’s seeing me. Like, the real me. Like in that instant of eye contact he can see that I’m locked inside here and want out and he wants to help me.
“What’s your name?” His voice is like … I don’t know … home. It’s soft and warm and made just for me. His eyes really are the same color as mine.
“Well, Zoe,” my name wrapped up in his voice makes me sigh. “I’m Noah. And meeting you is a pleasure.”
Noah lifts his fingers from my hand and straightens. The world zooms back into focus and I’m back into ‘super sharp too much information’ mode. My heart thrums in my chest like a bunny running through a field and I manage one shuddering breath through my parted lips. He shoots me a smile and tosses Becca a wink before disappearing back behind me to wherever he came from.
He laughs in response to some murmured comment from whoever he went back to. Whoever it was he came here with. Whoever it is that isn’t me.