Sometimes I will have a conversation that is undeniably awkward and afterwards I will try to figure out whose fault it was. Was it me? Was it the other person? Does it take two to tango awkwardly?
While J was at nursery school one morning, I thought I would take K outside and let him play in the snow while I shoveled the car out. I put him in his snowsuit and brought out a big plastic T-Rex for him to play with, because he likes to bury his toys in the snow and then forget where they are and whine miserably while I dig all around until I find them. Fun for everybody.
So, I sit him on top of a pile of snow with his T-Rex, and I start digging out the car. I’m not very good at shoveling snow, I admit; I am not fast or graceful. But I can do it.
K: BURY MY T-REX IN A HOLE!
Me: You bury your T-Rex in a hole. I’m shoveling.
Enter Neighbor. Actually, I don’t yet know that he is a neighbor, I do not recognize him, but he comes shambling over from across the road. Next to his garage stands a young man with a shovel.
Neighbor: Listen. I want you to let this young man Willie dig your car out.
I look at Willie. Willie is maybe in his early twenties, halfway handsome and decidedly underdressed for the weather, and looks bored. He raises a hand in a half-wave.
Me: (waving back) Oh, it’s fine. I can do it.
K: WHERE IS MY T-REX???
Neighbor: No, I want you to let Willie do it. He is my handyman.
Me: That’s so nice of you. Both of you. I’m really fine. I don’t mind doing it.
K: I CAN’T FIND MY T-REX!!!!
Neighbor: Listen. This isn’t about you can do it or you don’t mind. This is about being neighbors. This young man, he can do it quickly for you.
Me: Hold on, sweetie.
Wracking my brain: Have I ever seen this man before? I don’t know if I am supposed to pay Willie, or quite what is going on here. I don’t want to pay somebody to shovel my car. I’ve had people offer to shovel who clearly were wanting to be paid, so I don’t think I’m insane for thinking of this.
I change the subject with some niceties – I introduce myself and K, while K continues shouting about his T-Rex. Neighbor explains where he lives and which buildings he owns. I hope he will let go of the shoveling thing but he doesn’t, and again presses me to let Willie do it.
Me: It’s OK, I’m just going to do it. I don’t have any cash with me. (AWKWARD!)
Neighbor: I don’t want cash! This isn’t about cash! (AWKWARD!!!)
Willie: Are you sure you don’t want some help?
OK, obviously I am an asshole.
K: I FOUND MY T-REX! HE WAS IN THIS HOLE! HIS MOUTH IS FULL OF SNOW!
Neighbor: I don’t know your connection with Yale, but the Yale people around here, they snob you sometimes.
Oh no! I do not want to be a snob. I also do not want to be bullied into letting somebody shovel my car out when I really just want to shovel my own car out. I also want to tell him that I am not connected to Yale, but that is only partly true. What does all this say about me? Nothing particularly flattering, I suspect.
Neighbor: All I want is that you let Willie dig your car out, and then next time you see me, you wave and say hello to me.
Me: Well, I would do that anyway.
Am I an asshole AND a snob???
Willie comes over with his shovel.
Willie: I’ll just give you a hand here.
He starts shoveling. Neighbor extends his hand. I shake it. Neighbor screams.
Neighbor: Not so hard! I just had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome!
Me: Oh! I’m so sorry!
Willie: Cute kid. How old is he?
Me: He’s two. Say hi, K!
K snarls like a rabid dog.
Me: (uncertainly) He’s pretending to be a dinosaur.
Neighbor: Make sure you say hello next time you see me!
Me: Of course. Thank you!
Now I wonder if I have passed him a million times, wrangling kids, and not noticed. I should add here that we live on a friendly street, and I have warm interactions with many neighbors. It’s not like this is a neighborhood where nobody says hi. I just don’t remember seeing him before.
Willie and I shovel. Willie is very efficient. I toss snow around like an idiot. I make awkward small-talk, including telling him that he is not dressed warmly enough, and then I wonder when I started taking this maternal tone with semi-hot young men. K sits on his pile of snow, banging himself on the head with his T-Rex and glaring at Willie. It takes all of five minutes to finish. I thank Willie. He says no problem. End Scene.
So: I guess I should have just said Thank you, how nice of you right away, and accepted the help graciously, understanding it as a kind offer, overcoming my antisocial instincts, and not wondering about money. I’ve always believed it takes a certain generosity of spirit to gratefully and graciously accept another person’s generosity, and I didn’t pass muster in this scenario. Or maybe, since I really just felt like doing some peaceful shoveling on my own, I should have been firm instead of buckling and accepting a favor I didn’t want. Either way, I’m sure I was not being a weirdo all on my own. Perhaps Neighbor, once I declined, should have let it drop instead of freaking out and being borderline insulting. Perhaps K should have said hello nicely instead of being a grouch (but OK fine, he gets a little bit of a pass for being two). Feel free to cast your vote for Most Awkward Person In This Scenario. In any case, the next time I saw Neighbor, I waved, K gave him the stink-eye, and Neighbor beamed and waved back.