It was my last Friday night in Tucson, and I was reading at home alone, despite several friends’ sincere wishes to see me one last time before I leave town. Traveling always makes my existentialist side surface, and when that happens I prefer to be alone or with people I feel very mentally close to. Unfortunately, sometimes I inexplicably stray from my instincts and I end up bowing to social pressures and conventions. More succinctly, I made a terrible decision that night: My roommate invited me to her friend’s birthday dinner, and I said yes.
The sushi restaurant was of the variety that men wear black t-shirts and clean jeans to, downtown and popular and not good for groups but groups go there regardless because they’re not really going for the sushi or the service anyway. They go for the exotic, expensive (but not extraordinary) food, for the proximity to the clubs, for the generic soft-beat techno, all of which that trigger associations with modernity and city life and being young and independent and surrounded by twenty of your best acquaintances on a night out. I don’t want to say that the desire to be — that — is necessarily wrong or right; I merely wish to state that it seems to be an overwhelmingly popular aspiration that I have never identified with.
When we arrived (late, thank god), the table was not looking very spirited. The woman to my left was half-heartedly picking at fried rice with chopsticks, several people were barely making an effort to text surreptitiously, the birthday girl appeared utterly indifferent to everyone around her but extremely interested in her California roll. That’s not to say there wasn’t a conversation happening – people were laughing and joking with each other and complimenting each other’s choices in tempura or tuna, but sometimes when I am feeling far removed from situations, body language is more memorable. It is only my own that I could not interpret. How good of an actress am I, I always wonder. Is my apathy visible in my lack of makeup or heels? Does anyone notice that I laugh only when it would be awkward not to? And then I remember that acting requires an audience, and more often than not, no one is watching. And it’s not so much that I care that no one is paying attention to me – it’s more that the larger issue of the decrease in amount and quality of human interaction in the world suddenly becomes very localized and relevant and you remember why so many people live their lives rarely feeling or thinking anything at all. I hadn’t felt anything – not the least connection with anyone there – for the first 45 minutes, except perhaps hunger and isolation.
Pictures from the evening tell a different story. Everyone is focused and smiling and close and enjoying a shared experience of camaraderie and seafood. And of course, these days it’s also somehow normalized and necessary to look at the pictures immediately, as if looking at your sake and squid salad on a screen enhances the reality and pleasure of having them right in front of you. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I do. I understand what it means to grasp at straws for conversation, because even though so many people resist it with their actions and habits, I think most of us DO want to love and connect with each other. We have just forgotten how, or perhaps have forgotten that it takes effort. Eleven different perfect and unremarkable hairstyles were documented this evening. I counted. I don’t know how many shades of lipstick or eye shadow. I only know that collectively, hours must have been spent getting ready for an evening of socializing, and still people arrived completely unprepared to relate to each other. My roommate spent 45 minutes in front of the mirror before we left, and during a conversation about how everyone looks so nice, bragged about how little time she spent preening.
The whole ordeal was over after two hours. We even had separate checks, so there was never any need for me to know any of the people’s names on the other side of the table, or what kind of fish they liked, or if they were as overwhelmed by the menu and evening as I was. I managed to duck out as soon as I got my card back and walked home, trying to make sense of it all: misanthropy and love and sushi bars, in the middle of a desert.