131. Shyness

Part 4 of the 'Vertigo' series. (Starts here.)

WHEN I WAS A girl I was incredibly shy, and that shyness lingered long into adulthood. After my parents died, I found myself retreating into my shyness and finding a kind of desolate comfort there. The first true friend I ever made was at the swimming pool, and his name was Kid Congo. The friendship was born as if in in slow motion, over a period of weeks. Every day, Kid would ask me for a cigarette, which I would hand over without a word, and he would retreat to his corner of the swimming pool and smoke it lying on his back watching the sky. It became a ritual until, three weeks later, I was reading in my usual place on the grass when I felt a shadow and a thud on my bare stomach. Kid was looming over me. I owe you, he said. I told him I didn’t want his cigarettes, but he said if he kept them he’d smoke them, and he only liked to smoke one cigarette a day, right here at the swimming pool. This way, he wouldn’t feel bad about asking me for cigarettes. And with that, he retreated to his habitual corner of the swimming pool. The next day, however, when he came for his daily cigarette, he sat down beside me. Even though he was sitting right there net to me smoking another of my cigarettes, I had no idea what to say to him, which is to say there was no end of things to say to him, but none of them seemed quite right. I had retreated into my shyness so completely that I felt, in such situations, like I was at the end of a long tunnel, and all of life occurred just outside the entrance to the tunnel, in the distance. I felt like anything I could say I needed to shout, and somehow it didn’t seem right to shout such things, and preferable to say nothing at all. Thankfully I was wearing sunglasses that day, and I was able to pretend I was reading my book while watching Kid Congo smoke my cigarette. He was a beautiful boy, and he smoked as if I wasn’t there. He wasn’t frozen in his silence like I was. He looked bored, and to alleviate the boredom he was studying his skin as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. As far as I could see his skin, which was brown and lovely, was eminently worthy of study. If I had been able to speak, at that moment, I would have said, Let me study your skin with you, let me do a degree in your skin. When he had finished smoking the cigarette he stood and walked over to a rubbish bin to throw the butt out and then retreated to his customary position. Thanks, he said, and I nodded in my usual grave way, watching him retreat to his usual position, my heart breaking with its customary loneliness. For the rest of that day, I replayed the situation over and over in my head, imagining all kinds of possible conversation we might have had, so that by the next day, when he sat down beside me to smoke a cigarette, a conversation kicked into life almost without a hiccough. Once I became friends with Kid Congo, I made friends with all his friends, and while I remain shy among strangers to this day, very soon that period of intense solitude came to an end.