Wednesday, December 9, 2009

IT TAKES TWO TO MAKE A THING GO RIGHT

Three's a crowd. Four, a throng. Five, a total mob scene. I've recently rediscovered something I realized a long time ago but had forgotten for many years: It's all about the party of two.

In the past few weeks, I've found myself in social situations -- a pre-party, dinner, an asado, a gay pride parade -- in which I had to communicate with more than one person at a time. I choked. I looked for an escape. I babbled. I shut up. What the hell was my problem?

Most people who know me laugh when I tell them this, but I've always been incredibly shy. As a journalist, I've had to put aside my timidity to get the job done, so I'm good at hiding it, faking extroversion and coming across like the life of the party. But what no one knows is that inside I'm trembling, quaking, wishing I were anywhere but there.

For my first two years of school, I barely said a word. Coming from the Virgin Islands and having a strong Caribbean accent, I was always afraid of how people would react when I opened my mouth. Some thought it was cool; others weren't so cool and openly ridiculed me. In grade school, they made me go to Mrs. Upson's special speech class to learn how to speak properly, like a real American. Aside from a slight lisp and pronouncing T-H-R as T-R (not "one, two, three, " but "one, two, tree" ), I thought I spoke fine. To me, it was just part of the homogenization that schools call the learning process. You know, all in all you're just another brick in the wall.

Or maybe they were just trying to humiliate me.

It worked, and it didn't. The humiliation part, yes, because, like most kids, I wanted to be like everyone else, and each time they sent me to speech class, they reminded me that I wasn't. But aside from losing the lisp and mastering the art of saying "3," I never learned to speak like a real American. Despite leaving the Virgin Islands when I was four years old, as soon as I open my mouth, native English speakers almost always can tell that I originated somewhere in the Caribbean.

All these years later, I find myself back at square one, but this time, tackling an entirely different language. Sometimes people applaud me for negotiating Spanish so well. Others wonder why after three years in Buenos Aires I'm not totally fluent. (Easier said than done, folks.) And recently, another camp has formed: People who make fun of me (lovingly, usually, sometimes not) for speaking Spanish with a U.S. accent.

Suddenly, I'm in third grade all over again. (Where is Mrs. Upson when you need her?) And as soon as I'm in group of more than two, I get tongue tied, worried that every word I say is wrong. I'm great in huge parties (I'm talking wall-to-wall bodies, not a few scattered ones) because with the alcohol flowing, no one pays close attention to what I say or how I say it. I can flit from group to group, person to person, never settling on any one person or place long enough for the butterflies effect to kick in.

But the truth is, if I could, I'd go one on one all the time. There's the same potential for fear and ridicule, but in a party of two, there's more of an opportunity for my real personality to come across, and that's the one aspect of myself with which I've always been comfortable, in any language.

Sometimes I look in the mirror, and I'm not crazy about what I see. And whenever I hear my voice on an answering machine or on TV, I cringe at what I hear. But I'm confident in my ability to charm. Unfortunately, as the party gets larger, attention is divided and there are only bits and pieces of charm to go around. Constant interruptions and the jockeying of others for the center of attention get in the way, and once again, I'm back to being that 8-year-old weirdo with the funny accent.

Maybe tomorrow I'll sign up to learn sign language.
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