I first saw the flier posted on the bulletin board in the psychology building. Below the heading, the picture caught my attention: a cartoon full of colorful, smiling stick figures standing in small groups or sitting around some round tables. There were symbols inside of the dialogue bubbles that suggested the topic of their conversations. Standing in the middle of this room (which looked very much like the layout of the dorm’s cafeteria) was this frowning black stick figure with a tear coming down one cheek. It was like the artist had sliced open my brain, pulled out the content of my worst nightmare, and splattered it down on paper and left it there for everybody to see.
For the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the seminar that the flier was advertising. Like most decisions in my life, there were two parts of me always in conflict, two little mini-me standing on my shoulders, persuading me to take their side.
On one shoulder, I heard, “You’re never going to get far in life if you don’t become more outgoing. You need to go to this seminar. It is the most important thing you could do for yourself right now, and it will the most rewarding experience of your life.”
On the other side, I could hear, “A seminar for people who are deathly afraid of social situations. Hmm, who the hell would attend that? Isn’t that like taking a blind person to the Grand Canyon, or asking a deaf person to translate over the phone? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
It would take several more times of passing by those fliers all around campus (ten to be exact) that I finally decided to take the giant leap and go to the seminar.
The flier said we were supposed to meet at the conference room at the Student Union at 6 PM on Friday. I arrived at the building at 5:45. Afraid to be the first one and even more afraid to be the only one who showed up, I walked around the hallways, passing by the conference room several times until I saw people walking in. At six, I finally went in.
The turnout was pretty decent, exactly 15 people, 9 men and 6 women. Everyone sat around the large rectangular table; I sat at a corner nearest to the door. Already some people were striking casual conversations with each other; I had a hard time believing they actually needed this ‘support group.’
At 6:05, one of the person who was talking…an attractive lady in a greenish-gray pantsuit…stood in front of the room and introduced herself as Dr. Mary Lake, an associate professor in the Psychology Department. She talked a little about herself, about how she used to be shy too, and how through her research, she had learned a few things to overcome her public phobias. And now she’s hear to help us.
Soon, it was time to introduce ourselves. I considered walking out at that moment, but remained seated. Listening to the the stories, I was actually very touched and inspired to know that many other folks faced the same problems and are nagged by the same thoughts as I do when it comes to talking to new people. It was also interesting to learn how they came to the decision of going to this seminar.
When it was my turn to speak, I was shaking in my seat, “I…uh…went here because…um…I thought there would be cookies.”
Those who know me (those I’ve been comfortable enough around) knew that I don’t speak much. But when I do, I usually rely on sarcasm or wisecracking to draw some chuckles. Indeed, the comment was successful at that front.
After the introductions, Dr. Lake said, “Well, my philosophy has always been…if you go at something, you go at it all the way. We’re not going to take baby-steps here to help you guys overcome your fears; we’re not going to dip our pinky toes in the water. We will immerse our whole selves into that social ocean at once. That’s how we’re going to do it. So let’s all get out of this cramped room and go downstairs to the cafeteria…where, you guessed it, there are LOTS of people.”
As we walked, Dr. Lake explained her social experiment, “I’ve recruited ten people to sit or stand by themselves around the cafeteria. You have two options. You can either talk to somebody in this group, or you can walk to one of my stand-ins and strike up a conversation with them. Simple as that.”
My stomach turned at the thought of walking up to a complete stranger and awkwardly introducing myself and trying to find something to talk about. Some guy walking behind me asked what was on my mind, “What if we have nothing to talk about.”
Dr. Lake replied, “All of you are students at this university. So there, you’ve got one thing in common. You can talk about just the most mundane things…like what classes your taking, do you like our sports team? It doesn’t have to be a deep philosophical dialogue. Sometimes you’ll find that chatting about something as simple as the weather will lead to greater, more interesting topics. Just let the conversation flow naturally.” She pushed through the double doors of the cafeteria, “And here we are…”
Many of us in the group were surprised when we realized that there weren’t just ten people in the cafeteria; there were all the other hundreds of dorm students who were eating dinner as well. “How do we know which ones are the stand-in?” asked a girl who spoke my thought.
“Well, I can tell you they are supposed to be sitting by themselves and that they’re not supposed to leave until 7:30. Also, if you ask them about this experiment, they will pretend not to know what you’re talking about. So the real fun is just to get over your nerves and just talk to anybody. Preferably, somebody you don't know. Now go get your food and start mingling. Remember, I’ll be observing you.”
I stood in the longest line to get some food in hopes of delaying the inevitable. When it was my turn to order, I thought about what would be the longest, most complicated thing to make on the menu. From experience, I knew the answer was popcorn shrimp wrap. Because so very few people order popcorn shrimp, they never make it until it is ordered. So I knew that would be at least five minutes of thawing and frying time. Then they would have to wrap the seafood according to my choice of vegetables and sauce (which was everything)! It took no less than fifteen minutes for the wrap to arrive on my plate.
Now, I had to find someone to talk to. As I surveyed the eating area, I could spot some people sitting alone. Some were inhaling their food like air, so I knew they weren’t here to stick around. Other I’ve seen several times before eating by themselves, so they couldn’t be one of the recruited.
Frequently, my head turned towards the direction of this cute brown-haired guy sitting by one of the windows. He was sitting by himself, alright. And he was eating slowly, which was another good sign. And he kept looking around as if he was seeing if somebody wanted to sit by him. Perhaps the most important factor was that he was incredible good-looking…which meant that if he had a choice, he would probably be swarmed by girls and surrounded by his fellow fraternity friends.
So, here was the chance for me to talk to a guy way out of my league, with the comfort of knowing that he was probably getting paid to pretend to be interested in talking to me. As I walked closer and closer to his table, I could see Dr. Lake at the corner of my eye, looking at me intensely.
“Um, may I sit here?” I asked.
He smiled the most brilliant smile and nodded, “Yeah, sure. My friends ditched me for Pizza Hut, and I’m stuck here eating dorm food.” He extended his arm, “I’m Luke.”
“I’m Kenny.” I shook his hand. God, he had such a nice firm shake.
“You got the popcorn shrimp wrap too?” He asked.
“Yeah. I don't like it very much.”
He nodded, “Yeah, I know. This shit tastes horrible, but I love ordering it. Cuz it's too damn funny to see the cook's reaction when they read it the order slip."
“It’s a bonus when they cuss…” I interjected.
We laughed in agreement; I guess it helped break the tension. As our conversation meandered into other areas, including where we lived, what major and classes we were taking, the unseasonably cool summer we had, our hobbies, I was getting more and more comfortable talking to him. He was just an amazingly charming, easy-going guy. But when we got to the subject of what we liked to do downtown, I knew it would lead to a topic I didn’t want to talk about.
“I like to window shop, and watch independent movies at the
“That’s cool,” he nodded, “What bars do you usually go to?”
“I don’t usually go to bars.”
“Really? Have you ever been to a bar?”
“Yeah, one, once. But I don’t drink.”
“Wow, that’s cool…I guess." He nodded, "Can I ask why?"
"My dad used to beat me when he got drunk."
His eyes flared out for a moment, "Really?"
"No," I said, "But I've found that an abuse story actually sounds less odd to other people than saying I don't drink because I simply don't want to."
"You're right." He guffawed, "That does sound odder. So, what sports are you into?”
I resisted rolling my eyes, another topic I didn't want to go into, “As a casual spectator, I enjoy the major events like the super bowl or NCAA championship. But I don’t really follow it anything intensely.. And I don’t play any sports.”
From my experience, I knew that my lack of enthusiasm for sports was gonna kill the conversation immediately. Luke squeezed his lips tightly together and nodded, trying to find words as to not put me down, “Well, sports isn’t for everybody. I like it because it keeps me fit. But I’m not too competitive, really, I just play whatever ball I want to throw around that day.”
There was a lull in our conversation as he looked out the window.
After a moment, he blurted, “Damn, that girl is hot.” He pointed out the window, and I could see her. She was wearing a sports bra and black shorts, with an iPod strap on her left arm.
“She looks very fit,” I commented.
“Fit! Hell, did you see that booty? Lord have mercy, I wanna do so many things to her she won’t know left from right, up from down when I’m done with her.”
I efforted a slight chuckle. He studied me carefully, “Can I ask you something personal? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
I gulped and nodded. Yeah, from all the cues I’ve been throwing out, I was sure he had an inkling about my sexual orientation.
“Are you a virgin?” he asked.
It was a question of sexual nature, but it wasn't the one I expected. I guess I had the same answer for both, “Yes.”
“Yeah,” he laughed, “I can tell. You’re very tense. You need to get laid, man.”
“Well, that’s not a great chance of that…considering everything about me.”
“What about you?” He asked, “I think you’re a cute guy. You just need a little make-over and a boost in confidence, and you’ll get all the babes you want.”
Did he just comment on my looks?
"Ya know what, why don’t you go to Fat Joe's tonight at 10 and I’ll hook you up. I know this girl who is crazy about virgins. And I know she’s gonna love you.”
"Um..." was my response.
"Or, you can just pick out a girl you want to take home and I'll teach you how to talk to her."
"Is this part of the experiment?" I asked.
"What experiment?" he chuckled.
"I really appreciate it, but why are you suggesting this?"
"Because man, you're a cool guy. I want to help you because I can help you. Cuz let me tell you...some guys, I just can't help. They're miserable fools who are gonna be lonely for the rest of their lives. But you have potential, lots of potential. So how about it, I see you at Fat Joe's at 10?"
I nodded slowly.
He checked his watch. It was 7:30. “Alright, I’m outta here. Take it easy now. I better see you there.”
I watched as he stood up and left. For the first time, I realize that he was not only pretty but tall. Probably 6 foot 3. Deep, crescent moon eyes gave him such a sexy, mysterious persona. I could see from his V-neck shirt that he had a perfectly fit body. And because he was wearing shorts, I could see his beautiful long, muscled legs. That jogging girl had nothing compared to the ridiculous ass on him. I didn't bother being discreet, staring at him until he disappeared completely around the corner.
Dr. Lake saw that he left and asked, “So, how was your conversation?”
“We hit a few rough patches. But it went well overall. He was very nice throughout, even when he realized we didn’t have much in common. He was never patronizing to me. I guess you should give him an A+ if he’s getting graded for this, or however he's getting compensated.”
“He’s not one of my stand-ins,” she chuckled.
I dropped my jaw. Holy shit!