Conflict and confrontation make few people comfortable, but they upend me.
Interactions that most shrug off with a “What’s his problem?” leave me physically shaking and despondent. One “what the fuck are you looking at” in a parking lot can send me into a tailspin that lasts for days. The closest pop culture analogy that comes to mind is the Seinfeld episode where George flies halfway across country to deliver a snappy comeback after stewing upon an insult for days: “The ocean called, they’re all out shrimp.” But in my case the trip for revenge never happens because that would involve conflict and confrontation.
I don’t know where this paralyzing aversion originates. During my childhood fighting back when my father was angry meant more anger, no matter how reasonably I tried. As a teenager, stepping outside my house and into my small Southern town virtually guaranteed confrontation. I was a Yankee, a faggot, a pretty boy, a this, a that. On the other hand, my internal chemistry is decidedly broken, manifesting itself as OCD, intrusive thoughts, social anxiety, panic disorder and occasional bouts of agoraphobia. Nature, nurture, I don’t know.
When I’m on an even keel I manage just fine, but when I’m not the slightest confrontation sends me reeling. In the two weeks since my mother’s death — the two worst weeks I’ve experienced since little pink pills started regulating my chemistry set — I’ve had a billing dispute with an editor that has caused me to withdraw from writing for hire and a phone call from a stranger seeking professional assistance that has rendered me terrified to answer my phone if I don’t recognize the number. Her overwhelming rudeness, hostility, and belligerence while I tried to answer her questions was more than I could handle.
I am the man you pass on the street who looks hurried, perturbed, and irritable — the asshole customer who doesn’t care that your name is Wendy and you’ll be my server today — but inside I am the little boy who is not allowed to explain that he didn’t break the vase; the teenager taking the perp walk from the parking lot to the high school while the rednecks berate him. You see a rude (or at least awkward) man, but I’m trying my damnedest to keep the broken shards from pushing through my skin: “My mother is dead, you see. When I close my eyes I see her frightened stare and her lifeless face, two images fluttering back and forth like tattered flags over a smoldering battlefield. You are yelling at a defenseless man, incapable of even raising his arms to protect his face.”
But I don’t say that. I don’t say anything, and Wendy the waitress is left with whatever impression she conjures from my outward countenance.
My latter days in L.A. were marked by similar fragility. What had begun as love with Jody had ended with bitter conflict and confrontation, a situation made exponentially worse by the fact that this was first love that had soured, that one that caught me when I was too naive to hold anything back. I’d thrown myself completely into Jody: faith, hope, love, trust, sex, dreams, ego. Combined with my paralyzing aversion to conflict, the end of that relationship shattered me into pieces that took me a decade to reassemble.
Two years after our last goodbye I still found myself drifting around Los Angeles uncomfortably. At home I developed elaborate lock checking rituals and stopped sleeping in what had been our bedroom. Often I didn’t fall asleep until the sun rose. Away from home I struggled to find a place to be. I began carrying a pack quite similar to the one I still carry: black journal, fountain pen, and book. I sat in restaurants and libraries, writing until my concentration gave out then reading Henry Miller until I felt like I could go another round with my pen.
My favorite hang was a coffee house named Insomnia, which stood across from another favorite spot, Cafe Mexica. I liked the latter because they made great enchiladas Suizas, and they’d make them with cheese rather than chicken. I ordered them so regularly that I didn’t even need to order them — a great benefit to a man incapable of small talking with Wendy the waitress.
One evening I found myself in the company of The New Guy. “What can I get you?” The New Guy asked.
“An iced tea, a glass of water, and the enchiladas Suizas but please make them with cheese.”
“Those aren’t enchiladas Suizas,” The New Guy said. “Enchiladas Suizas are made with chicken.”
“I know, but I’m a vegetarian.”
“They’re made with chicken.”
“No, I know, but I’m a vegetarian. I’m here all the time and they make them for me with cheese.”
“They aren’t enchiladas Suizas if they don’t have chicken,” The New Guy said.
“If you’d like to call them something else, feel free. I just want my dinner,” I said. That was my last visit to Cafe Mexica, and almost 25 years later that simple exchange, augmented by the weight of Jody, still bothers me.
Across the street at Insomnia I drank mint tea and ate scones while I hid in a white wingback chair with my black book and my Miller. The people who worked there were nice with exception to one barista who shot daggers through me when I’d approach the counter. Seven days per week for 3-5 hours per day I sat in that joint, reading and writing and sipping mint tea, and every time I approached the counter she stared at me like I’d shit in her hat. Every trip to the front for hot water or a scone felt like poor Oliver begging for more gruel, but the ritual of the wingback chair outweighed my discomfort, so I tolerated it as long as possible.
Eventually I cracked. “Excuse me,” I said. “Have I offended you or something?”
“Who are you?” she replied. “Have we met?” For months I obsessed over why a woman who never even noticed me.
People sat on the couch to the right of my chair. A matching red chair faced mine, and a coffee table rested in the middle. I buried myself in the wingback and my notebook and tried to remain invisible. I practiced dialog by transcribing the conversations happening around me.
“We should call Peter. Do they have a phone here? I want to call Peter.”
“Is he still here?”
“Peter? Peter is still here. He traded some art for a room at the Marmont.”
“Peter is staying at the Marmont?”
“I think it’s the Marmont. We should call Peter.”
“Peter is great.”
“Be right back. I”m going to see if they have a phone.”
When her friend left, the young woman sitting across from me in the red chair said, “Do you know Peter? Excuse me, do you know Peter?”
I looked up from my notebook. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes, are you a friend of Peter’s?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Then why are you sitting with us?”
“I was already sitting here when you came in,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess I didn’t see you.”
Her friend returned. “That was Peter. He’s going to come right over,” she said.
“He doesn’t know Peter.”
“You don’t know Peter?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh, you’ll love him.”
Thirty minutes later pop artist Peter Max walked in, kissed the girls, and sat down immediately to my right. “Peter,” he said, and he shook my hand.
He grabbed for my journal. “That your sketchbook? Let me take a look at it.”
I clung to the notebook as if it were the top rung on a broken ladder. A short tug of war ensued. “It’s just a journal,” I said.
“Oh, okay. Hey, have you guys eaten? Anything good here?” Peter said.
“People love the chicken pot pie, but don’t ask them to make it with cheese,” I said.
“What?” Peter said.
“Nothing. Dumb joke.”
He was nice. I sipped mint tea and he ate chicken pot pie and we exchanged small talk without either conflict or confrontation. My Dinner With Max is an uneventful story weighted with the ghost of Jody.
It took me 20 years to relax my death grip on my black journals and let anyone read pages like these, which I wrote while sitting in a restaurant booth. My server’s name was Jillian. She was very nice — no conflict or confrontation — but I doubt she thought much of me, if she thought of me at all.