1989. I'm a senior at a different high school than the one I entered as a freshman, and I'm eating alone: brown bag, one sandwich plus dessert. At least five empty chairs surround me.
The year is running smoothly, if not spectacularly. Making the move from Kansas City to St. Louis with my family has given me a shot at a new identity and a chance to ditch some baggage.
However, I'm still in high school, and I'm still dealing with high schoolers.
"Are you gay?" one kid asks on my first day.
"No," I answer with finality, trying not to sound annoyed.
"Well, I just thought with your looks, you'd be surrounded by girls."
He couldn't even allow me a full day to get my bearings. In truth, girls weren't on the list. I had college-level physics, advanced algebra, geography, American literature, history and composition classes. I didn't have time.
But soon, my solo lunch was augmented by a small group of young ladies. I never objected to them taking seats at my table. I never interrupted their girl talk. In fact, I never said anything.
They would chew and gab and I would watch them, content in my private feast. I can't remember whether I felt it rude to speak up, or fearful of the result. Memories of girls spurning me were still guiding my actions -- or repressing them.
This went on for months before I graduated and took a summer job at Six Flags Over Mid-America before entering Mizzou. Part of my Six Flag stint involved "spieling," calling racing games over a microphone like they were a micro Kentucky Derby. One of the lunch ladies noticed and shared the result with her friends when school resumed.
"We couldn't believe it," she told me. "I told them you were doing all this spieling."
Some people have modes like computers -- quiet mode and active mode -- and other people can't understand how they can both exist in the same person. It's not abnormal. Introverts, I have heard, will wordlessly explore a social situation and then wade into it when they're ready. People make the mistake of trying to force introverts to socialize, and it degenerates into awkwardness.
"But isn't sitting at a lunch table surrounded by (pretty) girls without saying anything awkward, too?"
Well, yes. But remember, it's a mode, not a problem.