Embarrassment is a sissy word. It sounds like the polite term for liposuction, and it’s too long. Guilt and shame are short words, and they sound right. Compared to them, embarrassment sounds French. It’s fake, like perfume and toilet spray.
For everyday embarrassments it works just fine. These embarrassments are sort of fake themselves and feel as though they’re happening to someone else. I stumble off curbs, I pull at doors that say PUSH, I realise that I’m in the wrong bathroom once I’m stuck in a stall. I trip over things that aren’t there and I walk into things that are. All these things happen to some other guy, and not me. I laugh them off and move on, usually rather quickly.
But I’m also prone to a different kind of embarrassment. I daydream and talk to myself and because of this I often accept things that normal people would question. I can focus and be logical but only once other options are exhausted. Most of the time I just shrug and make up reasons for why things are as weird as they appear to be. The kind of trouble I get into because of this is not adequately described by the word embarrassment.
As an example, consider something that happened about fifteen years ago — more recent examples are too painful. At the time I worked for a software company that employed a sales consultant called Jeff.
Jeff was a short little man with a tall idea of himself. He also had a Rolex and a Porsche. Jeff and I went to meet a prospective customer and had some time to kill before the meeting. Jeff decided that we should kill this time in a new coffee shop he’d heard about. He parked the Porsche outside and strutted in. The place was cold and minimalist, all glass and angles. We were the only customers. We sat at a table and Jeff surveyed me.
“Where’s your tie?” he demanded. “We’re seeing a customer.”
“I don’t have a tie.”
He looked stunned.
“I can see that,” he said. “How come you don’t have a tie?”
“I don’t own a tie,” I said. “I don’t like them.”
He shook his head and stroked his tie with his hand and looked at his Rolex. The Rolex was a hideous thing with diamond-like studs around the dial. It looked like a gilded haemorrhoid. He fiddled with its strap.
“I’ll do the talking today,” he said, changing the subject. “All you have to do is ask questions.”
He leaned in to make a point. “Now and then.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Harmless ones,” he said with a little smile. “Don’t upset them, and don’t ask anything to which you don’t know the answer.”
“Why bother then?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose with infinite slowness.
“Just let me talk, OK? You’re there to look technical.”
He sat back in his chair.
“Besides,” he added, “you don’t even have a tie.”
The waiter arrived. His name was Gary. It said so on a metal badge pinned to his uniform. I know this even today, fifteen years later, because I’ve kept that badge.
“What can I get you,” Gary asked chirpily.
“A latte,” Jeff said, and adjusted his Rolex.
“And for you?”
“I need an espresso,” I said. “But do me a favour. I’d like it in a normal cup, not in a little demitasse.”
Gary paused for what seemed to be a long time.
“It’s an espresso,” he said, looking tired. “It comes in an espresso cup.”
“I know. But I hate those small cups. Just give me a normal cup.”
“Jeremy won’t like that,” he said.
He nodded in the direction of the coffee bar behind which a man in his forties stood watching us with what seemed like a little too much interest.
“He’s the barista.”
“Why won’t he like it?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Well,” Gary said, eyeing Jeremy, “Jeremy has ways he likes to do things.”
I was speechless at this new information.
“He’s also the owner,” Gary added helpfully.
Jeff looked at his Rolex and drummed his fingers on the table.
“OK,” I said. “Tell Jeremy that I’m the customer. I too have ways I like to do things. And I’d like my espresso in a normal cup if that’s OK?”
“I’ll tell him,” Gary resigned. “But he’s not going to like it.”
“That’s what I mean,” Jeff said with some satisfaction as Gary walked away. “Just leave the talking to me today.”
We sat in silence as Gary and Jeremy conferred in low voices at the counter. Jeremy made our coffees, glaring at me as though I was the sort of barbarian he’d heard about before but never thought he’d actually meet.
“There you go,” Gary said as he returned with our order. “One latte, and one espresso.”
Jeremy had put my espresso in a large glass mug, but I decided to shut up. We sipped our coffees in silence after Gary left. Jeremy came around the counter and now leaned against it, watching us. I was grateful when Jeff glanced at his Rolex and announced that we had to leave or we’d be late. He signalled for the bill.
“I have to use the bathroom,” I said.
“Hurry up,” said Jeff. “I’ll be outside.”
The bathroom was dimly lit. At first I thought I’d gone into the ladies again because there were no urinals, but then I saw that it was worse than that. Whomever designed the interior of the coffee shop had been given free reign in the bathroom as well. The urinal was a long, slanted slab of granite, like a table along the wall.
“Jesus,” I said, “there aren’t even dividers.”
The thing was a little high too and I had to stand on tiptoe to reach it.
“It’s Jeff,” I said out loud. “I’m getting shorter just being near him.”
Peeing on it made the granite shiny and dark. I started to spray around to see how much I could cover. The door behind me opened and a shaft of light illuminated what was instantly recognisable as a basin. There were three taps arranged along the wall above the granite slab.
“What the FUCK are you doing!?” Gary cried.
I fumbled with myself.
“Jeremy!” he called into the shop, “this prick is pissing in your basin!”
We wrestled briefly in the doorway as he tried to detain me and in the scuffle I somehow ripped the name badge off his uniform.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he called after me as I hurried to the door.
“Hey!” Jeremy shouted as he made for the bathroom to see for himself. “Stop!”
But Jeff was outside already and I didn’t stop.
“Let’s go,” I wheezed as I got into the Porsche.
Behind us, as we drove off, Jeremy appeared on the steps outside the coffee shop and hurled the mug after us.
“Jesus!” Jeff hissed, glancing at me and looking in the rearview mirror, “can’t you just shut the fuck up?”
Then he saw that I was clutching Gary’s badge. He puffed his cheeks in disbelief. “What’s wrong with a small cup anyway?” he asked.
We turned the corner and he sat back in his seat, shaking his head.
“I’ll do the talking today,” he declared. “Don’t say a fucking word.”