I’m walking down a street in Dekalb, Illinois, a college boy, nineteen or twenty, coming toward me is a girl, only a slight acquaintance, maybe we have a class together, but it’s someone I’m interested in, attracted to, and look at her, she sees me and smiles, a big one. She even waves, and the smile and the wave shine a warm light. Surprised and joyous, I smile and wave, too, but as we come closer, I see that her eyes are aimed just over my shoulder, at a boy behind me. I drop my waving hand quickly and my heart drops with it, all the way to the sidewalk, as I’m blushing hotly and walking on, feeling so…
The dictionary defines embarrassment with another word: ‘abashed,' which “presupposes some initial self-confidence that receives a sudden check, producing shyness, shame or a feeling of inferiority.” Or all three packed into one second that lingers as a crisp snapshot in my memory even at age 75.
That mistaken-identity moment is a common one, isn’t it? You know the feeling.
Here I’m about twelve at a restaurant with my mother, father and brother. The waiter is recommending the special to my dad. This is only a notch above a diner. We couldn’t afford fancy and mostly ate at home. My father is nodding at the waiter and now speaking, reaching for jolly phrase, but Dad is an Italian immigrant, and his English is pretty good but not perfect. What he wants to say is “Okay, you twisted my arm.” What he says is: “Okay, you pulled my leg.” I blush and look at the tablecloth, sinking, shrinking. Another snapshot for the embarrassment album.
I believe these feelings come in their sharpest form between the ages of ten and twenty-five or so. As we age, thankfully, the blade doesn’t sink so deep. Now, when I think of the restaurant, I smile, feeling only love and warmth for my Dad, but my twelve-year-old self, in the snapshot, is abashed.
These were the years when trying on a pair of pants in a store as my mother waited outside of the cubicle, I’d be tugging at that curtain to make sure no one could see. What if someone came in?! And when in the bathroom at home (why was there no lock on that door?) if I heard someone touch the door handle, I’d shout “Somebody’s in here!” Somebody? We were a small family so I’m sure they knew who it was, but that’s what I said. And I bet you can imagine, on my first date, a high-school freshman dance, how I suffered terribly through the pain of having my father drive the car! Pick up the girl at her home! Take us to the dance! ‘Cause we were only fifteen.
Ooh, this one still chills me. My kind older brother, Paul, popular with the girls at twenty, not nearly as shy as I was (at sixteen) tells me that the girl he is dating has a sister my age, so why don’t I come with him to the girl’s home and the four of us will listen to records and dance. This is a first and a surprising blessing, so I force myself through my fears and say yes.
This memory is not a snapshot, but a video. We’re at the home of the girls. The younger sister is very pretty and not at all shy. We’re slow dancing, and I’m desperately trying for some cool and tearing through my brain like a thief, looking for witty things to say. I think I’m doing all right, but as we dance, I glance into a mirror and see that the girl I’m dancing with is giving a look to her older sister and rolling her eyes and shaking her head. No one knows I see this. Devastation.
I had failed myself and failed my brother. I don’t run this old video very often.
Here’s a lighter one. I’m the assistant janitor at an apartment building, a summer job during college. I’m outside, walking around the building, and I step on a grate – and the grate gives way, and I fall into the hole, suddenly standing in there up to my armpits! So embarrassing – except – there’s no one around. No one is on the lawn or on the street. Nobody sees me! Embarrassment disappears, and I stand in my hole and laugh.
Occasionally, I still feel some twinges of embarrassment, but they’re paper cuts compared to the arrows that struck my chest in those earlier years. Aging is freeing. I embrace it.