Dear Guy in the Coffeeshop,
It’s super sweet that you like Russian literature. I can imagine that it’s not often you overhear it being discussed in a coffeeshop (although, since you’re in Seattle, visit enough coffeeshops and you’ll run into enough graduate students and literati and you’re bound to find some Cossackophiles* in the pile).
And yes, I sometimes wish that coffeeshops actually were the community centers that we claim them to be. Perhaps they were friendly public spaces prior to the days of laptops and personal listening devices, good for meeting new friends and potential dates. And really, obviously I am asking for someone to start a conversation if I’m going to haul out Nabokov’s Selected Letters and flash it around like some sort of merit badge of intelligenstia. (God I’m making myself sick to my stomach right now, it really is for a research project, I promise.)
And often, I really am so happy to talk about the book that I’m reading, or the book that you’re reading, or the books that we both ought to be reading.
BUT. UMMM….if I am with a friend, and we’ve been chatting, then when you talk to me, you BREAK THE ILLUSION that no one can hear my embarrassing (but highly amusing!) stories that I am telling to said friend.
If you can hear me talking about Russian literature, then you also just heard me mangle the pronunciation of “lyre” and you heard my friend tell a joke about a class she took once which culminated in a middle-aged woman shouting PENIS, which, while an accurate identification of the literary symbol found in the text, was not the rather more gentle answer of “phallic symbol” that the professor was looking for.
None of which is PARTICULARLY a problem, but only because I got lucky. That is tame compared to the things I sometimes say in public and the personal problems I sometimes discuss with friends over coffee. You don’t even want to know what happens when I talk about the time I had whooping cough (I do an impression of myself coughing while naked that would make Jerry Seinfeld want to curl up and die), or hear me analyze what I consider to be the political and social implications of hair removal, and yes, sometimes friends talk about their sexual mishaps over lattes, it happens (have you ever thrown up on a guy’s dick? It turns out, one friend tells me this story about a friend of hers, I tell another friend, she has a friend of a friend who…. everyone knows someone! It’s like six degrees of sexual upchuck! I’m thinking about starting an anthology. It’ll be called, You Really Don’t Want to Do That After I’ve Had a Full Meal and a Few Glasses of Beer).**
And look, I’m a rational person, I know I’m in a public place, I can see how close your table is to mine, but I would like to pretend you can’t hear me, okay? It’s like when you go for a gynecology exam and they give you a gown and a towel. So that your belly button will stay modest? I don’t even know. If you’re going to have your hands in my business, I don’t really care if you see my stomach or exposed elbows. And yet– somehow, that stupid-ass gown (or stupid ass-gown) does help you feel protected, hanging out for an interminable amount of time waiting for the doctor pretending that you always read US Weekly naked as a bluejay while sitting on paper, as if you’re some sort of deranged hyper-intelligent puppy (smart enough to read and yet still being potty-trained. Sigh).
So yes, while I know you can hear me, it’s quite another thing to be confronted with it, and dear god, surely it’s not interesting to hear me go on about whether to cut my hair a few inches shorter (I’m going to), but it’s still none of your damn business whether I actually completed my fifteen minute run this morning (I did not, thankyouverymuch).
And no, I don’t have a favorite Tolstoy short story. But I can tell you that Russian scholars will just as often translate it as Tolstoi, and Mandelstam preferred the transliteration of his name without the “h” that you so commonly see it with (Mandelshtam) and that Gorky made up most of the encounters found in his Literary Portraits. (Academia is a special kind of useless trivia hell and won’t someone invite me to a cocktail party? I can tell you all about Nabokov’s synesthesia.)
And I’ll thank you kindly to forget that one other thing I said about that thing, if you know what I mean.
*Cossackophiles: what sort of definition would you come up with if that word appeared in Balderdash? DIRTY, RIGHT?
**NOT ME. Mom, just avert your eyes and pretend you never read that.