A few weeks ago, my sons and I sat in the waiting room at the allergist’s office as we do once a week. My eldest and I, both introverted observers, like to sit and look at the bustle of life going on around us. Or bury our noses in books. Without a book on hand, I was looking around the crowded waiting room–furtively, in my introverted way, trying not to draw attention to myself or make anyone uncomfortable. My furtiveness was completely unnecessary. I could have jumped up and started breakdancing in the middle of the carpeted floor, and I’m not sure anyone would have noticed. Everyone in that room sat in the same curled posture, heads bent, eyes reflecting the glare of tiny screens.
Not a single child, woman, or man in that room was actually present in that room, in that place and time. My children and I were surrounded by ghosts, by beings that looked like living, breathing people, but whose thoughts and attention and energy were anywhere but in that space.
In their defense, a crowded allergist’s office at 4 p.m. on a Monday isn’t exactly a wonderland. More often it’s a tangle of strangers’ limbs, a collection of unfamiliar gazes trying awkwardly not to intersect, a jumble of conversations like threads dangling from a frayed edge of fabric. It’s not beautiful. Our screens offer us a little magical window, an escape from the proximity of people we don’t know, the fact of their existence pressing up against us on every side.
But the places on our screens aren’t real. We aren’t really in them. The waiting room is real. The people in it are real. But no one’s there.
Presence is a tricky thing. We’re always being told to “be present,” to “be in the moment.” Much of the time, these messages come to us courtesy of the screens over which we huddle. We adopt an ancient posture, the same one our prehistoric ancestors must have used when they crouched over their fires, warming their hands at night. But the difference is that our lights offer no warmth. Just a cold, electric glare.
I felt suddenly very alone in that waiting room, as if my children and I were the lone survivors of an apocalypse. A zombie apocalypse that left behind shuffling bodies bereft of consciousness. I wondered who all those people were, what was so important about those screens that they couldn’t look up from them to the people sitting next to them. And these weren’t people waiting alone. They were parents and children, for the most part, and yet they sat there at the end of the long school day staring at their screens and not connecting with each other.
I’ve noticed this time and time again, but for some reason, there in that waiting room, it really struck me with new force. It was like being in a Beckett play where, for two hours, nothing happens and no one communicates until suddenly you’re struck dumb by the futility of everything. It was chilling. Here we were in this waiting-place, this liminal zone where something either just happened or it about to but never really does, and everyone was zombified. It’s a natural response, to seek for entertainment when we’re bored. But it also feels unnatural that we can’t just be, can’t just sit there for a moment in our own skins and acknowledge that we are all, all of us, always waiting. We’re never at our destinations. We’re always in progress, in process, and so if we can’t be present in the in-betweens that in the end form the bulk of our existence, where can we be? Where are we present, either to ourselves or to each other?
Last week, back at the allergist’s office, we waited. It’s interesting to see where people sit in a waiting room. As waiting rooms go, this one isn’t bad. It’s got lots of comfortable chairs, and a big glass wall. The funny thing is that people tend to sit facing the exit or the nurse’s room. My kids and I can almost always find a seat against the wall, looking out across the entire room and out the window. I guess everybody else is looking to get out, looking to get called, looking to move along, out of this place we’re at.
This week, not everyone was staring at a screen. Across from us sat an old man, his hair that gorgeous old-man-snow-white under his ballcap. We made eye contact. He’d lived long enough to read it not as a brief, forgettable moment of awkwardness, but as an invitation.
“How old are your boys?” he asked.
“Five and seven,” I told him.
And then, without warning, there in that room of curled spines and tiny screens, he opened his mouth to a torrent of words. “I have a daughter. I had a son. He’s dead.”
I express my sorrow for this stranger as best I can. He’s just given me a gift, after all, a raw, naked pain that I know isn’t ever going away. It is unspeakably humbling when strangers say these things, when they strip something bare inside their souls and lay it out in front of us, as if daring us to react.
He tells me that his son died at thirty of a heart attack. He tells me that his wife died three years later. He tells me that he’s living with his sister now. He says he’s had a hard life, summing it all up with a low-key agony that makes me want to shake my fist at heaven and invite him home for supper.
And then the nurse checks the two tiny puncture wounds in my son’s arms, and it’s time to go. It feels abrupt, walking out on this man who’s just handed me his sorrow. I tell him I hope he has a good evening. I mean it. I don’t know what else to say. No one else in the waiting room even appears to notice that a slightly frazzled-looking young mother and an old man who doesn’t smile, two strangers who still don’t even know each other’s names, are saying goodbye, that under their noses a tiny spark of human connection has flared into existence for a moment. That my emotions are breakdancing in the middle of the carpeted floor.
A screen is a thing, but to screen something is to hide it. I wonder what we’re all hiding from, sitting alone in crowded rooms and train cars and offices. Is it the spark of connection? Has the cold blue electronic glow made us fear the red heat of actual fire? Where are we, if we are not really where we are?
I am sad when I think about these things. It feels like a loss, a little death we die each time we have a chance to look at each other and don’t. I wonder if the screens we carry have changed the writer’s job, if subtly. They’ve certainly given it a double edge. Here I sit, in front of/hiding behind my computer screen, pouring out words in an attempt to connect, to break through the things that separate us. I use the thing I criticize to criticize the thing I’m criticizing. My thoughts feel a little dizzy, a little hypocritical. I don’t know where I’m going with this, exactly.
But I do know that I’m here.