Is it just me, or has anyone else ever done something so mortifying that it genuinely hurts to recall the memory? Have you ever been so utterly embarrassed by a moment, an event, a misunderstanding that, on recollection, your eyes squint shut, your lips purse together like you've sucked a lemon and your whole body wants to fold in on itself with the force of the cringe?
Please tell me you have, because I don't want to be alone with my shame any more.
It was my first time meeting someone inside a cafe since March. That is my first defence.
Socialising and casual conversation are not things that come easy to me, and as I was four months out of practice, something was bound to go wrong.
As sick as your secrets
You don't give up running for four months and then go straight into a marathon: you'd pull a muscle! It's the same concept with being a sit-in customer - except I'd give anything to have only pulled a muscle. Pulled muscles I can deal with, but I have nowhere for this free-floating embarrassment to go.
I believe that you're only as sick as your secrets - if you shine a light on something shameful, it can't fester and grow in the dark, and by talking about things, we diminish their power. So here we go.
I rock up to the cafe between breakfast and lunch. My theory was that there would be less footfall at that time, which guaranteed me one of the few seats inside - and also, fewer people means less Covid-19 risk. I wasn't wrong. The man behind the Perspex smiled at me. Maybe he didn't, but there was a Joker-style grin design emblazoned on his face mask, which was a little disconcerting. I'm not sure it achieved the level of approachability and friendliness he was going for, but I appreciated his gesture of wearing it all the same.
"Can I get a table for two, please?" I roared at him in order to be heard. Between my mask, the Perspex, the ambient noise of the coffee machine and the London Underground (the band, not the train), my roar was just about perceptible. The Joker Waiter picked up two menus and cocked his head for me to follow him.
I sat down where instructed, pulled my chair in towards my table, and then checked the floor left and right to make sure I was still inside the little lines marked on the floor which indicate your two-metre allowance. When I looked up to order a coffee from The Joker Waiter, he was gone. I spent some time assessing my surroundings. I felt safe; distanced; comfortable, even. My anxiety about stepping into sit-in society were unfounded in this instance. The Covid-19 warning stickers covered every surface. The hand sanitiser was flowing.
My shoulders dropped at little. I got too confident. I sat back in my chair and stretched my legs in front of me. In the movie version of this event, I'd have put my hands behind my head to indicate I was now too relaxed to be vigilant. This was where I went wrong. I should have kept my wits about me.
The Joker Waiter was looking at me from across the cafe. Maybe he was checking if I was finished reading the menu. Maybe he was calculating if he could seat people in the table next to me and still have us all in our little quarantine boxes. I don't know. All I know is I could feel his eyes checking me out.
Swagger and a smile He walked towards me with a kind of swagger that I've only ever seen in places that serve alcohol. Again, I think he was smiling, but because of the mask, I couldn't be sure. He stood over me, leaned down a little, made strong eye contact, held it and then he definitely smiled. I could see the corners of his eyes pinching to reveal little crow's feet. His accent was strong through his mask. His words were all curly and rounded and low-pitched and identified him as a Spaniard.
"Would you like to give me your name and number?" His question hit me like a scream at a birthday party. It was so out of place.
I blinked at him, my eyelashes heavy with Charlotte Tilbury mascara.
"I'm sorry, I actually have a boyfriend," I said sympathetically, putting a hand to my chest.
I smiled to soften the blow.
"No, Miss... it's for the uh... contact tracing."
Mortification (noun): a sense of humiliation and shame caused by something that wounds one's pride or self-respect.
If you too have been embarrassed to a level that almost needed medical intervention, please find me on Instagram and tell me your story to make me feel better. I'm @stefaniepreissner.