am having coffee in an American café, a poor imitation of something European no one understands to do well but Europeans. This is what I learn about the man beside me, who is seated with his male friend.
He has a cold, or so he thinks.
He throat is sore.
This began in the middle of the night when his partner stole some of the covers, and he was cold.
He got up and gargled, “to keep the bad germs from nesting.”
He had a bad bowel movement that he examined for fecal blood (“You never know…”)
Reassured he was not hemorrhaging he returned to bed and was strong enough, a little later, to reciprocate sex initiated by his male partner (“You know how that feels,” he tells his coffee friend).
But in the morning he felt worse still, so he called his doctor friend and let someone else take his dog Raffle for a walk. He had two more bad bowel movements but no more sex, at least none that’s mentioned.
“I feel, like, all dried out, like my skin has no moisture,” he says.
Why did he even come out, his friend asks.
“Well, misery likes company,” which is cue for his coffee friend to begin a detailed lament about his own lover, the pains of penetration included.
This is only what is spoken to my right.
To my left are two women each sending messages on their phones. They have order lattes and hot sandwiches but neither of them has yet begun to eat. They are absorbed in the text messages and the grunts and sighs and “I can’t believe this…” comments that seem to emerge naturally. Unlike the garrulous men, the two women say little to each other because their communication is focused down and out.
One finally says, “I’m totally bummed out about this,” but doesn’t say anything further.
The other says, “Well isn’t this just awesome,” and shows her friend something on the screen of her phone.
Five minutes pass before there’s any further communication between the two, but both are now eating their sandwiches, one of them oblivious to small food stains around her lips.
“You’ve, like, got some stuff,” the one says to the other with precision.
At that instant something remarkable occurs, like a shaft of light foraging and finally finding the dome of the Pantheon. It is an illumination of how the world works now, or can work, between bad bowel movements and stains.
The woman who has seen the food stain on her friend’s lip takes a photograph of her friend with her phone. She smiles. “This one doesn’t show it that good,” she says. She takes a second shot and then shows the screen to her fast-eating friend.
“Gross. I get it,” and she rubs her lips with a napkin.
“If you have the curiosity to get the vague outlines of what a friend has been doing, you can do it by perusing Facebook,” a New Yorker magazine employee told a novelist in an New York Times essay about the gradual disappearance of long emails.
What that means in practical terms is that friends are largely updated on their “vague outlines” when they sit down to drink, dine or chat.
What that also means is that many of the chats elaborate in nitty-gritty and unabashed terms on the details of everything from sexual encounters to toilet accidents and similar elucidations of the very private (and often marginally disinfected) self.
Casual talk is gristle-laden, mostly the harvest of rehashing. The unexpected sweep of insight and feeling that more polished conversation can produce — sacred in its own way — is an unknown when the smelly crabgrass of the insider self is all that’s needed to encourage and sustain fractured chatting. Crassness doesn’t exist in the absence of an recognized and shared sense of what’s objectionable, if not sordid (and shouting out “gross!” is useless, the damage done).
The man with the cold has now turned the conversation to the feel of a new pair of running shoes. “These are like Jason’s and I can work out with them and when I take them off, it’s so cool, my feet don’t stink…”