I met my best friend at a dinner party. She was wearing a leather jacket. She smelled like a blend of peppermint and cancer, which is what menthol cigarettes really smells like when you get too close. When I told a joke—which is what I do when I’m stuck at a long, candlelit table full of strangers and nervous out of my mind—she smiled in a way that told me she was funnier, she just didn’t feel like being funny right then. Or talking to me, either.
"That Michelle! What a snooty stinkball!" I thought. A few days later we bumped into each other and she gave me a novel from her bag that I’d mentioned I’d wanted to read. A week later, when I returned it, she explained that she was going to AA and having a rough time and didn’t know how to socialize yet, not without 42 glasses of Scotch. What I had perceived as dislike on her part was the same thing I was feeling—terror of a row of looming, unknown faces.
Round One—whether it’s meeting a friend for the first time or dating somebody for the first time or having sex for the first time—is exactly when things are most likely be completely awkward, stilted and even discouraging. Nobody knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it’s also the time we’re most likely to toss off a judgment and move on. Those of us, however, who master giving everybody a pass on this encounter are the ones most likely to progress to Round 2 and Round 2002—which are the times when both of you are fully accepted and understood, menthols, bad jokes and all.