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*Note: This post tells my perception of a recent experience. Because I have not obtained permission from the other individuals to use their names, I have changed names and intentionally obscured the location of this story.*

Saying Yes When Fear Tells You to Say No

I recently found myself in a peculiar position over dinner. I was away from husband and Jack for the night, and a delightful new sushi restaurant had recently opened down the street from where I was staying. Their opening was soft; so soft, in fact, that there was no signage, I was uncertain of hours, and couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone.

I learned that the best way to know whether the restaurant is serving is to see whether the large doors off to the side are open. Of course, what appear from the outside to be the main doors are no entrance at all. Because that’s logical, especially for a place with no signage.

Once you find the correct entrance, you enter a foyer with a hostess stand, but no actual hostess. At least not yet. I’m assuming they’ll get a hostess at some point. Dear God, I hope so. From the hostess stand, you have 2 options:

  1. Open the door in front of you to a private dining area with specific seating times
  2. Walk upstairs to the more casual part of the restaurant

Of course, with no hostess in sight, I could hear noise coming from the private area, but none from upstairs. Had I heard noise from upstairs,  I would’ve walked up, but since the only sounds were coming from the private area, a question arose.

Do I open the door to the private area to which I was not invited and for which I have not reserved?

I decided, against all of my gut instinct, that yes. Yes I should. I open the door.

Open the door

Here’s the Funny Thing

I wasn’t actually planning to eat dinner that night. In fact, I had already eaten dinner. I came to ask whether the restaurant was regularly open yet, what its hours were, and if there was a number I could call for reservations where another human would answer.

Side Note: I make this place sound like some sort of weird, impossible to navigate mess, when in fact, it is the mostly impeccably thought-out place I’ve ever been. Every piece of furniture is handmade; artwork selected through years of scouring Japanese markets. Having never been to Japan, this space makes me fall in love with it, and yet almost fear going. Could the reality possibly be as good as this curation? Are my expectations too high now? This space transports you into a different world, and it is honestly one of my new favorite places. Not just restaurants, but places.

But yeah, figuring out the process of getting in is still super awkward, and when I pushed that door open, I turned awkward upside down.

“We actually have a seating in 10 minutes. Would you like to join?”

This was the response of the young server who hurried to help me, clearly aware that I was rudely intruding on a private space. He rushed to the door as he heard it start to open, squeezed his body through to keep the door from becoming anymore ajar than absolutely necessary, shut it behind him, and asked how he could help me. I explained: “I’m trying to find out if you are fully open yet, and if you have a phone number where the line is manned.”

This is when he offered me a spot at the next seating.

Again, against my gut instinct (let me repeat that I had already eaten dinner), I said yes.

2 instances of ignoring my introverted gut in one night. This has literally never happened before.

I Had No Idea What I Was Walking Into

I followed the server upstairs, where he seated me at a table with 3 other people. There was a clear sense of confusion, but I determined to push through it and move on.

It wasn’t clear what these people’s relationships were to each other, and I somehow believed they were all like me: mere walk-ins who had been ushered upstairs to await the next downstairs seating time. Upstairs was not open that night. We would wait about 15 minute minutes before being ushered down to our private booth for a 2-hour, chef-selected menu.

2 of the 3 people, I later learned, were husband and wife, the other, a friend of theirs. The couple was a generation my elder; their friend, 2 generations. It took a few minutes for the reality of this situation to fully dawn on me: this group of friends had pre-arranged reservations to enjoy dinner together–in fact, I believe they were celebrating together that night. And I, at the last minute and a complete stranger, a perhaps-overly-verbose and chipper 33-year-old, had just thrown myself into the mix without so much as asking.

By the time this reality hit me, I was too far in to go back. It was rude to stay, and it was rude to leave.

Once more, I ignored my gut and chose to stick it out. There was amazing sushi involved, after all.

As it turns out, I should ignore my gut more often.

Cast of Characters

I’m going to introduce you to the characters in this story, basing them each on an actual character from a fictional work.

Kate

Kate Kaplan, "Mr. Kaplan," NBC's The Blacklist

Kate, aka “Mr. Kaplan,” from The Blacklist. Photo copyright: NBC Universal.

 

Kate is unquestionably the main character in this story. The moment I sat down, she met me with the same stone-cold expression pictured above. She’s not the type who meets a stranger and hugs them. She’s the type who stands back and observes. Kate is very much not used to the people who do things like…well…barge in on a nice dinner and act like it’s totally normal.

All this to say, she’s not warm. She said very little, mostly just making this icy Mr. Kaplan face face and sipping her sake. Occasionally, she would interject with a comment like: “You don’t really believe that, do you?” and, with a clear mark of condescension in her tone, “Are the people you’re telling this story about educated?”  Much like Mr. Kaplan, you know from the moment you meet her that she’s a force to be reckoned with, but if you stick around for the reckoning, you’ll be rewarded with a fascinating, empathetic character.

It was clear from the beginning that Kate was going to be the hardest one to crack. I’m not going to lie; I was intimidated. Very intimidated.

Challenge accepted.

William

Sean Connery as William Forrester in the 2000 film Finding Forrester. Photo copyright: Columbia Pictures.

It took me a while to decide what to make of William. He had a warmth that Kate was lacking, but he seemed to support her attempts at iciness. In hindsight, I think he was just confused by my presence. Fair enough, if so.

He might, in retrospect, be the most outgoing of the group, but overwhelmed by the awkwardness of all that was transpiring, I at first read him as distant and condescending. These are all first impressions, remember, that arose partially out of these characters’ actions, and partially out of my own discomfort. I ultimately found William to be a fascinating human and thinker, but it took some time.

Beca

Anna Kendrick as Beca Mitchell in Pitch Perfect. I couldn’t find an official copyright for this image, but it’s a direct shot from the film. Just to be safe, I’ll give credit to Universal Productions, Gold Circle Films, and Brownstone Productions. Image pulled from Fandom.

Do me a favor and just go with me on the fact that, in this story, college freshman punkish-singer Beca Mitchell is married to William Forrester. Yes, I hear the absurdity; no, I don’t care.

Obviously, there’s an age difference between Beca Mitchell and Beca-from-the-sushi-restaurant. Beca can be quiet or chatty, just depending. She definitely exudes the most warmth to the random person sitting down at her table, but she’s also perfectly comfortable sitting back and watching others foster discomfort. By the end of the night, she’s still the warmest, yet somehow the one I feel I know the least about.

Breaking The Ice

So here I am, seated at a table with this cast of characters, being met with blank stares and very few words.

Of course I was! I was this stranger who was just randomly placed into their well-planned evening by a sweet young waiter. That, and as I learned throughout the night, this group has very dry, but delightful senses of humor, which can be hard to read at first.

A Small Sense of the Early Evening

When I sat down, Kate immediately looked familiar to me (and I’ve since figured out why, but haven’t had the chance to tell her). So she’s where I started. “You’re . . . . ” Then silence.

“I’m what?” she asks, cold-face game on.

“I don’t know,” I say. “You’re familiar. I know you.”

“No you don’t,” she replies. Starkly. With certainty.

Beat.

“Are you friends with Bridgette?” I ask.

“I don’t have friends,” she replies. Still with a Mr. Kaplan face.

I laugh uncomfortably, assuming her humor is dry and I’m supposed to laugh.

She sips sake.

William interjects: “She’s not joking. She doesn’t have friends.”

Beat.

Beca smiles, shakes her head as if she can’t believe how these two are screwing with me, and says, “That’s not true,” but offers me nothing else to go on.

Beat.

I still don’t know if they’re screwing with me.

Silence.

What the hell is happening here?

Tossed Head First onto a Surrealist Stage

Between all of our confusion and their very dry wit, I had trouble knowing what was true and what was a joke; what was real, and what wasn’t. In some cases, I look back, and I’m still not sure. It was like I had stumbled into the middle of a Sam Shepard play and was suddenly an improv actor on-stage with this group of characters. They were choreographed and planned for this dry surrealism, while I stumbled along along with no script or blocking.

Scene from Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child in a production by The New Group. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.

 

It was like the above scene were happening on stage, and in walked Elle Woods, decked out in pink, carrying her tiny dog in a designer back, suddenly trying to find her place in the scene.

Much like Elle, as I do when things feel uncomfortable, I talk. A lot.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I left my academic job to pursue writing full-time. I have a blog. I’m working on a book.” I talked about my subject matters, my interests.

Desperate to break through some of the ice, I told this group of strangers about the time someone asked me why I didn’t have children yet, and I replied: “I have 4 of them, actually, but they weren’t born living.” (Maybe I did belong in the surrealist play afterall. Elle Woods would never say this.)

Worth noting: Kate loved this line.

Breakthrough

About an hour into dinner, William revealed that he is working on his second book, although he’s experiencing some writer’s block.

What I didn’t say was, “I told you I was writing a book an hour ago, and you wait to bring this up NOW? And nobody else thought to mention it? THIS is common ground! THIS is what we could’ve been building upon!”

Instead, I asked innocently, “What are you writing about?”

Everyone chuckled. I was confused. Again.

They all looked at each other knowingly.

Beat.

Finally, Kate replied.

“The opposite of you. You write about birth; he writes about death.”

I asked questions and learned, sort of, what that description meant. William briefly acquainted me with his background, some of his goals, what interests him about death, and what idea he’s struggling to convey right now. I learned that part of his interest in death is consciousness, the ways in which we live consciously with our minds but also experience with our emotions. If I’m understanding him correctly, he wants us to be able to separate the two.

And then I caught myself saying something unexpected:

“Are the things we’re writing about really all that different? Birth and death are not opposite. Birth, necessarily, brings about death.”

I stunned myself with these words, but then was forced to articulate the thoughts I hadn’t yet realized were circulating. I was no longer doing improv in the scripted play. Now, I was the ghost, hovering over the stage, watching myself improvise, though the improv was more confident than before.

Motherhood as Re-Birth

“There is always death involved in childbirth,” I heard myself say, and I didn’t mean that I write about miscarriage, or maternal mortality, or infant loss.

“The birth of a child always, in some way, involves death for the mother. There’s a loss of the body that once was, the brain whose chemistry is forever changed, and the self-identity that is so new it’s almost completely unidentifiable. I think the big difference in what we write about is less that birth is the opposite of death, and more that the kind of death I’m talking about, I hope, involves a re-birth.

It involves the rebirth of a woman who is so much of what she’s always been, and yet no longer herself at all. And I wonder, if we don’t experience this rebirth carefully and consciously, if that’s part of what leads so many of us to become fully absorbed in our children. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to lose your entire senses of self, because we allow our children to become the centers of ourselves.”

(You can see hints of what I mean in last week’s post, “Dear Everyone, Let’s Be Honest About Postpartum Recovery.”)

I finished this speech, still trying to understand it myself. There was a beat. Silence. Everyone stared. I had seen Beca nodding along a few times; I knew at least one of them was with me, at least a little bit.

Then, out of nowhere, the unimaginable happened. Kate, dear, cold, intimidating yet delightfully funny Kate, morphed into the most delightful character I could’ve hoped to have met. As if this moment marked a rebirth in our entire evening.

Sitting next to one another in our private booth, she practically lept sideways, very close to me, wrapped her arms around me in a giant hug, and said the most amazing words.

“I think I love you, Katy. You should be a writer.”

Finis

We went on to enjoy another hour-and-a-half of delightful food, sake, and conversation, and I left with 3 lovely new friends.

After dinner, my mind reeled with this idea that I apparently starkly believed in–there is inherently death in birth, and without a conscious rebirthing, the woman who once was may be lost forever within the mother.

I’ve continued ruminating on this idea. It helps me sort through some of my issues with postpartum anxiety and depression, and with the reconfiguration of self-identity that this whole having-a-kid thing has required. I’m going to delve into this idea in next week’s post, and likely in many posts down the road. And almost certainly in my book. But I need more time for reflection first.

For now, I’ll end my story on a high note because that’s how I felt at the end of this surreal evening.

I texted the restaurant owner the next day (so yes, I can get in touch with someone now), and he told me that he had loved the sound of my laughter emanating from the booth throughout the night.

“I still can’t believe I did that,” I said. “Just barging in on their dinner, and somehow leaving energized with 3 delightful new friends.”

“That’s the Japanese way,” he told me. “No one ever leaves alone.”

 

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