I was a serious child. My mother would take great pains to make me laugh, and when she discovered my affection for physical comedy – quite by accident, by running into the door jamb as she turned to leave my bedroom – she cracked me up regularly with her antics. My friend Ryan sends me into hysterics by pretending to fall down stairs, and the age-old joke of someone running toward me, arms outstretched, only to fake-smack into a street sign can immobilize me with laughter.
When it comes to wordplay, I try but have less of a knack than I wish I had. Horrible puns cheer me; ridiculous in-jokes make me splutter. But there is one type of humor I cannot seem to adjust to no matter how hard I try, and that is the humorous insult. I always seek the truth in it before I rely on its lie.
I remember once, not long after moving to San Francisco, when a then-friend told me that his acquaintance saw a photo of me and said I was lovely but that I had the biggest gums he’d ever seen. I was abjectly humiliated, and buried my face in brunch so as not to start crying. My smile, once somewhat augmented by braces, has embarrassed me in its gumminess since I was a teenager. I tried for years to perfect the closed-mouth Mona Lisa smile, but I lack the wherewithal of a poker face, and my giant, equine gums mock me from every genuine portrait of me I’ve seen.
My friends tease me gently; they are so careful with my feelings, while with each other they play rough, and I ache with the knowledge that my sensitivity sets me apart from this loving banter. I isolate myself from this style of humor, telling myself it’s because I take myself too seriously, that I don’t have enough self-esteem to weather it.
These are lies I tell myself. The truth of it is that I have convinced myself that when people joke like that, whether or not they know it they mean it deep down, and I need to watch for this meaning so I am prepared for the eventuality that, like so many occasions before, the digs will give way to true insults and then to resentment and finally to separation.
I was a serious child. My parents split without fighting around me, but I know that in their everyday tone I heard the dissent and the dissatisfaction. I dreamed as a teenager that if only I had been more vigilant, I would have seen it on the horizon, and I could have done something to prevent it. If only, I would tell myself, if only I had understood more, and at the right time. If only I had paid attention to the words that crept around each other like cats with arched backs. If only I had been more quick-witted, or funnier, or relaxed.
I am a serious partner. One of my exes vexed me with his ability and inclination to laugh at everything while we were fighting. I know now that he was laughing at the absurdity of my fears, but I was certain he simply never took me seriously, and I resented him for it. If only, I would tell myself, if only he would listen to what I had to say and validate my feelings. If only he would consider the gravity of my words.
On occasion, my attempts at sarcasm wound my friends. I once thought I was so tactful, but now while my internal censor takes a sabbatical, I have even less of a sense of what is funny and what is mean. Sometimes I can see shades of difference. Sometimes I can’t tell them apart at all. I yearn to learn to laugh at myself, to take myself less seriously, to take others less seriously, but I’m so busy hiding from perceived slights that I don’t discern between arrows and foam.
As much of an aphorism this is, life is too short. Life is too short to worry about this sort of thing, or to worry at all. My vigilance, my insistence that I will Know when someone is about to walk away from me is based on a lie that I have control over others’ feelings and actions. All I can do is be the best neighbor, friend, coworker and partner that I can be, and laugh at what is funny instead of crying over what isn’t.