Joshua Malbin The Handsome Man

The handsome man took stock of his life on his thirtieth birthday and, while he’d been successful in his career and assembled a wide circle of friends, he was dissatisfied. He’d made it all the way to this age without ever sustaining a romantic relationship for longer than a few weeks—a month and a half at most—and he was lonely. He knew his problem: he was a compulsive talker. When a silence between him and another person reached a few seconds, he began to feel uncomfortable. It was like an itch in his brain that got worse and worse until, before the 10-second mark, he could stand it no longer and spoke. This presented no social barrier on most occasions. People liked having him at parties, in fact. He chatted with everyone. And he did all right on first and even second dates, when a constant flow of conversation was expected. But after a few dates most women wanted him to be able to sit quietly sometimes without filling the air with chatter. After sex, for example. He was incapable of it. There was also the fact that like anyone, he had only a limited store of interesting things to talk about on any given day, and once he ran through those he was reduced to banalities. So that the more time a woman spent alone with him, the duller he seemed. Now and then he’d meet an unusually extroverted, ebullient woman and she’d hang on longer. That was how he’d gotten to six weeks a couple of times. Eventually, though, even those women wanted to have the big talk about where their relationship was going, and without deep, meaningful pauses to signify reflection, he couldn’t seem to make

1

them believe he took them seriously. He didn’t know what had made him that way. His mother, father, and two sisters were all laconic, and while they loved him and tolerated him, they had no insight to offer on the subject either.

He made a thirtieth birthday resolution to do something about it, and decided to try therapy. But when he went, the therapist kept asking him, “What would happen if you stayed quiet? What are you afraid would happen?” He tried to explain that he wasn’t afraid of anything, sitting in silence just made him itchy. The therapist said that there must be some fear lurking behind that itch, and they spent six months trying to uncover it. Finally the therapist declared he didn’t believe there were making any progress: all the handsome man did in their sessions was babble. He still believed the handsome man was using his logorrhea to mask some other, deeper problem, but unless the handsome man was willing to dig into what that might be and do much more serious work than heretofore, he thought they were wasting each other’s time. Since the handsome man thought the therapist’s premise was all wrong—his logorrhea, as the therapist called it, was itself the problem, not a mask for something else —he declined to do the much more serious work and left therapy.

He went then to a psychiatrist, who said he supposed his compulsion could be an odd form of anxiety disorder and tried a few anxiolytics on him, one after another. They didn’t work.

Joshua Malbin At last he visited a hypnotist. “I can’t fix it,” the hypnotist told him, “but I can overpower it. I can make it so that every time you want to talk, you have to stop and repeat in your head what you’re about to say. That way at least you have a filter, so the first dumb thing that pops into your mind doesn’t immediately come out your mouth.” The handsome man sat in a comfortable, deep leather armchair while the hypnotist sat in another armchair and spoke to him soothingly. The first couple of sessions nothing seemed to happen and he felt rather silly, but the hypnotist told him it took as much work on his part to be hypnotized as it did the hypnotist’s to put him under. It was only normal, the hypnotist said, for him to need several tries before he learned to reach a suggestible state. The third time he did seem to fall into hypnotic sleep for a little while. He began as normal, trying to follow the hypnotist’s instructions and focus all his attention on the card printed with concentric circles that he’d been given to hold, and muscles he’d never before sensed began to relax: along his perineum, around his eyes, down the tops of his shins, and inside his throat, two inches below his jaw. The hypnotist’s words drifted through him; he heard them but they held no meaning. Some time later he became aware of his weight sinking into the chair’s padding and the hypnotist counting down from ten to pull him back from his trance. After that it got easier and easier, and soon he was going under within minutes. He began to notice the change in himself. It wasn’t pleasant. He had the same itch to speak whenever a silence persisted too long, only now he couldn’t scratch it. He’d be about to say something and first hear it echo inside him, inevitably sounding foolish.

3

It came time for his biggest party of the year. He handled client relations for a major management consulting firm, and every year he threw a Halloween party in a hotel ballroom. His theory was that a corporate Halloween party was inevitably more fun, festive, and unexpected than a corporate Christmas party. For all the jokes about debauchery at office Christmases, people relaxed more, with less embarrassmenttempting alcohol, if they got to wear costumes. And every year for his Halloween party he dressed up like a pirate so that he could go around yelling “YAAAARGHHH!” at clients and cracking bad pirate puns. It was juvenile but inoffensive, and in the corporate world that translated into “great fun.” This year, though, he was hobbled. He could still pop out a “Yaaaargghhhh!” on cue, but the timing on all his other wisecracks and puns was ruined. When he first saw the client dressed as a Death Panel, for instance (a Grim Reaper scythe and miniature cardboard Grim Reapers taped to both shoulders), normally he’d have said something like, “Avast ye! Sure an’ if ye try sendin’ me granny to Davy Jones I’ll have to keelhaul ye.” But that kind of banter only worked if he came out with it immediately; by the time he recited it to himself in his head, in full, they were already shaking hands and the same joke would have been awkward and unfunny. Same thing when he wanted to thank a Sarah Palin for “sitting up thar in the crow’s nest to keep an eye on them scurvy Russians”: by the time he’d repeated it to himself the moment had passed. Normally he swam as comfortably and playfully in these parties as a porpoise in the sea. Tonight, though, he floated above it alone on a dory: he could still move about the surface of the party if he put his back into it, and drop a line if he spotted a promising

Joshua Malbin school of guests, but he wasn’t there in the water with them. Yet drifting separate like that he could see the way everyone else moved as he never had before. In one group, for example, the conversation passed without pause from a story about a friend who accidentally broke a bottle of Cachaça, to Brazil in general, to Brazilian waxing, to hairless cats, and finally to various people’s cats and dogs, which they talked about like children. It could make all these jumps because none of the people involved were listening to the others most of the time. They were all waiting, eyes glistening with excitement and alcohol, to tell the anecdote they’d just been reminded of by the last thing they’d managed to hear before their attention turned inward.

“You know,” he said later, in bed, to a woman from the party. “I might not have been all there tonight, but I don’t think I was there before, either.” She’d done all the work to pick him up and bring him home. He’d merely needed not to resist. “I don’t think I ever knew what was going on around me. Do you think that’s the way it is for everyone, all the time, that you can only do one or the other?” “Shush,” she said, and crawled on top of him.

5

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful