We all have them. Those insignificant things that drive us so crazy, they make us want to yank out our own hair by the fistful. But we don’t do it, because we know how painful a little paper cut is, and we can imagine that tearing out clumps of hair and scalp would have to feel a lot worse. So we keep quiet, silently simmering in our own secretions. Although sometimes we kick a solid object, such as a cinder block or a suitcase we thought was empty but wasn’t. This, too, turns out to be a mistake, and may make us wish we’d gone with the hair-yanking decision, instead.
Let me amend my first statement. I’m not sure that we all have them. I know that I have them, these unexplainable sources of annoyance, and that they’ve always been a part of me. And I don’t mean pet peeves. We love our pets, and give them endearing names and feed them whenever they get hungry. No, these are not pets. They’re more like emotional first-degree burns, a constant ringing in my brain, an itch deep within the recesses of my mental infrastructure.
Okay, there’s one of them right there, but you probably didn’t catch it because you were distracted by the ridiculous phrase, mental infrastructure. I’m talking about the word, itch. Just seeing it makes me have to scratch my neck, then my head, then a spot just below my rib cage. Any mention of mosquitoes or fleas or haircuts and I’ll be scratching for days. But what is an itch? If we could magnify its exact location on the skin, what would we see? Nerve endings tickling each other? Microscopic bugs pinching us with their tiny tentacles? Or maybe we’re having diaper rash flashbacks. All I know is, if someone tells me they have an itch, then I have one, too. It’s contagious, like yawning and laughter and memory loss. (If one person asks what the name of that big, white, shiny thing is that moves across the sky at night, I find that I can’t remember either. This causes us to all laugh uncontrollably for ten minutes, and then everyone starts yawning and falling asleep. When you’re my age, this is known as a party.)
Speaking of flashbacks, what about deja vu? Some people get some kind of weird charge out of the feeling that what just happened seems oddly familiar — that it’s happened before. I hate deja vu. It’s spooky, and makes me feel as though my mind has slipped on some slick patch of spacetime and careened face-first down a wormhole. I have to literally stop and shake it off, like a shiver. I don’t want to think something has happened before, because there’s a good chance I didn’t understand it the first time, and I don’t care to experience my own confusion again on instant replay.
Having the sensation that a brand new incident seems old is unsettling enough. I get almost as rattled when someone thinks I said something, when I didn’t. The person is standing four feet away, and I haven’t spoken in a while. Suddenly, she’ll ask what I said. When I reply that I didn’t say anything, she’ll insist that I did. “Did she hear me speak?” I’ll wonder. Because either she’s hallucinating or I’m losing my mind while cutting up celery. Even worse: When I did speak and uttered what I thought was a normal and reasonable remark, but they heard something bizarre, like the kind of thing people mumble in their sleep. I’ll say, “The car is making a squeaking sound,” and they’ll think I said, “How far is it to Tiki Town?” Is this nature’s way of balancing the books, to make up for all the times I did say something and no one heard me? If so, I can do without the attempt at fairness. Or are spoken words being sent down the wrong track at the switching station? I imagine some poor traveler stumbling into a village in the South Pacific. He stops to ask for directions to Tiki Town and the other person thinks he said, “The car is making a squeaking sound.” It’s a global misunderstanding that goes completely unnoticed.
More words that inspire me to run from the room. Snip. This is a word I’ve most often heard while undergoing a minor medical procedure. “We’re going to give you a local anesthesia, then go in and do a quick snip.” My mind wanders. Local anesthesia? Wouldn’t it have to be local? A long-distance anesthesia wouldn’t help at all. And what do they mean by “snip,” exactly? Where is the line between snip and sever? When does sever become amputate? Is there a clear distinction between amputate and dissect?
Queasy. This is one of those perfect words that not only describes the feeling, but actually causes it. If someone tells me they feel queasy, then so do I, and I still feel queasy long after they’ve recovered.
Pod. I have no idea what my problem is with this word. But it scares me, in any context.
I don’t like old movies. I hesitate to say this, because it tends to unleash a torrent of disbelief, followed by dismissive condescension, and even occasional violence. It makes me sound uncivilized and shallow, I realize, to say I can’t watch It’s A Wonderful Life, and have never made it through Casablanca. Here, I’ll save you the trouble of telling me: These are brilliant films. Classics. They broke new ground in the art of cinema. I know. But I can’t sit still for the melodrama. The bone-crunching hugs, the crazed gestures and wild facial expressions, the long gazes out windows, the endless and unbelievably uninterrupted monologues. And all that yelling. It seems unnatural and, to me, tiresome. I especially don’t like when some young guy addresses an elderly character as “Old Man.” If anyone ever calls me that, I’ll pretend to lose control and beat him senseless with my walking stick.
Yes, I like The Wizard of Oz, but Auntie Em’s hand-wringing gets on my nerves. And some of those Munchkins really overdo it, too.
Sometimes I’ll be waiting at a red light and another car pulls up next to me. It’s pumping out a tidal wave of sound that, I assume, the other driver believes to be music. But my nervous system receives it as a thumping, repetitive vibration that seems to thunder along the ground, into my tires, and straight up my spine. The convenience store and the post office begin to move around. New pot holes open up in the road ahead. Thousands of miles away, elephants are probably having an emotional breakdown. And there’s an unexpected itch calling to me from both kneecaps. I consider lowering my window and screaming at the twelve-year-old behind the wheel, but I’m sure he won’t comprehend anything I say because someone has no doubt snipped something vital inside his skull. I also resist the urge to slam my foot against his fender, or to extract a handful of my own hair. Instead, I wait for the light to change, hoping he’ll lower his window and yell, “What’s the problem, Old Man?” But even then, how can I be sure he really said that, or anything at all?