(Sorry, social media followers don’t count.)
I’m browsing at my favourite shop with my best friend. “Girl, look at you!” I look up beaming. Compliments from strangers are the best, your boyfriend should find you beautiful. The usual small talk ensues; until we find a common ground. “Where are you from?” In Toronto, this is a common question, it means which country are you from. Ethiopia. Oromo. Harare. No longer stranger; we are linked together with thousands of years of tradition, custom, and love. I pull out my phone; “Let’s exchange numbers!” By evening we are making plans to hang out that weekend. It doesn’t work out as I had hoped. Everybody ain’t for everybody.
Everyone is a stranger, until you exchange numbers.
We met at a workshop for Black women. We sat next to each other. “Are you Ethiopian?” She laughs, “no, but I get that a lot.” Ice breaker. We talk. She tells me she’s never been on social media. I’m in awe, “I’m already a fan!” I tease her. We exchange numbers. We text often. She writes me things that make me cry when I share good news with her.
What’s your ice breaker?
The internet hates small talk. Rightfully so. Why bother with the weather when you can pick up your phone. My friend and I are looking at her phone. There’s a post on the Ukraine war, “Oh, and DIY home renovation!” We laugh; my head hurts. Pick up your phone and first thing you see can be death, or a cute baby. How’s the weather anyway? You can check that too. “What a beautiful weather,” duh, but it breaks the ice. I have learned to love small talk; it leads to the big talk and you wouldn’t believe your ears. “Do you have a lighter?” We start talking. She got pregnant young, she tells us. Her mom said to her, babies give you bad stretch marks and ruin your body. “I said, no mommy, I won’t have stretch marks!” Her laughter is infectious. She shows us her belly; firm, flat, without a single stretch mark. “I’m happy,” she continues, “I want my babies to have a happy mom.” She walks away. All of a sudden I know what I want to be when I grow up; a happy mom. I commit right there and then. I will never forget her.
It takes so much effort.
I had to stop lying to myself. I love people. I love being around people. I love conversations. That’s why I spent so much time on social media; what is everyone saying? That’s why I freaking love Reddit; the people, anonymous and unreachable but there they are talking 24/7/365. I feel connected, and it’s effortless. I make so much effort to see people now. I have no choice. I can’t, in good faith, let the apps be my only source of connection. They have profit margins to meet every budget cycle. I want people I can hug, hold, sense their emerging tears, or laughter. It would be nice to be liked from the comfort of my bed, and the notifications are intoxicating, but I look around and I am alone. I don’t trust the apps. Why should you?
I stay on the lookout for real-life connections. When I see the Mean Girls Musical ads on the train, I text my friends. “How much are you willing to pay to see Mean Girls Musical?” We agree on a price, a date, and we have a blast. I’m craving buffet-style dinner so I text my sister, and we talk shit about our parents in-between mouthfuls. Later she calls me three times because she’s sick from all the food; “Girl, am I 911?” I giggle. I love these moments. But these moments require so much effort: Are you interested? Are you available? Where should we meet? I’ll purchase the tickets. Have you left yet? Where are you? I don’t see you! You’re late, I’m annoyed!!! Much easier to get likes from the comfort of your bed and call it connection. Much better to hug hello and goodbye.
With time, it gets better. A friend of mine and I have started a new ritual. We meet every Friday at the same time, same place, same act; drinks and conversation. It’s happening, unless it’s not happening. Still it takes effort; I have to get ready, make the commute. Then time becomes irrelevant, three to four hours go by and I don’t notice. I’m plotting to get all the people I love on a similar ritual; Same place, same time, same act. Like church on a Sunday, or soccer on Saturday; but for the secular, busy, isolated. Modern problems require modern solutions, and something something.
In between, I substitute the real life connection I crave with random fleeting conversations with fleeting people. It beats the apps. “Are you Ethiopian?” I’m on the train on my way home from my Friday evening. She’s slurring her words a bit, high or drunk, either way strung out, and I can barely make out what she is saying. My instinct is to ignore her. That’s what you do on the train in a big city; concentrate harder on your phone. I texted my friend of this amusing act of city people and she replied right away, “do not make eye contact, do not make eye contact.” It’s funny. But I maintain eye contact with Melissa- she later tells me that’s her name. What the hell, I’m a bit tipsy too and my phone is useless at keeping me company. We’re all lonely if we unplug long enough. Melissa and I talk about Ethiopian people, but mostly about her ex husbands, finding love again, and she says she sees me with a tall, Black, basketball player. “Yeah?” We laugh. I think I’m humouring her but she’s humouring me, and I’m loving it. I almost miss my stop. We say goodbye.
I’ll probably never see Melissa again. But on that lonely train ride home, she reminds me how much I love talking to people, how much I enjoy their company. They’re good for me, all kinds of people. If you open yourself up to the Other, everyone is just a small talk away from becoming the best person in your life. Or, back to strangers- who cares, there’s (almost) 8 billion of us, you’ll never run out of people. I love it. I had to leave the apps alone to find out the best things in life are still in real life; the playful slaps, the tight hugs, the silly laughters and giggles, the uncomfortable lull, the excited eruption of a though too great to contain; and all of it over some coffee, or gin, please. I won’t let the apps take that away from me.
Until next time,
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