Hey, you with the newspaper, its me

Is it just me, or are other people constantly confronted with awkward situations they’re not sure how to handle? The ones that kill me involve unexpectedly meeting people who I either don’t want to see or who, for whatever reason, instill in me a huge feeling of anxiety.
Example: The other day I was riding the bus home from school. Who should get on at the Willey Hall stop but a guy I dated 10 years ago.
We didn’t make eye contact and I couldn’t tell if I was blowing him off or he was blowing me off. But I do know that as I stared at the back of his head while we tooled along, I contemplated the fact that we used to be (ahem) close and now we don’t even acknowledge each others’ presence.
If we’d had a really acrimonious break up this would be understandable. Obviously break- ups by their very nature aren’t pleasant, but I don’t seem to remember any reason we should be bearing long-harbored grudges. We were seniors in high school, for God’s sake. We had curfews. We lived with our parents. We had to get hall passes from our teachers to go to the bathroom. How big of a deal could it have been?
It seems I run into him once or twice a year and somehow we’ve nearly always managed to avoid conversations. But a few months ago, I saw him when I was in a particularly jovial mood and almost stopped to say hello. What changed my mind was his outfit. He was working at a University food services stand and had on this little red uniform with a matching red hat.
Now, I’m not judging. In my dark history lurks a period of one month when I worked at Rainbow Foods. I will never forget the day I looked up from the cash register to see a “friend” of mine in line with her fiancÇ. They had these sick grins on their faces and I could tell they were getting a huge kick out of seeing me in my green smock, having to get checks approved by my illiterate Roseanne look-alike supervisor. It was hell.
Not wanting my ex to think I had similar motives, I kept walking. It just didn’t seem like a good time to say, “So, how’s everything going?” (Not that I’m knocking working in the food service industry, but some of the uniforms are cruel and unusual.)
Plus, what do I do if he says his life sucks? Should I lie and say my life sucks, too, just to make him feel better? Or what if his life is great? No matter what I could say in response, I know it would sound like, “Oh, yeah, well my life is really, really great!”
I ran into another old acquaintance a while ago who must have told me eight times in the course of a one-minute conversation that he was living with his girlfriend. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and say, “I get it! You’re loved, you’re validated! Shut up!” I never want to sound like that.
Maybe I’ll just have to wait out the situation with my ex. This is my last quarter at the University (God willing) so I guess we’ll only have to avoid each other for a few more months.
But how to handle all the other situations? Maybe I’m just a freak, but I’m constantly having mini anxiety attacks about this.
For instance, Boyfriend and I live next door to a really nice couple. We want to hang out with them and invite them over for cocktails, kind of like a night with Rob and Laura from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” The only problem is that their apartment is right next to our bedroom, so we feel all bashful every time we see them. It’s not like there are sounds of cracking whips or bleating sheep coming from our room, but it’s still embarrassing.
So, what’s the proper etiquette here? Should we ask if they can hear us and make a little joke out of it? Or should we just keep playing it off and feeling nervous? Things mother never taught you.
Here’s another one that gets me. As a general rule, doesn’t it seem like we always run into people from our past when we look our worst?
Like when you’ve had the flu for a week and one morning at about 8:00 you drag yourself to the drug store to get more medicine. You haven’t brushed your teeth in days, drool is crusted on your cheek and your hair is matted up into a little ball on the side of your head. You turn the corner and there, standing in the beauty aid aisle looking at nail polish, is your high school’s homecoming queen.
If she sees you, should you pretend you don’t recognize her and keep going, or should you stop and talk and laugh about how horrible you look? Or should you just vomit all over her pumps? Emily Post, why have you forsaken me?
And what’s the trick for handling situations where one person has forgotten the other person’s name?
If you’re the one who has forgotten the other person’s name, sometimes you get lucky and another person can step in and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so,” and the other person will then introduce him or herself.
One year I ran into a good friend of mine at Cedarfest and she was hanging out with a woman who she knew through mutual friends but whose name she couldn’t remember. She pulled me aside and said, “You’ve got to help me figure out her name! I can’t remember her name!” This approach would have been much more successful had my friend not been really stoned and practically yelled this little secret right in front of the nameless woman. I followed through and introduced myself, but by then the damage had been done and we all looked like jerks.
And really, since that’s usually the end result anyway, why fight it? Go ahead and make sure all your former loves know your life rocks (lie if you have to); be proud of your healthy sex life; vomit on the homecoming queen’s shoes, and if you can’t remember a person’s name, just make one up. Ah, sweet liberation.

Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments and etiquette tips via e-mail at [email protected]