Narcissism is not a flower.

Astoria Oregon 

Our hosts this evening are another Tent Space find, a couple in their 40’s with six motorcycles between them. They have two nine month old Saint Bernards (a fact which boggles my mind) called Abbot and Costello. One of them, Abbot I think, jumps up on me upon being introduced to us. As I struggle not to fall over, his master pulls him off me. 

Brian is easy going, talks and smiles out of one corner of his mouth, and puts us at ease. His wife, though… is something else. I don’t know if I have ever met someone quite so self-absorbed. Shortly after she starts talking, it becomes clear that our presence is nothing more to her than a platform, an opportunity to demonstrate how happy, fulfilled, and exemplary her life is. 

They take us to dinner at a local brewery and insist on paying which is quite generous, considering the bill must come close to $100. But the conversation (aka monologue) between Gretchen and me, as the seating plan would have it, consists primarily of her talking about her two children (the son is soon to be deployed to some military base far away, she is “so proud”; the daughter was Miss Oregon in the Miss America pageant of 2017 – which begs the question do they really still do that shit, and why?) with a bit of her personal (summered in Alaska growing up on fishing boats, how hard she worked to get her CPA and how good she is at her job) and family history (grandfather founded some foundation or other in India, dad invented some specialized boat rudder) thrown in. She whips out her phone to make it a photo essay, not once asking “Would you like to see photos?” or pausing for breath. When she tells me that she’s having a hard time dealing with her son’s imminent departure for wherever, she says, “He’ll be gone all told for close to a year and a half, and I might not get to see him at all during that time,” her eyes widening as if to say Can you imagine? Suddenly I can’t breathe and I look away. My insides feel like they’re being prodded with a hot poker. Oblivious to my discomfort, she plows ahead, a steam roller with a job to do. My attempts to change the subject are futile; as quickly as I try to steer the conversation in the direction of mutual places visited or travel planned, she just as quickly steers it back to her family, her accomplishments, their accomplishments, and so on. I feel like I’ve fallen into a computer and landed on some especially enthusiastic and competitive person’s Facebook page.

I look over at Mark, hoping he’s paying attention, hoping he’ll catch my eye, hoping he’ll give me a look that says, I know this must hurt, I wish this weren’t happening. But Mark is in his element with Brian discussing Brian’s most recent trip to the Philippines. So I sit there waiting for the moment when my hostess will grow weary of listening to her own voice, or failing that, when social conditioning will kick in and unconsciously direct her to say something along the lines of, How about you? I’m prepared with my vague, rehearsed response to questions about jobs and family, and my convenient one-liner should she ask “Do you have children?” (There’s no way I can tell her the truth, not now after she has spent the last half hour boasting about her children, as to do so would ruin the rest of our stay for everyone.) Normally, half the battle is won for me in these situations once I have crossed those hurdles and the tension that has kept me emotionally in mid-salute begins to drain away.

But in this case it never happens. Not once does she ask me one single question about myself – my life, my experiences, my ideas, my thoughts, my opinions. The closest she comes is to ask Mark and I as a couple, “So where to from here?” and “How long will your ride last?” Since there are few topics of conversation I find to be neutral ground, and dread the inevitable personal questions, perhaps I should be grateful to be treated as an adoring, if somewhat sedated, fan, my interest in her every word taken for granted. But I cannot. Having to listen to her carry on, the inability to find even one moment in which she might be receptive to something I might say, in which I might consider telling her something meaningful about anything – my life, a thought or a memory, even an observation – just saying anything really – make that impossible.

For a few minutes after the food arrives Gretchen eats hungrily and stops talking. My reprieve is short lived. Soon she’s at it again, this time including Mark in her audience. We both listen in silence. When she starts talking about her grandfather’s charitable work in India, she announces that his emphasis is on the lowest caste and informs us, “They are so far down the totem pole they have no hope of a decent life.” I think, really? Not ten minutes ago Mark told you we’d recently returned from five months in India, and you’re going to mansplain to me what it’s like there? Rebecca Solnit, give me strength. 

I look over at Mark who is sitting there glassy-eyed, his lips frozen in a half smile, and realize he too is in his own private hell: finding himself present in a small group of people with so many things to say, and being denied the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. I feel lonelier tonight than I have in months, listening to this woman yammer on ad infinitum about her children, not once considering the possibility first, that others don’t want to hear it, and second, that conversation is meant to be shared; Mark sitting less than a foot away from me but a thousand miles away in his mind, in a crowded restaurant full of laughter and camaraderie. 

The next morning they make us breakfast (German pancakes with fresh berries and the real, expensive syrup), as if they haven’t done enough already, what with feeding us last night and letting us sleep in the spare bedroom. I’m a bad person, I know this, because I am counting the seconds until we can leave. Gretchen tells us the detailed story of the acquisition of their dogs: “I wanted the biggest ones we could get” and “I wanted the colors to be brown and white with a black streak across the left hind leg turning into grey across the stomach before becoming brown again leading up toward the right shoulder blade” (or some such nonsense), complete with their individual health histories and price tags. I remind myself you can’t accept the hospitality of a stranger then criticize their ideas, certainly not their values. You’ve got to seem to agree with them, or just remain silent. I remain silent. When she leans across the table and wiggles her fingers to display her nails, coated in a thick sparkly paint, then says she funded a vacation to Florida last year by attending a conference to do with this product (“I wrote off the airfare, even got the resort stay at half price, it’s all a business expense!”), I think it can’t get any worse. A few minutes later she proves me wrong, jumping up to lead Mark (I find myself thoroughly engaged at that precise moment in making sure I capture a clear photo with my phone of the recipe for the pancakes, which surprisingly takes at least five minutes) into the living room to see one of multiple life-size photos of her daughter ‘Miss Oregon’ plastered across the wall. 

After I manage to slip off to the bedroom for a few minutes’ peace, Mark wanders in and tells me they invited us to stay another day because of the rain. I say, “I’d rather not” so quickly and with such force that he looks taken aback. For a long moment he’s uncharacteristically at a loss for words. I think, If I have to spend even five more minutes listening to this woman tell us how brilliant her father is, if I have to look at one more photo of her children, if I have to hear yet again how brave and strong and smart and special they are, I think I’ll dive down onto the floor directly into the mouth of the closest dog at hand and force myself inside his massive jaws. Suicide by Saint Bernard.

As we load up the bike I start to wonder if she is not so very different from other people, from me even. Haven’t I been pre-occupied with my own problems, my own self, for almost five years now? I have. But even as I know this, I also know there is a difference between having little to no energy for others because you have been so traumatized your best recourse is retreat – from interaction, from discourse, from the world at large into your own private shell – and having little to no energy for others because you see them, on the whole, as unworthy. She hugs me goodbye and I stand there mystified, wondering if someone were to ask her to tell them something about me, what she would say. Could she name one single thing she had learned about me, outside of my physical description, if even that registered? 

An hour down the road, it is raining and windy. I’m wet and cold, and for a second I wonder if I made the right decision in telling Mark I wanted to move on. Would it be better to be there than here? Would I trade physical comfort for my mental health, that warm, dry house listening to Gretchen’s seemingly endless drivel about all things Gretchen, over riding 60 miles an hour through an unseasonable spring squall? Nah.

I am determined to see this as a learning experience. After all, I know more about scoliosis now than anybody outside of the medical profession has a right to know.

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