“Are you free tonight?” asked my friend Laura.
Unfortunately, I was not. “Shoot,” I said. “I’m sorry. Why?”
“Oh, too bad … I wanted to ask you to come to this really fun outdoor movie night in Brooklyn. Bob and the kids are out of town, so I thought we could have a girls’ night.”
“Really? When is it? Where is it? What’s the movie?” Then I thought: Why am I asking her all these questions? I knew there was no way I could go. In point of fact I had an irrevocable drink date with someone who was in town for only a few days; it was a date I had scheduled at least two weeks before. So why did I feel that I needed to get all the particulars regarding this invitation from Laura?
Laura explained that the movie was at the Pier One Harbor View Lawn in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I told her it sounded like a lot of fun but repeated that I was busy, and explained why. No problem, she said, she understood. But for some reason, I found myself asking her more questions, as if I were thinking of going: Were these movie nights generally crowded? And did people sit on the ground with blankets or were there chairs? The whole time, I kept wondering why it was that I needed to have so many details about something I wasn’t going to be doing. Was this just some kind of perverseness on my part—an unwillingness to accept the fact that I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too (as in, keep my Manhattan drink date and also go to the movies in Brooklyn)?
I think part of my reaction has to do with good manners. When someone calls up to ask you to get together, you don’t want to cut them off right away. If you just say “I’m busy,” before they can get the whole invitation out, it seems cold and dismissive. You do want to let the other person explain fully why they are calling.
However, at the risk of revealing an embarrassing defect in my character, I think in these situations, what’s happening is that I really want to know exactly what it is I am missing out on.
Before everyone starts shaking their heads at me, ask yourselves: Is this psychological phenomenon really so unusual? How many times do we ask the waiter for the dessert menu when we have already decided not to have dessert—absolutely, positively? Somehow you still just have to see the menu. To see what you might have had. If none of your favorites are there, isn’t it more satisfying when you hand the menu back?
Of course there is sometimes that part of us that wants all the details of the to-be-missed opportunity because there is a chance that if it were something tantalizing enough, we might in fact change our plans. Maybe I just want to let the other person think I am tempted to change my plans, because I want her to feel that seeing her would be so much more fun than anything I might be doing with anyone else.
And then again, this is New York, the city that never sleeps, the town with unlimited things to do and places to go. So it’s possible my super-social inner urbanite was trying to calculate, to figure out how to do both things.
I think I really just like to know what might have been. If nothing else, it’s helpful for planning what will be, in the future.
Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books; her latest book is a novel called Etiquette for the End of the World. She can be reached at JeanneMartinet.com
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