It’s not that you hate picnics. Hate’s too robust a word. It’s really more an absence of any strong feeling: you’ve just never seen the point. What you’re supposed to do. You sit. Occasionally you scuttle sideways to follow the shade, but that’s the sum of it, that’s all. If you take the lids off the containers of food, they fill with ants, and if you keep them on, they somehow become insurmountable to people too, or at least to the limits of what they can be bothered to do, even though you all are there, apparently, precisely for the purpose of eating mismatched food while you sit on the ground. You’ve just never seen the point.
You’ve learnt you’re not supposed to say this. There are a lot of things you’ve learnt it’s better not to say.
So when she says that her first picnic after all these months felt almost embarrassing, so awkward, you’re not quite sure what you should say. When she adds that it left her exhausted you nod a little, give the half-smile you know that you can quickly flip to humour or rue, and when she shrugs and laughs you chuckle too. You say, we’ve all forgotten how to people! You read that on the internet last week and liked it.
Later on you think you maybe should have said it, even though you know you’re not supposed to. It might have helped, although you still find it impossible to tell when saying the not-supposed-to thing brings everyone relief or when all it does is make them more uncomfortable – there’s no way of telling until it’s too late. It might have helped, though, if you’d said the things you’re not supposed to say. You could have given her a list. For next time, because the trick, you would have said, is to prepare.
If you’d thought you were allowed to, you would have said, make sure you have some questions ready. And answers too, specific ones: that way when someone asks you how you’ve been you won’t try to remember when last you saw them and run through the intervening months as quickly as you can within your mind; instead you’ll hand them one small but solid detail, a hook that they might hang the conversation from. I’ve baked a lot of sourdough will do, or I’m teaching myself to skateboard, or I bought so many indoor plants I’m turning into one of those people with their windowsills all crammed with jam jars full of cuttings and a whole collection of fucking neem oil – anything along those lines is perfect. You would have added, make sure you do not try to get in first, don’t be tempted to think that it is simpler. Do not ever try to ask them first how they have been, because the onus then is all on you to take their answer and run with it and believe you me it is much, much easier to trip that way.
You would have said, remember that the opening exchanges are just rituals: how you are, what you’ve been up to, the weather, the traffic – it isn’t all that important what any of you say, it’s just the saying itself that matters. It’s not seeking information but just signalling safety, how you show each other you belong, that you’re friend not foe. You would have said, you’re basically just dogs sniffing at each other’s butts. No. Not that bit, actually. You would most likely have remembered that no one ever takes that well.
You would have said, if ever there’s a pause that makes you panicky, you can pay someone a compliment. Jewellery is a good choice – with any luck they bought it in Cambodia or New York or some cute little town on the coast, or it once belonged to Great Aunt Rhonda or it’s made from recycled coffee pods or ocean plastics. You would have said, you can ask about their work, but only if the people you are with are people you know well, because asking someone you’ve just met about their work is, apparently, judgemental.
You would have said, have your reason ready for when you need to make your exit. You can’t just say you’re done or that you want to go. You have to have a reason why you can’t stay, even though you want to, because otherwise it sounds like you don’t want to, and even though you don’t want to, you’re not allowed to say it. You would have said, I usually pretend I have another picnic to attend. I always say, I have to make an appearance because that implies that I am leaving my preferred event for the one that came in second-best. A family thing is a good option, a work deadline suffices at a pinch. Don’t say that you’re tired – your friends are supposed to be more important than things like that. You would have said, everyone will say that you should do this again soon. But don’t mistake that for an actual invitation – that one is ritual, too.
You would have said, if you’ve forgotten how to people, you just have to be sure that you prepare. It’s not that people are predictable, just that they’re much less unpredictable than they think they are or want to be – but don’t say that either. You need a game plan. That’s all. A game plan, and to remind yourself of all the rules. You’ll look like a natural in no time. That’s what you would have said, if you had thought you were allowed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 13, 2021 as "Game Plan".
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