Laughter is a powerful thing. It can cut through the tension. It can break the ice. It can momentarily pull you from a world of sadness.
Laughter can also crush you under its weight.
The laughter won’t stop, no matter how hard I plead with my eyes. The actual words are stuck inside of me. I shout at them in my head as loud as I can, praying they will seep out. I need them to hear me, but they’ve never listened before, so why start now?
Instead of offering a hand—or a shoulder—they throw laughter at me. It’s loud and unforgiving. It crawls across my skin, snaking around my middle before reaching for my throat.
I made one mistake. A rather silly slip-up in the grand scheme of life. A word twisted on my tongue, released with too much confidence, echoing through the room, piercing every waiting ear. My attempt to fit in, to blend into their group, blew up in my face.
Minutes pass, and they haven’t stopped laughing.
I’m trying to smile along as they slap legs and desks, barking out obnoxious laughter that should have died down already. They’re keeping it alive by mocking me. Each replay of my mistake makes the laughter louder.
It wasn’t even that funny.
I said one word wrong. And had zero idea what I was talking about to begin with. Yet you’d think I was headlining my first standup night. Only, I wasn’t laughing along.
Now, I’m on the verge of crying, which is worse. I can feel the blockage of emotion in my throat. Can they see it, too?
More seconds pass, and their laughter starts to dwindle. I stare down at someone’s desk. I’ve been leaning on it, and when I pull my hand away, I leave behind a sweaty outline. The girl on the other side, who had howled at my embarrassment moments ago, stares at the fading imprint with disgust.
“Sorry,” I whisper as I use my fist to smear the spot.
She says nothing, only arranges her face in a pinched revolt.
With my pride shattered and my composure failing, I slowly back away from the cluster of co-workers, keeping my face shielded to hide my impending tears. No need to give them more ammunition.
Before I turn down the hall, I hear a male voice say, “What an idiot.”
The chorus of agreement and follow-up chuckles hurt worse than his words. I can excuse the cruelty of one, but not of the many.
As I race off towards the communal bathroom, my face is engulfed in invisible fire. The room is empty, so I engage the lock.
This is why I don’t join in.
This is why I keep to myself.
I’ve earned the reputation as the quiet one in the office. No one understands how badly I wish I could join in, maybe make a friend. I’ve tried a few times, none of which ended this poorly, but it’s never gone well.
I second-guess every word that I say. I doubt myself. If I manage to speak, I spend the rest of the day—and often well into the night—going back over my own words, hating myself. It’s cringy and embarrassing.
Who does that?
Why did I say that?
Do they hate me? I’d hate me.
There are nights I can’t sleep because of something innocent I said that I know was taken the wrong way. Oh, I didn’t know you had kids. Now they think I don’t pay attention. Or that they couldn’t be a parent for some unknown reason. They’ll never see me the same again. I’ll always be the woman they see daily who never cared enough to get to know them. Had they brought their baby in, showing off the small bundle with broad smiles and cute stories? Did I miss it?
My therapist says I overthink it all. She calls it social anxiety. She might be right, but not this time. I’m not overthinking the laughter. It wasn’t because of what I said. The laughter was because I said something at all. They laughed at me. Not with. They insulted me.
It happens every day. Even when I keep myself in the background. I never make eye contact. Never assert myself. I’d rather be a face in the crowd, no one special. They point me out. They come into my space and taunt me.
I just want to be left alone.
But I also want to be with them.
I know it makes no sense. What in life does?
I know crying in a smelly bathroom wasn’t how I saw my day going. While drinking my burnt cup of coffee this morning, I planned it all out. I’d turn in my budget, tidy up my space, eat my turkey sandwich even though the bread is stale, and then I’d answer emails and come home to watch the finale of my favorite show before going to bed.
And I ruined it by speaking. I know better.
While I wash my face, I can still hear their words. The laughter was loud. A stadium of excited fans loud. I look like a mess, but that’s not entirely new. I’ll just keep my eyes down and hurry to my office. I’m lucky enough to have a door to close. A barrier to keep the world out.
I stare at my shoes and count my steps as I hurry away. No one stops me. No one laughs. I’ve blended into the wall again. Just how I like it.
I can breathe once I get into my office. The door closes behind me, but it doesn’t offer the protection it had this morning. The wood feels too thin now. I can hear everyone passing by, and I find myself straining to determine what they’re talking about. I’m searching for my name. Or an insult.
Office chatter is all that comes through. It seems I’m not on anyone’s mind. I sit in my office and obsess while they go about their lives without a second thought about me or how they treated me. I’m not a person to them. I’m too strange. Too quiet.
Too wrong in all the ways they don’t understand.
As soon as I’m gone, I’m forgotten. None of them spend countless hours picking apart their day, wondering what they could have done differently. None of them offers an apology for my tears. None of them care.
And I obsess about all of it. Over my reaction to their lack of reaction. Or how I should have kept walking instead of trying to fit in. I think about the way they see me. I wonder if they tell their friends about me, tossing out comical stories about the oddball woman in the office. Am I joke? Nothing more than a punchline?
This whole time I’ve been seeing it from a different angle. It’s not my comedy routine; it’s theirs. I’m nothing more than material. I’m not equal or even human. I’m comic relief that gets them through meetings and pointless memos.
I gather up my purse, power off my computer, and take a breath, knowing I get to do it all over again tomorrow.
They’ll have forgotten all about this incident, but it’ll live in my head until it’s buried by all the embarrassing moments that will follow.
“Have a good night, Becky,” someone calls out.
I nod my head in response, not trusting my own voice.
Someone else pops their head out, waving a folder at me. “Hey, I’m going to toss this on your desk for tomorrow. Just need your eyes to review.”
I nod again, mustering a smile, before dropping my eyes back to my shoes.
They’ve already forgotten, and the ghost of their laughter follows me to the elevator and on the car ride home. It plays as a soundtrack over the television and as company while I eat. It becomes a temporary companion as I pull apart the moment in my head.
What could I have done differently?