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The last week before social distancing protocols were announced, I went out to dinner with five other friends at Bacaro, an Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side. In between bites of tiny spicy meatballs, asparagus dripping in baked egg yolk, and crostini with ricotta and mint, discourse solidified and scattered like a symphony of instruments. Intermixed between our collective Love Is Blind excitement, mutual exclamations about how good something tasted, and a quintuplet of echoes in support of a particular reading recommendation, there were countless parentheticals, snippets of exchanges between two or three of us that branched off, humming with the intimacy of lowered voices and the snap crackle pop of easy laughter as we followed tangents wherever they led: relationship angst, memes, kale in teeth, the Democratic caucus, skincare revelations, moms.
No topic is too weighty or too small for a side conversation, which is why they are so integral to sustaining a satisfying social encounter. I wasn’t aware of this until they disappeared altogether seven weeks ago, relinquished alongside commutes to the office, movie theater outings, the triumph of catching a bartender’s attention, window shopping, getting caught in the rain, the smell of someone else’s neck, communal bowls of mints, and “FOMO” as a concept. I wasn’t even aware they disappeared, until I stopped to consider why socializing during quarantine felt less satisfying in more ways than simply lack of in-person contact.
The nature of Zoom calls, phone calls, and texts is such that they only allow for conversation in block form: a single topic at a time–or else it gets confusing. Only one person talking–or else it’s impossible to decipher what anyone is saying. There is no branching, no scattering, no snippet-ing, no barely perceptible winks or knees secretly knocking under a table. There is only the linear progression from subject to subject and voice to voice, a forward march that requires so much conscious care-taking it can easily start to feel awkward or forced, no matter how familiar the participants happen to be with each other. It makes interaction taste like broth without salt and sound like wheels without grease: lacking in flavor and ease.
I’m curious if you miss them as much as I do–these seemingly meaningless, overwhelmingly meaningful conversational asides–and if so, whether you’ve found another way to scratch the same poignant itch. If not, know that I’m focused on the upside of the anguish of waiting to indulge in them again: a stronger conviction that I’ll appreciate them even more, and perhaps a keener sense of gratitude, now that I know exactly how big a small thing can feel.
Graphics by Lorenza Centi.