I’m an open book. Those in the know, Susan, my kids when they pay attention, possibly some coworkers, know my mood, my primal feelings just by watching and listening. Sitting on the couch this morning, talking to Susan, I started chewing on my pinky. Not at the end, my fingertip, like my kids chew on their drinking straws as they near the slurping end of their Coke, but the base of my pinky, the first joint, on the outside of my hand. The part you use to pound on the door.
Immediately self-conscious, I stopped. I put my hands in my lap and started picking at the same spot with my fingernail—digging deep under the callus, leaving me with a satisfying sensation of pain. “What’s wrong?” Susan sees this, and all my other tics and twitches, my tells.
Tell. It’s a poker term. A subtle (or not) change in a player’s demeanor or actions providing competitors an opportunity to assess that player’s poker hand. “Whenever Dave is bluffing, he twists his watch around his wrist.” That’s Dave’s tell. The other players go all in.
As a kid, just one and two years younger than my brothers, I harbored different interests. On wintry Sunday afternoons, while they watched football with my father in the family room, I watched old movies on the spare TV in my parents’ room. I almost wrote old, black and white movies, because the movies I watched were black and white. But so was football downstairs—my parents didn’t spring for a color TV until 1978. On summer evenings, the family watched baseball, and I watched reruns of the Odd Couple.
Do any of you older readers remember this show? I can’t gauge its popularity because I always watched it alone. Two middle-aged divorced men shared an apartment in New York City. A strange show choice to appeal to a twelve or thirteen-year-old. Like all sitcoms, the characters featured exaggerated traits. Oscar was a slob, his bed covered with unfolded laundry, an old cigar doused in a glass of unfinished whiskey. Continually hungover, disheveled, always looking for a big gambling score to shore up his shaky finances.
In contrast, Felix was fastidious. Early to bed, early to rise. Fit, cultured, motivated, but always a little sad. He spent his days following Oscar around the apartment cleaning up the messes Oscar left in his wake. Each roommate expressed extreme versions of their primary traits. What now would be viewed as obvious mental illnesses, in 1970 was simply funny.
Whenever Felix became upset, usually over something Oscar did or didn’t do, his ears seemed to clog up. Felix tried to clear this blockage with a loud, exaggerated “MMMWAH!” That was the sound he made, but accompanying the sound was an attempt to expel air into his ear canals. Give it a try, it’s fun. Oscar drops a chili dog between the couch cushions… MMMWAH. Oscar blows his rent money on the fifth race at Belmont Park, MMMWAH, MMMWAH.
Felix had a tell. At the time, I identified with Oscar, everyone did. I thought Felix was a priss. How strange to realize that I’ve essentially turned into him.
I have gobs of tells. At the start of the pandemic, I began coughing. Perpetually stressed, coughing became an outward manifestation. I opened a browser, clicked the case count graphic and started coughing. I heard about some recent deaths at the local hospital, I coughed. Walking through the grocery store coughing, I worried that everyone thought I had covid, and I coughed some more. My family knows this. Whenever I cough, Susan eyes me with concern, wondering what’s bothering me.
It comes on suddenly. Quietly doing dishes, I’ll remember that unresolved hospital bill from Eli’s bike accident and I cough. Sitting on the couch, I’ll remember an embarrassing thing I said at work and I cough.
The rock band the Police have a lyric about this:
It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov
God, I hate the Police. I realize I’m channeling a song lyric cowritten by Sting, and I cough.
I have a dozen of these tics and twitches that show up when I’m feeling stress or discomfort. This afternoon, Susan, Eli and I drove to the lake we kayak on in the summer and walked out onto the ice. People littered the surface. A hockey game here, ice fishers there, couples taking walks, kids dragging behind their parents on sleds. I didn’t like it. Much like my fear of heights, I guess I’m fairly afraid of falling through ice. I didn’t cough, but I punched my thigh the whole time we were on the ice. Punched my thigh? Yup, yet another tell, just like chewing on my pinky. I guess that’s what happens when I wear gloves.
As an adult, if I was forced to choose between Oscar and Felix, I suppose I’d rather be Felix. Oscar’s addictive personality (alcohol, gambling) is too familiar and disruptive. I’ve had my problems with alcohol already, and obsessively immersing myself into other harmful activities never feels too far away. People like Felix are introspective. Yes, my twitchy tells are annoying, to me, to others, but they provide me an easy-to-read map of what’s going on in my own head. For me it’s helpful to find that clarity without having to dig for it. I appreciate that it’s all right out in the open for me to see, even if everyone else can see it too.