birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Social Code

“It’s so wonderful to see you,” I over-enunciate. First lie.

She goes for a misplaced air kiss and hug, as my arms and hands, busy cutting fruit and cheese, raise stiffly in a quick embrace. Or a motion to surrender.

She makes half-hearted gestures toward the kitchen counter, an impotent offer to help.

I wave her off, pleading, “Oh I wouldn’t dare let you lift a finger.” Second lie, but a masked one. We’ve learned to avoid her cooking.

She sniffs, looking around the counter.

“I was just making a little plate for happy hour,” I say, answering her unspoken question. “We’re going to grill up something in a bit.” It’s a statement, not an invitation. But she’s the type to hear what she wants to hear, not listening.

She settles into a barstool, making loud, crude jokes about how she thought she’d interrupted a moment of young love.

“Really? That so?” I say through gritted teeth barely covered by a flat smile. “But you came on in anyway?”

Rough laughter from her makes me cringe. I turn the dial in my head from “Polite and Possibly Artificial Hospitality” to “Barbed Banter.” She and her personality are too thick to notice.

I notice her platform sandals, her bright blue toes sparkling between the straps. There are more straps on her t-shirt, cut out and criss-crossed, showing triangles of her too-tan back. She’s old enough to be my mother, but dresses like her grandchild.

She goes into one of her stories, likely one I’ve heard no less than three times before. Is it lying to let her re-tell it, uninterrupted? My husband and my neighbor, who has somehow become attached to her, enter the kitchen, their big smiles and genuine laughter filling the space. It’s fun for a moment, resembling a regular Saturday night supper club, until she crescendoes into an off-color joke that electrifies my skin. Like a record scratch in the middle of a bustling party, it awkwardly cuts the air. She doesn’t hear the silence, doesn’t see me flick a look at my husband, a look loaded with marital Morse-code. One long glare and two short blinks mean “I’m uncomfortable as hell and want her to stop.”

Why don’t we stop her cold, icing down the wound she slashed in social propriety? Why do I play the charade of hosting someone I’d rather heave? Instead, little by little, I tell white lies to keep the peace and keep our wonderful neighbor around. And each time she barrels into land mine territory of political or racist statements, I try my Morse code on her. One long glare and no blinks, no smiles, means “shut the hell up.” Doesn’t work. I sigh, shaking my head and walking away while she’s mid-sentence. No one needs a de-coder for that. I won’t stand for it, but can’t yet say it aloud.

Expert on German History