The woman sitting next to me at the Mahjong table tells me that I get on her nerves. I’m not surprised that she finds me annoying, but I am surprised that she would say so. We have a regular group of about twenty women, and if we all start sharing what we truly think about one another the outcome will be disastrous.
“What about me gets on your nerves?” I ask impassively, with no intention of altering my persona to suit her sensibilities.
“You say things most people wouldn’t say,” she tells me, pressing her lips together as though she’s eaten something sour.
Well, there’s no arguing with that. I know myself; and I am outspoken. I could point out to her that I have a delightful sense of the absurd, and that while she finds me audacious, there are some who think I’m fun. Although, as she doesn’t comprehend humor, this would be a waste of words. I decide that I will avoid her when I can; but as we have a rotation, playing with her every once in a while is ineluctable.
And so, a couple of months after she tells me that I get on her nerves, I’m once again sitting next to her over a set of tiles. I’m coming from another table where I had an impressive Mahjong, having had a pure concealed hand (no jokers, can’t pick up tiles from the discards), which means that the original thirty-cent win is doubled. And, as East, I rolled doubles at the beginning of play, so it doubles again. Also, the person who gave me the winning tile must double that. I made enough off that one hand to buy a couple of tacos!
So it’s understandable that I’m in a merry mood when I arrive at the table where the repressive woman sits. Soon, without realizing it, I allow her dour attitude to effect my mood. I become serious, sinking into a thoughtful mien. We all play quietly and quickly, only speaking to name our tiles as we put them out.
But the woman who told me I make her nervous is the one who’s getting on my nerves today. Every time she discards a tile, her hand returns to her mouth and she picks at the space between two of her lower teeth. She makes little sucking noises as she digs.
I look around the table to see if anyone else has noticed.
My eyes meet those of the woman across from me. She grins, raises a brow, and gives an upward chin jerk, a silent communication meaning “I dare you.” She knows me well. I look to the woman on the other side of me. She looks like she’s about to throw up.
Sip! Sip! Sip! goes the woman who apparently needs to floss.
I can’t concentrate on the game. The only thing for her to be excavating like that is old food. The longer it goes on the more grossed out I become.
Every one of us has her spit on our fingers.
Realizing that I’m close to an outburst, I take a few calming breaths and contemplate the state of our politically correct society. We are so afraid of speaking out when someone is acting offensively, that we’d rather put up with it than say anything.
Sip! Sip! Sip!
Okay, I’m done.
“Stop it,” I tell the cavewoman abruptly, but without rancor.
“What?” She straightens as though she’s been poked.
“Think about what you’re doing.” People should be mindful. Does she not know where she is? Does she not pay attention to herself?
“What?” she asks. “What am I doing?” I guess not.
“You’re picking at your teeth and touching the tiles. It’s revolting.”
“Oh. Well, I have something caught in my teeth.”
I give her a look.
“I’m sorry,” she says, humbled.
I shouldn’t have said anything. Why, oh why, do I always speak up? Now the other women will think I’m intolerant, overly critical, and tactless. They’ll be reluctant to sit with me, for fear I’ll point out some mortifying flaw.
Furthermore, the inherent consequence of all this civil sensitivity is a her-or-me conundrum. Do I say something that will embarrass someone and hurt her feelings; or do I refrain, to my own detriment? Most, I think, would choose to sacrifice their own wellbeing rather than take a stand. But not me, which is why I got on her nerves in the first place.
Play resumes. She doesn’t do it again. A few minutes later, when she leaves our table to go to the next one, I hear her tell her new opponents that she needs a few minutes before she can play because she’s got to go clean her teeth.
“You’re ballsier than I am,” the woman across from me says.
“I feel sick,” from the woman sitting next to me.
“She’s moved on and we’re left playing with spitty tiles,” I say in a tone fraught with indignation.
The three of us pull hand sanitizer from our purses. A new player joins us and we offer her some hand sanitizer, too.
The tiles don’t speak to me for the rest of the afternoon.