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A few weeks ago, I pulled into a grocery store lot and parked, rocking out while my car speakers blasted Mary Mary’s “Go Get It.” My eyes were closed, my voice volume was on maximum, and I was car-dancing like no one was watching. It was a rare moment to myself; I got to leave my toddler at home while I ran this quick errand — and I was making the most of it. When the song ended, I let out a contented sigh and powered down the car. As soon as I did, a loud honk sounded. I jumped and looked over at the car beside me.

As it turned out, someone was watching. The audience: an old college boyfriend. I hadn’t seen him in more than 10 years and hadn’t spoken to him in six. He was smiling and waving, two car seats peeking up from the back of his car. For a moment, time stood still. I thought about my appearance. I was kind of a mess, in that way that a mom rushing out to the store is a mess: t-shirt and jeans, mussed hair, minimal makeup, a light sheen of perspiration from my driver’s seat concert moment.

Then time hit reverse, and I was back in the middle of our last phone call, when he said I’d broken his heart when I’d ended our relationship a few years earlier, but he should probably thank me, because if I hadn’t, he wouldn’t have met the love of his life — someone he described as young, beautiful, and brilliant — whom he’d promptly married and with whom he’d moved into a lovely suburb where, presumably, they’d set about the very quick work of having the two children whose car seats were now docked behind his back.

I’m trapped, I thought. We’re going to have to talk. We’re going to smile and update each other and I’m going to have to pretend that I’m the kind of person who understands the expression, “water under the bridge.” 

More often than not, chance encounters are brutal for me. As a socially awkward person, I can’t stand being caught off guard. I hate not being able to brace myself for seeing someone with whom I have a complicated or unpleasant past. Though, on my end, this ex didn’t fit into either of those categories, he’d made it clear to me when we last spoke that I did. Why had he pulled up beside me now? Was it just to say hey? Or would there be weird subtext and semi-resentful reminiscing? Did I want to update him on my life right now? Did I want to hear about his?

I was never great at poker-facing or improvisation, and usually, if I can manage to spot someone with whom I’d rather not “small-talk,” and can duck out of view before he or she sees me, I will.

But that wasn’t an option now. I smiled brightly, smoothed my hair, and stepped out of my car into the late spring sunshine. “Hiiii!” I chirped like a dinner party hostess. “How’s it going?”

I kept it upbeat, punchy, and most importantly, brief, congratulating him on his new additions and walking toward the store entrance to indicate that I was in a hurry. “Are you coming in?” I asked, ready to quip about maybe running into him again around the baby food aisle. (“Ha ha ha!” I’d trill and then avoid that section of the store like the plague.)

“No,” he said slowly. “I … just pulled in for a minute to, uh, to …”

To talk to me? Crap.

“You’re really in a hurry, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said, apologetically.

We parted ways and I rushed into the store, replaying the whole thing in my head. Had I been pleasant enough? Did I look presentable at least? Did I come off as happy? Did he?

I’d like to say I only spent so much time analyzing this because this was someone I used to date, someone who’d once held me responsible for an unhappy time in his life and then spent close to an hour describing how much better he had it after I was gone. But the fact is, I do this mental play-by-play after every awkward chance meeting, whether it’s a girl I didn’t get along with growing up, an estranged relative, an ex-coworker, or an old friend with whom I’ve fallen out of touch. Every one of these conversations feels like a mini-high school reunion, like an opportunity to prove something to the other person: Look how I turned out! Look how happy (or successful or attractive) I am! Remember that hurt (or embarrassment or humiliation) you caused or witnessed? I am so over that!

Because I’m prone to that kind of over-analysis, it’s best for me to smile and wave and move on, whenever possible–or even better, to go the other way before I’m spotted. But I know that’s not a typical reaction to seeing someone you used to know.

So how do you handle awkward chance encounters? Do you confront them with confidence and ease or try to head them off at the pass? 

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  • I don’t get the awkwardness…I mean when I see people from my past or even present there is a split second that I consider avoiding them but it’s more because I have to assess whether “I feel like it” but never because the encounter will be awkward. I tend to seek out those from my past that I may run into.

  • I’m very curious as to what he wanted to talk about. Awkward encounters are something that I face head on now. Better to get it over with so I don’t have to paic next time we bump into each other.

  • Danyi

    Thank you for this validating article. I’m not so alone in my awkwardness after all.