By Amy E. Robillard
We’d talked about going to the German restaurant in Gibson City for years. Well, my friends had talked about it and I’d played along, neither enthusiastically nor unenthusiastically. When I thought of German food, what came to mind was the German restaurant we went to in high school as part of the German class field trip. I didn’t love it. Sausage and schnitzel don’t rate high on my list, I guess. But then Elise reminded me about strudel. Who doesn’t love a good strudel?
So the six of us—Chris and Christy, Elise and Jeremy, and Steve and I—all drove the forty-five minutes through the cornfields of Illinois one Saturday night to give it a try. I’d been hearing wonderful things about Bayern Stube for more than ten years now, and Steve loves sausage. Oh, does he love sausage. He’d studied the online menu for days and he knew just what he wanted: the huge platter of assorted sausages.
We’re seated at a huge table in the very back room, past the rooms decorated in the dark tones we’d come to associate with German-themed anything. This room is too brightly lit and feels more like a banquet room. It’s decorated—if you can call it that—with both parts of and entire dead animals. A deer head here, an entire turkey splayed out and flattened onto the wall over there. Antlers. Bearskins. “Do you get the sense that Grandpa went a little nuts decorating this room?” Jeremy asks. But only Elise and I can hear him because the table is so big and the chairs so wide and the room so loud that conversation is limited to those sitting closest to us. There’s a party of six at a round table behind us, a party of probably ten at the table next to us, and a party of five or so plus a toddler over there in the corner.
The waitresses are wearing dirndl dresses with the gathered white blouse and it’s hard not to notice how prominent their breasts are. It’s like the German version of Hooters. Our waitress takes our drink orders and disappears for a half hour. A half hour. We beg a waiter for water. It arrives only after our drinks. Steam is coming out of Steve’s ears and I’m beginning to feel the stress of his frustration. I try to make him laugh. We joke that we’d get up and leave except that this is the only restaurant in town.
We study the menu. I’m still not quite sure what a schnitzel is, but the one with apples and gruyere cheese on top sounds good. The Bismarck. We watch our waitress deliver a tray full of drinks to the table of six behind us. We salivate. “I’m feeling a little parched,” I say, smacking my lips together. I tell them all about our plans to go on vacation with the dogs up to Door County in June. We’ll be staying at a dog-friendly inn right on the lake and, as part of the “Hot Dog” package, we’ll get a gift card to a local dog-friendly restaurant whose selling points include a doggy menu. It kills me to imagine Wrigley and Essay sitting at a table with us, looking over the menu, deciding what they’re in the mood for. Yes, we’d like four of everything, please, says Wrigley to the waiter. “They’ll probably be served before we are,” someone says.
At last, our drinks arrive. Steve’s full liter of beer is in a huge glass stein and he drinks it very quickly. Mine is in a smaller glass stein and not nearly as impressive looking. Soon our waters arrive and we order. We’re in it for the long haul, it seems, so we’d better get comfortable. These chairs. They’re huge and hard and the baby over in the corner cries every now and then, a sound that grates on some of our nerves. In order to hear each other, we have to practically shout and still some of us are lost in our own conversations.
I come from a long line of loud people. My mother’s sneezes could wake the dead and her laughter could be heard up the street. In nearly every job that I’ve ever had, my loud laugh has been the subject of attention, both good and bad, but mostly good. When I move my office at school from one in a long hallway of colleagues to a much bigger but more remote one, my colleagues tell me how they miss hearing me laugh.
Our food arrives to much fanfare. We’re hungry. We need another round of drinks. One of the tables behind us clears out, making the toddler’s cries more prominent. Midway through our meal, a woman from the toddler table comes over to our table, and I wish I could describe better what happened but I couldn’t look at her and only Jeremy and Elise and Christy and I heard her ask me to please stop laughing because every time I laugh it scares the toddler and she starts crying. I can’t look at her. Jeremy doesn’t look at her. I probably set my lips tight together and nod. Later I learn that Christy gives her the stink eye. I don’t know what we say to her, if anything, to get her to leave, but she’s apologizing as she’s asking me to stop being so loud. Steve doesn’t hear her and we have to report to him and Chris what just happened. I’m mortified. I try to summon anger as my friends respond with outrage as they process what just happened.
“Why isn’t that baby home in bed?”
“It’s clear who runs the show in that household. Baby gets what Baby wants.”
“A kid who’s afraid of laughter. Christ.”
“You are not too loud. I love your laugh.”
“Who does that?”
Steve, realizing what’s happened, says in their general direction, “We’re too loud?”
I want the subject to change. I’m mortified and all I can think about is how I couldn’t even look at her when she was talking directly to me. But my friends continue defending me and I almost can’t bear it. Because I can see the woman’s point. Almost too easily, I slip from my own perspective into hers and I imagine that if I were at a restaurant with my toddler and there was a woman at a nearby table whose laugh was particularly loud, I, too, might ask her if she could perhaps be a bit quieter. Maybe I would have done it differently, more kindly perhaps, but I couldn’t inhabit my own position, feel my own anger and self-righteousness for more than a minute or two before shifting to empathy for her position.
We’re a culture concerned with empathy these days, the popular sentiment being that we don’t have enough of it. But having too much of it and accessing it too quickly can be as destructive as not having any.
Christy asks me what I would have said if I’d been able.
“Probably something along the lines of ‘Fuck you.’”
“You should’ve,” she says.
Our table goes quiet for a little bit as we all absorb what’s happened. I remind my friends of the time that another friend of ours, sitting next to me at patio table on a summer day, got up and moved to another chair after dramatically covering his ear with his hand in response to my laugh.
“Well,” says Jeremy. “This puts a damper on the evening.”
Steve is upset that he didn’t realize what was happening when it was happening because he would’ve defended me better, he says.
I often tell my rhetoric students that once I’m done with them, they’ll never be able to see the world the same way. I tell them that I’m out to ruin their lives. Experiences they’d never thought twice about would become fodder for analysis, and they’d recognize dominant ideology everywhere they turned. As my friends rushed to my defense, I wanted the subject to change because I kept thinking that if they’d been sitting at the table with the toddler, they’d be rushing to the mother’s defense just as vehemently. And they would’ve been very good at it. Their defense of me, I couldn’t help but think, was so obviously biased.
And then, a few days later, telling the story to another friend, I found myself saying that it’s not as though I would’ve wanted the opposite situation: to be called out like that and to have my friends agree with the woman. Yeah, Amy, you’re way too loud. We’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Could you please just stop laughing?
That would’ve been a nightmare.
A few more days later and now I think I get it. It’s never just about what we think it’s about.
When I was a kid, my older sister abused me. She hit me and insulted me and told my friends how stupid and fat I was. She told me to shut up when I sneezed. Margie’s bedroom was next to mine, and the house was configured so that to get to her room, she had to go through mine—just a few steps, but enough to make me feel like I could never really shut the door or shut her out. My door was always open.
Bedtime. Margie walks through to her room. “You little shit. You’re dead.”
Middle of the night. Margie walks back through to the one bathroom in the house. “Little fucker. Fat shit.”
Back to her room. “Skank.”
Morning. “You’re dead, you little shit.”
And so it went, with our mother doing nothing to stop it. I always had the sense that Ma didn’t believe me when I told her about Margie hitting me, giving me bloody noses. But now I think that she couldn’t bear to see it and so she just didn’t. She looked away. She told me to stay away from her. She made it about me, what I was doing or not doing.
When my friends sought every possible way to defend me, to protect me from the shame they knew I’d probably eventually be feeling, they were doing what my mother never did, and I didn’t know how to accept it. I just wanted to change the subject.
I never got my strudel. They had cherry or apple/raisin. Steve and I were going to share dessert, but he doesn’t like cherry and I didn’t want raisins in my apple strudel. Instead we passed around a piece of black forest cake and when the family with the toddler left, Steve said to them, in his most sarcastic voice, “Have a nice night.”
AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay. Her work has also appeared on The Rumpus.