I went with L. to check out the new neighborhood café. Ten minutes later our clever banter had reached a natural pause over antipasti, and I took advantage of the fermata to enjoy the bistro’s ambience of carefully-orchestrated comfort. Candles glowed, glasses tinked, and tendrils of conversation wafted over from satellite tables. Lapses in conversation are inevitable, like rests in music. And, inasmuch as they afford one the opportunity to listen, I welcome the lapses. When they come, the other senses can reach outward to compensate, and it’s important not to overlook these moments as opportunities for future conversation.

However, there are certain risks involved with even the most harmless of pursuits, as my experience with my partner this evening perfectly illustrates. The group of four adjacent to us was a spirited lot, and I found myself following their conversational thread for a few minutes before something the eldest woman said caught my attention. She said, “Well she didn’t know his father was a cop, you know, so when she saw his motorcycle…”

That brief snippet of dialogue conjured up a memory of my own, so I wasted no time. “L., I told you my father was a cop?”

She sipped her wine, then nodded. “You’d mentioned it, yes.”

“I was just thinking about the time my first childhood girlfriend visited our house. I guess I’d never mentioned the fact that my dad was a cop, so when she saw all the guns lying on the table one day, she assumed-“

I stopped short just then, the way you do when you see four people glaring at you from the adjacent table.

L. caught my gaze and looked over her shoulder, then straightened in surprise as she received the full brunt of their collective scorn. I spread my hands and mouthed “What?”

“Like you don’t know,” said the patriarch, in an impressive show of suburban bistro chivalry, and then turned back to his clan.

I most certainly didn’t know; not exactly. Did they think I was mocking them because our stories both featured father cops? Or perhaps they considered the subject of father cops reserved until they left the premises. How presumptive! But still better than the third alternative, which was that there was some arcane statute of limitations concerning any topic broached by those in one’s proximity.

What a hellish world of accounting that would be, and I for one refuse to subject myself to such esoteric mores. That’s a choice one makes. If anything, they should have been flattered that I found inspiration in something they had been discussing. But to take offense? It’s not like I got up and danced around their table singing the chantey of the father cop.

daddy was a COPPER
[a kick to their table leg]
who suprised my GIRL
when she spied his CHOPPER
with blue lights a-TWIRL!

Twirl twirl twirl twirl
sound your siren and storm your TROOPS
twirl twirl twirl twirl
you can spy her knickers with your shiny BOOTS!

See, then I might understand their disdain—even welcome it. But in this case… I should have chalked it up to mere oversensitivity, as L. recommended I should. But I was just so unsettled by the episode that further conversation was killed for the time being.

I might have used synonyms to camouflage the thematic similarities. “My elder who was a gendarme…” Or perhaps if I had spoken in another language entirely! That is, unless the bone of their contention was in the theme rather than the specific words I’d used. Who could know? Had anyone ever bothered to codify the etiquette around the use of conversational themes overheard?

As it happened, there would be no convenient resolution to these questions tonight. So instead I sat in uneasy silence as we awaited our entrees. The sounds of the bistro crept back to the fore, and before I knew it I was listening in to the dialogue held by our rival quartet again, helplessly. Once I had become sensitized to their signature timbre, it was difficult not to hear it to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

The younger male was talking about his experience writing a novel, much to the edification of the elders. Now there’s a meaty topic, I thought, biding my time.

Related Tales

» “What the Other Hand Is Doing” (26 of Apr, 2003)
» “Terminal II” (03 of Apr, 2003)
» “Terminal” (31 of Mar, 2003)


  • Perfect post. And I love that this will be in THEIR history, too. “Remember that time in the new cafe when we were talking, and that fellow next to us, starting talking about OUR TOPIC?” “No, don’t speak of it. That’s why we drive around that block, and we always will. Never back to that cafe, never.”

  • Haha, I’m glad I ran across this post! I was expecting it to be a long rambling post on pauses in conversation, but then…
    well, I always do that. Except I sometimes do it when the people at my table are talking, and I want to go talk to the people at the other table.

    you last line made me giggle

  • I’m glad you’re back. I missed you.

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Had anyone ever bothered to codify the etiquette around the use of conversational themes overheard?