Small Talk

by The Cowl Editor on January 27, 2022


silhouette of a girl's face with earring
Photo courtesy of

by Sarah McLaughlin ’23

Why do I always end up wanting to punch myself in the face after making small talk?

This new girl comes into work, and I ask her if it’s still raining because I’m leaving, and she says no, and so I stuff my raincoat into my backpack, awkwardly crouching over in the desk chair and sort of holding the backpack up with my feet and I say something dumb like “guess I won’t be needing this anymore,” and laugh as if it’s funny, and she sort of laughs too but in a way like she pities me, and then I say something about how I wish we would get fall weather soon and how I hate the summer, and that’s true, but why do I say hate? It’s such an aggressive and unnecessary word in that context, and then she looks at me and says, “Well, I think you’re alone in that, Dillon,” and I’m just left staring at her like an idiot wondering how she knows my name.

And then after I stare and she turns away to sit at a desk and her small gold hoop earrings swing a little and glint under the ceiling light, I remember she was in my freshman-year writing seminar; she was the girl I thought had a nice voice and said thoughtful things about everyone’s essays, and I always caught myself staring at her just like I am now. I can’t for the life of me remember her name.

But I can check the schedule. It’s Lexi.

I’m not surprised she works here. I remember now that I read her narrative essay in our seminar. She wrote about growing up in South Dakota and having a crush on the quarterback of her high school’s football team. It should’ve been so silly. But, somehow, she made it captivating. I wish I could remember it fully.

When I was in first grade, I hung out with a group of girls who liked to sing Taylor Swift songs while we maneuvered our way across ladders and beams and monkey bars. I can’t remember if I got into her music because my dad put it onto the old MP3 player he gave me for my sixth birthday or because they liked it first, but I learned all the lyrics to the songs we’d sing either way. Spring rolled around and a sign-up sheet was put on the bulletin board in our classroom for the talent show. I thought about writing my name down because I had just started learning guitar. Then I saw the four girls walk up to the wall together and pencil their names one at a time. When they came back over to sit at our shared table, I asked what they were going to perform. For some reason, in my head, it was going to be four individual acts. But then one of them said they were going to sing “Love Story” and explained how they were going to dress up, the taller two in suit jackets and ties that belonged to their older brothers and the shorter two in white dresses with their First Communion veils. After that day, they spent most recess periods rehearsing on the blacktop how they would hold hands and spin each other in circles. I started sitting with a kid named Tommy who would hide in the corner by himself and organize his Pokémon cards.

I remember some girls used to see me and Tommy in the corner of the cafeteria and ask if he was my boyfriend. I didn’t have a concept of what that meant except that he was a boy and gave me his duplicate Pokémon cards so I supposed he was a friend. But I knew that word meant something different—I knew from the smirks on their faces, the way they’d flash their new adult front teeth I didn’t have yet, the way Avril Lavigne sung about a similar word—girlfriend—in another song I had on my MP3 player; I just didn’t know what. So I shook my head and didn’t say a word and neither did Tommy, and I just hoped they’d leave us alone.

On my street there was a kid named Zach, who I think was my age but was at least twice my size. There is a little creek that runs in the patch of woods behind my house, and I liked to catch frogs. In the spring, especially, they weren’t too hard to find. Catching them was the tricky part, but it is a skill I’d mastered over the years.

I think it was that same spring when “Love Story” was all over the radio when I caught a frog and decided to make a little home for it in a Tupperware container—without the lid, of course, but I picked one with sides tall enough that it couldn’t climb out. I put a little mud from the creek bed at the bottom and plucked some grass from my yard. The frog seemed to like it—at least, after a few minutes, he stopped trying to escape. I was so proud of my little architectural creation that I felt a desire to show it off, for somebody else to see it and appreciate it just as much as I did. So I did something I didn’t do often and brought the frog to the front yard, away from the creek, and down to the sidewalk. I sat cross-legged there, and the sun beat down on us, but I wore a baseball cap and the brim of it kept the frog shaded.

Minutes later, a few kids on bicycles and Razor scooters rolled along the street, almost passing me without notice, but they stopped and stared down at the girl with grass stains on her knees and mud caked under her fingernails holding a Tupperware container.

“What the hell is that?” one of them asked, and it felt like someone had dropped ice down my shirt; my mom had told me to never use that word.

I lifted the container up to show them and probably shyly mumbled something, too, although who knows if they were even listening. They stared, and smiles grew on their faces. I smiled, too.

“What are you gonna do, kiss it?”

They laughed in chorus. And that’s when Zach tossed his bike to the side, reached down into the Tupperware, pulled out the frog, and in one furious but careless motion threw it onto the ground with a wet splat and squashed it under his foot.

I don’t remember how it looked. I know my eyes were open, but it’s like time has censored the image.

When I step outside, letting the heavy door fall closed behind me, it isn’t raining—Lexi was right—but it’s misty, and the gray clouds shielding the sun make it impossible to tell if it has already set.