There Can Be No Hermits

When my friend Bruno stopped by my house for a visit, I knew right away he was a secret drop-in. He didn’t smell like Bruno, you know? He didn’t quite move like how I remembered.

Sniffing out signs of introversion — that’s their M.O. The congeniality police will report you if they suspect any evidence of introspective activities.

If you fail a secret drop-in, you might get a citation three weeks later. Maybe a fine for inhospitable behavior. Sometimes worse. It all depends on what they find.

You can tell a secret drop-in if they say stuff like Hello stranger or Oh I was worried about you or Hey, just thought I’d touch base. It’s been a while.

Seriously, touch base? Baseball hasn’t been a thing for two decades. You want to touch base?

They disguise themselves as your closest friends or relatives. But if you’re smart, you can tell the difference. The fakes are like super-extraverted versions of whoever they’re pretending to be.

Pay attention. Though they act familiar, a secret drop-in will display subtle signs of having never met you before. For instance, they’ll look at things your friends wouldn’t look at, like your name tag. Or your hands. A close friend wouldn’t examine your hands. Hands are only interesting if you’ve never seen them before.

They ask you all the usual catch-up questions: What’ve you been up to lately? What are you doing this weekend? Are you seeing anyone? Oh is it serious? How’s work going? Do you like your coworkers?

The first thing Bruno did was glance at the Hi I’m: Tobi emblazoned in blue stitching on my right breast pocket. Then he said, “Ey, Tobi, bud. How long has it been?”

“What a surprise,” I said, mustering up as much enthusiasm as I could. “Come in, friend. It’s been too long. Have a seat.”

To pass a secret drop-in you have to tick each box on their checklist: Ask if they want something to drink. Ask if they’d like to have a seat. Ask if they want to use the bathroom before they leave. Suggest a future time and place to hang out. Show them recent pictures on your phone. Agree to look at anything they show you on their phone. I mean anything. Doesn’t matter how stupid.

He walked passed my television and looked down at my game console, noting the single controller. “Nice setup. Whatcha been playing? Where’s your other controller?” he asked.

I had to think fast. “Oh, I let my neighbor borrow it. We play all the time. Online multi-player. His controller broke. So I was just being nice by letting him borrow mine. I might just let him keep it, actually. I can pick up another one tomorrow or something,” I said, hoping the lie didn’t sound too forced.

Anything that implicates you in a solitary activity will throw up a red flag. If they even see a book, forget about it. At that point, they’ll just make up an excuse and leave because they know they got you. I haven’t owned a physical book in years.

I tried to distract him by engaging in more conversation: “You look good, man. You shaved for once.”

He touched his jaw. “Oh yeah. I was on my way to a work thing. This mixer they’re having for a new hire.”

“They give parties for new hires? That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, we want to make them feel welcomed. Make them see how collegial we all are.”

The Bruno I knew only shaved about once a month. I picked up a small basketball and tossed it to him. I nodded at the mini-hoop hanging from my bedroom door. Faux Bruno tossed up a shot. Swish. Then he winked and pointed at me and said, “Nice assist, bud.”

“I should suggest that at my job. I think it’s a great idea,” I said, doing my best to continue the pointless banter.

“Some of the smaller workplaces make excuses. They say it’s not in the budget to do stuff like that. But that’s never true. If bosses do their due diligence, they can find the funds. Social camaraderie is an integral part of any successful enterprise. I’m not sure if you know, but any workplace can file for a new employee welcoming grant from the Workplace Congeniality Foundation. Just about any business can qualify. Maybe mention that to your manager on Monday.”

“Oh I definitely will. Thanks.” What I wanted to know was when the hell did Bruno become an expert on workplace spending? Is this guy even trying? He must be new at the whole imposter thing.

“You’re welcome, bud,” Faux Bruno said.

The first time I got in trouble for asocial behavior was back in college. I had locked myself in my dorm room for two straight days to study for midterms. Studying is best done in groups, they said. That’s when I learned all about the Department of Congeniality. The Workplace Congeniality Foundation is one of their subsidiaries. The whole thing is a sprawling umbrella corporation, a giant tech conglomerate that profits off of people staying connected and always sharing. It’s the very same department that monitors your social media to see if you’ve become underactive.

If you’ve been particularly underactive, that’ll tip them off. In fact, that might have been why they were visiting me. I had been slacking.

When you’re online, it’s always a good idea to randomly like stuff or share things as much as possible, on whatever social platforms you visit. Even if it has no significance whatsoever. At least it shows that you’re active.

Don’t even try to delete a profile. You’ll find yourself embroiled in a full-on intervention. They make you attend social skills rehab. Seminars on how to stay connected. Classes on how to maintain your presence. Those are the worst. Trust me. If you’re a closet introvert, you really don’t want to meet the kind of people who teach those seminars for a living. Holy hell.

Bruno looked at the pics on my fridge. He laughed at the right things. He brought up the correct anecdotes. He did everything right to show me he was nominally the best friend he was supposed to be. But I knew the truth. The real truth. Bruno and I hadn’t spoken in years. I couldn’t even tell you who ghosted who. In fact, despite being ostensibly connected to many of the people that littered my friends lists, I hadn’t seen any of them face-to-face in a long long time.

I didn’t really have any friends anymore. My last real friend was my illegal cat, Teddy. He was the best. I got him back when you could still get cats on the black market, shortly after they were banned as pets for their innate aloofness.

As Bruno gave me a hug and said his goodbyes, my palms were still sweating. I hoped he wouldn’t see the stark reality that lurked back behind my eyes. That my dream was to become a hermit.

I know that’s virtually impossible. There can be no hermits. “Hey, you sure you don’t wanna use the toilet before you head out?”

“Nah I’m good, bud. As always, thanks for the hospitality.”

“Hope to see you again soon,” I said, closing the door, resisting the impulse to slam it.

I took a deep breath and sat on my couch for six minutes. I stood up and looked out the window. At the seven minute mark, the coast was clear. I decided for good measure I’d go out and check my mail, just so I could get a view around the neighborhood, to see if he was really gone.

I opened my mailbox and pulled out some bills. That’s when I noticed the blue and orange car in the distance. A fleet of congeniality police turned the corner on to my block. No, no, no. Not again. My heart sank.

In what felt like slow motion, they parked one after another in front of my house. I dropped my mail and raised my hands up, open palms facing the cruisers. The tinted rear window of the lead car rolled down to reveal Bruno’s face, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, his lips motionless, without even the hint of a smile.

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