It seems most people are very familiar with such things. After the fact, seconds or years later, when the opportunity has passed, you think of the perfect thing to say.
I have some pockmarks on my face, neck, chest and back, scars left over from severe acne, and occasionally I've been very self-conscious about them. I read a short story by John Updike once, about an actor who'd been successful in leading-man roles despite a similar problem. Then, later, Updike published a volume of non-fiction, Self-Consciousness,which contained an essay in which he discusses his psoriasis. I had stopped reading Updike by this time, but just by chance I read a review of Self-Consciousness. It and the short story about the actor combined to make me sort of almost like Updike. I could write a whole long essay about my problems with Updike, but why? It's been done exhaustively and competently by others already, and if I were to do it right I would need to re-read at least several volumes of his work and read several more for the first time. I think he was a mean-spirited, narrow-hearted a-hole. For more detail on the matter, I would refer the reader to William H. Gass, who, in an essay in his first non-fiction collection, Fiction and the Figures of Life,tore Updike a suitably thorough new one.
I have to say, though, that Updike's style, his evocation of the sensual world through words, is brilliant. But in my praise as in my condemnation of Updike I've hardly got a thing to say which hasn't been said and said and said, and this essay is supposed to be about things left unsaid. I was talking about my acne scars. To picture me, think of F. Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Trejo, Edward James Olmos -- and yes, John Updike belonged to my club, too. One of us! One of us! In 1990, I was sitting around getting high with some people in Germany, and this German who was a big admirer of Nietzsche, and whose hair and huge moustache were -- it seems clear to me in retrospect -- deliberately copied from Nietzsche's look -- it was a very popular style in the late 19th century, but it didn't really work in 1990, just as this guy's crude and overbearing personality weren't good advertising for Nietzsche's philosophy, any more than was Kevin Kline's Otto in A Fish Called Wanda-- this guy said to me: "You know, Shteefen, Iff I vas a voman, you know vat I vould like most about you? Your face. Your sveet scah face."
The reply to that which occurred to me too late should be fairly obvious: "And how would you feel if you were a man?" I'm not a fan of James Cameron, but it may well be that the obvious reply never occurred to me until after I a watched an actress say something very similar in Aliens.She was playing one of a squad of US Marines sent to deal with the Aliens, she had some big beautiful arm muscles, and while she was doing a set of pull-ups a male Marine asked her if she'd ever been mistaken for a man, and she replied, "No, have you?"
Sometimes the thing you should have said is short and pithy like that, sometimes it's more involved. In 1996 a man who several months before had offered me a couch for the night when I was homeless, then changed his mind as we were walking toward his place, came up and gave me a deep and searching look and offered me his hand to shake. He didn't have to say anything: he was forgiving me for the particularly hurtful things I had said after I'd suddenly found I didn't have a place to stay that night after all. Of course, he also wanted to feel like a good guy, like he and I were friends, even though he'd turned me out into the cold NYC night. It's not at all clear if this second part was conscious in his mind. But I shook his hand, might even have accepted his hug. (We ran with a very huggy crowd.)
Ever since, I've regretted making up with him. I want so bad to take back that handshake, and to say something like, "No, we're not cool. We're not friends, are you fucking kidding me? Don't worry about it, though. I was not your responsibility, any more than all the thousands of other homeless in this city are my responsibility now that I have a place of my own. I realize you feel very awkward seeing me now, and you want me to shake your hand, maybe hug you, too, and make you feel better. Well, go fuck yourself, life is awkward. If you really want to be cool and deep, you might want to start by trying to grasp that basic little fact. Twerp. We're not friends, I meant all those terrible things I said, each and every one of them, and more. Maybe you are a really good guy. I'll never know, will I? What the Hell do I know about you? You and I will never get close enough for me to tell. You've got absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. Like you said that night, you had to worry about your own well-being first. Absolutely correct. That's what you had to keep in mind. Each and every one of us should take that attitude, or else we'll never be much good to ourselves or anyone else. I really, sincerely do not blame you for a thing -- except, that night and right now, you want to have your cake and eat it, too. Turning a homeless person out into the night is not a crime. No single one of us can bear the weight of the world. But have the fucking tact not to turn them out and ask for their blessing at the same time. Don't explain your problems to them right at the same moment you decide there's no room at the inn after all. Not at that moment. It's just not the time, don't you get that? That's what pissed me off, and what is pissing me off again now -- not that you didn't help me. That's nothing, that much you have in common with almost the entire rest of the world."
There's no end to that answer, to what I should have said when he came up to me with that I'm-such-a-good-dude sincere deep expression on his face and held out his hand. Some replies you didn't think of are short and sweet, some are endless, you could never even begin them properly.