Someone begins to tell you a joke.
You’re smiling. Your life is generally serious, or mundane, and a joke is a good distraction. No, it’s more than a distraction. It’s the promise of bounty and plenty. It’s a story that seems inclusive. The teller lets you in. In fact, they do more than that: they outright invite you into the narrative.
So here you are listening to this comedian in front of you. And they are still telling their story. They are still making their joke. Your mouth feels a little tired from smiling so long. But that’s okay. You can see that they are building something. You’re still able to follow each step to the end, to the finish, to the punchline of the thing.
Half-way through, you notice that they are beginning to move away from their premise. It seems as though you are being led into some sort of tangent. And that’s fine, you tell yourself. So long as the pay-off happens, whenever it does, you can deal with it.
You can wait.
And you do wait. You wait as the joke continues to veer further and farther off tangent. Your expectant smile is getting strained as the teller brings in long and longer pauses for what may be dramatic emphasis.
You wait as the words become intermittent and reluctant. Your mouth becomes a flat line matching the ellipses to which you are being subjected. It’s too much. It gives you too much time to think about your day and the grey mundanity in it with all of its petty little details and disappointments. The line that was your smile on your face grows heavier as the performer seems to edge off the stage, and when they disappear — leaving you disconnected — it becomes a grim slash etched deeply into your flesh. It seems to engrave itself into your soul.
And all you can think about is what went wrong before and during the joke. But it is at this moment that you understand.
This isn’t the kind of joke where you laugh with the comedian. You were never even the audience.