October 29, 2013

(Melina Mara/ The Washington Post)

I’m a late person.

I don’t think of myself as late, though. Every single time that it happens (and it invariably happens) I think of it as an exceptional fluke that will not occur again. Me, chronically late? No! Unforeseen things just happen on my way to getting places. If I were honest I would admit that these miscalculations never result in my being early, but I am not honest. If we were completely honest, who could even get out of bed in the morning?

Here is a translation guide, if you know someone like me:

I am coming downstairs: I will respond to an email, eight minutes will pass, then I will come downstairs.
I am a block away: I am two blocks away.
I am five minutes away: I am ten minutes away.
I am seventeen minutes away: I am giving you an oddly specific number to disguise the fact that I am probably something like half an hour away.
Twenty minutes away!: I am lost somewhere miles away, but optimistic.
I’m en route!: I am still in my apartment
See you at [Time we originally agreed upon]: I’m about to go take a shower, then get dressed, and then I will leave at the time we agreed to meet.

And if you say “I’m running five minutes late” this, to me, translates to “Hey, you now have time to watch a 90 minute film before you get dressed!”

I haven’t always been a late person. I didn’t think of myself as a late person until last week, when it finally happened.

“Dinner is at 7:00,” a friend told me. I showed up at 7:15, after a slight miscalculation or two while getting dressed that I had totally not foreseen, and then we waited for fifteen more minutes. Dinner was at 7:30. I had been assigned my own time zone. I was That Late Person.

The curse of the habitually late person is to be surrounded by early people. Early people do not think of themselves as Early People. They think of themselves as Right. “You have to be early in order to be on time,” they point out. Being on time is important to them. The forty minutes between when they arrive ten minutes early in order to “scout the place out” and “get in line” and when you show up mumbling excuses is the time it takes them to perfect the reproachful but resigned expression they are wearing when you get there. It is an expression that would not look out of place on a medieval saint. It is luminous with a kind of righteous indignation, eyes lifted skyward to someone who appreciates the value of time, a sad, small smile curving the lips to show that they forgive you, because they always forgive you, because you know not what you do.

“Well,” you say, “there was traffic.” This is never a lie. There is always traffic somewhere. But it is seldom actually why you are late. You might as well say, “I hear in Los Angeles today there was a bear running around and the police had to subdue it” for the relevance this story has to your arrival time. You hit every green light. The traffic parted for you, effortlessly, as though you were Moses. You were still half an hour late.

Still, it is best to say something. The next best thing to not being late, you have always felt, is to have an amusing excuse for why. “I am sorry I’m late,” you say. “I ran into Constance Moondragon, that crazy lady from the bus!” This is, technically, true — you saw her on the sidewalk, but did not actually speak to her — and it buys you time.

Sometimes this compounds. When you realize you are late, the thought sometimes occurs to you that “Well, since I’m going to be late, I should bring a gift to atone.” Then you are two hours late because all the liquor stores were closed, instead of forty-five minutes late, as planned.

Being late is a kind of optimism. Every time I leave to go somewhere I always think, on some level, “Maybe this is the day that leaving exactly when the event starts will get me there on time.” I am not sure how this will work, but hope springs eternal.

Besides, isn’t there is a kind of graciousness to being late, as some writers of etiquette books will tell you? If you show up precisely on time, you run the risk of catching your hosts in the inevitable last-minute scramble to make the place look decent, pour the wine, and hide their collections of werewolf erotica under the settee. To arrive 15 minutes after the scheduled time shows not disrespect for your hosts’ time, but a respect for their effort to make hosting seem like an effortless flow of magic.

The hosts never quite see things that way, of course.

By this point, you have probably lost all sympathy for me. The first comment on this piece will, I assume, be someone saying, “You sound like you are deeply self-centered and don’t care at all about the feelings of others, and I feel sorry for you.” And the thing is, all the evidence points to your being right, except for my feeble assertion that in my heart of hearts, I really do value your time, I never consciously intend to be late in a cruel way, and I am not the terrible person I appear. And that doesn’t go very far.

And all this being said, the life of a late person is great. I don’t do it on purpose, but it has much to recommend it. “People who show up late for things are always so much more cheerful than the people who have to wait for them,” E. V. Lucas said. This is true. One time I showed up early for something by mistake, and it was awful! I had to wait around for half an hour! Being late, you get all the fun of being there, with none of the pain of having to wait for other people to get there. You show up, and the party has already started. You get to do That Fun Thing That You Were Doing Right Before You Left and then join in That Fun Thing Everyone Is Doing When You Arrive. It’s the best of all possible worlds. You never have to stand alone in the rain anywhere waiting for anyone to assemble. Your host is never in the shower when you show up. You miss a couple of trailers, but you never have to see those long-form infomercials or answer movie theater trivia. You never have to be the first one at a party, making awkward small talk to the host and volunteering to help saute the onions. Do you really look like someone who would be good at sauteing onions? Of course not. What are you doing here? Why didn’t you wait half an hour like everyone else? You could be watching a video of a cat and a horse being friends!

Early people, do you begin to see the appeal? Whatever joy you derive from indignantly sharing irate pieces entitled “How Did It Get To Be ‘Okay’ For People To Be Late For Everything?” pales in comparison to the joy of never having to wait for anyone.

Give me the option of being late or being early, and I will be late every time.

Which, apparently, I am.

Sorry.

If I’m running late you can still find me on Twitter @petridishes!

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.