Andujar: Late comebacks


This is a weekly installment of Suzette Andujar’s column series, “As I Was Saying.”

I was at the McDonald’s drive-thru because during this time of year, I so take my anxiety into consideration, I’m just thoughtful like that; anyway, I handed the cashier my money and he gave me a funny look and said, “Wow, you’re bundled up! It’s not THAT cold!” Okay, so I was wearing a knitted hat, gloves, scarf and fluffy coat in fifty degree weather, but I get cold easily and I was very comfortable, thank you very much. I grabbed my change, laughed and drove off because I was only thinking about my hot chicken McNuggets and all of the hot mustard I was going to dip them in. It wasn’t until much later, well after I stuffed my face, that I looked up and said, “Wow, did you major in Obvious? Haha! *snort* Man, I SO should have said that!” I’ll admit, the comeback was corny, but why didn’t I think of it in that moment? Does this ever happen to you?

There’s actually an official name for it: l’esprit de l’escalier. It literally translates to “wit of the staircase.” Libby Coleman explains the meaning of the phrase more thoroughly in her article, “There’s a Term for Thinking of a Comeback Too Late.” Basically, an 18th century philosopher named Denis Diderot coined the term because at a party someone was berating him while he was leaving down the stairs and he didn’t “get his wits about him” until he was on the ground floor. By then it was too late to turn around. We get a lot of information when researching the meaning, namely, this was happening in the 18th century too!

It’s one thing when I’m having a hearty spat with my brothers about something insignificant because my go-to comeback is always “Your mom!” (yes, I realize that she’s my mom too so I’m roasting myself), h-o-w-e-v-e-r, it’s different when you’re out in public and someone takes you by surprise with a cheeky comment. It’s like you freeze for a split second because you just can’t believe that someone was saying this thing to you and before you can realize that you have a mouth and a brain the someone is gone and you can’t get that moment back and you just kick yourself because that reply would have been brilliant and you so would have felt witty and smart but you’re not because you totally didn’t say anything!

This l’esprit de l’escalier stuff is stressful.

So now that this has happened to me, what do I do to fix it? I can always just walk away and not be bothered, but really, how can I do that? It would be like a sneeze that started up but wouldn’t finish. There’s no satisfaction in that. There IS satisfaction in pulling a Rocky Balboa montage. Not the famous Philadelphia one, but the one when he’s training for his fight against Ivan Drago in part four. Music definitely included. I’ll be ready next time. Bon voyage l’esprit de l’escalier!

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