I have a friend, wherever he goes, he’s always meeting cool people. He’ll be sitting in a train station café in some city he’s never visited before and strike up a conversation with the old man at the next table. Guys with mullets and bad teeth will try to sell him weed, and my friend will sit and chat with them for an hour and leave knowing all about their childhood.
Essentially, what he does is treat each and every person as though they are a reflection of God on earth.
This, I tell myself, is the kind of person I want to be.
Last week I was writing on a bench by the lake, in a really good mood because it was hot out for September, the smell of sunscreen still lingering from in the air and people wandering along the prom eating ice creams.
Just a little way down from where I sat, two men were fishing, their rods propped against the railing with lines arcing into the glittering water like rainbows. I was enjoying watching them, wondering how, in a country hardly known for its seafood, two guys in their late-twentiesish had gotten into fishing in the first place.
My attention had returned to the notebook in my lap when a wave of tobacco washed over me as one of the fishermen, the one whose green T-Shirt was tucked in around a protruding belly, sat down next to me.
There was no need for him to sit on this particular bench.
There were plenty of other places to sit, much nearer to where he had been fishing.
But here he was, was sitting next to me saying, “Hi, sorry I hope I’m not bothering you, I’m just sitting down for a minute to smoke a cigarette.”
Do you have to sit down to smoke a cigarette?
I didn’t look him in the eye but smiled and looked in his general direction and said, “No, of course not, go ahead,” and went on writing with all the more concentration, afraid to let my pen pause even for a moment. And even as I did so I wondered, why don’t I look him in the eye? Why don’t I smile and ask him politely how he got into fishing? If he’s caught anything yet today?
That’s what I wanted to do. Besides, I told myself, I’m probably just being paranoid. Probably just being vain. He probably isn’t interested in me beyond being someone to chat to.
An unsettling question occurred to me, then: if he were attractive to me, would I find this easier? Would I still have that awful, creepy-crawly feeling in my chest? I honestly didn’t know.
I psyched myself up to speak to him, and to speak to him kindly. To ask him questions, like a person worthy of my interest, which he is, right? He could be a really interesting person. I focused on trying to string together the words to ask him if he’d caught anything yet today, but he spoke first.
“You won’t even know I’m here,” he licked his fingers to pull out a rolling paper, “I’m just smoking a cigarette. Just tell me if I’m bothering you and I’ll go.”
Angling my body towards him, enough to be polite and open without it being too much, I smiled, “No, no, you’re fine.” I still couldn’t meet his gaze but made it as far as his mouth this time.
His bottom teeth were long, crowded and yellow, and as I looked at them my question dissolved. I retreated to my notebook and wrote down random words with pretend concentration. I couldn’t focus on anything but the awareness of his breathing next to me, of the heat that radiated from his body, of his dirty-nailed fingers rolling a cigarette in his saggy lap.
Two young women walked by, each pushing one of those mega-prams, stacked with four babies apiece.
“Ooooh look at the little babies,” the fisherman said, making kissy noises, “There are so many of them,” more kissy noises, “Look at the little baby-babies.”
The mothers, or babysitters, or whatever they were, ignored him, but I could feel him looking at me so I let a small puff of laughter escape my nostrils, smiled, and said, “Yes, there were a lot of babies.” All the while, I carried on writing.
A small dog passed in front of us, and the fisherman made the same noises. The little terrier trotted towards us, but its owner pulled it back and kept walking.
“Dogs always come when you make that noise, big ones, small ones. This noise,” the kissy sound squeaked through his wetted lips, “And they come right over.”
I glanced sideways at him, nodded. Smiled. All I wanted to do was get up and leave but he’d know I was leaving because of him, and what if he meant nothing by this at all? He hadn’t actually done or said anything to warrant the churning anxiety that was building in my stomach.
His friend, standing some distance away, called out to him and they bounced banter back and forth, teasing each other for what felt like my benefit. They attempted to cast me in the role of mediator, (what does the girl think? Does she think you’re lazy, too?) which I sidestepped by smiling and writing nonsense words. I have never written anything more urgently than I wrote go away please go away please just fuck off go away in my notebook during those minutes. Finally, the man in green stood up to show his fishing buddy something about the rod, and I sat there another full thirty seconds before calmly putting my pen in my bag and leaving.
That stupid, placid smile remained fixed on my face as I walked past them, my steps measured and casual.
I felt angry at myself. What was I afraid of? That he would assault me in broad daylight in front of picnicking families? What would he have done, if he wanted to do anything?
How are you ever supposed to treat strangers with empathy if all you can do is be suspicious of them?
I do not know if the fisherman was being creepy or friendly. There is a chance he meant nothing at all by sitting down on a bench in the sun to smoke his cigarette and striking up a conversation with the person next to him. I may have had no reason to feel unsafe.
Then again, maybe my discomfort was warranted. It’s been warranted before.
So here is what I am angry about: I am angry at myself for not being the kind of person who, like my friend, can trustingly lean into their curiosity. I am also furious about the fact the world is built in such a way that, as a woman, to be that kind of person is dangerous.