I was reading Captain Awkward a couple of days ago, and nodding along sympathetically with this post and 500+ comments relating similar stories. While many of the situations sounded familiar, I remember feeling glad that I had not had an unpleasantly forced encounter with a strange man in a long time.
And so, as punishment, the universe smacked me in the head with a textbook case.
I am walking in a busy shopping area and I want to send a text message. Because I am physically incapable of walking and texting on a crowded street, I move away from the general fray and stand by some railings where I am not obstructing anyone. After a few moments I realise there is a guy standing a few feet away, staring at me. I keep my eyes locked on my phone.
“Hard day?” he says.
I pretend not to hear. He comes closer and stands right in front of me, and says, “Hey, you look like you had a hard day.”
“Yes,” I say, barely glancing at him.
It has, as a matter of fact, been a hard day and I do not want to talk to anyone, except the person who will shortly be receiving my long-winded message.
I originally wrote a paragraph explaining about my hard day that started with a hangover, was full of stuffy computer rooms and frustrating bureaucracy, and ended with an interview I’m pretty sure I botched. Then I realised that my reasons for not wanting a conversation are absolutely irrelevant. My reason could be that I am pretending that I am a tiny purple elephant and everybody knows that elephants can’t talk. It does not matter. The point is I do not want to talk.
Unfortunately, this guy’s desire for a conversation with me trumps my desire to be left alone.
“Hi, I’m ________,” he says, extending his hand.
I already know where this is going and I want this man to go away. However, I have been caught off guard and – like most people – my baseline response to any new interaction is to be polite. I am bound by a social contract that dictates the way I am supposed to respond when someone tells me his name and sticks out his hand. So, foolishly:
“Marianne,” I say, grasping his hand as briefly as possible
“Are you a student?”
“Yes,” I say, returning to my phone.
“Let me guess, English Lit?”
Three flat monosyllabic answers and a barely-there handshake. I am standing with my body angled away from him and I’m avoiding eye contact as much as possible.
“Well, what’s your ambition?” he asks.
“Right now, my ambition is to send this text,” I say.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he says, “Go ahead!”
Thanks, strange man in the street! I’m so glad I have your permission to continue what I was doing before you interrupted me!
He hovers while I attempt to finish my text. I am so distracted by the strange man hovering beside me that I give up and start to walk away.
“Hey,” he says, “I’d really like to get to know you better.”
“No thanks,” I say, “I’m not interested.”
At this point, I will say that I am proud of the fact that I did not apologise once during this entire conversation. For someone who apologises approximately seven times per social exchange (possibly because I am socialised to do so), this was a big achievement. It took conscious effort to suppress the kneejerk sorry.
I could use Fake Boyfriend at this point, because Fake Boyfriend is super effective. But then, do you know what? I think fuck it; even I, an unclaimed woman, should be able to stand in a public space and send a fucking text message without doling out attention to a random guy who has decided he is more important than whoever I’m trying to contact.
“I mean just as friends,” he says, “You seem like a really nice person!”
This is a flat-out lie, since nothing about my demeanour so far has been remotely nice; on the contrary, I’ve been hostile. So this is guilt-by-flattery. You wouldn’t want to disappoint the strange man who thinks you’re so nice, right?
“No,” I say, “No thank you.”
“You don’t like making new friends?” he asks.
Ah, he’s going to try to “logic” me out of my aversion to conversation! My options are to:
A. implausibly deny any interest in making new friends ever again in my life.
B. outright tell this guy that I have no interest in making friends with him specifically, implied: because I am a big meanie who makes snap judgments about people I don’t even know.
C. tell him I do, but just not right now because I’m tired or busy or whatever. Make excuses. Wheedle. Apologize.
He wants Option C, because he can then attempt to “reason” me out of my excuses. Insist if not now, then some other time. I go with Option A.
Now I start to walk away more determinedly, but he falls into step beside me. I have told this guy in plain language that I have absolutely no interest in further interaction with him. Twice. No. Directly and clearly. He is ignoring my words. I am new to this city, I am not familiar with the public transport, I do not know the quickest route home and I would not know who to call if he decides to follow me. I am starting to get a bit freaked out.
He walks with me for the length of the street, talking continuously about how he is a super-friendly person and he loves meeting new people and he just wants to be friends with everyone but he totally respects that everyone is different and that’s cool too, everyone should just do their own thing and I seem really cool like totally the kind of person who just does her own thing and blah blah blah. I’m not saying much of anything, because I’m steeling myself for what I have to say next.
I stop abruptly and turn to him and maintain eye contact, engaging him fully for the first time.
“I don’t want to talk to you. Please leave me alone. I’m going now.”
I walk away in a different direction very quickly. Behind me I hear him mutter, quiet but pointed:
I duck into a department store and wander around for a while, stopping every now and then to stare blankly at a rack of clothes. After a while I realise my arms are crossed so tightly across my body that I’m hurting my own ribs. My fists are balled and sweaty. My heart rate is up. I make an effort to relax. I feel awful. I feel angry and guilty and also a little bit afraid. He was not a big or intimidating guy and the likelihood of being assaulted on a crowded shopping street in broad daylight is next to zero, but still – the aggression in that parting shot was palpable. I’m exhausted from the sheer mental effort it took to confront him and tell him to go away.
I leave the store by a different exit and I take a meandering route home. By the time I’m cutting through the park, the stress has faded to mild irritation. I am already wondering if I was a bit too harsh. Then again, I’m wondering how long I would have had to stand on the street answering his questions in monosyllables with my eyes fixed on the middle distance before he got bored or angry. I wonder if I would feel better if I had just done Fake Meeting My Fake Boyfriend. Fake Important Phone Call. Fake Running For A Bus. Fake Migraine. Fake I Don’t Speak English.
Fake It Is Totally Okay For You To Impose Your Company On Me No Matter How Uncomfortable I Clearly Am.
When I’m back in my bedroom, I suddenly remember my text message. I painstakingly type out several different summaries of what just happened, trying to make sense of my feelings. Eventually, I give up and just straight up apologise for the delayed reply. I flop down on my bed. It has been a hard day.
This post originally ran on my old blog, deathofthenewgods.tumblr.com, and has been backdated to reflect this.