We all have motifs that run through our lives, whether we realize it or not. I do realize mine, and I realized it a long time ago. It is the feeling of being completely out of my element. On a nearly daily basis, I find myself in a situation that comes out of nowhere and makes zero sense in the context of my experience and existence. As if the rules of The Universe were changed, and everyone received the memo but me.
I’d call this feeling Kafka-esque, except that it’s not confined to bureaucratic encounters. It can surface at any time, anywhere, for no reason at all.
It seldom occurs on the subway. After living in New York City my entire adult life, this is one context in which I seldom feel out of sorts, even when the trains are delayed or a station is all jacked up due to construction. The occasional deranged passenger is par for the course. In fact, I almost find it comforting when I run across a mumbling crackhead or two strangers shoving each other.
Earlier this week, I was riding home on the M train. Standing, actually, since there was not a seat to be had, as usual. I zoned out by doing The New York Times crossword puzzle on my phone while listening to my iPod. Technology!
Yes, I was deeply immersed in my own little world, but I don’t think I was doing anything that made me obtrusive or annoying in any way. In fact, I was carrying a small gym bag instead of my usual messenger satchel, which is a little less bulky. I planned on going to the Y on the way home. I’ve been exercising more lately and having intermittent feelings of actually not feeling horrible about my personal appearance.
In general, I’ve been feeling pretty good about my life and they way things are going. I’d just had an amazing weekend doing fantastic things with awesome people. Not to brag in a vague fashion, but based on stuff I did Saturday and Sunday, I could not have felt better about myself this Monday.
Of course, this was the moment when the person sitting in the seat directly in front of me grabbed my attention by waving at me. The wave was lazy, laconic, like she could barely muster the strength to complete the motion. Even so, I immediately sensed no good would come of this. She looked about 17, tops, and barely awake, or barely sober. Or maybe it was just the heavy lidded cast of her eyes. She looked like she was slowly sinking into her black hoodie. She had curly, ginger-colored hair, vaguely wet or hairsprayed. She resembled a Slavic version of one of the younger Whites of West Virginia.
She started to say something to me. I unplugged one earphone bud, but still couldn’t hear her. I asked her to repeat herself, but she remained barely audible. Finally, her mousy voice could be heard over the squeal of subway wheels.
“Can you move?” she asked.
“Can I move?” I asked back. At this point, I was completely willing to let her retract her statement and pretend I’d misheard her.
“Yeah.” She said, as if this was a sufficient response.
“You want me to move.” I paused as long as possible. The gap between statements was meant to imply, Hey, I don’t think you meant to say what you actually did say, not to a fellow human with feelings and dignity… “Why?”
“Cuz you’re bothering me,” she said, in a voice that can only be described as cunty. I never, ever, ever use that word (or its derivative), because I find it so vile and dehumanizing and demeaning. But this person meant to be vile and dehumanizing and demeaning, so I believe it fits.
“I’m bothering you? Seriously?” Again, I’d been doing nothing more provocative than completing a crossword puzzle. I feel fairly confident when I say I do not smell. I was not hovering over this girl. I hadn’t even noticed her until her faint, drug-addled wave. I can not imagine what I could have done to bother this girl.
Still, she responded “Yeah,” in the same tone of voice a normal person would employ if I’d been stepping their toes and spraying them with urine.
This was when I figured out the shift in the universe that had eluded me up to this point. I realized it wasn’t anything I’d done. It was just me. My me-ness was so repellant, she demanded I leave her presence.
I’d been having a rare bout of feeling not-terrible about how I look. I grew a beard over the winter, as I often do at this time of year, and I’ve been liking it. I’ve been imagining that I look like a stouter version of Terrence Stamp in Superman II. (“Kneel before Zod!”)
Now, I was given an anti-affirmation, one that said, “No, you were right before, you really do look like a monster.” Because to her, and anyone else in her relative age bracket, I’m just a Weird Old Guy.
It briefly occurred to me to be confrontational, to say something like Make me. But just as quickly, I realized there is no way for a man of my age to win a fight with a teenage girl, verbal or otherwise. In order to “win,” I’d have to make a spectacle of myself and scream at her and look like the bad guy to the entire subway car in the process. And besides, I can’t even win a fight with my four-year-old daughter.
So I took the more humiliating alternative: I did move, but laterally, by about three feet. Far enough to technically have moved, but close enough to be visible in her peripheral vision.
I wish I could say that this gave me a small measure of revenge, but it didn’t. All I felt was a sting and shame I hadn’t felt since teenage days. I immediately had a terrifying flashback to a home ec class circa 7th grade, when some random girl I wasn’t talking to and had never said more than two words to, apropos of nothing at all, decided to say to me, “You’re ugly.”
I remember this girl was not exactly attractive herself. Even by the indiscriminate tastes of 13 year olds, she was decidedly un-boneriffic. Painfully skinny, unkempt dark brown hair, ugly spangly jeans. She had a t-shirt with a god damn cat on it, and she was telling me I was ugly? I mean, yeah, I was fat and had a terrible haircut and still hadn’t the slightest idea of how to dress myself, but fuck her in the face. Who the fuck did she think she was?
I didn’t say any of this, of course. Because when I was 13, I still thought that (1) I was clever, and (2) cleverness could trump pure meanness. So with rapid fire wit, I shot back, “Bert Parks ain’t singing for you any time soon, either.”
I will swear on the holy book of your choice that I really said this. And I really thought it would wound her, or at least shut her up. Of course, she hadn’t the slightest idea who Bert Parks was and why this should be insulting. Instead, she laughed. That really loud, searing, bad laugh. A laugh that said, without saying anything, You are a weird freak.
Even worse, it said that all the things that I valued about myself–being funny, being smart, being quick with a reference–meant nothing in the world of junior high. And that was almost as terrifying as thinking that random girls would, unprovoked, tell me I was ugly.
I hadn’t thought of this incident in years. But all it took was one completely bombed teenager to bring it flooding back to me. One damaged child to another, separated by a good 20 years, yanking me into that confused space where the world makes sense to everyone but me.