Friday, August 13, 2004

Shadows in the rain

Over lunch I took off again because, like yesterday, I had a letter to send. After I posted it, I decided to kill half an hour at the nearby library. It’s situated in this little burg that used to be a separate town, but is now an upscale patrician Anglo island in a Chinese sea. As I drove through the narrow, tree-lined streets, it came to my attention that this town doesn’t have speed bumps, it has “speed humps” (that’s what the signs say, folks, I kid you not). There’s fodder here for some black comedian, I’m sure...

As I made my way there, it occurred to me that I was following the same route I took there the first time I went, which was the day Jody died. It was raining this time, but the day I went, it was dour and overcast, but the rain, just like the tears, just wouldn’t come. I didn’t even go in that time; I just needed to get away from my desk where I heard the news, and drive someplace where I wasn’t going to be in a lot of traffic.

Now if you talk like this, friends will tell you you’re obsessing. And it’s true, I am obsessing. One of the best friends I ever had died two months ago, far too young, after a painful illness. He was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever had in my life and there was not a goddamn thing I could do to help him. So if I can’t—if I don’t—dwell on that, then what’s the point of being human, or having feelings at all? If I still preface every entry with something about Jody two years from now, then I invite friends to roll their eyes, call me out for a beer, and do one of those gentle intervention things. But not just yet.

When I got to the library, I picked my way between the trees to duck the rain. When I got inside, I did what I always do there. I made a beeline for the discarded books to see if there was anything interesting to buy. I found a book about Ayres Rock in Australia. I didn’t have much of a chance to look at it, though, because just after I arrived, this fellow came up with a cart of books to add to the discards. He said something like, “Good afternoon, sir, and how are you today?” And I replied in the usual polite, non-committal way you’re supposed to respond that that sort of polite, non-committal pleasantry in a WASP country, and figured that was it. I guess he didn’t hear me, because he asked again. This time, I turned to face him when I replied, and asked him how he was doing.

The kid was tall, thin, blond, gawky. Braces, thick glasses. I mean, unusually thick for this day and age with high-refractory-index glass. Now I say ‘kid’ because he was quite a bit younger than me, but in all honesty, I just could not gage how old he actually was. He could have been anywhere between 16 and 22, and that’s at a guess. I couldn’t get a handle on him. Then he did just the thing you’re not supposed to do in a WASP country when someone asks how you are. He told me. His back was hurting him, blah blah something something, just fine for not having worked a day in his life, aside from volunteering here at the library. I'm not kidding; that's what he said. And I’m thinking, geez, fellah, did you notice me reading this book, what’s wrong with you? Then it began to dawn on me that something was wrong with him. I don’t know quite what it was, but it’s that feeling you get... that instinct I think all animals have when they can tell someone of their own species is not quite “right”, you know? It’s innate.

He introduced himself as Greg, I think, and I told him my name, and he offered his hand. So I shook it. He had a strange handshake... tight in the hand, but loose in the arm, so your hand was pulled all over the place... like the kind of handshake an octopus might give. It was a little too insistent; it went on just a second or two too long... a couple of pumps. I couldn’t quantify exactly what a “correct” handshake is; I only know it when I feel it, and that wasn’t it.

This fellow started spontaneous talking about his writing. He recommended Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, which I admitted then and admit now, I’ve never read; he mentioned it in order that he could goon to tell me that his friends compared his own writing to the Ringworld stories... favourably, I’m assuming; he didn’t say. He asked me something I didn’t quite catch; his speech was a little mushy and it wasn’t easy for me to understand him... it occurs to me now his problems may have included being hard of hearing as well. Anyway, I took his question to be, did I have any kids. Given that he was somewhere around 20, and I’m old enough now that I could conceivably have kids in high school (maybe I look like someone he knows, I was thinking), that was what I took him to be asking, and so I said no. I still don’t know for sure what he asked, but that probably wasn’t it, because then, he went on to ask me for an e-mail address where he could send me his stories. I hedged—okay, I lied—and told him I only had a work address and it was for internal mail only (which isn’t strictly true, but it’s all I use it for, anyway). I excused myself as politely... lamely... as I could, and headed into the library proper.

Now I feel strange about the whole thing. That kid kind of frightened me. But why? He wasn’t doing anything threatening per se; in fact, he was being very friendly, if you think about it. He was offering to share what he thought about with me, in the form of his stories. But of course, he was going about it in a way far, far too bold for our society. And in thinking about it, I can see this tennis ball of fear and guilt blasting back and forth in my mind...

Fear: there’s something wrong with this guy.

Guilt: but he’s not dangerous, and you must treat him like everyone else; you must be fair.

Fear: what if I say the wrong thing? What if he knows that I know there’s something different about him?

Guilt: then you would hurt his feelings, and you would be a heel.

And so here I am, stuck in the middle of this complicated internal dialogue, prompted by some young man who only wanted a friend, I guess. God knows, maybe his writing is really brilliant... it might be impressive as all get-out. I’ve known a couple of people who were a lot better on paper and in text than they were in person. But I was just not comfortable opening that window.

On my way out again, I was hoping I’d be able to avoid him. But he spotted me and called good-bye, and remembered my name. I called good-bye back, and headed to my car. I wanted to run, because it was raining, because he creeped me out. But he was standing by a window, and because he could have been watching, I made myself walk.

This will be on my mind the next time I go there. If I go there again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to befriend people with mental disabilities (which is what this person seem to have based on your description). They often act in a way that is very alien and that makes most people very uncomfortable.
However in my limited eperience they are just like kids: they befriend quickly, they trust implicitly and they almost always put the most positive spin on any situation.
So where as your worried of being rude, of feeling sorry for them or anything like that, they are just happy to have met a new friend.
I think thats what makes it so hard. In this cynical world where you cant have your guard down for 1 second. Seeing someone so "pure" just freaks the hell out of us and makes us fully aware of just how "unpure" we are.