As I walk out of the store into the parking lot, I feel smug about finding a $5 sundress. The dress is just right for summer, made of light material, bright blue. It makes my eyes pop. Snagging quality clothes at consignment stores gives me a sense of satisfaction, and I almost always find at least one treasure when I shop at Goodwill.
About fifteen feet from my car in the Goodwill parking lot, I notice a shiny, black truck slow down as it approaches me. The man driving it stops the vehicle beside me. He pokes his head out the window.
“Can I ask you a question?” he asks, taking his time to enunciate his words. “It’s a personal question,” he adds with a smile.
The truck is the type frat boys tailgate out of during football season. The man who wants to ask me a question does not seem like a frat boy. He looks about thirty-five. His skin is a deep brown. The pronunciation and rhythm of his words make me wonder if he is from India or a country near to it.
I’m not thrilled he wants to ask me a “personal question,” and there is the familiar, slow spiraling at the base of my belly that accompanies encounters with male strangers. It is just the subtle spiraling in this moment, not the tornado that takes over when a man cat-calls at night. This man’s voice has a warmth and softness that is uncharacteristic of male voices in these types of interactions. The large, metal door of his truck creates a barrier between his body and mine. While he doesn’t threaten me, I don’t feel like chatting. I’ve finished my errands, and I’m ready to cozy up in the introvert haven of my apartment. I give him a tired nod, lift the corners of my lips a tad, and muster a squint, which is my attempt to make my eyes smile.
“Sure,” I reply.
“Are you married?” He asks the question so matter-of-factly that I almost wonder if he’s surveying women as part of a study. The asphalt steams from the earlier storm, and the humidity clings to my skin. The heat starts to make me a little light-headed, and I wonder if I have low blood sugar. I don’t know how to absorb this question. Is he too forward, crossing a boundary, and disregarding social norms? Of course. But for someone who surreptitiously glances at the left ring fingers of men, I find the directness kind of refreshing. It doesn’t even cross my mind not to tell the truth.
“No,” I say. His eyes light up when he hears this, and then his eyes give me the “up-down.” The part of me that is optimistic about humanity feels more appreciated than disrespected by the run of his gaze. “He doesn’t have that lusty look, does he?” the optimist inside wonders. “It seems that he is trying to get a sense of whether I’m a heathy, good person.”
The skeptical part of me snaps back, “Oh my god, Claire, are you insane? No man ever eyes a woman toes-to-head wanting to know: ‘is she a good person?’ ”
His eyes catch mine; my eyes dart to my car. I still don’t feel sirens of alarm blaring in my belly, but a lukewarm wash of confusion sloshes beneath my skin. I wonder if I should feel unsafe. The confusion seeps into my toes. Before I can think of something to say, he asks another question.
“Can I have your number? I would like to…” then he pauses. This—the pause—concerns me. I can tell he is scanning his mind for the right word. The intentional blink of his eyes and the nod of his head indicate he has found it. He finishes his sentence: “…to network with you.”
Behind me, I hear the click of a car lock and the footsteps of a couple walking from their car to the store. I wonder if they are eavesdropping. I know he is waiting for my answer. The word “network” rings in my ear. Is this his attempt to be courteous in communicating with a woman in a culture different from his own? Or is his use of the word “network” driving home the point that this guy is weird, and I need to stop answering his questions?
My head is still light, and droplets of sweat have gathered at the bottom of my scalp. With a sweaty palm and fingers, I nervously squeeze the plastic bag holding my dress. When I bought the blue dress a few minutes ago, I thought I might wear it the next time I got asked out on a date. This man seems to think “networking” and “dating” are synonymous.
There are still no alarms of fear in my stomach, but my stomach rumbles with the need for a snack. Energy oozes out of me as I try to finesse my way through the strangeness of this conversation. My tired calves want the soft landing of my couch. I decide that I have to do something that I do not like to do.
“I actually have a boyfriend,” I lie.
The man nods, as though he does not seem surprised. Honestly, this flatters me. Then he speaks with what most of me believes is another dose of earnestness. His voice is still calm and warm, as he says, “You are beautiful to me.”
The words suspend in the sticky July air. Part of me wants to roll my eyes, but part of me wants to tuck his words into my purse, so I can pull them out and touch their kindness whenever I need a pick-me-up. Was it kindness? Am I silly to believe this? Those words “you are beautiful” seemed like such a strain for men I’d known, yet a stranger said them with the ease of rain surrendering to gravity. I blush with a smile and shift my gaze to the asphalt. My face is hot and red from the humidity. After several beats of silence, I look right into his eyes. I don’t know what to say, so I simply say, “Thank you.” There is the tug behind my belly button; my body begs me to get back into the coolness of my car. “Well, it was nice to meet you.” I toss these final words at him clumsily. He catches them with ease.
“It’s been really nice to meet you too,” he almost sings as the corners of his mouth lift.
“Yeah, thanks,” I say, almost swallowing my words. Then I turn and walk back to my car, as flattery, embarrassment, and exhaustion swirl inside me.
When I arrive back to my apartment, I grab a cup of water and a granola bar then unravel onto the couch. My body appreciates the food and rest, but I still feel butterflies swooping inside my stomach. My mind can’t shake the man in the truck. I wonder if he is still thinking about me. Was that man desperate or was he brave? What about me? Was I too naïve? Too cynical? I curl on my side and close my eyes. I’d like to nap, but my body and mind aren’t ready to relax. The man must be miles from me. I’ll never see him again. We interacted for five minutes. I remind myself of all of this as I prop my head onto a throw pillow. I cannot get comfortable. And I cannot understand, even in the coolness and quiet of my home, why I still feel the eddy of longing and aversion deep in my belly.