When you’re a child, everything is very black or white.
You’re well-behaved, or you’re bold.
You’re bad, or you’re good.
The world is arranged into two halves and, with good parenting, you are steered towards the positive. “Yucky” things are smacked out of your hand, and the explanations of the world leave no room for nuance. You’re too young to understand the intricacies and complications of a lifetime. You’re told that bad people are bad, and that’s it. Nobody explains why, or how, or tempers it by telling you that these bad people have good qualities too.
Conversely, good people are held up as paragons and then, as you grow, you realise slowly that they are in fact… just people. Not heroes. Not knights in shining armour. Not infallible humans. Not perfect examples of personhood.
It makes life a hell of a lot more complicated when you realise that souls aren’t as black as pitch, or as white and sweet as icing sugar. People are a mass of humanity as seen through the eyes of a dog; varying shades of grey in every direction.
Every so often though, you seem to encounter people who are determined to be a dark shade of charcoal grey for no reason at all. Even when it is entirely unnecessary. Even when the alternative would almost have been the easier – certainly the simpler – choice. They complicate what is straightforward. In a world full of cronuts and compliments, they go out of their way to sour every interaction with casual dishonesty and ugly disregard for the people around them.
Life is hard enough. Each of us at one point or another will spend time wading through our personal Swamps of Sadness. There is grief enough, and heartbreak enough, and struggles enough to fill each person’s cup many times over. There is personal difficulty and overwhelming disappointment. There are insecurities and fears and concerns in other people’s lives that we can know nothing about. Each person carries these weighty issues around, and sometimes thin, delicate cracks of pressure appear on our façades. Of course, we hurriedly papier-mâché over these lightning bolt fractures. Nobody wants to look like the one damaged item on the lot.
Nobody stops to consider that none of us are in pristine condition. Not one. We are all of us dinged, battered, scraped, burnt out or splintered by life in one way or another. We walk around with our private stories tucked tight inside our chests, right up against the breastbone.
And we gently bump up against each other.
Sometimes we bump up against jagged people.
They snag on our scars. They press slowly and deliberately against tender bruises. Their serrated edges cut away at stitches, reopening old wounds. It feels threatening. It hurts. And when this happens it can be very hard not to revert to childhood programming.
It can be very hard to remember that people aren’t pure, undiluted “bad.”
I try to keep that fixed in my mind. They’re not bad people. They’re not pointlessly cruel. Their morals might be so flexible as to seem backwards, but their life experiences have led them to this point, in the same way that my life experiences have led me to mine. They might seem as cold and hard and cutting as steel, but they too have their own private story buried away next to the heart I sometimes suspect they might not have.
To fully set the scene, I must first explain certain truths about myself, like the fact that grocery stores relax me. I know, but they do. They are my zen garden. They are my mountaintop sanctuary. I can’t explain it, but walking up and down aisles of consumer goods just speaks to my soul. I don’t necessarily have to buy anything, it’s just the actual act of browsing that makes me feel a deep and abiding sense of calm. Roaming Target at 11pm with no shopping list in mind is my idea of bliss.
Also, I love automatic sliding doors and those little metal barriers that spring open as you approach; I always put my hand out, wave it to the side, and pretend I’m a Jedi.
Try it! I promise it will brighten your day considerably.
Anyway. I’m in the grocery store and I’m strolling aimlessly up and down the aisles. I have my earphones in because I’ve been listening to a podcast*, and I am idly contemplating a packet of crisps when a large guy comes over and starts talking to me. At first I don’t hear him, so he gets right in my face. I pull out an earbud and he says:
“Hi, how are you?”
What an opener. Ladies and gentlemen, witness this masterclass in charm.
“Good, thanks,” I reply politely with a smile, and then put the earbud back in my ear and step past him. He follows me and gets in my face again. I stop and pulled the earbud back out, feeling a tingle of irritation.
“Are you looking for something or just browsing? You look like you’re just window shopping. Are you window shopping?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” I put the earbud in my ear and step around him again.
Now, I know I haven’t stuck my hand out and primly stated, “KINDLY LEAVE ME ALONE, GOOD SIR. YOU ARE INTERFERING WITH MY SUPERMARKET MEDITATION” but to be honest, I don’t feel like I should have to resort to that in order to be left alone. If I were to pull the other earbud from my ear and smile gormlessly into his face, twirling a lock of hair around my finger, then he would have reason to persist. That’s not what’s happening though. None of my body language is inviting even the slightest prolonging of the moment. I am actively trying to escape the situation. I don’t think my feelings on this can possibly be misconstrued.
Instead of taking the hint, he turns and falls into step with me. I can hear him talking still but at this point I’ve tuned him out and am actually annoyed because 1.) I’ve given absolutely no indication of being interested, 2.) he’s ruining my mountaintop sanctuary experience and 3.) he’s really large and persistent, which makes me feel threatened. I hate feeling threatened; whether the threat is real or not. I feel vulnerable, and I hate feeling vulnerable, so then I feel annoyed that someone has put me in the position of feeling vulnerable, which just makes me feel angry….
It’s a complex tangle of emotions.
I take a breath and imagine for a moment that I am a porcupine. I imagine that I am covered in spikes and every quill on my body is ready to impale him if he gets too close. Then I exhale deeply and ruefully accept that sadly, I am not a porcupine, and even more sadly, I have no quills. Instead I am a small, soft, squidgy human, and I cut my fingernails quite short, so I don’t even have acrylic-talon weapons of death** at my disposal. I decide my best plan of action is to pretend I can’t hear him over the sound of my non-existent music, and just leave the shop. Which I do.
It’s a shitty feeling. If you’ve never felt so intimidated you’ve needed to leave a public space, you might not understand this. All I can say is that it feels really rubbish to change your plans because someone makes you so uncomfortable you don’t feel you can stay. It feels like weakness, and I guess it is weakness, but I’m polite and I’m also half the size of this man who thinks he can wear me down with inane conversation, so I retreat like the coward that I am. I walk down the street and turn the corner. I walk down another street, go into a shopping centre, take the escalators up to the first floor, and wander into another shop.
And this [unutterable word]…. he follows me.
I realise I might be particularly sensitive thanks to past experience, but this guy appears in front of me like a recurring hallucination from a bad trip and says, “Hey beautiful, we meet again!” as if it’s just a total coincidence and well fancy meeting you again so soon and he is looming over me grinning and I want to punch him in the face with my tiny fist because seriously, screw this guy and his dogged determination to ruin my day.
I don’t, obviously. Partly because that would be an overreaction, partly because I’m polite, and partly because I’m afraid that he would punch me right back with his fist the size of my face and I’d end up embedded in the tiled floor.
I know there are people thinking, ‘He probably just wanted to talk to you,’ and I agree. You are right. That is probably what he wanted to do. Maybe he thought I was shy, and I just needed the right amount of persistent conversation in order to bloom like a delicate flower. Maybe he thought he was being brave, walking up to me in the supermarket and striking up a conversation out of the blue. That is pretty ballsy, after all, and I don’t really have a problem with that. Take your chances chatting up the girl buying groceries. Go hard! Maybe she’s only strolling the shop floor because she’s waiting for a guy to sweep her off her feet next to the cereal. Maybe your eyes will meet over that box of Rice Krispies and love will blossom on aisle five. Who knows? Life is short, take a risk.
However, I do have a problem with the fact that once it’s clear I’m not interested in a conversation, he doesn’t just… let it go. He sidesteps my sidestep. He actively ignores any and all signs of discomfort on my part because his desire to talk to me is apparently more important than my desire to walk around without feeling hunted.
That’s how I feel in that moment. I feel like a wide-eyed, frightened rabbit. I let my eyes glaze and slide right over him, and then I turn and walk in the other direction as if I haven’t seen or heard him. I wonder whether he will keep following me around the shop. I wonder if he will follow me home. I keep moving through the aisles without actually looking at anything on the shelves, keeping an eye on him out of my peripheral vision. Then the heavens open up outside and it starts bucketing down.
I take my chance and, while other people huddle inside the door fiddling with hoods and umbrellas, I walk straight out into the downpour and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reach my apartment complex. As the gate swings shut behind me, I feel like I’ve reached the safety zone in a kiddie game of tag.
Once I get inside my apartment, I am so angry I am shaking. I am angry with him, because he ruined my day and made me feel small and weak. I am angry with myself for being small and weak. I am angry because after listening to two episodes of a podcast about boundaries and anger, I totally and completely failed to express myself in terms of either one of them. I was too afraid of the consequences to use my words. I was too afraid of what his reaction would be if I rejected him. His total dismissal of my obvious discomfort made me far too uneasy to challenge him in any direct way, because if he can ignore my disinterest so fully, why wouldn’t he ignore my rejection?
Instead, I’d run back to my burrow like the frightened rabbit I am. All keyed up, I ranted about it on Snapchat. Now I’ve ranted about it here. Maybe next time I’ll get loud and brave the consequences. Maybe I’ll take up Krav Maga in the meantime. Or maybe…
Maybe there won’t be a next time.
That would be nice.
*It’s a comedy podcast called The Guilty Feminist and you can find episodes of it here.
**I always wondered why people get such awkward looking nails and how they’re able to do anything with such long claws but now I’m thinking that actually they seem like a sensible choice in terms of self-defence and maybe I should invest in my own set of tiny daggers attached to my fingertips.