The opposite of language [B5 – 11 January 2008]

For the 30 days following this blog’s five-year anniversary, I am reposting some favorite, popular, or unique posts. Feel free to contact me to suggest some of your favorites. If you’d like to comment, click through to the original post.

This will by my final blogiversary post. It’s from early this year, and I like it because I captured my perplexity at what most consider normal, human interaction, at a very dark and cold winter of what turned out to be a fear-filled and frozen year for me.

I’ve picked these posts for the last 30 days for essentially capricious reasons – I liked a turn of phrase, or they reminded me of something I felt when I wrote them, or just because I wanted to re-post some of the longer posts I’ve written. What’s most fascinating to me is noticing how different they make me feel now, long after the heat of the moment when I wrote them, and how putting them into a new context changes the meaning I get from them.

Here’s to another five years. Forward the future!

I’ve been feeling scruffy and bloated, unshaven and flaky and stinky. I haven’t been running. I have been eating way too much. Been wearing the same clothes day after day.

Hey, at least I’ve been going to work.

Tuesday night felt like I’d been working all week already. I dragged my ass to the bus stop in the rain, hoping some music would cheer me up. My bus was a bit crowded, so I chose to sit in front of the bus, in the sideways-facing seats normally saved for the elderly or disabled. It was dark; the driver had the lights off in front. I sat and lost myself in my iPhone.

Except… there was a cute girl sitting in the first forward-facing seat, next to a non-descript guy. The girl had long dark auburn hair. Her hair reached the small of her back. She was wearing jeans, and a snug fleece jacket, and had a backpack that was probably at least a third of her body weight, and a messenger bag. I’d seen her before, on the bus, and in my neighborhood, and I must have caught her eye and smiled and looked away. Must have.

She didn’t smile back at me. In fact, her body language… well, I don’t admit to being an expert in interpreting body language, but she seemed stiff and uncomfortable. Her upper body was perfectly straight and faced forward but her face was turned to look out the window on her side of the bus, and her legs were crossed and turned out into the aisle in the opposite direction. But somehow she still kept looking at me. She never kept eye contact, though; if I were looking at her, she would quickly glance away. No smile.

I thought nothing of it and re-immersed myself in my surfing. A stop or two later, the sideways-facing row of seats across from me opened up, and, abruptly, the girl got up and moved there. This time, she curled herself into an S-shape, facing forward, tucking her legs and leaning her upper body, both in the direction of travel for the bus. One arm lay along the top of the bench, the other arm pulled her legs in tighter and held on to the strap of her backpack. She took up at least two whole seats.

But she still kept looking over at me. Maybe I brought it on, because I kept looking at her. But because of how I was sitting, legs out in front of me, slumped over, both hands holding my iPhone in my lap, facing at right angles to the direction of travel, if I looked up at all I was looking right at her. I thought she was cute, but I got an uncomfortable vibe from her tight, controlled body language. I started to avoid any eye contact at all, looking out the window past her, or looking towards the front of the bus, or looking into the back of the bus.

In my peripheral vision, though, I could still see her looking my way. And when I looked up again, we made eye contact again. And she looked away.

I texted Tracy to ask for advice and she responded “if she makes eye contact and holds it, TALK TO HER”. But no; the girl kept glancing away. She got off the bus a couple stops before me and I wrote it off. Maybe I smelled bad. Maybe I gave her an odd look. Maybe I look like her ex-boyfriend. Who knows?

Wednesday, I hopped a bus across the river for my lunch break. And even though the weather was winter rain and general blah, walking around downtown picked up my spirits a bit, just as I’d hoped. I love downtown Portland. There’s such a range of types, especially in the middle of a work day. Business suits, fleece- and sandal-wearing outdoors-y folk, punks, baggy sportswear hip-hoppers… all kinds.

I still felt lumpy and alien, but amongst all those different kinds of people, how could I not fit in? I still kept a mental distance, observing instead of interacting, but it lightened my mood just being there.

When it was time to head back to work, ugh, I walked to the bus stop. And as soon as I got there, a punk princess got there, too. Dark blue Mohawk, pulled back into almost a ponytail with bright pink hair clips. Leather biker jacket, black miniskirt over black leggings, knee-high black leather boots covered in bright metal zippers, in fact platform boots with several inches of sole. Even in the boots she was shorter than me, compact in the same way as a hand grenade. Beautiful. Hot. And when she looked my way, she had the brightest sky-blue eyes.

I still felt ragged. Shabby. I smiled and looked down. Fiddled with my earbuds. Changed the volume. Stuffed my hands into my pockets. Shuffled from foot to foot. Looked for the bus.

She kept looking over at me. Like the redhead on the bus the night before, no smile. Well… again, body language is not my forté, but the punk girl’s eyes appeared to be smiling, even if her lips weren’t. She looked over several times, and made eye contact several times, even though I was in the opposite direction of where she would have to watch for the bus. Finally, when the bus approached, she stepped out from under the awning shielding her from the rain and strutted right past me to stand by the bus stop sign, nearly brushing me as she did. It felt aggressive, bold. I smiled. But that’s all I did.

Thursday night after work, after dinner of jambalaya at The Limelight, still feeling shopworn, I grabbed a cinnamon roll and cup of coffee at my neighborhood coffee shop, losing myself in my laptop and fading out in a public place. I knew if I went home I’d just go to sleep, but I didn’t feel up to anything more interactive than chatting or surfing, and I still wanted to be around other people that wouldn’t put much of a demand on me. Wow, writing that out and reading it makes me sound… conflicted. I suppose that I am.

Holly was working in the shop by herself for a while, and just sat behind the counter and read. Until a friend of hers came in, another girl her age or older (Holly is in her early 20s), and Holly came out from behind the counter and sat at the table next to mine and she and her friend talked and laughed and sipped coffee. Holly would get up for the occasional customer, then return to the table.

The friend sat slouched over, feet stretched out under the table, hands on the table, fingers spliced together or hands holding up her chin. Holly was curled up, one leg tucked up under her on the chair, leaning over her cup of coffee or holding her head up with a hand on her chin.

From time to time, they would laugh, I would look up, and the friend would look over at me, sideways, and smile, then look away.

My laptop battery drained, slowly, and when it was nearly done, I decided I’d go home instead of plugging it in. Time to retire for the evening. I stood, packed up, put on my coat and scarf. I walked past Holly’s table (couldn’t avoid it, really) and waved at Holly. “G’night,” I said.

“Good night!” she said. Then, “Wait!”

I turned around.

She looked around quickly and selected the paperback book in front of her. “Have you ever read Steinbeck?” Her tone seemed improvisational and impulsive. She blurted out the question.

“Not that much,” I said, “Just ‘Travels with Charley’, a long time ago.”

She held up the book. ‘East of Eden’. “Do you want this one? I started reading it and I got about 80 pages into it and it pissed me off, so I skipped ahead and read the ending and I knew I wouldn’t like it so I really just don’t want to read it at all so I need to give it away and I know you read a lot. Do you want it? You don’t have to take it but I thought maybe you wanted it.” During her rambling, spilling monologue her friend smiled up at me.

I bantered a bit with Holly about having a pile of unread books at home; Holly said she did, too, but they were all Stephen King and she was trying to broaden her horizons, but she didn’t like sad books. I laughed and said I could handle sad books, which was bravado considering how I’d felt lately, and thanked her and took the book. I wished her and her friend good night, and walked out into the rain.

And wondered what all this body language had been about. If only I could interpret it in the moment, and not days or hours later… This whole week I’ve felt as if I’ve been avoiding something that’s been trying to get my attention.

But I don’t feel ready yet. Do I need to be ready? Don’t I?

What’s the opposite of body language?