I have a project that I’m working on.
In the course of working on it, I needed more information. Or maybe I just needed the illusion of working on it, while still delaying the actual work. Either way, I found myself standing in the aisle at Powell’s Technical Bookstore, carefully considering several different volumes of various technical manuals, one recent sunny afternoon.
I was dressed in fairly new clothing. I had shaved that day, and showered earlier. I wore clean underwear. I was not drunk or sleepy. I was present in many senses of the word.
As I plucked first one, then another, intriguingly titled volumes from the shelf, checking out the tables of content, idly reading random pages, decoding graphs and charts and illustrations, around the corner walked a woman. For a brief moment her silhouette was outlined against the windows behind her. But not in an obviously glowing way; I simply mean that her eclipsing of the light drew an automatic response from my visual sense. My attention was caught.
Just a bit shorter than I, dressed casually but, like myself, in clothing that was neither flashy nor ragged. Slim. She moved deliberately, unclumsy, unhurried but directly; this aisle, lined with books of this specific technical topic, was her obvious goal. I could tell by her body language.
As she turned and approached the books she sought, her intention was not towards me, but indirectly she drew closer, and she passed that invisible line that custom informs us we must make some notice of the other human being. Her eyes flicked upward and made contact, briefly, with mine.
My eyes had been downcast, sidelong, drawn by the simple shadow caused by her movement, but, again, social intelligence below the level of conscious thought made me seek a direct line of sight with her pupils, as well.
A brief moment of recognition as our respective brains decoded the ancient pattern of each others’ faces, and the act of common intimacy brings an autonomic response: a microsecond of smile. No teeth. And we break the conduit of sight between us nearly immediately.
In that sliver of time, some level of awareness that was wired generations before my individual birth kicked in: female, my opposite; young, or at least younger than myself; symmetrical features, slender, healthy body; cultural signifiers of about the same social class as myself. A part of my mind outside of logical control concludes: attractive female approaches and appears unthreatened and open to conversation.
That level of awareness judges all systems “go”. Do something, it signals.
And then… something else happens.
The initial processing is passed to a different part of my brain – or multiple different parts. One part envisions any and all previous encounters with attractive females, and rapidly flashes through all the worst possible outcomes – whether actual or imagined.
Another part compares the idealized self-image with my current physical state, and every deviation I have from the absolute best I have ever achieved in mental acuity, confidence, body shape, youth, social and financial status – and judges me wanting in nearly every category. Likewise, for no reason I can deduce after the fact, but which seems so compelling in the instant, she is judged to be filled with superior knowledge, and therefore, my superior.
Still another part of my brain analyzes the surroundings. Technical bookstore, a shrine to knowledge. How knowledgeable am I? Not very, since I’m here looking for even more information on topics I have little confidence about. The setting itself resembles a library; hushed conversation, broken only by the soft chatter of the staff and the clap and hiss of bound paper being closed and handled. Social conditioning imposes the librarians’ “Shhhh!” admonishing the patrons to keep voices low.
Other judgmental processes take their turns at processing this instant. Some are of recent vintage, and some hail further back in my lifetime. Nearly all, not all, but nearly so, they collapse to inform my next action, which is to say, I take none.
Repeated: I take no action.
Book in hand, I carefully place it back on the shelf from where I plucked it.
She steps past me, stops, turns shoulder-to-shoulder to me, but a socially-imposed correct distance away from me, just outside our fight-or-flight reflex trigger zone, about one to one and a half person-width away. Not so far as to be distant. Not so close as to be uncomfortably intimate.
What feels, in my subjectivity, to be minutes, but in reality are just a handful of seconds, pass. I realize that I should say something, do something. Even just a hello, or some verbal acknowledging of the other person.
Too late, I marshal defenses against the judgements already passed. She is attractive. She smiled at me, even if it was brief. We share physical proximity. We appear to share a similar interest based on our location in the store and in this particular aisle. This is not, in fact, a library, but a retail establishment, therefore there is no onus about speaking up.
I do nothing. I stand there, nearly frozen.
Eventually, she shuffles further and further away, and disappears around the far end of the shelves.
I see her again, on a different aisle, later, as I take the two books I decided on up to the cashier.
But never do I speak to her. And I’m filled with shame for my imagined action and my actual inaction.
Why does that happen? Would knowing why that happens help me to make it not happen again? Or is pursuing the why of this encounter, like the thousands other encounters, a chimera that would lead me further from prevention?
So many questions. And a limited, finite, but unknown number of seconds, minutes, and hours in which I can find an answer.
I feel the answer won’t help me take action. And inaction won’t help me find an answer. I already know where stasis takes me…