She rarely makes eye contact. Instead, she looks down at the ground. Because the ground is safer. Because unlike people, it expects nothing in return. She doesn’t have to feel ashamed. The ground just accepts her for who she is.
As she sits at the bar next to me, she stares down at her vodka tonic, and then the ground, and then her vodka tonic. “Most people don’t get me,” she says. “They ask me questions like, ‘What’s your problem?’ or ‘Were you beaten as a child?’ But I never respond. Because I don’t feel like explaining myself. And I don’t think they really care anyway.”
Just then, a young man sits down at the bar on the opposite side of her. He’s a little drunk, and says, “You’re pretty. May I buy you a drink?” She stays silent and looks back down at the ground. After an awkward moment, he accepts the rejection, gets up, and walks away.
“Would you prefer that I leave too?” I ask. “No,” she says without glancing upward. “But I could use some fresh air. You don’t have to come, but you can if you want to.” I follow her outside and we sit on a street curb in front of the bar.
“Brrr… It’s a chilly night!”
“Tell me about it,” she says while maintaining her normal downward gaze. The warm vapor from her breath cuts through the cold air and bounces off of the ground in front of her. “So why are you out here with me? I mean, wouldn’t you rather be inside in the warmth, talking to normal people about normal things?”
“I’m out here because I want to be. Because I’m not normal. And look, I can see my breath, and we’re in San Diego. That’s not normal either. Oh, and you’re wearing old Airwalk shoes, and so am I… Which may have been normal in 1994, but not anymore.”
She glances up at me and smirks, this time exhaling her breath upward into the moonlight. “I see your ring. You’re married, right?”
“Yeah,” I reply.
“Well, you’re off the market… and safe, I guess. So can I tell you a story?” I nod my head.
As she speaks, her emotional gaze shifts from the ground, to my eyes, to the moonlit sky, to the ground, and back to my eyes again. This rotation continues in a loop for the duration of her story. And every time her eyes meet mine she holds them there for a few seconds longer than she did during the previous rotation.
I don’t interject once. I listen to every word. And I assimilate the raw emotion present in the tone of her voice and in the depth of her eyes.
When she finishes, she says, “Well now you know my story. You think I’m a freak, don’t you?”
“Place your right hand on your chest,” I tell her. She does. “Do you feel something?” I ask.
“Yeah, I feel my heartbeat.”
“Now place both of your hands on your face and move them around slowly.” She does. “What do you feel now?” I ask.
“Well, I feel my eyes, my nose, my mouth… I feel my face.”
“That’s right,” I reply. “But unlike you, stories don’t have heartbeats, and they don’t have faces. Because stories are not alive… they’re not people. They’re just stories.”
She stares into my eyes for a prolonged moment, smiles and says, “Just stories we live through.”
“Yeah… And stories we learn from.”
Photo by: Sean McGrath