To Stan (or was it Paul?)

There’s something I’ve begun to notice.  Well, notice is the wrong word. Let’s say instead, see for what it is.  A conversation I had a month ago incited the fresh attentiveness; my recent run-in with you added clarity. 

It all started last month when I was approached by two guys I’d met seasons ago, while heading out to climb with my friend Jacob.  One I recognized well and greeted by name; the other, I knew I’d seen but couldn’t place—his head a cut-out from the page of a once-shared space, background gone, only frayed edges remaining from which to derive clues. 

They both said my name while approaching—the latter even more enthusiastically than the first—and I smiled, always happy to reconnect with the friendly familiars that splatter the climbing world.  We talked briefly about where we’d been since that shared time; nothing personal, just short and sweet and simple.  A chitchat of cities and crags and the shifting weather, really.  It lasted perhaps three minutes.

Of course I had to ask.  I could have waved goodbye pretending I knew, but that bites you in the ass later.  It’s always the people you can’t name whom you see again and again and again: who pounce around the corner the following day, coffee in hand, the cloying smile it’s much too early for, and pump your name out with panache, as if it were the end of a stutter that’s been rolling on their tongue since sunrise and only your presence has freed them to press it out; or assail you with perfect pronunciation later that evening at the grocery store, when you’re paralyzed by the yogurt selection and already feel vulnerable.

A week later, there they are again, shouting out a personalized hello from the window of their car, while you’re riding your bike and they’re stuck at a stoplight; and, the final straw: they coin you a new nickname—charming and clever and immediately a favorite—as they give you a solid spot for that awkward top-out (the pad was, as usual, a bit delayed in its automatic repositioning).

You can’t follow those run-ins with: Thanks dude! What’s up, man! Hey buddy!  Vague surfer-speak works for the first two or so, because people do that often enough even if they know your name.  But people will begin to wonder if, by run-in three, they still haven’t heard the sound of their name puncture the air from your trembling lips.

 And like I said, it’s the nameless people who are ubiquitous: you’re going to see them more than two times.  This is just one of those random, oddly cruel facts of life.

 Still, I hate asking it.  We all hate asking it: What’s your name again? A long pause our preamble, while we weigh the gravity of the question, try to anticipate whether or not they’ll find offense, or worse—they’ll think that you think they aren’t worth remembering.   Then the the excuses, couched in assurances you know them, you haven’t forgotten them, to assuage potential hurt as well as your own feelings of inadequacy:  I’m more of a face person—I recognize you, of course!  Red Rocks. (you look out in the distance, as if memory’s a few miles back and slightly left, waiting for them to nod or shake no.) No, wait…Castle Rock, right?  Yeah, yeah, it was at the base of that overhanging ten-something… your friend was there with the uh… weird hat. (Your hands revolve around your head, to encapsulate the esoteric meaning of weird hat.) But god, I’m awful with names. Sorry. (Enter downcast eyes, and your shame.)

Anyway, you might think this letter is about names—but it’s not, really.  That’s not at all the point.  Hah! Talk about a digression, eh?  Letters are an excuse to ramble.

While this interchange was happening—the entire three minutes—Jacob stood aside and watched.  Examined his chalk bag and the rind of his shoes. Just sort of dawdled.  I’ll admit I’m notoriously terrible with introductions.  Well, I’m not terrible, per se—I just don’t see the point.  Sometimes I pretend I just forgot everyone doesn’t know everyone.  Sometimes I genuinely do forget, too.  But, usually, I just don’t get it, and don’t even bother pretending:  why the name-exchange, if you probably won’t see each other again?  You’re going that way, we’re going this way. I consider introductions an empty formality unless there’s a guarantee of future interaction.   The remembering of names is taxing—why play like it’s easy, or go through the silly little motions of listening and absorbing when you’re really only watching a mouth move and thinking about snacks?

I didn’t mean to circle back on the name thing.

Anyway, while these guys and I were chatting like old chums, though we’d never been more than acquaintances—had never climbed together, or made dinner together, or sat at the same table for a cup of tea—and Jacob was just sort of standing there, they very politely, very cordially, gave him the nod and smile that says:  I acknowledge you, oh fellow climber, but I’d have to agree with Ranae on this one: there’s no point to introductions; we probably won’t see each other again.  If we do, we’ll work it out then. 

Which was fine.  That happens all the time.  But after they left, he waited until they rounded the corner (probably to surprise someone else who couldn’t remember one of their names), then looked at me and laughed, with a very cliché shake of his head, a shake that said, silly little girl, and the things you don’t see.

“I cannot believe that.  Those guys didn’t even recognize me.”

So of course my friend Jacob and I got to talking.  “I’ve seen those guys at a couple different places now, the first of which was also at Castle Rock. I met them around the same time they met you.”  And while I sat there, puzzled, trying to decipher this case of the missing recognition (Well, you are quieter than I am.  Wait no, that’s not entirely true… you’re just less opinionated and aggressive about everything.  Yeah.  And don’t drink as much, maybe?  But you still hang out.  And you’re always making friends at the crag, whereas I’m more tunnel-vision. And you say you saw them a number of times?  And met them officially and everything?  You’re maybe even more social than me, actually.), Jacob just waited.  Waited for me to get it.

“Ranae, these guys remember you—recognize you and remember your name—because you’re an attractive woman; they forget me because I’m just some dude.”

At first I was defensive, of course.  How dare he. I am fabulous.  I have a great personality! I’m fun! I have heaps of male friends who enjoy my company—sex aside—because I make them laugh and stuff. 

I didn’t want to think I was remembered merely because I had a vagina.  

But he wasn’t saying my personality didn’t matter—he pacified me with all the wonders of my character, and assured me that, yes, of course I was funny, generous, interesting, and had oh so many charms to offer, and such a well of knowledge, which I was ever-so-eloquent at disseminating (or something like that). 

His point was that this exact scenario, personality-traits aside, was predictable and unavoidable, in any sphere where men vastly dominated the population and single women were a rarity.  I was friendly, and that was good enough.  Biology managed the rest.  He and I could simultaneously be a combination of wonderful personality traits, but the general rule still followed: because I was a woman, I’d garner more attention. 

It made sense.  Still, I didn’t want to think I was memorable only because I was female.  I wanted to be a necessary ingredient, a pleasure.  A force!

And then I began to notice, really notice, how often boys would say hello to me.

Shit shit shit shit.

And now let’s talk about you.  Because you’re the real reason I’m writing this letter.

I met you almost a month after the seed was planted, and as I said before:  you watered it down hard.

The night you approached me, I had an agenda.  Perhaps you didn’t notice how rushed I was.  My head was down, eyes pointed at items I grabbed, doors closing with finality, feet hurrying away.  I know my car was parked next to yours, but I didn’t know you—had never seen you before, didn’t care to change that (the whole introduction thing once again: silly).   I wanted to walk past you without feeling responsible for your evening’s entertainment.

I know this must seem harsh—you just wanted friendly chitchat, right?—but if I don’t write to you, you will be none-the-wiser.  And I don’t want to allow you that excuse.

There’s a difference between greeting someone, and harassing someone with unwanted attention.  When I’m forced into being abrupt (interrupting you mid-soliloquy) in order to escape your conversational clutches, it affects me.  It’s emotionally exhausting. 

And I’m tired.  I’m tired of being made to feel rude or inconsiderate, or like I’ve somehow given you a reason to walk off and mutter what a bitch, because I’d rather take this yoga mat and book I’ve been standing here holding (with a fierce grip of impatience), and continue my walk.  I’d like to move away from you, toward an intentional, much-needed hour of solitude in the gentle rays of a setting sun, without being stalked by you and your stimulating questions (how long are you here for?  Cool! Where’ve you been climbing at mostly? Any favorite climbs?), while your eyes puncture mine with searing accuracy—as if the only way you won’t look at my body is if we have a staring contest. 

I appreciate pointed eye-contact, but my skin prickles at the distinct difference between the appropriate amount, and what you’re doing right now to my eyeballs.

And though I’d love to tell you where you should camp—where you can find me late tonight, that is—instead of reading this book that has hovered between anxious fingers for the past five excruciating minutes, or discuss which projects I’ve been working on—where you can find me tomorrow, if I’m not around tonight—instead of stretching out on this yoga mat that’s rudely covering my boobs, I feel that, since we did just meet in this parking lot, it might not be in my best interest. Especially since my womanhood is the only reason you are talking to me.

You see, I’m not in a bar.  I’m not scrolling through tinder.  I’m not walking through a park on a summer day in a flowery dress and billowy hat, waiting to stumble upon the charms of a gentleman who’ll become my future husband, tossing crumbs by the duck pond.

I am in my home, swapping out work clothes for pjs.  To stand up, I have to be outside my car.  I have nowhere else to go but that corner of grass over there if I want to stretch and fall into a novel.  I have nowhere else to cook but my hatchback. Yes, which happens to be next to your car. I always forget that means I’m fair game.

But I wonder, are you simply not aware?  Aware of my limited amount of space and privacy, already so teensy tiny because I’ve chosen to live out of a vehicle, but made infinitesimally smaller because I am a woman, and men like you don’t hesitate to enter it.  

No doubt things are easier in many ways because men approach me often, Stan—you’re right.  It’s easy to find climbing partners.  It’s easy to find potlucks, chuckle-buddies, beer-swaps.  And yes, of course: Good conversation is often there, too.  And most aren’t nearly as creepy as you—by a long shot.  I just wish I wasn’t always forced to wonder: is he talking to me because he wants to tuck me in later?

I hope you don’t misunderstand, Stan.  It’s not that you saying hi is awful, or so inappropriate! But you should know when hi is quite enough—when I don’t want to talk about those things, or anything with you, and your third question is nothing but a nuisance—simply by the tone of voice I’ve shifted to, and the fact that I’ve been facing away from you since you walked up to my car.  Distancing myself.  Begging you to let me go so I don’t have to be, well, you know…

such a bitch

If you saw me in a bar, and my scoping eyes roamed the room and locked with yours, and I smiled and hell, maybe even winked, that’s an invitation to approach me.  It doesn’t mean I’m going to find you funny or attractive, or your conversation fascinating, but it does mean I am open to an approach.  If after you come over and we start to talk, my eyes default back to wandering, and I’m not posing any questions, and my answers are short or vague and trail off into the din of ice clinking, or my chair keeps scraping the floor, that would generally mean I am not interested.  There’s no chemistry between us, romantic or not, is what those signals would suggest. And you should expend your efforts where rewards are more likely, and seek out another who will find your stories more gripping, or your sense of humor more existent.

Allow context to play a role, too.  The same locked eyes and smile on a trail—or in the parking lot you approached me, for instance—could just as easily be a simple gesture of kindness, or an acknowledgment of shared appreciation for the outdoors.  Or a natural response to you staring and smiling.  But the cues of body language are not difficult to surmise, really.  I’m only asking you be more aware.

So when I glance your way and immediately look elsewhere, or keep my head down, or collect things up while we’re chatting and provide you minimal attention, you can know with confidence it means I’m not in the mood.  I’m busy. Not that I hate you, or we’re no longer friends (if we are), or I think you’re lame or annoying.  I just need my space.  And while I’d say I’m generally an extrovert with introvert tendencies, lately it’s swapped. 

Which is why I decided to write you this letter.  For the past few months, I’ve been feeling like a hermit.  I’ve begun to actively shirk human interaction, almost on the regular: I’ve dodged friends I adore; ignored phone-calls from people I genuinely care about; approached busy crags or cafes with a sense of dread; walked off from groups only to wonder aimlessly and breathe deep; tucked myself back in the corner of a library, behind a book, where I’m safely hidden from familiar faces.  And I think I’ve finally figured it out: the why

It’s not because of my friends.  It’s because of people like you—men like you—who break into the sacred space I’ve reserved for me as if they belong there.  My friends don’t do that.  They get it.  They learn quickly the signs, when I need time on my own, and they happily leave me be.  If they approach that space, it’s okay because I love them, I love who they are, and I invite them in—and often, when they leave, I’m happier than before, even if I had thought all I needed was air. 

Which goes back to the original conversation I had:  Women get more attention than men on the road.  My personal space has become a luxury, because I live on the road.  Yet since I’m getting less and less of it, it is becoming all the more necessary, for my sanity. 

So what now?  How can I tell you to leave off, let me be, but then still ensure the men I want in my life will keep coming back to my hatchback with small talk and smiles?  How can I protect myself from the attentions I find so draining, without also discouraging men from a future approach?

Because there’s something beautiful about the connections that bind us, the invisible pull that draws strangers together and cinches them up, keeps locked eyes locked. 

And I like men.  In fact, I love men. 

I just love myself a bit more.

I just think, you know—I was pretty obvious.  And I hope all the dudes you show this to, to demonstrate how I’m such a bitch, maybe get it, maybe understand.  I guess that’s all.