Written in Summer of 2016
I missed the bus that was gonna take me to the dining hall before it closed. I was trying to keep myself on a budget, but I hadn’t eaten all day, and I wanted to eat while I started this GRE prep book I just bought. I decided to go two blocks down the street to a restaurant called Noodles Etc. I had never heard of Noodles Etc., it sounded like a fake Noodles and Company, but if it was cheap, I’d give it a shot.
I’m walking in 80 degree weather wearing a black t-shirt with the pictures of the past editions of InSolidarity, the literary publication I’ve submitted creative writing pieces to. I’m also wearing nice khaki shorts that I got at Goodwill in Atlanta, and some white gym socks with black sneakers. I was going for cheap chic. I felt like a sweaty mess. But as I was walking to Noodles Etc., I noticed this guy standing in front of the bookstore four buildings up from the restaurant. He was staring intensely at the window while smoking a cigarette. He had beautiful almond skin and a pair of black horn rimmed glasses that I would usually consider hipster, but just made him look bookish. He was wearing a grey t-shirt that had a cover of Life magazine on the front with a picture of an ape. He was pretty thin, his huge brown messenger bag was almost the size of his torso. I ended up staring at him staring at a window. He saw me, and I tried to look away, pretending I was staring at the same thing he was staring at. But the only thing to see in the window was a person buying a book, so I just kept going to the restaurant. He followed.
I went in, and noticed immediately that the two sides of the room were filled with people in booths, while in the middle were several small tables meant for two people, all of them empty. Messenger bag man comes in right after me, we get seated separately. We both ended up choosing tables, and we both ended up sitting directly across from each other, a table apart. I figured this was a joke, we were the only people in the middle row, and we just happened to chose the two tables facing each other with no one in the chairs between us? I kept staring. He was reading a book on the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Hmm. Conspiracy theorist?
I was intrigued.
We kept looking at each other as we waited to be served. Passing glances every now and again, but enough to make me anxious. Was he checking me out? Was I freaking him out? I was gonna say something but then my grandma called. Saved by the bell, I guess.
I go outside to take the call, knowing full well that my grandma was gonna talk to me about the fact that I am living closer to her than I have in almost four years and yet I have not contacted her. I’m happy to hear from her, but I’m worried that if I didn’t get back in that restaurant, messenger bag was gonna go back to sending messages and staring at windows, and I wouldn’t make my move. I answered her questions about my program and about the election and told her that my phone was gonna die. It wasn’t a lie, but I hoped that she didn’t catch how much I was emphasizing hanging up and calling her later.
I went back in, with new resolve. I’m gonna try to get him. At this point, we had both been served, him with crab rangoon, me with shrimp fried rice. I waited until he put a bookmark in his book to start eating, and I got his attention. I asked him “Did you want to eat alone?”
“Oh, I just have so much food, I ended up covering the whole table, but did you want to join me.”
“Oh, really? Sure, I’d love to.”
I was already moving all my stuff to his side, and I put his bag on the floor.
“Thanks for letting me eat with you, I’m Anthony.”
“Hi, I’m K.”
A name for messenger bag man. K. I could work with that.
“Are you a student here?”
“Yes,” I said, “well, for the summer. I go to Oberlin in Ohio, I’m just here working on my BA thesis.”
“How about you?”
“I’m a grad student here. Evolutionary biology.”
Hmm. This could go one of two ways. Either he’s a science freak who hates humanists like myself, or he’s one of those “open-minded politically conscious” scientists who hates people who are illogical. Like myself.
Fortunately, I was wrong on both points.
“Where are you from?”
“Pakistan. Lahore. Major city, so I’m really a city boy. You?”
“I’m from a suburb of here. Oak Park.” Years at Oberlin have made me extra cautious about where I “claim” to be from, even around people who probably wouldn’t give a fuck.
“Oh, so you grew up in the city?”
I nodded. I was working to get the typical Oberlin response I practiced to a question like that out of my head: “I can’t be from the city and know the city struggle because I am not from it, even though I am from it, but I have a complex relationship to it because of my family situation, but I live in Ohio now, but…” Didn’t want to freak him out yet.
The conversation quickly turned to politics. Naturally, he wanted to know what I thought of the Obama presidency.
“Well, it’s weird for me. My dad wanted him to be the first Black president. So many Black people I knew wanted that. But I know that he sucks. I just want him to be out of office, I want to see how his post-presidential life will turn out. Like, will he come back to Hyde Park?”
“I understand that,” K offered. “I notice that sort of response by Black activists, especially progressives. In that his policies have just been so damaging to Black people, and that he has done nothing for them.”
“Right,” I countered, “but I always feel put off by that argument, because even when he does nothing, the right will still criticize him for promoting home-grown terrorism. So he just can’t win.”
“The thing about that is should we then say that we shouldn’t have expected too much from him? When do we hold him accountable? As someone from Pakistan, his drone policies directly affect my country and my people. I admit I have a different perspective and different stakes, but I’m still critical.”
He got me. And I agreed with him. And I still held on to my points, and he agreed with me as well. How did this happen? 20 minutes ago, I saw this guy staring at a window, and now we’re debating the merits of political action and what it will mean to vote in the upcoming election. And it was all done so respectfully and we laughed and he offered me his last crab rangoon, and I thought “Does he like me?”
We got our bills, separate checks, and two fortune cookies. His was “You will have a long life.” Mine was “People will recognize that you have a friendly heart.”
“This is no surprise to me. I was voted most friendly in middle and high school,” I sighed.
“Really? I mean, it’s a really nice fortune.”
“Yeah. I guess I’m not friendly anymore though.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, people start to question how friendly you are when they compare how you act when you assert yourself to how you act when you are a doormat.”
“That is true.”
“Are you friendly?”
“Well, friendly-ish. I’m more sociable.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, I like engaging with people, I wouldn’t say I’m friendly. I doubt that friends would say that I’m friendly.”
“I think you’re friendly, you let me sit with you.” My voice had started to take on a flirtatious tone. Friends know that my voice gets higher when I talk to people who I perceive are in positions of power, in this case authority figures and people I’m attracted to. Not Mickey Mouse-high, but definitely a tenor compared to a baritone.
“Yeah, I just don’t know how people would respect me if I was too friendly?”
“Yeah, like my girlfriends haven’t really cared if I was “friendly.””
Shit. I knew it was too good to be true.
I worked so hard to not show my disappointment. Could it be possible that he was also attracted to cis men? Of course it could, right? But something was telling me that he was not into me the way I was into him.
“Well, this was really nice. Anthony, right?”
“Cool. I have to get going, but thank you for eating with me. Take care.”
I sat there at the table with a to-go bag of fried rice and two signed receipts, his and mine. I tried to figure out what I was expecting.
Well, maybe he doesn’t like dick. But, I proved to myself that I can have a conversation with a guy and it wouldn’t be stupid or disrespectful. Oberlin’s convinced me that it’s impossible to do that. But, will it always be like this? Me bravely trying to set something up, and getting the short end of the stick? Am I gonna have to rely on chance encounters in bathhouses and dark rooms to find someone intelligent who will also give me affection?
I walked back to my dorm, a block behind him, hoping that he wouldn’t slow down so that I would end up catching up to him. The other day, a friend had asked me what I looked for in a partner. I realized that very few people had ever asked me that. I told her, “Well, for years I just wanted someone who was actually interested in me. But after some shitty experiences I realized that I needed to have better criteria. I want a guy who is adventurous and empathetic, because my life experiences have left me wanting to explore the whole world and understand many different points of view. And maybe that’s too intense, and I can’t find someone who will do that with me. And I think that I’m starting to accept that.”
She responded by telling me that she wanted a guy who was willing to grow and who was working to grow like she was. That there needed to be openness and a willingness to be vulnerable, but that there would be an emphasis on reciprocity in the relationship. And I told her “I want those things too. But I never actually express that or put it out there. I guess I just want things to happen to me, and then they’d work out.”
And walking home, passing by K as he was waiting for the bus, him not seeing me but me seeing him, I started to wonder how this whole “anything can happen” mindset is panning out for me.