I met a women the other day. All around her was a wall that separated her from the crowd. It was made of books of varying sizes and densities. A perch of critical theory texts and poetry rimmed by a coffee cup of very green tea. I detailed the monolith while sipping on my coffee musingly.
“How rare and delightful,” I thought to myself, “to see someone at home amidst books in a public place.” She looked perfectly protected: isolated from yet observant of the world about her. I decided to speak to her. She was bookish, shrewd, mildly shy, and exacting in her speech.
“You’ve been so friendly!,” she exclaimed with surprise, “Why don’t we get dinner sometime, and let me know they next time you are at the coffee shop.” I was overjoyed at the prospect of friendship, especially in NYC, where chance encounters seldom mature. The whole time we spoke there was no sexuality dripping from our lips or malice in our words, just a shared interest and the intention to meet again. I walked home irradiating love for people, for the city, and for innocent human connection.
In NYC, most people are either opportunity-or convenience-oriented. The most fertile ground to cultivate relationships is convenience. If we share the same friend circles, if we share the same workplace, then there are acres to sow the seeds of friendship. If we attend the same yoga class, well then, settle for a Hi-and-Bye. When you meet someone on the street who sparks your interest, even if contact information is exchanged, the tacit expectation is that there won’t be a next time. But this exchange seemed different.
The next day, I emailed her.
“I might be at the coffee shop tomorrow. I will let you know if that happens.”
“That’s a friendly gesture. The coffee shop is a public space. If I see you, I see you,” she clarified. “You don’t have to inform me that you are going. I am interested in you as an acquaintance.”
Instantly worried, I emailed an apology. I scrambled to explain my benign intentions. “… and if I have invaded your privacy, then I apologize. As you said, I was just being friendly.”
While I waited for her reply, I questioned myself. Where had I crossed a line or misread a signal? No, she had invited me out. She seemed hopeful about friendship too. Maybe it was all in my head. The doubt was overpowered only by a quiet sense of mourning and self-indictment. Perhaps my behavior had somehow revoked my entry into her protected space?
She tersely rephrased her previous clarification: “I’m not interested in making a cafe friend at this time. Let us close this conversation now”
I was dumbstruck, rattled by competing emotions, and unambiguously shut out.
Indignation and rejection started to fester when I received another email. A fastidious analysis of our email conversations up to that point. She pinpointed where I had misunderstood her intentions with that characteristic exaction of hers, which in an e-mail sounds abrasive and unfeeling.
That was all well and good, but what incensed me was her amnesia. It had been little more than 24-hours since she had peered over her fortress to invite me to dinner! The misunderstanding was not solely my fault, even if I accepted her revisionist version of our conversations. I was officially past apology, over the mourning, beyond self-indictment, and in the barren territory of indifference. Whatever the facts, we would never agree and that was fine with me.
In the midst of all this ambivalence though, the line that hasn’t left my mind is this: “I’m really sorry that I respect you as an editor and an acquaintance whom I met one day in a cafe.” I was reduced to a title, human connection reduced to a time, and the category “acquaintance” used to mock the very thought of friendship. She saw me merely as a professional connection and a coincidence, and because of that, refused my offer of friendship. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to, although it’s weak and cliché. But I don’t expect ever to know what went wrong.
Some people dwell in circles of their own making, trapped and content. But those circles, however fortified, are not impenetrable. They are porous. Some people spend way too much time plugging up holes. My professional circles, my family circles, my friend circles, my school circles are all mirages. The ways in which people meet and connect elude clear divisions. You can try to sustain your illusory circles, and lose much in the process.
So, it happened again in NYC, that I peeked through a pore in someone’s wall and waved from my random point in space, and she didn’t wave back.
Other title considered: A Wave Lost in Space