the not hello

  You meet a person and immediately you go from strangers to something else.


And maybe you meet again. And something is shared.


And then one person, or both—but rarely both—decides they no longer want to share that thing with you.


And poof. You are strangers again. And somehow stranger than before.


And you live in this small city for months or years and you have these parallel lives that never intersect.


And then boom. One day, when you least expect it, you look up and find you’re looking right at this man who was once not a stranger, but is again.


But you don’t yet know it’s him. You just know enough to look again. And awareness creeps round the edges of the mind. And then you see the chain around his neck.


And that’s all it takes, a small, silver strand, and the blood drains from your body.


Because here is a stranger who was, for a moment, not.


Here is a man who decided he did not want to know you anymore.


You pretend not to recognize him. Wonder if he’s seen you. Perhaps not. Your hat is large and your sunglasses dark.


And you turn to the sweet boy next to you and ask him to look at you, for just, like, ten minutes, as if you’re the most beautiful girl he's ever seen. And you wrap your rapidly burning shoulders in his oversized button down because suddenly you feel so very exposed, naked to more than just the sun. And he gives you that loopy, lazy grin that comes so naturally to politicians and movie stars, before returning his gaze to the group. And you are left to your own experience, a very private one, in this very public place.


You weren’t meant to come here. You had no intention of coming here. Sort of dragged by a group of half-friends.


He’s with someone. And she’s so obviously cooler than you.  Lithe and pretty and funky in that way you’ve always lusted after in other woman.


And you cannot say hello.


But isn’t it his hello to give?


Your mind wanders to the man you’ve been dating since back when it was still cold and you’d escaped into a small West Village restaurant, sat at the end of a long table with your best girlfriend. He’d been at the other end, part of a larger group, and as he was leaving he’d paused, chatted, called you charming (and you were, you were so charming that night—it’s so easy when nothing is at stake) before inviting you to dinner the following week—his invitation more a request than anything else. And you had been done in by this. By his supreme confidence. His absolute nerve. In the time since, he’s said again and again how shy he is and you know he’s not, but you play along: Why then did you approach me that first night? you ask coyly. And he answers with one word, Irresistible. And somehow that one word is enough—somehow in his less than perfect English that one word is absolute perfection. And it is a little truthful and a little not and you know this--you are smart enough to know this, but it is enough true that you smile in that way that is just for him and tuck your head into that space below his chin.


But whatever it is the two of you have been building is a flimsy thing, a we’re-never-going-to-love-each-other-but–isn’t-this-nice-sort-of-thing. Already you know you are on borrowed time--that it's only lasted as long as it has because you've been so lonely (and you so liked telling the story of how you met). But you’ve learned so much from this man who never loved you—this man with no intention of ever loving you. This man who always paid for dinner and when he smoked never did so in your presence. This man who offered to call the airlines and reminded you to wish your mother a happy mother’s day. Who always gave you his jacket and always ordered dinner and always asked  just what it was you wanted to do with your life. This man who was so not the right man, but cared for you as he knew how, and held you close when he could. This man who you will meet one lazy Saturday years from now, who will buy you a drink and say hello and kiss you softly and ask how you are and really want to know. This man you will never pretend not to know.


Because I don’t really get it. How we can so totally make a stranger of another person. How we can pretend not to know them so completely.


I mean, I was a little afraid and I was a little hurt and I was a little embarrassed—so not terribly courageous, but I don’t know what the hell you were.