A back-dated story. I didn’t finish writing it at the time, then forgot about it, then found it, finished it.
Today on the train, somewhere around Salem: “I think you are really pretty.”
I looked up from my book about alligators. He was young, maybe late 20s, in a frumpy-looking orange sweatshirt. He was not attractive, but also not unattractive. His outreached hand was inches from my face and I shook it, awkwardly.
His demeanor had none of the self-consciousness one would expect from someone in that position.
He asked me my name. Told me his. Then:
“You have really nice teeth.”
“I said, you have really nice teeth. Nice dental work,” he enunciated, and gestured at his mouth.
I looked around. A blond-haired lady in the next row up has turned around to observe us. I couldn’t see her eyes, only a bobbing bit of forehead and the clean part in her hair. We’d all gotten on the train together in Newburyport, had ridden in silence so far.
“Um, yeah, I’ve been wearing my retainers.”
It’s not that I haven’t, by now, grown suspicious of such encounters.
I’m 25, going on 26, but looking probably a quite bit younger. At my best, to non-asians, I’m a scraggy Lucy Liu look-alike: freckly, cheeky, beady-eyed, but about half her size with none of her curves or grace. To asians, I don’t even pass for that: too-dark, too-skinny, bad-skinned, weird hair, not enough of my mom, too much of my dad. So, here I was, my hair recently and thoroughly frizzed by the wind, slumped so hard in my seat that I probably looked stuck to it, with a hood pulled over my head and battling motion sickness: I knew I was no vision.
But it’s not that I expected, or even wanted, genuine spontaneous admiration. My vanity does not out-compete my discomfort at having been studied at all in my present unguarded state. It’s not that I, even briefly, entertained the notion that here was my prince charming standing over me on the nearly empty Sunday night commuter rail into the city. It’s just that I haven’t quite ruled out, even now, that in this crowded world, in this whole human mess, sane people reach out to each other too. Maybe even as boldly as this.
Then the inevitable:
“Where are you from?”
“No, what I mean is, are you Japanese?”
“I’m Chinese,” and saw him deflate visibly.
“Oh. Well you have great cheekbones. Really nice. You’re pretty for a Chinese.”
“Really? Thanks a lot.”
For a few seconds I watched his retreating orange back as he lurched up the aisle back to his seat. I looked over at the woman, expecting– a smile of sympathy, or an understanding head shake, perhaps, that small bit of consoling that only another woman can do– but she had turned away.
Later, on the platform at North Station, I passed by the guy. He didn’t notice me. He was standing by a pillar, apparently digging through the trash.
Somewhere, my lab partner is laughing it up. “Creep magnet,” he calls me.