Did you ever meet a random stranger, smile politely, make friendly chitchat, go through the rehearsed motions of civility, casually end the conversation and walk away…, happy the encounter is over, happy to be on your way, while thinking you’ll never see or talk to that person again?
We all have.
And have you ever been so wrong about that? So wrong, to the point that the casual stranger ends up playing one of the most significant, provocative, entertaining, and in this case, terrifying roles in your life?
I have. And I get the feeling that such an experience has happened to quite a few others.
Here’s a chapter from my book based on a true story, Manic Kingdom ,describing my first encounter with such a stranger:
“Is that a tattoo?”
I awkwardly swing my leg up and off the bar and clumsily turn around. A massive black man is sitting on a bench behind me and hoggishly eating some kind of food with one hand while drenching it with a bottle of hot sauce from the other. His naked toes are dug into the sand and in between his feet is a large paper bag that looks like it might be a brown-bagged breakfast for a monster. I notice a black bag on the bench by his side and a black sweatshirt draped over it. He appears to be alone and has an air of pointlessness about him. That, combined with his over-used, wrinkled and stained brown bag, makes me think he’s a handsome homeless bum.
I figure that while I was bent over stretching, the bottom half of my tank top separated just enough from my waist band for him to catch a glimpse of my tattoo. Normally, I’d ignore him, walk away and start running. The man seems frighteningly strange. But I haven’t talked to anyone in a while, so what the heck. I smile at the man and say, “Yes. It’s a tattoo.”
“Nice. I like ink. Why’d you get it?” he asks nonchalantly, licking his fingers of mystery victuals doused with Tabasco.
I think for a moment, staring past him to gaze blankly at the backside of my hotel. I wonder if I should tell him I’m trying to fight death with permanency, that I’m crazy and the tattoo was a temporary reprieve against morbid stagnation.
“You’re daydreaming,” he notes with utter confidence.
“Oh, sorry. I do that a lot lately. I like ink, too. That’s why,” I finally answer. I don’t sound nearly as confident as he.
He stands up, and on his feet, he looks gigantic and formidable. He’s about six feet, two inches, and well over two hundred pounds of finely chiseled muscle. All he’s wearing is a pair of navy blue swim trunks and a few stubborn sand particles stuck to his calves. When he stretches his arms up to the sky, easily showing off his well-built shoulders, he reminds me of a bear. Each of his abdominal muscles is clearly visible and protrudes proudly. His torso is smooth and hairless and I get the feeling he has the potential for Herculean strength. His belly button is a prominent outie, which makes me giggle. This man’s bulge for a belly button is so big that it looks like a game show buzzer. I’m half-tempted to run over and push it.
“I’m King, by the way,” he says, and laughs. “Did you get in a doughnut fight this morning?”
I bite my lip and look down to keep from laughing. He has the physical stature and poise of a king, but his name sounds made-up, and a little ridiculous.
“I’m Becka. Um… doughnut fight?”
He moves closer to me. My heart speeds up. Instantly, I feel even smaller and more insignificant than before. He’s a giant. He looks like he works out all day, every day. He gestures toward my running clothes. I look down and see I’m covered in white powder.
“Oh!” I exclaim, chuckling nervously. “No, no doughnuts. That’s baby powder.”
He raises an eyebrow in response and inches closer. I stumble backwards. I don’t feel like talking anymore. He’s too close to me, and it’s making me anxious. I want to start running. Let him think what he wants. He won’t matter to me in five minutes.
“So what brings you out this way?” he asks.
I softly sigh. He must have nothing better to do. “Just a vacation.”
“You and every other girl who comes out here. So, where ya from?”
“P-A!” he guffaws, slapping his thigh. “My dad went to school there. U Penn. He was a Fulbright Scholar.”
“Oh. Very cool.” All I want to do is go for a run along the water and get high on my endorphins, not discuss fatherly alumni.
“So what do you do in P-A, Miss Becka?” he presses.
I’m getting frustrated and start rocking back and forth on my feet. He’s way too friendly. I don’t want to give him my whole life story or delve into my recent string of self-destruction. He hasn’t earned the truth. I tell myself that fibbing to a stranger during brief encounters is perfectly acceptable, especially if it will get me out of this awkward situation.
“I’m a med student,” I state impatiently. It’s not a total lie. I’m only a recent drop-out.
“A med student?” he exclaims. His brown eyes grow larger. “Wow, now that’s great – and impressive. You must be sharp! There are some doctors in my family back in Nigeria. In fact, my father owns two hospitals in Lagos, Nigeria. Any idea what kind of doctor you want to be?”
His compliments make me feel like a huge let-down. It hurts to hear them. They don’t apply to me anymore.
“No,” I softly mumble.
“That’s okay. You have plenty of time. So, before medical school, where did you study?” It’s apparent he has nothing else to do today but talk to me.
“A military school. It was different,” I say quickly. I wonder if he can see my feet dancing. I’m ready to run.
“That’s even more impressive!” He grins, in awe. “You don’t look like the type.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“A soldier girl, huh? Well, I like that.”
I nod and back away. He moves toward me as he ignores all hints. “How was it being a soldier?”
“Hard and complicated by asthmatic lungs,” I snap this time.
I know I sound bitter, but I always sound bitter when I tell people about my asthma. I came down with a severe atypical pneumonia years ago. My friends wanted me to go to the hospital, but I refused. Instead, when my trachea’s diameter felt like it decreased by half, I drank tons of coffee, since caffeine is a natural bronchodilator. The infection gradually resolved, but in the aftermath I developed asthma. Now, every time I run or get upset, it feels like my lungs are collapsing. Sometimes I can barely breathe. A shrink told me it was all anxiety-related, but my internal medicine doctor diagnosed me with asthma and prescribed me both a rescue inhaler and steroid inhaler. My running’s never been the same, but even worse than that is crying, which quickly triggers my asthma. Getting upset somehow makes my bronchioles fill up with inflammatory crud and collapse. It doesn’t happen every time I cry, but when it does, it’s awful. So awful, I try not to cry over anything. Before this hit me, I didn’t even know it was possible to be allergic to tears.
“You have asthma and you’re going for a run?” King seems concerned.
“I already used my inhaler in the hotel. I’m good to go.”
“Hotel? Where are you staying?”
“Right there,” I answer while pointing to Lanes behind him. It’s time to divert attention away from myself. All these questions are making me uncomfortable, so I turn the tables and ask one of my own. “So, what do you do?”
Without hesitation, King enthusiastically answers, “I’m a lawyer. My office is here in Santa Monica. I live in Venice. I have two homes in Venice. I mostly work pro bono now, though.”
“Oh.” I nod, trying to hide my surprise. I thought he was a beach bum, literally. I tell myself to start filtering my first impressions of people. Clearly, I’m way off. Or he’s lying. Either way, who cares.
King interrupts my self-assessment. “Can I see your tattoo? It looked pretty big from where I was sitting before. I love ink. It’s the sexiest thing on a woman.”
I nod, turn and slightly lift my shirt while pulling the waistband of my shorts away from my back so King can see my full tattoo. Even as I look away, I feel him staring intensely at my back and can see him extending his neck, as if he’s trying to see more of my body. I feel nervous and ashamed, like I’ve shown him too much. I pull my shirt back down and make a motion toward the water when King says, “It’s really, really nice. Music notes? Do you play an instrument?”
“Yes,” I bark and wish I never said hello to this man. “I play the violin.”
King looks impressed again. It’s so easy to impress him. He starts rambling about the origin of the violin. Then he starts talking about a famous violin recently stolen from somewhere up in San Francisco. I keep nodding but tune him out. It feels like he wants to talk to me all day.
Minutes later, I’m still nodding and he’s still rambling, jumping from one topic to the next. He speaks eloquently with big words and his voice is smooth and refined, as if his vocal cords are trained for making distinguished conversation. One could easily call him charming, possibly one of the most charming men I’ve ever met.
His charm, charisma, whatever you want to call it, feels off, though. His words and mannerisms seem rehearsed, like a salesman’s, like he’s given this random speech to a thousand girls before me in this exact spot. I’m not interested in what he’s saying, but I automatically pick up that he went to NYU for law school, was raised in Brooklyn and decided to move out to California to practice law. He also works out twice a day and works as a writer in his spare time.
“What do you write?” I interrupt.
“Screenplays.” He’s nonchalant.
“Anything big? Anything I’d know?”
“Not yet. But I’m working on a tragic one about the mobs in Atlantic City and Philadelphia.”
“Oh. Neat.” I have no interest in mob history. My enthusiasm for this conversation has dropped well below zero. “Well, I’m going to start my run now. It’s been nice chatting with you.”
“Okay!” he eagerly responds. “Do you want to grab a coffee sometime while you’re out here? Can I get your phone number?”
I sigh, audibly. I always have trouble telling a guy that I’m not interested in pursuing anything with him. To avoid that uncomfortable confrontation, I usually give them my number and hope that they don’t call, or if they start calling me, they stop calling once I never answer. I wish I could be straightforward and tell a guy I’m not interested, but I can’t. And since I can’t, I cause myself a lot of undue phone harassment and hassle. As I listen to myself clearly recite my digits to King, I wonder if my inability to openly reject people and the subsequent drama are all part of my big plan to sabotage myself.
King puts my phone number in his cell phone, which further supports his claim that he’s a working lawyer and not a homeless man. I figure homeless people don’t have actively functioning cell phones. He then gives me his number, which I plug in my phone to be polite. He promises me that he’ll call. I nod, hoping he doesn’t. I wave and start jogging toward the shore line, convinced I’ll never see or talk to him again.
You can also read my essay: My Long First Date with Death