He sat hunched over a coffee cup in the corner of the theater lobby, still wearing a puffy, army green coat. His hair and beard were neatly trimmed, and his clothing was worn, and he stood out against the backlight of the well dressed patrons at the theater not due to the color of his skin, which was dark and warm, but due to the curve of his shoulders which spoke of trying to be invisible.
I was fairly certain he was homeless, or at the very least a shelter resident. I was fairly certain he had some sort of mental disorganization. I was fairly certain that he was proud and very cold and feared security sending him from the heat of the lobby into the freezing weather outside. The patrons, myself included, moved around him in a silent, careful pantomime, cautious of the incongruity of he and his battered styrofoam coffee cup.
He looked startled when I spoke to him, asking if I could sit at his table, but assented quickly. I studied the bits of program I had picked up – not really interested but adrift without a book in my purse. His voice was low and had a quaver in it; memories of clients from years ago washed over me – that same hesitancy; that same fear that I would somehow render them nonexistent, and again I felt clumsy in my unspoken and unwanted power.
He introduced himself. I returned the favor, offering my hand.
"I don’t shake hands, I never shake hands," he told me. I got a sense from him of a mingled fear to offend and fear to be pressed to acquiesce to a common practice he found deeply disturbing, and lowered my hand. "It tells too much, hand to hand," he added, trying to explain it to me.
We spoke a little about intimacy, about touch, and I told him about one of the origins of hand shakes in Rome, when it was a way of showing you weren’t holding a weapon and thus weren't a threat. Our interaction skimmed over the depths within him – within me – a brief and cordial meeting of strangers in a theater lobby. As the crowd of people grew thicker, he grew more anxious, and finally he excused himself.
"It was nice meeting you," I said to him, not holding out my hand.
He flashed a smile, hesitancy and anxiety writ large within it, bowed his head slightly, and moved off through the crowd and out again into the cold.
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