July 18, 2016

A Profile, A Posture, Not Quite a Person

I was standing in front of the building, smoking. She was with a few friends, and seemed to be in a rush. I didn’t get a good look.

Whatever I did see, I wanted to see again — even from a distance, no matter how blurry or how brief. I turned to look through the building’s glass façade and saw her once more, still from the right, as she made her way through the lobby. She was partially obstructed, but I remember just the way her hair flowed past her cheekbone.

I had been the only person standing in the front of the building then, so I presume she saw me, but couldn’t know for sure. It was a place I did not come to often, as it was several hours away from the city I lived in. It didn’t seem likely I would ever see her again. And all I had actually seen was a glimpse of a profile, a posture, and a shade of maroon or burgundy — not quite a person.

Back inside, my colleague and I checked in with our host, to see whether things were ready to get started. We had come here to host a conversation between a few dozen people, anchored by a central theme. Our role was simply to choose the theme and prepare some initial thoughts to get a discussion going. We had been asked to send something in ahead of time, in order to establish a point of departure, and we had provided something vague and meaningless — “feedback loops, portals, trap doors, quick sand and other forms of necessary contingencies” — and yet our host’s response had been forgiving (Ha! I rather like it; which meant, I think, So silly, but let’s pretend it’s witty and see how it goes).


The room was large, windowless and somewhat narrow, with a long, long table in the middle. We sat at one end of the table. We introduced, we asked questions, and people jumped in. We, too, were being forgiving, expressing interest and encouragement even when people said things that felt half-baked.

When she spoke, from the far end of the room, I recognized her immediately, even though I was still too far away to properly see her face. I was startled, but hoped that I didn’t look like I was. I switched poses, but hoped that it came off as casually random rather than nervously sudden. I leaned forward, put my elbows on the table, and squinted, slightly.

She had an accent; I guessed Spain. She wanted to read something.

It was brilliant. She articulated a perspective that was nuanced, precise, sophisticated, and completely original. And so the second she stopped reading, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I clapped. Needless to say, this was not the type of context in which one claps, no matter how smart or amazing anyone is. It was the type of context in which one contributes small answers to big questions, nodding and raising an eyebrow or two from time to time. I was the only one in the room who clapped. It must have been the confusing flurry of emotions and impressions that were not yet cohering into something that made sense, something I could name — and so, feeling cornered, I clapped.

I couldn’t see the details of her expression or reaction, but I had that feeling — you know the one — where all that is solid turns elastic.

I finally found some words, all of which were surely superlative. At least I knew to keep it short and quickly move the conversation on to someone else. I didn’t look to see if glances were bouncing around the room in a silently communal what the fuck was that about!!??, but if they were, so be it.  I wondered if I was blushing.

At the end of the workshop, as some people gathered around our end of the table and others made their way to the door, I felt myself moving around in my chair, almost squirming, as I tried to gather my things + make eye contact with people asking questions or making comments + glance over every shoulder to see if she was leaving the room or coming over + nod to indicate that I was listening to whatever someone was saying to me + lean to the left and then to the right in an attempt to find her amidst all the people + thank my colleague for her collaboration on the workshop + be ready to immediately jump up and walk out should I see her leaving the room + resolve to remain composed and calm should she appear and say hello + ignore the cigarette craving + prepare some kind of witty justification should someone ask me about the clap.

I think I managed all of it quite well, with one gross and embarrassing exception. I grew up speaking French, and had the habit of doing so with a colleague who I knew was in the room, so I called out to him. A snarky quip. A joke. What I said doesn’t actually matter at all — I was only trying to display the fact that, despite having almost no accent when I speak English, I, too, was from elsewhere. I didn’t speak Spanish, but at least I wasn’t 100% gringo. We had something in common! Ugh. I regretted it instantly.


She tried to sneak by, but I was prepared, and had been sitting close enough to the door that I would at least get to nod a hello. She paused, smiled, and thanked me for my comments. I didn’t get up, but again leaned forward. I have no idea what I said, and prefer not to know. I surely used too many words — compliments stuck inside of compliments in such a way as to yield a garbled and indistinct mush. I do remember what I had planned to say: “That was a really interesting perspective on that exhibition, and I’d be curious to talk about it a bit more with you, because it’s a show that I’ve thought about a lot myself as well,” which emerged as something like interesting perspective, great, I’ve thought about it too, I mean, yeah, I’d be, um, ok, yeah, bye. She didn’t seem to mind — potentially a good sign. Truth be told, she could have said or done anything at all at that moment, and I would have found a way to interpret it as potentially a good sign. I wanted to give her a card, or to scribble down my email, but didn’t. I probably fiddled with my pen instead.

With a quick smile, she turned and left the room.

On the way back to the hotel, all that was tiny had become serious — the wrinkles in my shirt collar, the inflections of my laugh, the stickers on my laptop, the sloppiness of my handwriting, the friendliness of my handshake. Each inconsequential detail, decision, or defect suddenly meant something. They felt exposed, in the face of stakes that couldn’t be higher. The way they added up would either ignite or extinguish everything.

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