A Request and a Warning

by Mara

When I first started dating my ex-boyfriend Algernon, 1 he said, “I should tell you, sometimes I need a little time to myself.” He was a good-natured, philosophical mathematician (read: a nerd), and every now and then he needed time to be alone to read or write or just to think. I immediately heaved a sigh of relief. “Great,” I said, “So do I!” 2

A friend told me recently, “You know, for a person with a lot of friends, you’re pretty introverted.” She’s right, and I’m learning to accept it. I’ve said this before, but I think living in New York does this to me: I was never a shy child, and I’ve noticed my degree of introversion varies depending on where I am. When I went down to Georgia for a wedding, the first time a passing stranger called out, “Hello, how are you?” I froze and thought “What does he want from me?” But within twelve hours I had warmed up, smiling at everyone and overwhelming the local art school students with my cheeriness. As soon I got back on the plane to New York, though, I felt myself tense up once again, ready to become the person who sighs audibly when someone presses the button for the second floor in an elevator, and who screams “YOU’RE NOT HELPING!” when someone honks their horn. 3

After two years of boarding school and eight years of the most populous city in the country, I appreciate my space. There are not a lot of places you can be alone in New York, but there are a few places where you can be ignored. This is why I do a lot of my best writing and thinking on the subway, and why, when a friend asks me which train I’m taking, I’ll secretly hope it’s not the same one they are. I love being around my friends and would gladly hang out with them every night of the week, but my commute is my time. My mind is like a cluttered kitchen junk drawer, and sometimes I need alone time to sort it out.

But because I get so deep into my own mental mess, I have to make a request of everyone I know or ever might meet: do not ever sneak up on me. Ever. Don’t hide behind something and then jump out, don’t come up behind me and grab me, and try not to startle me. Don’t do it when I’m talking to other people, and DEFINITELY do not do it when I am alone.  4

Yes, I know when you say you don’t like something, inevitably, one person will make it their duty to do that thing — especially if you said it on the internet. To the person reading this who will now try to sneak up on me, I say, yeah, I know my reaction sounds hilarious, but don’t do it. It’s for your own safety: I have hurt people who thought they were being funny. Once, when I was in high school, my friend Gina gave me a rather strong, startling slap on the ass as I was walking away. (We were Drama Nerds: pansexual-yet-platonic sublimation was what we did.) Before I could comprehend what had happened, I whirled around and hit her back, hard. She cried out, “Ow! That really hurt!” I said, “Oh god, I’m sorry!” I hadn’t wanted to hit her, but I was not in control of my own reflexes. If you sneak up on me, there is a chance I will hurt you. I don’t want to, but I will.

This still happens today. About a year ago I was walking to my friend’s house for a writing group meeting. It was in an area of Brooklyn I didn’t know very well, and I while I’ve worked all over New York, I still feel a little uncomfortable in any new area. One thing you always want to do in this city is look like you know where you’re going, and with as poor spatial relations as mine, I rarely ever do. As I was exiting the subway, someone came up behind me, knelt down, and whispered “Boo!” I jumped, screamed, and turned around to see my friend and fellow writing group member Chris.

“DON’T DO THAT! YOU KNOW NOT TO DO THAT!” I said, and continued yelling at him until I had regained my stability. By that time we were halfway to our friends’ place, and we spent the remaining half apologizing — him because he had scared me, and me because I had yelled at him. Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled, but I maintain that sneaking up behind a woman who’s already got her guard up is never a good idea, especially when that woman is me.

So, if you ever see me walking around, lost in my thoughts, and you would like to say hello, please be cautious. Don’t touch me or yell at me; instead, get into a position where we can see each other face to face, then say hello. I might still be a little startled, but I will be pleased to see you, and will be glad to talk.

And please don’t ever throw me a surprise party.

Notes:

  1. No, that’s not his real name. Is that anyone’s real name?
  2. This might be part of reason we are still friends.
  3. Tennessee Williams wrote a Southern character who said “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Tony Kushner set a play in New York, and had a character respond to that quote with “Well, that’s a stupid thing to do.”
  4. Some people are jumpy because they’ve been through a sudden, unexpected traumatic event, like an assault or car accident, but, fortunately, nothing like that happened to me. I’m just jumpy. It’s possible it started when I was thirteen: my parents set up the computer so that it faced their bedroom door, and I was always afraid they would open the door and see me messing around on the internet when I was supposed to be doing my homework. Even though I was probably just playing Neopets, not looking at porn, they were very strict and I was very afraid of getting in trouble. After a while, I developed a Pavlovian response and would jump every time I heard them turning the doorknob.