How do you talk to strangers? What are the rules? Nobody knows. I’m usually happy when a stranger speaks to me, and some strangers are happy when I speak to them, but everybody’s worried: will he think I’m weird? When I say Good morning, do I mumble or enunciate? How big is too big to smile at someone you don’t know?
The other day at the gym I kept catching the eye of a fellow swimmer, a man about my age, both in the pool and in the locker room. I didn’t mean to keep looking his way; you want to be careful about making eye contact in a locker room (although eye-to-eye contact can be safer than eye-to-elsewhere). When he was leaving, he caught my eye again, smiled, and waved. Relief: he didn’t think I was weird, just friendly.
Well, we were both dudes, and both swimming, why not? That’s enough common ground for a wave.
I overheard a conversation once between two (presumably straight) guys about gaydar and how it might work. One said to the other: if you catch another guy’s eyes and he looks just a little too long — you can tell. Ridiculous, or true? Maybe a little true. Most men do avoid each others’ eyes. Is that because they don’t want anybody thinking they’re gay, or for some other reason?
I’ve been getting to know the guys who live next door. The first time we spoke was when I was doing some work on my motorcycle. I think I wrote about this: we ended up killing a fifth of Maker’s between the three of us. Since then we chat occasionally, usually in the hall on the way to our respective apartments; last Sunday I stopped by for brunch; this evening I invited them to watch the game at my place on Sunday.
I know this is nonsense, but I sometimes feel like their amiability isn’t genuine — that they’re too normal, not to mention too good-looking, to really want to spend time with me. The feeling says a lot more about me than it does about them. I used to feel that way even about my friends. I remember that When Sal agreed to go on a road trip after my junior year, I wondered (and, poor guy, I even asked) if he was just being kind to the poor nerd. That was easier for me to believe than that he liked road trips and liked me.
We neurotics — or is that everybody? — go around building things up in our minds, constructing whole narratives out of stray glances and tones of voice, never suspecting that everyone else is every bit as simple and crafty and naive and guileful, as we are. Children afraid of our own shadows.