Late one recent night I alighted the train at Stanmore and, on my way home, noticed a woman in front of me. Because it was late, only she and a couple of others had exited the station with me, and since I’d fallen into step behind her I was worried. Would she think I was following her? In these circumstances, I’ll usually try to overtake the person and walk in front of them, thus eliminating any suspicion that I am following.
But the distance between us was too great. If I were to accelerate from where I was - a good dozen strides behind - it would seem that I was closing in on her. It would appear that I was trying to catch up, so instead I slowed a little. But I am a fast walker and this soon annoyed me, as I wanted to get home as soon as possible. So I resolved to oppress my paranoia. It didn’t work, though. I only hoped that she would divert from my route at the next intersection.
She didn’t though: she crossed the main road alongside the school, and because she crossed the road cautiously whereas I did so confidently, this served to close the gap between us. There only remained six strides between us, which I felt was still too far to make an inconspicuous and unfussy move to overtake her. I turned the music up in my headphones, hoping she would hear and that this would signal that I was just a normal person walking home at night along what so far happened to be the same route as she, listening to music and being common. I thought to make a pretend call on my phone and have an imaginary conversation, but then worried that she, upon hearing my voice, would mistake this for me trying to solicit her attention. Because if I said “hi” into my phone she might think I was saying “hi” to her.
Things got worse when she turned down the quiet pedestrian lane next to the school, which connects to the road on the other side of the school. This is my route too. It is a completely unlit lane. There is no road or foot traffic here. I considered taking another longer route, but didn’t, because I wanted to get home and it was silly to inconvenience myself for this reason, and how condescending anyway. The woman was walking at a brisk pace, but there was nothing else to indicate she was concerned by my being behind her. This is a city after all.
I have always had an immense fear of appearing predatory and weird. I’m not sure what this is borne of, but even in social circumstances I will rarely approach a person I do not know for fear he or she may decide I’m not worth it, or that I’m somehow ugly in spirit. I am a stranger to a person until I am a circumstantial part of their world. There has to be a reason for our being there together. I don’t think I am an intimidating person but I have been told that I look severe and unapproachable. This isn’t intentional - it’s just the way my face has set. My face does not naturally smile. It does not shine. I have tried to train it otherwise, unsuccessfully. That is why I cannot make friends easily, because I don’t look friendly. I lack warmth. I admit all this and all of the below because I want to emphasise that I’m not an authority, even though I write. Neither am I a threat, I promise. I’m common and dull. I worry immensely what people think of me or what negative emotions my presence may manifest.
I am always conscious of my place in a room. I would say that I’m a mild paranoiac, but that’s going too far. I am just an uncomfortable person. I do not care what people’s distant impression of me is - what they may glean from my appearance, waiting for a train or buying an iced Coke - but concentrated verbal exchanges with unfamiliar people stifle me, especially in social situations like parties, where I know few people but am expected to meet new ones. I break conversations off prematurely for fear of that person feeling they are “stuck” with me. Conversations with strangers elicit involuntary winks of the eye and weird tics that I hope go unnoticed, because I am a very nervous person. In any professional capacity I can carry myself okay, because the parameters are explicit, but if it’s social, hence personal, I do not handle it well. I struggle to conjure natural things to talk about. I lack a broad range of interests. I am intensely interested in a handful of things and that’s all I can manage, and the only friends I have are the ones I share these interests with, or the one’s that for some reason I have maintained since I was very young. I lack the type of immediately obvious warmth that endears a human to others. I cannot do banter with strangers. If a stranger makes a joke, I cannot offer a clever riposte because I am too disoriented by this situation. I’m the guy you forgot you met, at best.
For me, making a friend is a conquest. I am not interested in making friends overall but when I meet someone with whom I would like to be friends, it is immensely important that I do, and so a struggle begins, mainly an internal one, about how best to negotiate this solicitation. When it is obvious that I have actually achieved a new friend, that I have “won them”, it is something that I think about for a very long time. I wonder about the whys and I determine what the boundaries may be and I try to establish what circumstances or conversations may possibly corrupt it. I like to have abrasive conversations and must practice great restraint not to embark on one. But in the end, let’s face it, my friends are people I fight with.
These ‘conquests’ are often undermined by my belief that I am unlikeable, and that people who are nice are being too nice to me, in a manner that signals a kind of dismissive politeness rather than interest. Many people say they hate small talk in a tone that suggests that they are above it. I hate this attitude, because small talk is a skill that I am in awe of. To be able to talk to someone warmly about things that have no bearing on my personal interests - wouldn’t that be nice!
I do not hate small talk, I just can’t have it with strangers. I lack the verbal and intellectual ammunition. Let’s say, for example, that I buy a drink in a pub that is not busy, and the publican asks me how my day has been. I will say “well, thanks” and “how about yours” and that’s nice enough, but mention the weather or, say, some big event that everyone is talking about, like the Mardi Gras, the Easter Show, or some sport event (!) and I’ll just instinctually make a polite laugh and agree with what they’re saying or say “yeah” or something like that, and then that’s it. I cannot enter into this conversation adeptly. My face can never reflect these pleasantries. When someone is introduced to me and they tell me their name, I forget, because I’m too caught up in what is in his or her face; how receptive they may be to me, and also, who they are, where they’re from, and how this could affect us. I can make a concerted effort to look interested, but actually, I’m not, and my face won’t let me pretend to be. I can flex my cheek muscles so that my forehead looks tauter and my mouth looks less bent and more open and maybe that makes a difference, but I doubt it does.
Because I cannot think on the spot. I’m too worried about the situation. I’m not a great speaker. I can type this now at a very rapid pace but it would take me hours to formulate it into a spoken sentence. I would stutter, there would be silences, I’d contradict myself. The fact is that you probably make me feel uncomfortable, but it’s not your fault. I am a worried person. There are good and amazing aspects of my life and I don’t hate myself - I don’t feel like a shut-in or an ‘outsider’ - but I am very worried in a lot of situations. I value strength and confidence but I have neither in spades. I am very worried about how I am perceived.
That is why I enjoy using the internet, and that’s why I like to write, because it allows me to interact with people at a pace where I can compose myself. I am literally composing myself on the internet and on paper. I am not that person. I have those thoughts, but the internet and written word lets me execute them in a way I am happy with. It also allows me to talk at people in a very direct fashion, so that I can just argue a point or challenge them without having to get to know them first. If I’m losing, I can just disengage, be “offline”. In my defence I rarely disengage if I’m struggling, but it’s comforting to know that I can.
I can be belligerent. I am a belligerent person when my body and presence is divorced from a situation. I am a belligerent person when I’m conversing with someone who knows this, and can deal with it. I hate being wrong and I loudly voice my opinions in situations where they will not be challenged in an emotional manner. I like to have non-emotional but heated arguments. Usually among friends, ie successful conquests: people who know I’m meek yet loud. And isn’t that the very definition of belligerence!
But if an arsehole sits next to me on the plane and starts talking about how “arabs” are ruining the country, I won’t challenge him. I will hate him and his opinion, but I won’t challenge him, because I’m too scared of the consequences. This happened, and he was bigger than I, and drunk. This was a time when conviction is tested, and I backed down because I feared the consequences. He was drunk. He kept ordering whiskeys for ten bucks a pop. I just shrugged and said “yeah”. I didn’t even hate myself, but instead understood that “that’s just the way people are”. But what’s the point of having a conviction if you silently allow others to have the opposite of it. I rarely do, unless I feel threatened by violence; unless something frightening could result.
I believe in my opinions but I do not value them, nor do I strongly value anyone else’s. Opinions change, they must, otherwise you’re inert. That’s not a stealthy way of me saying that I’m in a constant state of intellectual evolution, but more an indication as to how proximate circumstances and persuasive literature moulds me on the fly. There are mainstays in my repertoire, but my feelings are mostly just flotsam on a current, a current controlled by a rotating roster of zeitgeist instigators, gut feelings, real life triumphs and failures, what’s making me feel strongly at that particular point in time. I recruit ideas, I don’t create them.
The fields in which I establish strong opinions are inconsequential and, to the vast majority of people, meaningless. These are just chemicals of mine, and probably a culmination of many disparate and unrelated happenings and witnessings in my life that amount to just a way of feeling. Nothing even remotely remarkable, in the wide scheme of things. They are honestly the weakest link in any person’s sales pitch to another, and yet, that’s how I relate to other people: exchanging these feelings. I am the most archetypal manifestation of white male mediocrity there could potentially ever be. I embody that. I am the thumbnail flanking the definition. That’s Shaun Prescott, a guy in Australia with feelings. And so it is very important to me what other people think.
So I allowed a good eight strides between myself and this woman in the pitch dark laneway. I was listening to Saint Etienne at an obscene volume and it was hurting my ears, because I wanted her to hear it and know that I was just some guy going home. Surely weird, predatory guys don’t listen to Saint Etienne at full volume as they’re closing in on their prey?
At the end of the lane there’s a set of steps leading to a cul de sac, and then you either go straight ahead or right. Straight ahead presents itself as the most obvious route, whereas right is kinda like a residents-only route. But we were both heading right, and while the streets were sufficiently lit and comfortably middle class, it seemed to me that, under the circumstances, two people alighting from Stanmore Station at 12:30am on a Thursday morning are very unlikely to both take this particular route. The odds are against it. People in my area often take the bus because Stanmore station is too far away. My neighbourhood is a bus neighbourhood - not a train neighbourhood. So when she turned right onto that long block, I felt that it was inevitable that she was scared.
And she was, because halfway down the block, at a very brisk pace, she actually broke into a run in a direction that, mercifully, diverted from the right hand turn down Newington, and then the left hand turn down England Avenue, that I was going to take. But she did actually run. I remember exactly when she did: just next to one of those community vegetable garden bins that line the street in this part of Marrickville nowadays. She lifted her handbag to her chest and ran, first for a while on the footpath, then diagonally across the road, and then down a street I sometimes jog on. It was shocking to me, because she was pacing one moment, then jogging for about six steps, and then actually sprinting. Bag hoisted to her gut, graceless, desperate.
And while this wasn’t a response to my person - she hadn’t even the opportunity to see my face - it did reinforce that the worst case scenarios aren’t as remote as you hope they are. Maybe I should have taken the longer route, as my paranoid instincts suggested. Maybe I should have overtaken her on the first stretch after the station. Maybe I should have made that fake phonecall. Because right there, on the same stretch of a street many corners removed from the station, she was fucking petrified of me.
Shaun Prescott (@shaun_prescott)
This story first appeared on Shaun’s blog.