Sunday, November 4, 2012

Putting My Foot Down

It was at our neighborhood block party, a chance for people who share a zip code to come together and be neighborly. I spotted a woman I used to teach with, so I separated from my husband and started to catch up with her. A man I've never seen before came up and began talking to me as if we shared some past. We don't. I was immediately uncomfortable, but because I am pathologically friendly, I kept the conversation going just long enough to not seem rude. I got out as graciously as possible and moved along. Within minutes, he was back. I can't quite put my finger on what was so unsettling about him. He stood a little too near, acted a little too familiar. He was off-the-charts socially awkward, probably mentally challenged, but I wasn't afraid of him.

Again, I brought our conversation to the most polite end I could manage and searched the crowd for a safety net. A minute after I sat by my husband's side, the man appeared. Completely oblivious to my mounting anxiety, my husband excused himself to toss some things in the trash. He seized his opportunity. Sitting so close our hips almost touched, he began talking about my flip flops. Wasn't it great that it was warm enough to wear them? Yes, yes it was. Could he see one? Well, I guess so. Could he see the other? Ummm, okay. I didn't want to be rude. What about my feet? Could he see them?

Not my actual feet. These are much more attractive.

"No, you don't want to see them," I said, my assertiveness growing with my fear. "They're dirty."*

"Are they soft?" he asked. "Two years ago, I used to feel ladies' feet to see if they were soft."

Yes, I'm sure you did, Sparky. Right before they locked you up.

"No," I broke it to him, "You can't feel my feet."

And still, I sat there. Still, I was afraid to hurt his feelings.

As I searched the crowd to see what county that trash can was in, he made his move. It wasn't until I saw his hand slowly inching toward my foot that I finally put my foot down. I bolted, grabbed my kid, and headed straight for the sheriff. After the man was removed from the area, other women came forward to describe similar scenes.

A whole day later, and I'm still confused. How much responsibility do we each have to help others maintain face? Where is the line between kindness and recklessness? Can we be nice without being vulnerable? And harder still: how do we teach our children to be safe without teaching them to be afraid? Don't talk to strangers, we tell them. And then we go out into the world and do just that.

I don't know what's right. But I hope I'll always choose kindness over coldness. I hope I'll always give others the benefit of the doubt. I hope my instincts will always kick in before it's too late. And I hope my son will learn that if someone tries to do something to him that feels wrong, he should get up and unapologetically haul ass.

*Tip: calling one of your body parts dirty is not a deterrent to certain subsets of the population.