[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"Are you first class?" a man asked me at gate 42 in terminal A at the Atlanta airport. I was mildly amused that he looked at me and even for a second thought that I'd be flying first class, with my disheveled top bun and wrinkly red sweater. "Definitely not," I answered, sweeping my arm in front of me, "Be my guest."
"Oh I'm not either," he said, "I was just wondering where the line is." So he hadn't thought I was flying first class after all. I leaned in a bit, "I like to think that you can tell where people are going based on how they're dressed," I said, nodding toward a man in a tailored suit who was flying first class. Not only was he flying first class, but he was flying first class to Orange County, CA and Orange County people have a look.
My new friend chuckled, "I've never thought about that, but you're right." People in Orange County dress nicely for flights, carry name brand suitcases, push emotional support dogs in strollers, smile with pinched cheeks behind blue surgical masks. They have a look, just like the people who live in Denver have a look, just like the people in Miami have a look, just like people anywhere assimilate to their cultural surroundings to some degree. We're not all that different, despite our efforts to differentiate ourselves with creative spellings of common names and obscure ancestry percentages.
Once I was settled in my hard middle seat, I checked my messages. "You're either not interested in me or very guarded," I read. I had only known this person a few weeks. I'd barely talked to him at all. "Probably both," I typed, but didn't hit send. Silence is sometimes the only good answer.
I told the man in the boarding line that I could detect where someone was from based on how they presented themselves, yet I barely ever (almost never) think about how I present myself, especially to strangers. Perception is a strange and slippery thing.
The texter was right, I wasn't interested in him. But he was also right in that I am a little guarded. And despite what he may have thought, he is not the first person to point this out. I could have explained myself, but it felt futile, like writing a novel in a language you don't understand. I wanted to tell him: I'm guarded because of deep cuts and stubborn scars, but aren't we all? What's more likely is that I'm afraid of being cut deeply again, but aren't we all?
I wanted to tell him too, that it's sometimes useful to be a bit guarded. Not everyone deserves to know you. Not everyone is a safe receptacle for your secrets. Not everyone will take the time to really know you or try to understand you, which is exactly how he was coming across. I barely knew him. Why shouldn't I be guarded?
I settled into my seat, popped in my headphones, listened to Sharon Van Etten, and closed my eyes. I'd been traveling and talking too much and felt socially saturated. As I flew back to Orange County, I thought about guardedness on a spectrum starting at naivety and ending at a concrete bunker. "You seem guarded," from an almost-stranger sounds a lot like, "I wish you were more naïve," or, "I wish you trusted me now," I could have told him that I'm guarded because I need to take care of me, and part of taking care is self-preservation. I could have told him that his embodiment of a human was not that interesting to me either, that my perceived walls were built of indifference. I also could have told him that my walls, real or imagined, do come down, eventually. But explaining any of this felt like unnecessary work.
Nicholas M. Bugden, in Blue Eyes Blazing, wrote, "The strong we like, but the vulnerable we love.” I liked that quote until I thought about it enough. The strong are vulnerable. And vulnerability isn't always easy. It's scary and unsettling. And it should have a time and place and purpose. I didn't feel like explaining this either, to a man I mostly knew through text bubbles.
I held a mental image of me somewhere in the middle of the naïve--->guarded spectrum. Once I landed and drove home; showered and fed my cat, I called him to let him down easy.