I’ve been working on my eye contact. I showed my doc the mechanics of it. Good job, hardly noticeable, he said, but I still don’t like doing it. Thing is, if I’m looking at you, I’m really looking at you. I’m calculating shapes and textures, walking your ridges and mapping your creases. I’m burning you in. When I’m done I’ll know every superficial turn, every crook. If you’d let me look away then I’d hear you.
I’d hear all of your words and I’d know your story. I wouldn’t be connecting the dots in the Little Dipper outline of moles high on your cheek, the bump and slope of your nose and the small bulb on the end of it, the scars on your right hand from the sliding glass door that was the last weak strand on that hot summer day when you found yourself alone on the porch with no way in. I understand. It had to shatter. She always let me look away.
So I’m still not good at it which means I sometimes look too long and people don’t like that. They think it’s staring but it’s not. I’m holding the gaze because I know that I’m supposed to. “Eye contact is important, young man,” they used to say, and I count it off in my head. It goes, One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, and then look away. It doesn’t matter where just make sure it’s not for too long because people they think you’re losing interest if it’s for too long. Okay, now back again to the eyes so they understand I’m listening. Right? Do they see me listening?
Some people catch me and they get mad, like this red truck guy in his dirty overalls and faded tattoos, a black hat and little nicks out of his right eyebrow that mean nothing. He’s hunched and holding a case of cheap beer in one hand and a pre-made sandwich in the other. Red shoulders cracked and peeling like the desert floor dry from the sun. Not even noon and already over 100 degrees. I only wanted a Slurpee.
I watched him pull up. I remembered because I don’t like red. I only looked at his face one Mississippi because he looked at me and said, “What?” then he cut in line ahead of me. I said, “Sir, the brim of your hat is very flat and the chrome on your truck, it shines,” and he said, “Shut the fuck up, snowflake,” and I said just one more thing, “You cut in front of me, why?”
His eyes narrowed at me, and shifted down to a box cutter riding in the front pocket of his overalls. He patted it with his sandwich like a proud kid in his OshKoshes playing the carpenter with plastic tools, then his eyes went back up to mine. I thought go ahead and cut me, but make sure it’s deeper than anything I’ve done to myself or you won’t get the blood you want. I never played make believe when I was kid. I knew plastic wasn’t steel.
“What?” he says again. I wasn’t counting rivers anymore. There’s a theory about people like me, not that we lack empathy but that we feel too much of the world, have trouble processing. A scientist in Australia is working his hypothesis and I hope he proves it because he’s right. A piece of clothing can break my heart: the dress she wore to prom, the way it fell in a circle on the floor perfect enough for her to step right out of it. My job is to be very careful about what I choose to feel.
He stepped forward and gently put his sandwich hand on my shoulder. It was cool and smelled like the lettuce I don’t like. He begins again but I go to punch him right in the mouth except I’ve never punched anyone so I missed and got his throat. His Adam’s apple was a river stone covered in chicken skin between my knuckles and his eyes went wide and teary and he looked confused, made a sound like the toilet does at the bottom of a heavy flush, before the bowl begins to fill again.
For a moment I thought he was smiling. I’d read about the self-chokers, thought maybe in that half-second hint of corner muscle contraction he was shaking hands with God, walking in paradise; I thought that maybe I got him just right.
He started squeaking at me, that inhale-squeak-talk like a dog toy come to life after a good squeeze, saying, “Get the fuck outta here, snowflake,” but his words were mostly just rushing air, a passing train.
He zigzagged toward the ground, the crooked flight of a brain-dead fly, down onto his knees to recompose, inhale, figure it out. He never dropped his beer and he still had his sandwich, squished flat in his fist, cellophane busted open, fake neon cheese coming out of both ends.
He kept squeaking but it was growing faint and I could hardly make him out. He was staring up like he wanted me to pay attention so I obliged, sat down on the cool tile floor in front of him beside the chip rack, crossed my legs and set my drink down, leaned in. I widened my jaw and pushed a finger into my right ear to pop pressure and saw a great grey wolf run across my left eye and turn into the candy aisle. All I ever wanted was a cold Slurpee to help with the heat. Now everything has melted.
He held himself up, one hand on his beer case, one on his sandwich smashed flat against the floor, more rushing air, another passing train. I rested my hand on his peeled shoulder and felt the crisp edges of the desert floor scratch at my palm as I looked away.