I’m in a coffee shop, and I think some guy is staring at me. It’s only been a minute, but he hasn’t stopped looking at me.
I don’t think he’s just gone empty and is just staring in a random direction either. I do that, and whenever I do, I break out of it when I realize I haven’t moved my head or blinked in a while. This seems like conscious, aware gawking. He blinks and licks his lips, just like a real person. I’m staring back from a reflection in my phone. He is not pleasant to look at. Why is his forehead like that? Is that a fold? Can foreheads fold? What lies within that crease of skin? How much higher would his hairline be if that pocket of skin were released upon his head. Like the dark side of the moon, nobody in front of him would ever see his damp-looking short dark hair. Why is your hair damp? Is it greasy? Why is it greasy? What would it look like if he walked through a carwash? Would the drains get clogged? And why have a perfectly serviceable nose if you’re going to clearly get most of your breathing done with your mouth. I start imagining pennies spilling out of his mouth and almost blow my cover. I just want to make sure he doesn’t walk over, and if he does, I can get up quickly and go.
Hey buddy, from the way you’re looking at me, I can’t tell if you want to kill me, fuck me, kill me because you want to fuck me, or if there’s a dog behind me that you want to pet. If it’s the dog, please signal somehow. If it’s because it’s the holiday season and I accidentally left the house in a red dress, green leggings, and have bright blue hair and you feel like being the next person to tell me I look like an elf, refrain. If you think you’re really pulling off this clandestine observation, you’re wrong, and the only reason I haven’t turned around and made a weird face at you is because you look like the type of person who’d start putting heads on sticks like 10 minutes into a zombie apocalypse.
It’s at times like this that I wish I could barf on command. No matter his reason for staring, it would be fantastic if I could just throw back my head and expel the burrito I had earlier in a fountain of filth. If he’s got a fetish for trans women, then there’d be nothing more satisfying than ruining his fantasy hour with the chunky viscera of half-digested zucchini. If he’s just staring because I look like a punk rock English teacher–which is a fact–then nothing would be better than making his impression of me even more confusing. If he just happened to be looking over, then I think it would just be a funny scene if someone next to him just started enthusiastically vomiting.
What are you drinking? I want to know what you bought so I can hate you for it. I want more details about you to dislike. I can’t see what’s in the cup, only that it’s pretty full because he’s picking it up carefully. He’s taking so long to actually take a sip, but at least he’s looking at the cup instead of toward me now. His arm has been working on bringing the cup to face level for longer than should be necessary. This guy’s an amateur. Absolute warm beverage greenhorn. The cup finally made it to his face. He’s doing it. He’s really doing it. It’s happening, yes, there it is. He’s done it. He’s taken a sip.
The cup makes it back to the table in remarkable time, a real comeback kid.
He hasn’t started staring again yet. Maybe he was just thinking? Maybe this is just the direction his head turns when he’s trying to remember if he put on clean underwear this morning? Maybe I was being silly when I was deciding whether I’d go for my pepper spray or the EpiPens first if he started walking over too quickly. Or maybe that’s a perfectly healthy and necessary way of thinking when you’re visibly trans in public because I’ve just realized he’s staring again but now he’s trying to hide it.
We’re only about 10 feet apart, so I have a pretty good view of him. I’m at a table on one wall, and he’s at one at the adjacent to me with one table unoccupied between us. It would be just really keen if someone would come sit down between us and block his view of me. I don’t like being observed. I doubt he does either, but he started, and also I’ve been followed out of places like this before so I’m not taking chances.
He’s not sneaky.
Imagine being at a movie theater alone. Imagine you’ve picked a seat at the edge of an aisle, and someone sits a few spaces from you in the same row. Now, imagine it’s the point before the movie where they tell you to locate the fire exits. Responsible adult like you are, you turn your head one way, don’t see one close to you, and turn the other way. As you’re looking to your left for the telltale green glow of an exit sign and theoretical safety, you see the person sitting a few spaces from you, and his eyes are fucking wide. He hasn’t seen a single preview. He has no fucking clue how good the new Godzilla movie looks. He’s staring you down in the dark. Like any unnerved person would, you make a kind of uncomfortable face at this person, and then turn away and hope he’s stopped. And it seems like he has. Now, it’s an hour into your movie. The giant robot has just casually put its cold metal hand on Vince Vaughn’s thigh, when you turn away to give them their privacy. As you’re turning, the lights go even dimmer. It’s dark, quiet, and just warm enough that you wish you’d worn something without sleeves so you’d be able to comfortably wear the coat that you took off and draped over the back of your char. In this cool, dark room, you turn, and you see your neighbor, and at first, it looks like he’s enraptured by the tender metallic display on the screen.
But he’s not. You notice he’s been staring at you out of the corner of his eye this whole time. His forehead, folded and creased as it already was, is straining from the apparent effort of keeping his eyes stapled to you. Every sip of coke, every bit of popcorn you dropped down your shirt, every gentle tear shed for the love between a robot and the guy in every romantic comedy between 2006 and 2014, this motherfucker has seen it all.
I finish my tea. It was a chai, and apparently most of the bottom was sugar because I had a premonition of my dentist pulling out a boat catalog and fanning himself with cash.
I hear the door open behind me, but there were a couple people getting something to go so it could be them. No reason to worry.
Except there are lots of reasons to worry. The extremely high amount of violence directed at trans women, for example, is something I worry about.
I walk into the next store I see. It’s a Pier One Imports. I look at some pillows I can’t afford. While watching the door to see if anyone comes in. Nobody does. I look at more pillows out of my price range. There’s one with a moose on it, and I feel like the kind of people who can afford to shop here are also the kind of people who’d have a moose pillow on their couch and a moose head on their wall. I leave when I’m sure there’s nobody waiting outside for me.
The worst things that have happened to me in public so far are just uncomfortable. Someone screams at me walking down the street because I didn’t say “hi” back. Or they follow me out of a coffee shop and down a few roads and most of the way back to campus. Or someone I thought was a friend says something horrible that sticks in the back of my head and reminds me how easy it is for someone to seem normal and kind while holding that much smug disdain for people like me.
I go home and pet my cats. They stare too, but I can throw socks at them so it’s cool.