A Man’s Place

 

Beneath the city of Santiago there runs a network of tunnels. It’s not particularly vast or complicated, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to get lost in them. The subway system, known locally as the metro, has five individual lines, and they are labelled Line 1, Line 2, Line 4, Line 4A, and Line 5. I suspect that the person who named the different lines might also be the same person who labelled vitamins.

Vitamin Clock
Nutritionists know there are more than eight letters in the alphabet, right?

By global standards, the Santiago metro is still quite young and simple. There are no abandoned tunnels or hidden treasure. There is no space for smugglers to build secret hideouts or for children to go off on adventures. As far as I know there are no ghost stories attached to the metro, and the place has absolutely no air of mystery at all.

Almost.

The one oddity that the metro possesses is that when I am inside it, the social strata to which I am quite accustomed becomes inverted. I am young, I am healthy, and I am male. This usually affords me so many benefits in the world of sunlight. These qualifications get me to the front of lines, allow me first choices when shopping, lend more weight to my opinions, make me a priority guest in restaurants. Yet on the metro I am pushed to the back of the line. I am a third-class citizen. Even if I am collapsing from exhaustion I know I will not be allowed to sit down unless all the women, the mothers with their children, the infirm, and the elderly have all been seated first. Even if I’m lucky enough to find an open seat, I can never fully relax because at every stop there is the chance the someone who is not young, not healthy, or not male might get on. Put simply, the metro is a place where I have no control at all.

But all these social obstacles aside, I have never felt more out of my depth than I did a few days ago, when I found myself on a metro car next to a young lady who was trying very hard not to cry. I first noticed her look of distress when I stepped onto the train and rotated 180 degrees to face the door. The muscles in her face were struggling, and failing, to keep her features in order. Deep lines were forming around her mouth and eyes, painting years of heartache over a countenance that should have been no older than I was. She was clasping a bulky jacket tight to her chest, as if it were a security blanket, and in her hand she held her cellphone. She kept her other hand pressed over her mouth to prevent herself from sobbing in such a public place, and at regular intervals she would remove the hand from her mouth and type vigorously on her phone. I hoped that she was in an argument with someone, because arguments can get resolved. If she was hearing bad news, well, then that’s far less easy to deal with in a public space.

The lady made almost no sound, save for the occasional sniffing noise. At times she would bury her face into her jacket or rub her tiny fist under her nose, sniffing all the while. I gleaned all of this through my peripheral vision and by noticing her reflection in the door to the metro. I dared not look at her directly, because if there was any acknowledgement of her distress then perhaps there might be pressure on me to comfort her. I couldn’t run away either. While there weren’t too many people on this particular subway car, there were still too many to allow me to move more that two feet away from her. The longer I ignored her, the longer I could claim ignorance, and let her grieve in peace.

Dwight and Pam
I am about as good at comforting strangers as Dwight Schrute is.

But I couldn’t ignore her, and the demonic face of Santiago’s twisted underground culture began looming up at me. If I was above ground, I wouldn’t have to deal with this problem. Above ground, the young lady could have easily moved to a private place. Or I would have had space to run away. But now I was stuck in a tiny metal box next to an emotional woman who wasn’t going away. I also knew for a fact that I had an entire pack of tissues hidden inside the backpack that I was currently holding in my hands. I had materials that could help, and I started feeling that I would regret not doing something. So, with measured nonchalance, I brought my backpack up and casually unzipped the outer pocket. I could still abandon the plan if I wanted to. I could easily pretend that I was simply checking that everything was in order, zip up my bag again, and pretend that nothing had happened. But by the time my hand reached inside the pocket and closed around the pack of tissues, I knew there was no going back.

“Quieres?” I said awkwardly, using the pack of tissues to touch her lightly on the shoulder.

She looked at me and then at the tissues, and while keeping her eyes downcast she smiled and nodded in a way that seemed to say, Okay, you’ve caught me crying. But don’t worry, it’s nothing serious.

She took the pack of tissues, removed one, and passed the rest back to me. I wanted her to keep them all, but my Spanish escaped me at that point and I didn’t want to hassle her about it. So after a second of protest I took the tissues back from her and tucked them away in my bag again. I thought the worst was over, but it had only just begun, because what I had forgotten during that whole process was that I was still trapped inside a tiny metal box with the poor lady. I’d caught her out, exposed her vulnerability, and there was no place either of us could run to. I considered getting out at the next stop and jumping into the adjacent car. But what if we were both destined for the same stop anyway? It would be quite awkward to run into her many minutes after I had supposedly left.

I also felt bad because I had totally derailed her sadness. Now she had stopped crying, and was instead dealing with this entirely awkward situation which I’d thrust upon her. I’d stoppered the grief that needed grieving. I’d plugged up her outpouring. I’d left her emotionally constipated. The whole thing was a mess really, and I felt bad for interfering in her life. And worst of all was that deep down I was afraid that she was afraid that I was going to hit on her. It was my own skepticism about male culture that planted this idea in my head. I could quite easily imagine a scenario where the charming stranger on the metro, having just offered the damsel in distress a tissue, uses the moment as a conversation starter: Someone break your heart, little lady?

I didn’t want to be that guy, but there was no way that I could let her know that I wasn’t that guy. Even if I leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t hit on you,” then that would already be crossing the line. So while things were pretty awkward as is, I could also feel a mounting tension as the woman waited for my next move. We’d had a connection and now each second that passed would wind that connection another notch tighter. It was unbearable, so I did what any 21st century person does to escape – I fished my phone out of my pocket and began staring intently at it. I wanted to hide away, make myself disappear. I wanted to communicate the idea that I am done with you. We won’t interact anymore, but without saying any words. But the more I tried to ignore the woman, the more aware I was of how hard I was trying to ignore her. Perhaps she thought that I was gathering the guts to say something to her.

Someone break your heart, little lady?

Finally, after eons of awkwardness, enough people got off the metro to allow me to shuffle away to the back of the car. I felt that by that point it was clear that I was no longer going to interact with the woman. I still wasn’t entirely at peace, but I was far enough away from her to continue to my destination without worrying her.

It was an entirely new experience for me. Normally, I am fairly adept at negotiating social situations, but the Santiago metro is a whole other world. I’m still figuring out the rules, but one thing that seems to be a constant truth is this: If you’re young, healthy, and male, stay out of the way, leave people alone, and don’t sit down. Otherwise, you’ll just make people uncomfortable.

Subway Tunnel
A straight shot into unknown places

 

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Are you under duress?

A few weeks ago, when the weather was still warm, I happened to walk past two young lovers who were deep in an intimate conversation. The boy was wearing a baggy, sleeveless shirt which hung carelessly off of his gangly frame, exposing more of his flesh than I needed to see. At the farthest end of one skinny arm, between two tweezer-like fingers, he held a cigarette. He was using his other arm to keep his girlfriend in a solid headlock.

The boy’s lankiness gave length to his arm, which was wrapped completely around the girl’s entire neck. He had used what scant strength he had in order to bring her ear closer to his nicotine stained lips, which were enthusiastically forming words of, I’m almost certain, indescribable banality.

The girl, for her part, did not seem to be putting up any protest. Her delicate hands were rested on top of the boy’s forearm, presumably to moderate the pressure that was being applied to her trachea. She had a serene smile upon her face, which I judged as being a result of the words she was hearing, and not due to imminent death through asphyxiation.

At that moment, a familiar sentence popped into my head:

“Do you think she’s under duress?”

The girl was not, in fact, under duress. Despite the aggressive body language, I had come to learn that physical interaction in Chile is on a level I had never seen before. The phrase, “Do you think she’s under duress?” was a throwback to a game I used to play with a friend of mine when I first moved to Chile. It was our way of coming to terms with the terribly distracting body language of lovers in this country; of pointing out a pattern that, to us, seemed so absurd yet so commonplace.

Now, there is not enough blog space in the world to address the complex and politically fraught dynamic between men and women in Chile, and I am not nearly involved enough in the culture to be able to understand this kind of behaviour, so it’s not my place to condemn it. It seems to be the norm, with women being just as comfortable with being physically subdued as the men are with being physically overbearing. All I can do is witness it with bewilderment.

Somehow, the young woman interpreted the man’s stranglehold as a show of affection. She was unfazed by the claustrophobia and the restriction in her movement. She found no offense in being breathed upon, at point-blank range, by a mouth that had just taken a youthfully arrogant drag on a cheap cigarette. I can only assume that, to her, this was an intimate expression of true love.

Admittedly, that was one of the more extreme examples I have seen while I’ve been living here. The more common practice is the clamping of the neck from behind, like a bank robber leading the bank manager towards the vault. The stance is one gun shy of a hostage situation. And it’s not only teenagers who act this way. I’ve seen the same conduct adopted by people all along the age spectrum, but all with similar levels of tenderness.

Under Duress
In a way, it is quite sweet. But there’s still that voice at the back of my head asking, “Do you think she’s under duress?”

 

To be fair, it’s not only Chileans whom I’ve seen acting in this way. I’ve spotted this maneuver in other countries as well, and among different cultures. I think perhaps I’m just more aware of it in Chile because of how awkwardly intimate the public displays of affection are here.

Ellie Goulding
In the music video for “I Need Your Love,” Calvin Harris shows Elli Goulding that he loves her (and also that he owns her).

Love is good, and I’m happy to see it celebrated. However, I like to see love celebrated happily and freely, and not in a serious, us-against-the-world kind of way.

Edward and Bella
Remember that scene in “Twilight” when Edward and Bella just laughed and laughed and laughed? Me neither.

But I must stress that this is all just personal opinion. The touch of a loved one can lift the spirit. A hand at the back of the neck can be pleasurable. Sometimes the best moments of loving someone are just in reminding them that you’re there. It’s a way of communicating affection, and I think that’s very important. But still, I’d prefer not to use my partner as a leaning post.

Holding Hand
I’m all for holding hands, though.

Superheroes Don’t Look Back

It always used to frustrate me that Peter Parker never told anyone that he was Spiderman. If I had his strength and reflexes, you wouldn’t be able to get me to shut up about it. Partly because I’d talk about it every chance I got, but mostly because I’d have the strength and reflexes to physically prevent anyone from shutting me up.

spiderman
“Hi Greg? This is Peter. Peter Parker.You don’t know me, but I’m actually Spiderman.”

As I got older (but not much older), I started to realise the shocking reality of Peter Parker’s silence. If anyone were to find out who he was, they would be able to find and hurt his friends and family. The worst way to hurt someone is to hurt the ones they love. So, I got it. Peter Parker had to protect those closest to him, and because of that he could never tell his secret. I understood that part, but as far as sacrifices go, hiding your identity never felt like too much of a big deal. Sure, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy, and Aunt May would be forever kept in the dark – Peter exposed himself to all of the risks and in return received none of the reward. But that didn’t mean all that much to me. At then end of the day, he’s still Spiderman.

I think the reason that I didn’t fully understand the burden of this secrecy was because I knew his secret.  The people in his world might not have given him the attention he deserved, but everyone watching the film knew lowly Peter Parker was in fact Spiderman, and that kind of took away from the secrecy.

More recently, however, I discovered that there is a remarkable depth to this secrecy that I had previously been entirely unaware of. It came to me in a flash a few months ago when I decided to follow a beautiful woman without her knowledge.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to her as Claire. I’d decided to follow Claire because I wanted to conduct an experiment.

I adjusted my pace until I was walking in step with her, but a few yards behind. I was far enough away so that she wasn’t aware of my presence, but close enough so that I could get an approximate idea of what was in her line of sight. We were in one of the more upmarket parts of the city, in the middle of a business day, so there weren’t too many people out and about. In the twenty-or-so yards in which I followed her we passed only two men coming the other way, and it was on these men that I focused my attention. What I saw made me a little bit uncomfortable.

The moment one of the men caught sight of Claire, his gaze would dart down to her legs, back up to her face level, and then slowly, slowly, back down to her legs. It was, as I’d once read in a Sherlock Holmes story, an “all comprehensive glance.” A full body scan. A thorough eye-interrogation. The gaze lasted no more than five seconds – the time it took for Claire to walk past the man – but I knew with utmost certainty that I would never want anyone to look at me that way. Now, I didn’t follow Claire for very long, but based on what I’d seen I could extrapolate that she probably got bombarded with that kind of awkward attention quite a lot during that day. And possibly every day before and after that.

As discomforting as that moment was, I felt as if I had learned something important. I had gotten an intimate glimpse into Claire’s life, and by extension, the lives of women all over the world. And I didn’t really like what I’d seen.

But before I self-righteously bash men everywhere, I think it’s only fair to point out that I’m right there with them. An attractive woman draws the eye, and when I see a lady in a short skirt I immediately get the impulse to stare. So I can’t really blame my fellow man for wanting to act the way he does. The least I can do is exercise a little more empathy, and beseech others to do the same. And this is where being a superhero comes back into the picture.

staring-ahead
Staring at a woman is less creepy if you hold a coffee cup at shoulder height. It makes you look more casual.

Not all superheroes, they say, wear capes. I understand this to mean that the march of goodness in the world is not driven by grand moments of heroic bravey. Instead, heroism is a constant, ongoing process, manifesting itself in the tiniest of actions that often go unnoticed. One such miniscule act would be acknowledging that people don’t like to be stared at by strangers, and by passing them without a second glace you’re creating a slightly more comfortable environment for them.

You may think it is easy, and not heroic at all, to simply ignore a stranger. But I assure you it’s not. You see, there’s a second part to this – the part that that comes afterward. The first time I made an active effort to ignore an attractive woman, I felt a desperate urge to turn and look back. Maybe, I thought, this woman would appreciate not feeling objectified. Maybe my action of non-action would give her pause. Maybe she’d acknowledge that I didn’t make her feel uncomfortable. Maybe she’d stop in her tracks, or even turn around in order to thank me for not staring. One can certainly dream.

But the burden of the superhero is to avoid acknowledgement. So I kept walking, and I didn’t look back. Walking away from explosions is one thing, but walking away from a beautiful woman is quite another.

explosion
This? This is easy!