We were conducting earthquake drills in the building today. For those uninitiated, this is where someone gets on the PA system and makes an announcement to pretend the building is shaking and to take cover under your desk while everyone else crawls around on the floor grumbling about it. When and where I grew up, we conducted tornado drills, which are remarkably similar except we were to run out into the school hallway, sit with our back to the walls, heads in our laps and with a text book over our necks to protect us. Traditionally, we have conducted two Earthquake drills a year, one in April and one in October. This time around, however, my fearless leader decided that we needed to do two in one day… Call it an aftershock drill. The second drill was to be conducted at 2:00 in the afternoon and since I hadn’t yet had lunch, I slipped out at 1:50 to avoid the second drill and the public outcry that was sure to follow. Surprisingly, it did not. This is not the point of my story.
I had decided that Wendy’s sounded good and I wanted to try the new Asian boneless chicken wings. I guess they’re still new. Either way, this was the first time I’d had them. So after I had placed my order and was waiting for my food, I stepped to the side and was watching the goings-on behind the counter. As the cashier was preparing my drink, she turned to one of the other workers and told them to get my small frosty (I can’t go to Wendy’s and not get a frosty, just like I can’t go to Arby’s and not get a Jamocha shake. I don’t go to either restaurant often for this reason.) As that worker walked away to get my frosty, another walked over to the counter and placed the bag with the food in front of me. I looked up and said, “Thank you.” The young lady locked eyes with me for a moment and then walked away.
As she did so, I heard her say something in Spanish to the cashier. The only word I understood, in fact the only word I even heard clearly was ojos, eyes, and then she tossed her head toward me. The cashier looked up from what she was doing, looked at me, then looked at the girl, then looked back at me.
I immediately found myself on the defensive. You see, I’m a plain, average looking, white guy who they presumed didn’t speak the language, and for the most part they are correct. My first thought was that she was saying something bad about me.
Actually, I have to take a step back here. You see, at the end of July, after I returned to California from my extended trip, I decided to experiment with something I had wanted to try but had been too afraid to risk. I began experimenting with “guy-liner”, which is of course just a trendy way of saying a guy wearing eye liner. I figured if I was going to begin something like that, the best time to do it was fresh after an extended absence from work. While I was surprised to find that more people seemed to notice than I thought (hoped) would, not one person from work has said a thing about it. This is also not the point of my story.
I’ve seen many guys with eye-liner. Obviously, many of them were gay, but it’s not “a gay thing”. The whole purpose of eye-liner is to add some definition, to attract attention to one’s eyes. I have been complemented many times on my eyes and know that they are one of my better attributes. I think a lot of guys are attractive with eye-liner, so I decided to try it and the truth is I think it works for me. The one friend that I discussed it with said she agreed, so I try very hard not to be self-conscious about it. I think I’ve figured out how to do a decent job of it and I’m becoming more comfortable with it… except that I’m not.
I have a long standing fear that was ground into me from a very young age. The fear is that people will see me, recognize something in me and decided that it must mean I’m gay. I’ve lived the majority of my life afraid that people would think I was gay. And now, now that I have admitted it to myself and to a few people around me, and I’m not really afraid of it anymore, I’m even more tormented. I go back and forth between being afraid people are going to recognize that I am gay and being afraid that they won’t.
So there I was standing at the counter at Wendy’s waiting for my frosty to come, and I heard the woman say the words “ojos” and thrust her chin toward me. I saw the other woman look up at me, and then at her and back again. I walked away from the counter to grab napkins, straw and spoon from the napkin/straw/spoon counter and as I did, I said to myself, “I actually speak a bit of Spanish honey, I know what Ojos means. What about my eyes?!?” I was mad. I was mad that she would say anything derogatory about me and I was mad that she would so brazenly say something derogatory about me, within my earshot, but in a language she assumed I couldn’t understand.
I walked back to the counter where all of my food was now waiting for me and as I unwrapped my straw to poke through the hole in the lid of my Large Diet Coke, the third girl, the one who had gone for my frosty, looked at me, looked me in the eyes and smiled. And that’s when she said it. She pointed at the young lady who spoke of my ojos and said, “She says you have beautiful eyes.”
I was surprised. I smiled and looked at both of them and said, “Thank you.” I never heard the word bonito, beautiful, but I have to admit I know so little Spanish that I could easily have missed one of who knows how many other words with similar meaning.
I smiled at the lady’s, picked up my cups and bag and walked out the door to return to my car and as I did so, I had a rush of thoughts pass through my addled brain. “It never occurred to me that she might have been saying nice things about me. Of course, I never heard her say bonito. Maybe she didn’t really say that I had beautiful eyes. Maybe the third lady was just covering up what she had really said. Then again, don’t know enough Spanish to say she didn’t say it. Who cares what she thinks anyway?”
And it was as simple as that. Only it’s not simple at all. Why is it so hard to accept a compliment? And why is it so difficult to be confident? OK, so, yes, I wear eye-liner. And yes, someone who is actually paying attention when they’re up close to me would probably see that. And yes, there are going to be people in this world who will make fun or judge or criticize. So what? Really, why does that matter? And yes, there are people in this world who will lie to you, who will tell you they like something when they don’t and unless those people are friends or family members, someone you’re supposed to be close to, who cares if they do?
Why is it that the moment the young lady drew attention to my ojos, I automatically reverted to the scared child that I’ve been most of my life afraid that she saw the make-up, automatically assumed I was gay and had a negative opinion about it. And, why did I care what she thought?