by STEPHANIE ECHEVESTE
I wear headphones tightly around my head, letting Jefferson Airplane explode, blocking out everything in a calm coolness, just to keep them from happening. Revelations can be scary and life-changing. Or they can be subtle and intriguing. Sometimes they are both.
I didn't change my seat; it just happened that he was sitting there to my right. Looking at me. Staring at me. Not in an earnest or creepy way, just looking intently at my face, at my features. I must have smiled because he suddenly started talking.
"Do you speak Spanish?" he said. I nodded, confused by the question but not worried enough to get up and move to the other side of the train car. I do speak Spanish, barely, so at first I just answered him in Spanish, but then he kept talking to me and I was too tired to listen and respond correctly. Instead I tried to locate my stop, held my purse and luggage tight as if to prove my security, but then quickly felt guilty in my solitude. He knows I am alone, I thought. He can tell by the way I am clenching my hands around the various straps, by the way I am staring straight ahead and trying to blend in, the way I am sitting on the edge of this subway seat without anyone else by my side.
"Where are you from?" he asked and I, having turned back to face straight ahead after I inadvertently smiled in his direction, turned to my right, then made a slight twist even further and asked "I'm sorry?" pointing my good ear, the left one, towards his mouth to better hear his voice. I don't know why I made the effort.
"Where are you from?" he repeated patiently, still staring intently, gently, at me. I thought about lying, but what difference did it make, I was leaving anyhow.
"San Francisco," I muttered, in a forced Spanish accent, suddenly conscious of his insistent gaze and, more embarrassingly, that my answer, judging by his facial expression, was incorrect, not the one he was looking for. I get this all the time. Most men I meet think I’m more exotic, more foreign, more interesting than I think I really am. And when – if– the men I fall in love with realize that I am actually that interesting, they get scared and run away.
My dental hygienist once told me my name wasn’t exotic enough for me. I asked him what kind of name would be exotic enough and he said Esmeralda. I thought about the Disney film featuring Esmeralda and felt unsettled. She is the one that I look most like, with her olive skin and her dark voluminous hair, her big bright eyes and her small stature. Her gypsy-ness. Is that what I am to people? They look at me and the only thing they can pull from popular media is a Disney character?
I am exotic-looking in that I am not white, nor am I easily identifiable. Every time I am on public transportation people ask me the ‘where are you from’ question. They don’t ask me because they want to know; they ask me because they want to confirm what they already think they know.
I am often claimed to be Indian, Brazilian, Persian, Middle Eastern, Columbian, or Italian. People have gotten angry at me for not submitting to their assumptions, saying things like “You are, you are from there! You have to be!”. They think they know where I came from, they think they’ve got my look all figured out.
He chuckled, and then said, through a big grin, "No, I mean where are you from?" He emphasized the word with a slight nod of his head as he said it.
"San Francisco," I said, with a bit more strength, clear American accent this time, trying to prevent the inevitable. He just looked deep into my eyes until he pulled out what he wanted to hear. Like a dirty little secret he already knew.
"Oh," I submitted, in an effort to end the exchange as quickly and painlessly as possible, "you mean, where are my ancestors from?" I supplied an easy path for a truthful response.
"Yes," he nodded, like a knowing sage, like a man who usually gets what he wants.
I paused for dramatic effect. "Mexico." This feels like a lie. I have only been to Mexico on vacation and service trips. I have no family there and don’t even know the areas of my ancestors.
The first time I went to Mexico was on vacation with a friend’s family of Mormons. I was one of many kids, but I was the only one whose passport the border patrol checked closely, both ways. The second time I went to Mexico, to a small island off of Cancun to clean the beaches and paint brightly colored murals at local schools, there were little girls constantly swarming around me. Braiding my hair, asking about my bathing suits and my lip gloss. I asked an advisor why they followed me around and he said clearly, “You are like their Barbie. You look like them, but you’re American. You have everything they want, but will never have: opportunity.”
I resumed looking at the tiny red dots, glowing brightly before they disappeared, swift and smooth, like our train car through the very places spelled out above each flare. Subways are like little spaceships, I thought, little tin cars riding through the galaxy. When will this end?
He didn't understand that I had ended the conversation, and instead asked me if I was married. I turned to him and said without expression, "No."
My stop was next and I impatiently sat, tensing up in anticipation of my escape. He asked for my phone number and I refused.
"Why?" he questioned, innocently.
"Because I live in San Francisco," was my lame response.
"So what," he said, "I'll call you, in San Fran, why not?"
I could not think of a good reason why not, so I just sat still and looked straight ahead, trying to force the red light to black out with my intense stare, more theatrically than faithfully. I thought about all the men that have asked me for my number. There have been many. Some have actually called. The ones I’ve dated are the ones I had to call first. Maybe this is a sign.
He asked me for a pen, so he could give me his number, and I said I didn't have one, even though I knew that I did. I always carry a pen in my purse, maybe subconsciously because I sometimes need it to write down the phone numbers of guys I meet who don’t insist on giving me their numbers.
I remember interning in college for an amazing woman who once told me that you should never propose to a man. She had proposed to her first husband; it did not end well. Only now do I fully understand what she meant. Don’t be the man in a relationship. Real men just cannot take it.
"I'm just a nice Jewish guy," he said and I figured he probably was. He asked me for my name and I lied. Generally, when lying about my name, I call myself Samantha. I use this name because it starts with the same letter as my real name and is approximately the same length; it is equally bland and doesn’t give anything away. It is also the same name as my favorite American Girl doll, whose books I read religiously. Though as a girl I was only given Josefina, the Hispanic one.
Of course, when I got off, he got off, I convinced myself that this must also be his stop, but I knew he was probably just following me. Despite my weak rebuff, he proceeded to carry my luggage down the four flights of stairs we had to take to get on the A, the only way I knew how to get to JFK. He was inescapable. He stopped on the platform when I stopped. I tried to believe that he must be going the same direction, to the airport, sans luggage.
And for a minute, or a fleeting moment rather, I thought about what would it be like to be married to this man. To softly kiss his yearning lips and rub his balding head. To have his children and come home to his embrace. It probably would feel the same as marrying any other man, give or take. Belonging to someone, being the wife of someone, being an adjunct member of a sanctioned ritual.
Out of habit, I pulled out my blackberry to check the time. His face lit up and he started to give me his number. I said, “Oh no no no.” Again he asked why not and I finally said what I should have said all along. "Because I don't want to talk to you."
I said it with a newfound confidence, loud enough for him to know I was serious and for people to turn and stare. His face melted of quick yet poignant contortions - first disappointment, then sadness, then anger. I just watched, standing my ground. I felt how I always do when I reject men, powerful and surprised at my power. Powerful because it is up to me to decide who I talk to and who I ignore, who I let into my life and who I tell to leave me alone. Not remorseful in the slightest, even if my declaration was long in coming. Even after I'd been handled, sought after, followed, fucked. Then, as quickly as it had begun, he disappeared into the crowded platform of strangers and I was left alone.
Photos by Carrie Schneider. You can find her website here.