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He did it so very well.
A few years ago my husband and I took a short trip to Reno, Nevada, to get some sun and explore a new city. Reno has a High Desert climate, the polar opposite of the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve lived for years. Trees are scrubbier, flowers are smaller. Your skin itches in weird places. The air dries out your bones and the sky blinds your gaze. Most of the people I met were generous with conversation, but not the kind you can walk right into. Much of it felt like leaning over a fence with barbed wire around the bottom. One step beyond and you’re slashed. I quickly learned to stay back.
On the second morning of our trip my husband and I were standing in line at a small cafe, waiting to get coffee. The place was crowded with interesting locals, and I practiced my art of appearing like I’m not noticing every single thing. The line dragged forward and the crowd got loud and caffeinated. My husband got a work call that he had to step outside and take, so I stayed behind and held our place.
My eye was suddenly drawn to the man on my right. He was wearing a dusty, cowboy-plaid shirt with long sleeves. There was a tattoo sticking out of his wrist cuff, a line of text so small that I had to squint to read it: What’s your favorite movie?
“Return of the Jedi” was the first thing that popped into my head, and I must have said it out loud, because he turned and smiled. He rolled up his sleeves to reveal his forearms, which were covered with more tiny questions: What was your childhood bedroom like? What’s your dream job? Which parts of the city do you like best and why? What’s your favorite way to unwind? Who is the last call you make at the end of the day?
Before I could ask about them, the man, whose name was José*, told me his sitch. He’d spent ten years going on dozens of dates, hoping to find someone to share his life with. He had done his best, showing up with good intentions every time, but he was just too nervous with strangers to be his best self with them. His mind would go blank and he would stutter, breathless, grasping for a way in.
Eventually he got sick of himself. In a fit of desperation he tattooed five date questions onto his arms using a simple typewriter font that was easy to read. He figured that at least they would be a good conversation starter, and they were. His tattoos let people know he was serious about connecting and would never stop trying. He kept collecting questions and adding them to his arms, until they were nearly full. Some of the words were old and blurred out, and some were crisp and new, jumping right into your eyes.
Somehow José knew I wanted in, so he asked me a few of his questions. His face, as he listened, seemed to glow with soft light, as if he were standing in a sunrise. I could feel his eyes moving as I spoke, taking in the details of my expression. He was in a state of grace, of pure and rare enchantment. Time stopped and I wanted it to go on forever: the shining light of José’s face, my heart wide open in the heat of the day. Right then his phone buzzed and we said a quick goodbye, but I felt deeply full.
That kind of laser-focus, how much is too much between strangers? José’s method had worked beyond his wildest dreams: not only did he find a great boyfriend just before the Pandemic set in, his tattoos also attracted attention from people who often became clients for his business. But it was more than that: he knew how to open himself to someone’s beingness, their essence, without any agenda but wonder. He breathed me in and let me go, safe passage, nothing owed. The strangers we remember always shock us, either with malice or with love.
*name and some details changed for privacy