I didn’t realize he was mean at first. We’d run into each other on the way to the restroom and exchange niceties. If I would ask him how his day was going, he’d say:
“It’s going well enough. Yours?” and I would say something awful like “I can’t complain.” I knew it would end there, I’d soon be surrounded by the safety of a bathroom stall. I have enough social grace to greet a person, but enough social anxiety to not want it to go any further.
Once, tall man joined me for a walk around my building. I couldn’t believe it, and I certainly didn’t invite it. I never saw him out and about before. But there he was, right beside me, his stride a lot longer. I looked up at his long face and noticed a giant wart on his left cheek. I started our conversation by saying something equally cringe-worthy to the hallway exchange.
I said, “I’m glad it’s Thursday!”
He said, “You shouldn’t always be looking forward to the weekend.”
I looked ahead at some trees, “That’s true.” We fell in silence, going our separate ways; I opted for the longer route around the building. I reflected on the exchange while I put my headphones in to relax myself. Sure, he was right. I had said a trivial thing and he had a fair response. But why did it bug me?
Because I do live for the weekends?
The next time I saw tall man I had a backpack on. He asked me if I was part of the backpack brigade. I laughed and said I didn’t know what that was.
Another time I saw the tall man I was unlocking my office door the day after New Year’s. “Do you get the whole week of Christmas off? I noticed you weren’t in all week.” I smiled as warmly as I could muster and said, “Yes, I’m very lucky – my boss let’s me take the week of Christmas off.”
He said, “Wow. He must not care about his business very much.”
I soon realized every exchange with tall man was going to be like this. It left me feeling heavy and annoyed. I genuinely hoped I’d never run into him. My bathroom trips became quicker – I once ran down the hallway thinking I heard his door open.
For some reason my wish was granted, and I never saw tall man for quite a while. I knew which office he was in; a corner unit on the second floor that faced our parking lot. I knew he could look out a giant window and see me or my boss parking our cars, or walking up the stairs. But he never appeared for a long stretch of time. Until yesterday.
There he was with the same weird smile always plastered on his face. His wart prominent. I grimaced inwardly, but let out a meek, “Hello.” and he said, “Hi.” back. I opened the exit door and walked down the stairs into the hot sunshine, but my annoyance rapidly turned into remorse.
I wondered about his life. What made him so pessimistic? So dismissive? Was he a happy man? Or was his life in the corner unit depressing? What was home to him? What made his smile look so slimy?
I decided to take his caustic observations in stride. I won’t let it make me someone incapable of building acquaintances into potential friendships, or spreading kindness.
And I’ll stop saying things like “I can’t complain.”