It was the end of a twelve-hour workday when I sat down on the subway in Toronto, heading home. With a pounding headache and shoulders in desperate need of a massage, I pulled out my phone and began playing with it. Texting wasn’t an option underground, but I thought the message was pretty clear: my people skills were declining by the minute.
The man beside me was muttering. Mental illness, maybe, I thought. Not wanting him to feel like he was being judged, I didn’t look up. My phone’s limited uses grew all the more fascinating.
“Come on, how are you?” he said suddenly, cutting into my thoughts and leaning in.
“Oh! Good, thanks, how are you?” I replied, thinking I could no longer “respectfully” ignore him without being a jerk.
He was a Polish man trying to improve his English, he said, apologizing frequently for bothering me.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” I repeated adamantly with each apology.
As we spoke, I thought back to my previous impressions and felt horrible. Here I was, making assumptions about his life when I hate being defined by my own challenges. I struggled to make up for it by smiling warmly.
He kissed my hand and said, “you’re a very nice girl.”
I didn’t know how to take that.
Physical affection is important to me. Tight hugs and kisses on the cheek are a part of my daily life with those who are close to my heart. He was not, but then again, perhaps that was again my fault for being too quick to judge.
I smiled awkwardly, glancing at everyone else on the subway. Dryly, I noted that advertisements and fingernails seemed to be just as interesting to them as my phone had been to me minutes ago. The train was silent.
“Have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, my compensative smile never wavering.
“No, you must have,” he insisted. “But say hi to Polish man, bye to boyfriend.”
My feminist heart clenched at the implication. It clenched further still when he stood up to leave, gesturing for me to follow him out and knocking on the window behind me to ask me again.
In the days since, I’ve thought about the man on the subway. My first impression may have been accurate: he could have had a mental illness, and far be it for me to judge him for it.
Alternatively, he may, as he said, have been a Polish man in a new country, lonely and looking for affection without understanding proper etiquette. Having known the excruciating pain of loneliness, my heart went out to him.
But what if it was more? What if my feminist heart had not misunderstood his words and gestures?
Friends, family and mentors have given me a couple of tips since then. First, if asked about a boyfriend, always say yes. Second, safety over courtesy: ignore him or get off the train.
The first is a tactic I hope never to use. As for the second, I can’t help but think that kindness is more than merely courtesy.
While boundaries must be respected and safety must be considered, I can’t help but think that in a society of averted glances, clipped answers and hasty exits, a little kindness can save each of us from the stigma and feelings of helplessness that surround our own, individual challenges.