“The better to eat you with,” the man replied after I told him that he had nice teeth. This surprised me. He didn’t look like one of the hunter types, the regulars I’d been seeing in the bar. I had noticed while making small talk with him that he didn’t have their hard look, their obvious piercing need. I said nothing, didn’t smile. I wasn’t obligated in any way, as far as I was concerned. Anyway, what would be the point of performing any part of the usual ritual. Anyone could see that I wasn’t young. Besides, it was clear to me that he wasn’t trying to chat me up for the usual reasons. He was too tame, I decided.
“I’m not here to get acquainted,” I said. “I came down for a drink. I live in one of the burrows upstairs. You should try your luck with someone else.”
“I apologize. It was a poor attempt at a joke. It wasn’t meant to sound the way it did, I guess.”
He seemed genuine. Suddenly I understood why he didn’t appear to belong in the bar. He looked like someone who would have enjoyed doing crosswords, or reading an article from one of the more serious journals before they disappeared, kind of like the various species of animals that went extinct because too few cared about their survival. Yet he didn’t appear old—not more than 35 or so. He wasn’t old enough to be that type—a type I had tried to conjure from vague memories, and one I suspected I’d like.
“Why are we talking?” I wasn’t about to waste my time on a useless exchange. He understood.
“There is no-one else I can talk to here.” He said this without pretence.
I smiled a little patronizingly. The bar was full of young, attractive people, men and women.
“Then go somewhere else,” I said. “It won’t be hard for you to find someone compatible.” I got up to leave.
“Wait. Please. Can I take you somewhere else, somewhere more conducive to conversation? I knew right away that you weren’t here for the usual. I just want to talk. Really. I miss just talking with a woman—you know, face-to-face. I’m Soren.” He extended his hand out to me, and when I gave him mine nonchalantly, he raised it gently to his face and breathed in the scent off my wrist.
I was on my feet already. He was sitting, looking up at me, his expression open in a way that was, I had to admit, disarming. I considered his request, then decided it wasn’t for me. I had never invited anyone I had randomly encountered to my den. Years ago, I followed a man to his lair, and never since then. Why, then, I told myself, should I go anywhere now with this stranger.
“Sorry. I have work tomorrow. Time for me to get some rest.”
“Then can I take you to a meal another night? It can be somewhere of your choosing, as long as the place is quiet.”
He was looking up at me, his expression unguarded. It occurred to me that he resembled a school teacher or librarian, a person who did their job out of kindness and genuine interest. Or perhaps, I realized, it was just what I imagined such people looked like. There were no teachers or librarians anymore—at least not the kind that stood in front of students or could be approached by people using public libraries. People everywhere, young and old, were separated by computer screens—virtual barriers, that is. Artificial intelligence had eliminated many of the old occupations, but the transformations were even more profound that this. They touched on all aspects of everyday life. Work too was redefined. There was no longer anything personal in or about work. The personal was unproductive, and dangerous because it exposed people—their bodies especially—to unpredictable violence or disease.
Perhaps this is why I agreed. When I thought about it later, it seemed like a declaration on my part. I just wasn’t sure what kind or what it said about my own state of mind. I had shut off parts of myself a long time ago. I was a loner even for a society that was committed to solitariness. I didn’t live with my mother or other women. Since moving out of my mother’s shelter, there were times when I had longed for a pack. In the end, though, I turned down all invitations because I knew that all of them had an order, a hierarchy. It was something I couldn’t abide. I never minded learning from my elders or those with more experience and knowledge than me. But to accept unquestioningly the authority of those who were neither smarter nor more capable just for the sake of having company, or being able to count on others—no, I could never tolerate that. Mindless submission wasn’t for me. I always felt confident that I could look after myself (and a cub, if it came to that) on my own. Besides, most of the packs eventually fell apart, and everyone in them scattered—moved away or cut their bonds to other members. It was our natural tendency, after all.
Yet Soren’s imploring look had unearthed something in me. It was as if a little voice uttered something in response to the need he allowed me to glimpse. It made an unintelligible sound in my head, but I couldn’t deny that I heard or sensed it. To my own surprise, I was prepared to listen.
I recalled later that Soren had looked hungry for company, conversation, connection. Was his behaviour strange? No, it wasn’t. It was merely unusual, I decided. There used to be nothing strange about needing these kinds of interactions. People talked openly about such longings all the time. But things changed: people’s expectations, their willingness to share physical spaces with others, and then whatever concerned their personal thoughts and feelings. Afterwards, naturally, the values of entire societies were altered. So what had seemed once to be normal and acceptable, became suspect or deviant.
I had nodded at Soren, and said, “We can go for a snack on Day 5. Meet me here at 20 hours.”
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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