The first time I went to Italy I was just a young girl. I was still in what some writers call the “colt” (filly, I guess) stage: all long arms and legs, awkwardly trying to coordinate them into graceful movement, with utter self-consciousness. But not really caring how I looked, when it came right down to it. So I was beyond surprised when a group of Italian boys came in pursuit. My parents and I were in Venice, in search of the famous Bridge of Sighs (my father’s map-reading leading us deep into shaded, narrow streets, nowhere near the canal). Their calls to me were in Italian, of course, but the lilt of their voices communicated their approval of my appearance, and then some. The pack of four or five young men followed directly behind us, chattering loudly. One of them suddenly dashed forward, even though I was walking between both of my parents, and pinched me. He let out a loud “Whoop!!” and sprinted away like a cricket, as my startled parents watched. The young men all then went off in another direction, laughing and talking. I was delighted. For days.
One of the things I enjoy and appreciate – as a single woman traveling abroad – is the way that men generally allow their appreciation of the female form to be completely obvious. A woman can be walking with another man and still get an admiring (if not burning with desire) look. It’s usually playful, not a ‘stalker’ type of attention. But it’s the openness, the frankness of the look that I admire. “Yes. I am looking at you because I want to, and I want you to know this, because you are looking so good.” (I’ve actually had French men say variations of this line to me; I express gratitude, and life goes on.) It’s all part of a more enlightened, in my opinion, view of sexuality that literally puts ‘sex’ into just about everything. Normale.
In California, it’s a different story. Perhaps it’s mostly in our bigger cities here, but I’ve felt it in smaller ones also. In general, there’s a practiced indifference that both men and women struggle to perfect, no matter how attracted they might be to someone. Now, I’m not talking about the bar-scene; or places where people go to hook-up. And I can only speak as a straight female, in my experience with straight men. But it’s really pretty funny (and ironic) how much effort goes into the precisely-measured response; the studied nonchalance; as though looking too hard or too long might give away Important Personal Secrets and compromise any relationship from the get-go. I’ve seen both men and women do this. I’ve learned how to do it. It’s part of a universal language, here in the Golden State. Usually, it’s pure fun. Sometimes it’s kind of pitiful.
Summertime temperatures being what they are, today I decided to make a dash to my neighborhood grocery store for some melon. As I moved through the produce section (totally jammed with people, typical for a weekend), I was aware of a very tall person moving toward me, though my eyes were scanning the fruit for freshness. Call it my long-standing situational awareness: I’m not expecting anyone to hit on me – I just don’t want to be hit or run over with a cart (as a woman did to the heel of one of my better pair of flats, recently). I looked up as the man approached me, met his eyes, and caught his as they looked down at the fourth finger on my left hand, which was bare. I felt him circle around behind me. ‘Whatever’, was my first thought, and kept going in my fruit prowl.
A very few minutes later I happened to look up once more (I can usually feel ‘eyes’ on me – again, self-protection instincts). The same man was standing about three feet away, next to a pyramid of peaches. As I looked up, his eyes searched mine. He didn’t smile, he just looked, and kept looking at me. A handsome face. A sad face. Light olive skin and very brown eyes. A little gray in his hair. But in a split- second I realized that the very imposing woman directly in front of my cart was apparently The Wife. Ah. So… were his eyes saying, “Help Me” ?
She was casual chic, all in black; a tasteful summer cashmere something-or-other around her back and shoulders. Her hair was thick, glossy and also black, pulled into a stylish pony. I could only see the side of her face: a large silver hoop, a strong jawline and a jet brow. As my eyes left her ensemble, the woman’s voice, directed at the man who’d been staring at me (did she notice, I don’t think so), cracked like a very loud whip. “Not those!” (his hand was suspended over a bag of cherries at that moment). “I told you I didn’t want those!” Oh my, I thought. Scolded loudly, in a crowded produce isle, for choosing Bing over Ranier. Hell – I felt cowed. I edged away to avoid hearing any more. As I turned back briefly, the woman’s face was in a deep scowl. In fairness, maybe the husband’s a total jerk and he deserved this treatment. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt bleak. His look wasn’t just Help Me; it was, I Can’t Seem to Help Myself.
Sometimes when I’m feeling a little wistful about my solitude ( In-Between-Men, as they say), I’m also quick to send my Gratitude to the Universe that I don’t have to eye-ball silent signals of Please: Just Smile at Me, in the grocery store. I’m thankful that I’ve gained the wisdom that would never allow me to stay in a relationship without passion, honor and respect. I’m also grateful that I have the understanding, if not the total ability (yet), to be candid in my appreciation of a potential love interest. Today, I’ve decided: Be it among the cherries, or somewhere else, I’m going to let my eyes linger when they feel like it. I am not going to pretend indifference, but fully take-in an interesting-looking (hopefully single) man. If he clocks me doing this, so much the better. I think I might even give him a little “Whoop!!” See what happens.