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  • Writer's pictureNate Methot

Avoidant by Default

While buying a few groceries—in my behemoth powerchair, with my mom—I crossed paths with a woman I hung out with in college. I’m not sure if she recognized me; I’m not sure I wanted her to. I didn’t try and approach her to find out. What if I had?

“Hey Heather!” I’d call out, chasing her business-like pace through the produce section. Maybe she’d quickly turn to acknowledge me; more likely, I fear, I’d be chasing and yelling for an uncomfortable—never mind undignified—length of time. It’s not that I believe she’d ignore her own name; I don’t think she’d hear my voice. The bustling world is full of noise, and I can’t project over it. I certainly can’t “yell”.

It’s not like I can tap her on the shoulder. Maybe if I could lift either arm, but it’d be hard to get close enough in a behemoth powerchair. (A better metaphor for this life, I don’t know.) It’s big and awkward and no matter the proximity to the target, its user is several feet distant. There is no delicate movement in a chair.

I don’t want to explain who I am. When she turns my way, looking at the full, indivisible union of man and machine (or, more likely, she’ll see machine and man), I don’t want to have to jog her mismatched memories. It’s still me. At least I know that.

I’m not realistically afraid of the cliché comedy reunion scene in which the protagonist seems utterly forgotten. I don’t expect to have to plead my case to this woman or anyone else I might consider approaching. It’s not that I’m famously memorable, I just wouldn’t put myself in that position, nor do I think it’s a common occurrence.

And what do I say? Once our mutual identities have been established, what do we talk about? I’d keep the focus on her: “It’s good to see you; what have you been up to?” or, “You look good; how are you?” If I could get the words out and she could hear and understand me. It’s hugely unlikely both would happen. Even more so that I’d have anything to say when she asked me the same.

“Um, you know…” I’d respond, deep sadness and vulnerability in my eyes. Wholly unsure how to navigate the interaction, she might refrain from asking questions, anxiously counting the moments until she can go back to her mundane, unemotional tasks. People are seemingly trained in this way: if you can’t reasonably expect a positive response, don’t ask the question. I’m regularly asked about (and praised for) my memoir.

So many reasons to avoid interactions with people from my past. And I usually do. If I could see some big upside to offset all of these anxieties, I might be able to push my way through. But I can’t find much of a reward.

I’ve been doing it for years: avoidant by default. It probably started the minute I began to feel different. Like I wasn’t myself; like I couldn’t be the person they remembered.

I look back on so many incidents of hiding: My ex’s roommate at little Lantman’s Market—I was still walking then, though much more deliberately than she’d seen. I slowly shuffled behind a display, taking a sudden interest in the assortment of sweet potatoes. I thoroughly believe that she saw me, but, in all likelihood, was equally avoidant; former classmates at the farmers’ market—sitting behind the New Duds display, I had nowhere to hide. Two members of my graduating class—both of whom I’d known since the sixth grade—stood five yards in front of me while I stared intently at another booth to my left. It was the last time I visited the market on my own; I could barely manage the walk in the summer of 2018. Once again, perhaps we played the same game, each evading the other; another former classmate at the hospital—Mom and I rode the elevator to the parking garage with a man in a borrowed wheelchair, escorted by an older woman (his mom). He made chipper small-talk with my mom; I faced the wall and counted the excruciating seconds. I wondered what had put him in the chair (accident? illness? drugs?) but not nearly enough to engage. An additional serving of anxiety was served when I realized we’d exit at the same level. Fortunately, they peeled off to the right as we entered the crosswalk to the pedestrian path.

While I build up these interactions in my mind—they’d be short-lived, if painful—I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I could change my outlook, force myself to engage. Run toward the discomfort instead of away. I could.

It's the contrast that hurts. We used to be the same in some way. Now, when I look up from my chair, the difference couldn't be more obvious. It’s all the more powerful from their eyes.

Whether I choose to engage, the big picture isn’t changing.

She looked great, by the way, my former friend at the supermarket. Especially from my newer, lonelier perspective.

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