In Paranoia We Trust

Halfway around the block, I realize I’m walking the dog, not sleeping.

I focus on the ting, ting, ting of Toby’s collar, and his curled, wagging tail — and assure myself that, should any annoying Let’s let them sniff each other! dog walker approaches, I will simply point to my Medusa hair, claim to be Edward Scissorhands’ less interesting brother Howard, and breathe my morning breath on them.

But no one’s in sight, and my greatest obstacle only seems to be a crushed bag of cookies Toby is angling for.

Silly blood sausage.  THOSE ARE MINE.

***

We nearly make it home when I hear footsteps behind me, followed by an Excuse me!  Toby, consumed with finding the perfect spot to drop his payload, doesn’t descend into his typical curmudgeonly antics — much to my chagrin.  I cringe — mostly because it’s early and I really don’t want to talk to anyone.

Then turn.

A lithe early twenty-something is strolling down the sidewalk toward us, a baby blue backpack strapped down tightly against a hoodie.

Silly rabbit. Tricks are for the daddies down the block. Not me.

Toby dusts up loose soil in a failed attempt to cover his poo.  Which I reach down and grab with a bag.

I steel my nerves.  Feel the invisible antisocial shields envelope me.  And set my gaze to cow-chewing-cud.

“I know it’s really early, and I don’t want to bother you…”

Then don’t.

“But I lost my phone last night and I need to call someone to come pick me up.”

I open my mouth, forming a fittingly snarky retort for such an hour on a Saturday.  But then, I do something surprising.  I wait.

He stares.

I stare.

Toby snorts.

“I can, uh, walk with you if you’re in a hurry…”

The mental cobwebs clear, and the gears start rotating.

“Alright.”

I search around in my overflowing satchel, push past the dog treats and poop bags, and grab my phone.  Hand it over.  And expect to see him turn tail and run down the street screaming YOUFUCKINGIDIOT!

But he pulls out a crumpled piece of paper scribbled with numbers, scratches his nose, and mutters to himself as I turn away.

“I really hope someone answers.”

In the ensuing conversational silence, our footsteps seem monstrously loud.

And I think about how stupid this is.

He’s probably hacking my bank account.  Or calling China.  Or sexting every single one of my contacts.

I cut a sideways glance his way, then down to the screen — all the while hoping that he’s not mistaking my paranoia for flirtation.

Sun starts filtering through the trees, casting its warmish glow on everything — enlivening it, revealing what darkness veils.  And I start to realize how young this kid is — the cracking pancake makeup on his nose undoubtedly hiding his first ever zit.

Then.

Out of nowhere.

Springing forth from that dark chasm where my heart fled at 6:40, blindsiding me like a freight train.

I start feeling.

Paternal.

Suddenly flushed, I stare down at Toby, who’s already looking up at me.  As if he’s known all along that this bizarrely revelatory experience is unfolding inside me.

Whether it’s Toby’s penetrating gaze, or the holiday decor strung on the palm trees we’re passing, those same spinning gears start a dull, constant droning.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

I exhale and swallow my cynicism.

The kid looks down at the phone, and seems utterly dejected.

“I’m sorry, could I try another number?”

“Sure.”

Toby starts pulling harder.  We quicken pace, and the kid keeps rapping away number after number.

Soon enough, we’re standing in front of our building.  One of our older neighbors eyes the kid suspiciously, looks to me protectively, then — seeing something resembling reassurance reflected — pulls her Dachshund along.

The kid smiles down at the dog, then looks up at the building.

“Oh, huh, I think a German guy lives here.”

“Are you okay?”

Like a turd in a swimming pool, my question startles me.

“Oh, sure.  Can I try just one more?  I’m really sorry.”

“Go ahead.”

A few minutes later, he hands the phone back — the screen plastered with enough numbers to solve ten Sudoku puzzles.

“Sorry you didn’t get anyone.”

He shrugs a bit, then smiles widely.

“Thanks for letting me try.”

And we go our separate ways.

***

The following week, I’m walking out of our grocery store completely loaded down with food, and pass a rail-thin man.

“Spare any change?”

Shields up.

“Sorry, I don’t have any.”

I walk on, wait at the crosswalk, and think.  The light changes, and everyone starts walking.  But I turn back toward the man, rifle through my bag, and extend a container of food.

“I don’t have any change, but would you like some dinner?”

He levels his gaze with mine.

“You know, smiling means you’re a happy person.  So many people never smile.  You smile.  You must be happy.”

Completely dumbfounded, I stand there, arm still extended.

“Uh, it’s always good to smile?”

He smiles and looks back up at the sky.

“Do you want some food?”

He waves his hand, his eyes still glued to some celestial muse.

“No, you smiled.  That’s enough.”

I step back, haphazardly shove the container back into my bag, and walk on.  A minute or so later, I look back and see the man still standing there, looking up — his cheekbones high, supporting a smile.

***

I’ve spent countless hours of my life deconstructing the most minute details of a given day — contorting every little gesticulation, smirk, and guffaw into something it’s not.  Then empowering the experiential bastard I’ve conjured out from that mental goo to lord over me.

Rather than taking people — and their actions — at face value.

Letting my mind rest a bit by ignoring the paranoia-tinged echoes from the questions the day vomits into my head.

Learning the importance of looking up and breathing out and smiling.

And trying.

And letting others do just the same.

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