Chicago Portrait no. 45: Virtue Signalling

I knew this guy once. What he wanted from me was unclear. That he wanted anything at all was unclear. He was just there, behind me, lingering, watching, and resenting while I was reading my book at the bar by the window.

I’d seen him around before at that spot, but I didn’t know him. Not really. I’d bought a coffee or two from him, paid with a card, and taken my brew and my book to the bar by the window. I liked that spot because it gave me a little natural light on an otherwise dreary November day, and because I could stretch my legs and tone my ass without walking.

I would stand and read for hours at a time, back then. I was working on a dissertation, or maybe my candidacy exams, so I had a lot to read. I lived alone in a small studio, and spent much of my time by myself reading. Even my breaks went to reading — fiction, mostly short story collections, always retrieved from the library and read in the coffee shop at the bar by the window.

I didn’t know the guy’s name. He was white with untamed brown hair. Small, with what most people would call good bone structure. Which is a way of saying almost conventionally handsome, but not quite. Just a bit off. He seemed a little awkward, but I know better than to hold that against somebody. To do so is ignorant, ableist, prejudiced. Still, his perpetual unhappiness was so intense as to make people uneasy. And you can’t totally eradicate a conditioned reaction like that.

Still, none of this would have stuck in my mind at all if it weren’t for the stalking. I didn’t mind that he was awkward; didn’t think anything of it. I was much more wary of the superficially charismatic. I thought if somebody hated themselves just a little, just as much as I hated myself, that they couldn’t harm me. I don’t think that anymore.

He sent me a Facebook message request. This was after the advent of the “other” folder, that netherworld for messages from people you aren’t friends with. But I was in the habit of checking that folder because I had a dangerous and capricious ex-boyfriend. I had to be on alert for strange messages in those days, and I’m glad that I was.

“Hey you,” the guy from the cafe’s message said. “Remember me?”

I remembered him but did not know his name until that moment. How did he know mine? He must have found my name on a receipt, or memorized it the moment I handed him my debit card. He certainly had never asked me. We’d never talked.

I blocked him immediately. I didn’t say a word. I had already learned the power of silence. The capricious ex-boyfriend had taught me that much. I had tried reasoning, haranguing, crying, screaming, threatening to call cops, sending plaintive emails, begging, and glaring him down. But disengaging was the only thing that made his attempts at contact weaker and weaker, and father and farther spaced out. He receded from my life like a storm blowing away, that still went on battering the pavement with water someplace else. I couldn’t make the guy stop. I could just make him stop raining down on me.

So I blocked this strange guy from the cafe. Maybe it wasn’t fair. Maybe there was a perfectly logical explanation. Maybe he never wanted a thing from me. I will never know and I don’t give a shit. Our very first contact was him crossing a line. So I blocked him. I stopped going to the cafe for a while. When I saw him in the neighborhood, I glared and cut down a different street.

I have blocked a lot of people in my life. I don’t consider it a personal failing. My boundaries were so hard to develop I consider exercising them to be a triumph. I’ve served my time massaging the moods and calming the minds of unpredictable, tormented people. I’m not going to do it again.

I’ve been the Only Reliable Helper Friend to a Desperate Lonely Sad Person so many times I can always see them coming. They come wanting my brain, maybe my ear, maybe my body. They dab their emotions on me in sticky dribbles at first, and when they catch me looking sympathetic, they really pour it on. And then I’m drowning, plugged up in every orifice with their oozing, vicious, desperate needs. And then if I gasp for air, they have the fucking temerity to get angry.

They’d never say it, but to them I’m a nurse. I’m a counselor. I’m a friend they want to fuck. I’m an ex. I’m an almost. I’m fellow depressed person who, thank God, understands. I’m crazy. I’m such a good writer. I’m a bitch. I’m the mayor of the land of misfit toys.

It doesn’t matter. I’m none of those things anymore, not for anyone.

It doesn’t take much for me to be done with it forever. The slightest furrowing of a brow, the meagerest resentment, the faintest sign that they somehow feel entitled to my emotional energy and my selfhood, and they’re gone. I block, I go quiet, I put my foot down, and I am free.

I’m not saying I dislike serious, heartfelt conversations or the bearing of tormented souls. I’m saying it better be fucking reciprocal, and the demands better cease the moment either party wants them to. I vent to friends all the time; I listen to the doubts and sorrows of people I care about. I don’t resent that. That doesn’t tire me. It’s important. When I love the person, and they love me, I adore doing it. But I will not be a still empty vessel for any attention-seeking piece of shit ever again in my entire fucking life. I did that shit for years and it nearly killed me.

I have killed people with my silence, or at least it feels like it. My enemies all seem to die. The first time it happened, I felt guilty. When I was a teenager, my dad used me like an emotion-sponge the same way all these random younger dudes did. So I stopped talking to him. And he died. And it felt like some unasked-for revenge that demanded my penance. So from then on, whenever I met somebody desperate and lonely, I tried my best to support them. Like that would make up for what I’d done. Like it might earn me the right to live.

I had to stop trying to convince myself of my own virtue, and really get selfish. I found that with every severed bad relationship, I loved myself more. The second time I cut someone off and they subsequently died, I just felt sad, not responsible. I was glad I’d been far away from the mess when it happened. And now when things like that happen, I feel almost nothing at all.

I knew this guy once who wanted to coat me in his words and feelings, every moment of every day, until he was purged and I drowned. I’ve known a lot of guys like that actually. I used to know quite a few women and people of other genders like that, too. But I don’t know anybody like that anymore. They’re no friends of mine.

Originally published at

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