His elbow caught me more or less in the center of my abdomen. Instantly, accident scene reconstruction commenced.
Option #1. I walked into somebody. Sure. I do this, particularly but not exclusively when I am lost in thought.1 Ordinarily my well-honed reflex to beg pardon would engage at this point, but paradoxically the moment of contact found me unusually dedicated to interpersonal spacing. Specifically, I had chosen an opening at the luggage carousel where I would have the best chance of extracting my heavy ass suitcase without risk of jostling or be jostled. The elbow did not compute. My brain sought more information. It came as I made eye contact with the other party and noted that rather than registering the expected surprise, he was smiling.
Option #2. I must know this person. Memories of past chance encounters in the airport begin to percolate towards the surface, only to be superseded by the frantic urgency of identifying the face before me. This is not a talent for which I am recognized. I feel a bit queasy, whether from the potential embarrassment of being recognized without recognizing or an increasing insistence by my usually passive abdominal wall that I suddenly pay attention to it.
He is short. Slightly built. Blond. Roughly twenty-five. The only friends I have in this age group are musicians and wannabes. A patient perhaps…then why the touchy-feely familiarity? A co-worker’s spouse? Dammit. No match.
The encounter approaches the ripe old age of four seconds. He starts circling to my left, eyes locked, smile shifting ever so slightly into a display of teeth, holding a distance of 20-25 feet. I recall the elementary school playground and those TV specials about hyenas. Option #3 begins to take shape.
I voice it first as a question: “Oh my God…did he just hit me?” My subconscious runs with this, and starts laying the groundwork for a shift from “What?” to “Why?” It will have precious little time to proceed. He is about to speak, thereby signaling the end of the internal inquisition.
“Good luck with the operation.“
He continued to my left, and while I considered whether to believe my ears, he repeated it, so as to register his preference that I do. Well, thanks…I suppose…although I didn’t recall bringing it up.
That’s as far as the story goes. If the dissection of my thoughts seems overly detailed, it is only because there is nothing else to report. In striking me in the center of my spare tire, he chose the one target where he was least likely to do much damage, his elbow bouncing harmlessly away like a pebble on the roadway. Parenthetically, this happened not in the ruby red state of Texas, from which I had presently returned,2 but in brilliantly purple Minnesota.
I don’t know what impression will linger in the months to come, but the early verdict is that I had no good options. Whereas my youthful self was directly and indirectly trained to resist a bully, it now occurs to me that most often resistance really is futile. I am aging and recently, quite achy. My size no longer protects; it only identifies me as a target. I have also acquired just enough wisdom to know that answering petty violence with more petty violence would put me on level with this little cretin. There was nothing whatsoever but to wait for the end of the scene.
I offer this story with no moral attached unless it is that shit happens. I’ll brood, and verbally process and move on. Eventually something else like this will happen and I’ll go right back to Square Fucking One. Repeat until you can’t.