We chatted only for a moment when he said, "People call me names. Mostly they call me fat. But they call me other names too." It was just a statement. Not a question. A statement. It was like he just needed to say, "This is what life is for me here." I didn't know what to say, or how to answer, then I realized, that I don't work with him any more. I'd thrown myself back into a role that I didn't have. I pushed myself to simply think of this as two people who've run into each other after many years. Then it was easy to know what to say, "That's wrong." A simple statement.
He nodded. "I know it's wrong. But they do it anyways."
I agreed and said, "They know it's wrong too, but they don't care. Mean people are like that."
"What should I do?" he asked. Then I knew that maybe I had shrugged off our previous relationship but he hadn't. His tone in asking the question was exactly what it had been all those years ago when we worked together. "Should I hit them," he asked. I knew he knew the answer to that question.
"When people call me names, which happens all the time," I said, "I feel like hitting them. I do. But I never do. There are other things I do."
He asked me how I handled the teasing, the stares.
We talked for about 5 minutes more. Swapping ideas and even laughing a few times as we talked about living different in a world that doesn't honour or welcome our kind of difference.
I left him there after introducing him to Joe and wished him well. I rolled away and then looked back. He looked so lonely and so vulnerable. He looked defeated by the life he lived. By the constant battery he took from those who know better but use him for target practice any ways. He told me that people never hit him, they just call him names, all the time, every day. I had shared my strategies but I'm not sure he cared about them. I think he wanted a moment where he wasn't alone. "I feel really alone when people call me those names," he had said. His ask of me was not 'therapy' or 'counselling' but for a moment of 'unaloneness.' I could give that to him because of shared experience.
When we came back down the mall from the other end he was gone.
The bench was empty.
I was sorry I didn't have a chance to chat for another couple of moments. I looked around at the people in the mall. I wondered which of these would be someone who would just randomly hurt someone like him. Then I heard someone say loudly to a friend, "Look at that fat fucker!" I turned to see a young man standing with his friend. I knew then, who amongst these would do that. I turned my chair and began pushing towards him. I must have been a frightening sight, because he looked afraid.
"Let's get out of here," he said to his friend who looked equally scared of a big boiling mass of fat cripple aiming straight at them like a bowling ball about to knock them over. I wasn't going to, of course, I had something to say. But they took off running.
So I never got to say it.
But, then, maybe I did.