As a rule, I go through life with a firm distrust of strangers. I wasn’t born suspicious, and I certainly didn’t learn it from my family; my mom in particular is famous for being able to make friends with literally anyone, even in the most unlikely circumstances.
But like many of us with trust issues, I learned not to trust people I don’t know as a result of experience. It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a chip on my shoulder; maybe it is. But the fact is that strangers have often been very rude, if not overtly mean, to me over my life. Strangers have also been nice, but the mean ones, the ones who’ve made mooing noises as I’m crossing the street, or who’ve shouted weight-related insults and jokes at me from moving cars, those are the ones I tend to remember.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because that kind of public humiliation can be a little traumatic even for the sturdiest ego, and it's natural to want to defend yourself. While I have since learned to shake it off (or even better yet, to respond thoughtfully), the hurt from the times it happened before I reached that point can be hard to forget. Sure, the vast majority of the people who see me every day probably aren’t thinking about me at all, but it only takes one to say something cruel to remind me that those other people exist, the ones who are so affronted by seeing me in public that they simply have to say something. One bad apple, and all that.
My building has a small workout room, and there’s a guy I run into down there infrequently. We exchange smiles and hellos, but his English is minimal (I believe he is Eastern European or Russian or something like that) so we don’t really have conversations. Which is fine with me, as most of the time the very last thing I want to do while exercising is talk to someone. I want to listen to my music and just be utterly self-absorbed, as the gym is one of few places where I feel justified thinking only of myself.
So all I know about this guy is that he seems to be into some kind of MMA or Krav Maga or something else that you could ostensibly use to kill someone with your bare hands, and that he trains so impossibly hard it’s like he’s prepping to spend the rest of his life punching through walking-dead brains in the zombie apocalypse.
One recent morning, we were both in the exercise room at the same time. When I finished my 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer, he smiled at me from across the room and said, with enthusiasm, “Good job!” I'll admit that my kneejerk response to this sort of uninvited encouragement is totally unpleasant and uncharitable -- even when such comments are made with the best intentions, they single the recipient out in a weird way and it's probably just a good idea not to say anything about another gym-goer's workout routine. But dude seemed so sincere that I smiled and said thank you.
Then things took a turn for the unexpected.
As I leaned over to stretch my legs, he pointed at his own back and said, “Problem?” I tried to explain that I have a dodgy right shoulder, but my back is generally okay, but as a person who is terrible at using a few straightforward words when I can go on for paragraphs, he nodded vaguely at my efforts, and I realized I wasn’t being very helpful. Then he approached me, with a questioning expression, and actually started pressing on my shoulders and upper back, making some concerned-sounding hmms all the while.
Obviously, because I am female and alive, whenever a male stranger tries to touch me, my immediate response is deep skepticism at the very least, usually blended with a touch of panic, just in case I need to thumb out some predatory eyeballs to defend myself. I began searching for signs of creepster-ness from this dude but found none. He was very businesslike, more like a professional trainer than a predator, and when he gestured for me to sit down on the weight bench, I did so, if only to satisfy my curiosity.
For the next ten minutes, this dude whose name I don’t even know directed me in doing a bunch of partner-assisted stretches for my upper back and shoulders, and even managed to successfully crack my back, which literally no one has ever managed to do for me. MY WHOLE BACK. IT WAS CRAZY. Because of his limited English, much of his instruction took the form of single words, or miming how I should sit or where my arms should go, and then pushing and pulling on various muscles. I kept thinking, “Okay, now is the part where he breaks my neck and I die because I trusted some gym rando with my spine,” but nothing hurt, and I actually felt great.
I tried to thank him in my wordy and profuse way, but really all we needed to do was high-five a lot.
His task completed, he went on to use the elliptical trainer and I moved over to the free weights. My stranger-suspicion is so strong that I kept processing the event, wondering why he took time to do that, as though the concept of someone doing something nice for a fellow human for no other reason than to be nice was completely alien to me. I was also struck by how undaunted he was by the fact that I am quite fat (and was also at the time, extremely sweaty), which may be because he does this kind of thing for a living, but even then, I haven’t worked with many personal trainers who didn’t betray even a slight reluctance with my size (although there have been one or two very good ones).
After my workout, I went upstairs to my apartment and told my husband about the experience, and, understandably aghast, he said, “You LET him do that? He could have injured you!” And he’s right. It might have been a stupid call. If he hadn’t known what he was doing, I could have been hurt.
But there is also a part of me that is just tired of not trusting people, of not taking chances when my instincts are on board with it. I consider myself a fairly good judge of character, and can usually read a person pretty astutely on a first meeting, but often even then I disregard my gut feeling in favor of playing it safe and keeping strangers at arm’s length, just in case. In this situation, my impression was that this guy is super enthusiastic about fitness and and is happy when other people are too, and that’s kind of a cool thing to share. So I trusted. And it worked out.
Along with the positivity of this interaction, though, it made me realize how terrible it is that so many people -- women, certainly, but also people of color, and gay people, and trans people, and disabled people, and so on -- feel compelled to go through life automatically expecting some strangers to be dangerous or mean, for a staggering variety of justifiable fears of physical violence, or sexual assault, or verbal abuse. These fears are completely valid and real, and many simply cannot ease up off their default distrust of unknown individuals because sometimes that distrust is what keeps us alive. But that these fears exist and govern so many lives is also tragic, as is the fact that we have to survive in a place where sometimes we need them to protect ourselves. It can be straight-up dangerous to trust people we don’t know.
But I want to work on being less suspicious. If I had refused Gym Guy, I would have missed out on a fascinating and slightly surreal experience -- I would have gone back up upstairs and told a much shorter story of some weirdo with whom I don’t even share a common language trying to push on my back, and what the fuck, right? LOL. Instead I gambled and won, and in doing so realized how very tired I am of not trusting people to be decent human beings, and how very tired I am of people justifying that distrust by not being decent human beings, such that it comes as such a wonderful surprise when they are.
And my back and shoulders feel awesome. So there’s that too.