I was reading a Gloria Steinem book when it happened, which is the only funny detail in the story. I had driven to the Barnes & Noble on a rainy night looking for another book, which I planned to read and not buy, but the store was out of stock. Not wanting the trip to be futile, I remembered the Steinem book, which I needed to read for a freelance piece, so I parked myself on the floor of the Women’s Studies section, tucked away in the far corner behind the cafe. Have you ever read Steinem’s essay about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny? It’s good stuff, nearly 40 years later. I kicked my legs out as I read, but I tried to be attentive to passersby.
“Tell me if you need me to move,” I said to a guy as he wandered past. He was in his late 40s, early 50s, mustache, baggy sweater with a leather jacket.
“No no you’re OK,” he said, not looking at me when he said it. I was at this part where Gloria Steinem is telling us about the Bunny Bible — the rules and regulations that any Playboy bunny must follow, including the proper maintenance of the tail — when I noticed the guy had been crouching next to me for a while. I could see something moving in my peripheral vision. I turned toward him and holy crap: He was masturbating.
It took me a second to register it. I kept thinking I had to be mistaken. Maybe he dropped something? Maybe he was scratching? But there was the little nob of flesh, bobbing up and down between his hands while he bent on one knee and looked over at me. The very fact that I saw this nob of flesh indicates he did not stop when I turned toward him. That he kept going. He did not stop until I said something. And what I said was, “Dude.”
Though it came out more like: “Duuude!”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, as though he had bumped into me on the sidewalk. He tossed his nob back in his pants, stood up without zipping and walked briskly out of the store, looking casually both ways as he walked toward the exit. I had no idea what to do. The store was so polite and contained. Shouldn’t some kind of alarm sound? People sipped their lattes, flipped through a Steig Larsson book, considered the Nook. Was I supposed to scream? Cry “masturbator!” in a crowded book store? My eyes scanned about for security, for an employee, for anyone with a goddamn nametag, and in absence of anyone I just kept following the guy. My heart was a high pitter patter. I trailed him until he hit the parking lot, where he weaved through cars and cast one nervous glance behind him to catch me standing there on the curb in the rain. I imagine the look on my face said: You win.
Back inside, the manager seemed almost as upset as I was. “Oh my goodness,” she said when I told her. She put her hand to her throat, like she was trying to clear a nagging cough. “If I don’t mind — I mean if you don’t mind, can you write a description of the man?” She laughed nervously at her slip-up. “I’m sorry, I’m a little flustered.”
So was I. I could not understand why someone would do such a thing. I know that’s not the point — compulsive wanking is not a rational act — but I couldn’t figure why that aisle, why me, why the Barnes & Noble. How could you think that was OK? How could you not think you’d get caught? There were easily 500 people lined up on the second floor for a signing of “American Sniper.” It was not an empty place, this Barnes & Noble. I was alone on that aisle. But there were people everywhere.
“I lived in New York for six years, and that never happened. And now I come back to Dallas, and it happens in a Barnes & Noble,” I told her. I was still trying to be clever about it. I guess that’s my way.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“And I was reading Gloria Steinem!” I said, as though this should have been a kind of insurance.
“I hope this won’t keep you from visiting us again,” she said. It was a dumb thing to say, but I don’t blame her. She didn’t know what to do. Neither did I.
I went to my parked car and called Mary as rain pitter-pattered on my windshield. “Are you kidding me?” she said when I told her the story. “What did you do? Did you yell something?”
I did not. Should I have? It’s funny how quickly my head went to this place: What was my misstep here? How had I miscalculated? I actually found myself wanting to add needless details: I was still wearing my jacket when it happened. I had on loose jeans. It bothered me now that I had been so calm about the whole thing. Why didn’t I make a scene? Why was this my first consideration — the calmness of the people around me, not wanting to disturb the peace?
“You did nothing wrong,” Mary told me. I know this is true. “I hope he crashes his car on his way home,” she said.
“He probably doesn’t have a car,” I said.
“I hope he gets neck-knifed on the bus,” she said.
I laughed, but I felt sorry for him. What a pathetic life. What a desperate existence. I drove back home not singing along to the music that was playing. I was a tangle of weirdness. My stomach hurt. I remember this time back in New Orleans, when I was standing in the entrance of a bar in the French Quarter, and this guy on the street came up to me, held his cell phone right in front of my chest, and took a picture. “Got it,” he said to his friend. It bothered me so much. Later, I thought of all the witty things I could have done or said that would have made me the winner in that situation. But I already was the winner in that situation.
I don’t know what to say about any of this stuff. I guess that’s why, when I got home, and cuddled up in bed with the cat, I wrote this.