It was her habit to decline my occasional lunch invitations, usually without apology and absent any sign of sincere regret. Eventually I stopped asking. I came to respect that she prized her solitude and showed no willingness to compromise it. So be it.
But then one day a breakthrough: “I’d like to have lunch if the invitation still stands.” She was eager, almost giddy in the pronouncement. A shift, what moved her? Had she overcome a barrier, fought off a demon? Was I finally going to get a glimpse beyond the armor?
I was a little giddy myself, pleased by the realization that my earlier overtures had finally borne fruit. I had stayed with it knowing she couldn’t stay alone forever. Eventually she would make her refuge elsewhere.
At lunch, things were slow to get going. She was anxious; I think maybe even troubled, but I didn’t know her well enough to trust any insight. I wondered if this was new to her. She wanted to do this, I thought but maybe she didn’t know how to begin it.
I wanted to help her be comfortable. I became conscious of being deliberately casual, unassuming and reassuring in my conversation. Even so, I was discouraged at having made so little progress.
And so this began a pattern of curious behavior she repeated frequently: A step backward taken just so quickly after a rare step forward. A recovery, followed by a fall. Done over and over again.
Like a bird lingering over a final scrap of bread, she picked at her pizza. Each small bite seemed to come only after thoughtful deliberation. And yet she hesitated as though there was an enormity to the consequences. It was agonizing to watch. Finally, having barely started, she moved her plate aside signaling she was finished.
Maybe the pizza was a bad choice, I thought, trying to find something normal, a reasonable explanation. There must be others who dislike it, too. Or simply, she was just being a lady, taking pains that I would not think her gluttonous. Of course, that had to be it. She was certainly thin of frame, obviously owing to a discipline in diet. This wasn’t unusual; she wasn’t odd after all.
But she was. When there was conversation, it was simple, small-talk. Her responses were purposely short and concise and void of feeling. She would not be drawn out. Her voice quivered when she spoke. She was not practiced at social interaction and she was unable to conceal the pain of her deficiency. She was going to stifle conversation at any hint that it could turn toward an unwelcome destination.
I wanted lunch to be over.