Action Words #2

Can We Just Talk About Books Please?

I have a confession. I blush like I’m trying to power the universe with my facial blood.

If something emotionally affects me at all, this creeping flush pours across my face.  It’s not a fleeting thing either; like if you blink you’ll miss it.  No, this stains my face a deep shade of pink for a virtual eternity.  Not only do I feel the shame, feel the hot stickiness in my cheeks, but I show it. I feel like I’m walking around with an actual signpost on my head — but the signpost is exaggerating whatever little trigger set off my mild embarrassment.

A man struck up a conversation with me the other day on the bus. We got talking about books, as often happens with me. He likes non-fiction and had previously read a book on bonobos; a small ape similar to chimpanzees (in looks and genetics, but not in social means), that I was reading at the time. It’s called Bonobo Handshake and the writer, Vanessa Woods actually went to ANU here in Canberra. I passed on what I’d heard from the guy at the bookshop. We chatted about the matriarchal society of bonobos (as opposed to the more aggressive and patriarchal chimp social structure), how amazing the Congo is, but how war torn it can be as well. I told him about some similar books he might enjoy, but I was fuzzy on the titles. The author’s surname was Gruen, I think.

“Text them to me when you remember” he said, “here’s my number.” I was pretty certain where this was heading, but it was kind of disguised in general friendliness, so I felt it best to let it go. Nevertheless, I felt the redness creep upon my face. I faltered a bit, but it felt rude to not want to chat books with someone.  I didn’t want to feel like I was jumping to conclusions or putting tickets on myself.

“Call me now, so I have your number too,” he said, “this is kind of bold move for me…” he tacked onto the end. Oh. All was openly confirmed, he’s not in this for just for literary, bus-buddy convos. I followed up with lots of ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ noises, but just did as he said and pranked his phone. “I only want to be friends, though of course”, I added hastily, my cheeks now burning so hot, I felt families would start huddling around me in the winter.

“It can be whatever you want,” he replies. Yuck. I’m very un-interested, and also very content in a monogamous relationship. I’m doubly uninterested. He then swiftly directed the conversation to how bonobos solve all their problems with sex, which is true, but completely inappropriate for the moment especially considering the discomfort already painted red across my face. I nodded and suppressed my engagement levels as much as possible. How does one direct the conversation back to normal, very neutral territory? I walked off the bus shuddering, wishing I could act cool, and not be such a blushing pushover in these situations.

That morning, for hours at work, the blush refused to leave my face. I was so embarrassed, and felt humiliated, for falling for his little trick. He had better not call me. This was immediately followed by further blushes, embarrassed by feeling such a tide of embarrassment. This was just normal, everyday, being-a-woman situation. Except many women find themselves in a lot more menacing and difficult situations that they need to manoeuvre themselves around. Besides, I swear, other women deal with these things better. Theoretically, I would politely explain that I am simply uninterested. No excuses, no apologies, but a gentle and firm, ‘No thanks’. Eugh. The hue of my face remained beetroot-esque all day. Why couldn’t I put my theory into practice?

It just seems easier to go along with it, not ruffle any feathers or cause unnecessary conflict. It’s feels more painless to move forward and sit through the bus journey without offending anyone or causing an uproar. I understand that if I was available and attracted to this man, I’d be blushing for a different reason. I guess, also the expected power dynamic is still the same as it’s always been; the notion that the hetero-man must man-up, have the guts to make a move. If there wasn’t this pressure for men to take the lead, and expectation that a girl wouldn’t dare approach anyone — then maybe we’d all be better at reading a situation and going from there.

The final stage of redness upon my now virtually feverish face, was becoming a kind of rage. Sometimes I just wish for a more innocent world, where people strike up conversations with completely non-sexual motivations. Can’t we just have a good conversation about books and leave it that? I hate that I have to have strategies to avoid catching a man’s eye. I hate that I usually feel a need to keep my headphones in— and, if given a choice, select a seat beside a benign lady, before a male. I hate that I’ve somehow absorbed an idea that it’s not my place to dishevel the male ego.

I don’t have any conclusions. I can’t pinpoint exactly how I feel — but thanks to my face-radiator, I realise that it made me feel something. That it stirred me a little and made me think. That’s always a good thing.

Action Words is a series inspired by the people and things Olivia encounters in an unremarkable part of her everyday. She takes Action buses to work most days of the week — this time spent on public transport is often quite meditative and contemplative for her. Olivia’s intention was to find something of consequence in the ordinary.


Olivia is 23 and grew up in country NSW, then moved to Tasmania for university. There she completed a Ba Arts and Ba Science combined degree, majoring in Journalism, Media and Communications as well as Zoology. Olivia predominately writes creative non-fiction, but her published experience is mainly in news and culture writing. She’s written for a variety of publications including a university magazine, Togatus, Southern Riverina NewsThe Riot Act, Out in Canberra, Love and List, Conservation Careers, the ACT Writers Centre blog and magazine and her own blog, A Traveller at Home. She currently works in Canberra in book sales and distribution.
Image from here

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