The Stranger Magnet

"Oh, it's so busy."

The voice was soft, almost reflexive, but I had a feeling that the words were directed at me. The gentle hand, grasping my forearm, confirmed that the voice was talking to me.

"I guess that means it's good."

It was hard to pinpoint her age. Anywhere from her mid 20s to early 30s. A pretty-enough face: it was all I could see. Her parka done up tightly, the hood enclosing her head, the fur trim masking all but a few strands of sandy-blonde hair. Her deep, blue eyes were far away, as though she were looking at another world.

She wasn't all there.

I smiled. "Yeah, it's good. At this time, it's always busy. There are three schools across the street." The Subway was the only fast-food restaurant on Boulevard de la Cité des Jeunes, close to the high school, Cégep de l'Outaouais, and Heritage College. It became busiest, I found, between 11:30 and 12:30. Closer to 1:00, it thinned out but there were always a half-dozen students in line. And it was a good Subway because of the high volume. The ingredients were replenished often.

Having answered her, I turned to face the line and kept moving closer to make my order.

"Hmm... I think I'll have a bowl of chili. What do you think?"

"The chili's okay," I said, only halfway turning toward her, "but I find it a little too salty."

"That's not good." She sounded utterly disappointed. "Hey, do you know if there's a bar nearby? I could use a hot toddy. I'm really sick."

If there was a bar near my office, I wouldn't be at the Subway. I thought this, but didn't say it. "No, I don't know of any bar in this area."

"We should look. Do you want to look with me?" Her hand was back on my arm. My eyes turned to her again, to see if her face showed that she was kidding. Her eyes were wide, beckoning, imploring me to go with her.

She was serious.

"I'm just going to grab a sandwich and get back to work," I replied, gently lifting her hand from my arm. I smiled, sympathetically, apologetically, and turned back to the line in front of me. It was my turn.

I ordered a foot-long steak and cheese sub. Honey-oat bread. Grilled. I said it in French, just to stay in practice. The sandwich guy behind the counter must have noticed the woman and me talking, so as he started building my lunch, he asked the woman, "Et, pour vous?"

She was so close to me that I could understand him thinking we were together. I could feel her proximity, entering my comfort zone. She ordered a chicken breast sandwich. She spoke in English to the sandwich guy, who was fully bilingual.

The next person in the assembly line asked what I wanted on my sandwich: "Epinards, tomates, oignons, et du sauce sud-ouest. C'est tout, merci."

"Ooh, they have spinach," the soft voice over my shoulder exclaimed, "that's new."

"About a year or so," I conceded, not looking back.

Our sandwiches were wrapped and lined up, side-by-side, waiting for the person that was ahead of me to finish paying for her meal. When my turn came up, the man behind the cash register saw me, looked at my shadow, and asked, "Êtes-vous ensemble?"

"Non," I said, "juste un sandwich."

"Aww..." she sounded crushed. I ignored her.

"A porter." (French for to go.)

"Don't you want to stay and eat?"

If I'm in a crowded room, with hundreds of people, and one strange person seeks out somebody in that crowd, I will be that somebody. I can't explain it, but I'm a stranger magnet. I attract the weird folks on this planet. So far, it's never caused me harm. It's taken me outside of my comfort zone, made me interact with someone who is a challenge.

At the time, I always ask myself, why me? 

In retrospect, it makes for great storytelling.

"I'm sorry, I can't," I said to her, trying my best to sound as full of regret as I could muster. "I have to get back to work. Another time?" I backed away, toward the door, hoping that she wouldn't follow.

"Promise?"

"Promise."

I'm never going to that Subway again. It's a shame: they have good staff and the ingredients are always fresh.

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