Saturday, February 9, 2013

Observed, on the train

On Thursday morning I went to the city on the train for an 8:30am breakfast business meeting. (It turned out to be devoid of actual breakfast, although full of useful information ... but that's not what this story is about).

I don't normally travel at the same time as business people going to work or school people going to city-side schools, but climbing aboard a 7:20 train, my carriage was full of both - a sea of blazers and black suits, iPhones and briefcases, bulky schoolbags and strongly scented deodorant. Settling into a seat, I let my mind drift, as is my wont on early train trips. The buzz of conversations in the carriage washed over me, really just background noise to my thoughts.

About six stations out from my destination, though, as room in the train became more constricted and I could no longer see past my feet for the press of people, I was brought back into awareness of the dialogue around me. One conversation, between two people I couldn't see well at first, riveted me.

"So you know they hooked up at that party? The one where everyone was out all night? You know, you were there..." (Male voice, something in the tone strikes me as - wheedling? insinuating?)
A female voice, young. "Oh. No, I didn't realise -"
He: "They're still together, you know. They've been together since that night."
She says something too low for me to catch.

Just then the two people who'd been standing between me and the two speakers got off the train, and I have a clear view of a schoolgirl, maybe 14 or 15, and a guy in business attire who looks like he's in his late 20s / early 30s, although here I confess I am very bad at estimating mens' ages and he could easily have been as young as 25 or as old as 40.

"Hey, you remember X, at the party? Who you talked to for a while? You know he kept going on about how grown up you were, how he could have an adult conversation with you, how you were just like an adult!" He smiles at the schoolgirl and touches her upper arm, quickly. "I said, sure, she's very mature, beyond her years." He waits, expectantly, for her to respond to what he clearly considers a massive compliment.

"Mmmmm ..." she says, and shifts slightly. "So did you hear that [Name Which I Heard But Will Not Record] is out of rehab? Doing very well, they say. Maybe back to work soon."

He, "Oh, that's good news."

Therein follows 3 minutes or so of innocuous conversation about the doings of what are clearly mutual acquaintances. This person is going overseas, that person is studying law, the other person is moving house.

She mentions an essay she has to work on, "for practice VCE, know."

"That's right!" he exclaims. "You're doing it a year early, next year, aren't you? Because you're so smart -" he touches her again "- and mature."

She laughs. It is not a happy sound. A woman opposite me catches my eye and raises an eyebrow; I'm not the only one picking up a skeevy vibe here. I mentally calculate that if the girl is doing VCE a year early next year, my age estimate was about right, she's probably 15.

We're nearly at my stop, so I get up to go, and the guy starts moving towards the door too. Then he turns back and plants a kiss on the schoolgirl's cheek. "If you need any help with that essay, you call me, OK?" he breathes. "I really want to read it when it's done and help you do it, OK darling?"

The girl makes a noncommittal noise and sits down hard in the seat I've vacated. The woman I exchanged glances with shoots Our Sleazy Friend a death glare and smiles reassuringly at the girl, positioning her body so he would have to push her aside to touch the girl again. He doesn't try to, though - he gets off at the same station I do, whistling cheerily, and heads off down the street, fingers tapping away on his phone.

And as I wend my way to the meeting, I think -

Should I have said or done anything? It seems so black and white in the abstract, but when you're actually in the situation, it's very grey. Clearly the two were acquainted - how, who knows - and this was not a stranger hit. And the girl seemed capable of turning the conversation back to preferred subjects when she chose. The situation was not one that lent itself to immediate physical danger. Buuuuuut...

That's what creepers play on, isn't it? The powerful social taboos against buying into other people's business? The social programming that told that girl that she needed to make nice and chat to this guy because she is acquainted with him, even though he was absolutely crossing boundaries throughout their entire interaction?

I remember being 15. I remember the mingled curiosity, excitement and dread that attention from a much older man inspired. I remember being at once cackhandedly flirtatious, testing my wings, and a little repulsed and terrified, and not knowing what to do with those feelings. I also remember my bone-deep conviction that I had to please men to be a "real" woman. And I know now that there were at least two occasions, at that age, where I narrowly escaped being abused by a man in their 30s due to the inadvertent but serendipitous intervention of friends. (And it would have been rape, not only because of my age, but because I was not ready for sex and would not have consented). A man who I knew socially. A man who had groomed me, and other teenagers in my circle, some of whom they did end up sleeping with.

I was a fairly naive and sheltered teenager in many ways. Perhaps this girl is not. Perhaps her feelings are nothing like mine, and that's OK. It doesn't change for one second the skeeviness of a grown adult hitting on a legal child, though.

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