Friday, May 15, 2015

The generation gap: Why is this 12-year-old boy talking to me?

If you're only as young as you feel, I'm about ready to close up shop. If you're only as young as you look to people who are terrible at guessing ages, well, I might still be in business. According to a lot of the men who have approached me in recent years, I'm not a day over twentysomething, early thirties tops.

It's good to be young…or at least to appear that way to suitors, even if you see Methuselah every time you look in the mirror. The optical illusion that is my twenties-to-35 face must be the reason why the men I attract seem to get younger every year.

The other day while I was watching myself do arm curls in the mirror at the gym, I could have sworn I saw my dad's face staring back at me. I have no idea what Methuselah looked like, but I'd know dad's face anywhere. When those guys who are half my age see me, though, they see one of their peers. Sure, they're blind as bats, but who am I to argue?

Then along came Jeffrey. He couldn't have been older than a tween, 12 tops. The first time I saw him, he was running toward me as I was walking by a group of boys playing sports on The Domain, a wide open green space bordering downtown Sydney. Jeffrey was dressed in a dark blue school uniform, complete with a blazer and necktie. Had he been 20 years older and a couple of feet taller, I might have mistaken him for an insurance salesman. All he was missing was the briefcase.

"Hi, sir."

I was less disarmed by the formality of his greeting (Who are you calling sir?) than I was by his voice and appearance. He sounded American but looked Italian. I searched the faces of his friends and classmates to make sure I was still in Sydney. Oh, good. I was.

"I'm Jeffrey," he continued, holding out his hand for me to shake. I clasped it reluctantly, disappointed that such a bold approach was accompanied by a limp handshake.

"I'm Jeremy. It's nice to meet you, Jeffrey." Normally I wouldn't have paid attention to his name, and I certainly wouldn't have repeated it, but my brother's name is Jeffrey, so I made a mental note of it. In fact, I considered mentioning my brother but reconsidered. His friends weren't paying us any mind, but what if an adult was looking and getting the wrong idea?

"Where are you going?"

"Oh, I'm just walking home."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Had we been on Grindr, this would have been the part where he asked "What are you looking for?"

"Well, Jeffrey, you have a nice day, OK."

"OK, you, too. Bye."

I walked away without looking back, wondering what that had been all about. It was the strangest encounter I'd had with someone who wasn't old enough to drive since two years ago when that nine-year-old Arab boy took me on an afternoon tour of his neighborhood in Jerusalem. He had been angling for a tip. What had been Jeffrey's end game?

By the time I told my colleague Yasmin about it the next day, I had already filed it away as one of those the-strangest-things-happen-to-me-that-won't-happen-again-until-the-next-time memories. After all, it's not like Jeffrey and I frequent the same watering holes. What was the likelihood of my seeing him again?

Yasmin reasoned that the reason he approached me in the first place was because I have one of those smiles that invites strangers to approach me…even ones who should be mindful of "stranger danger." So the next day when I was walking past The Domain en route home, I put on my bitchiest resting face lest any other tweens get the not-so-bright idea to chat me up.

Just when I started to think it was working, I saw Jeffrey running up to me.

"Hi, Jeremy," he said, smiling widely. He looked like a kid who'd just gotten straight As on his report card and scored the winning home run in a game of baseball all in the same day. How could I not politely stop and greet him back?

"Hi, Jeffrey. How's it going?"

"I'm good. Where are you going?"

"I'm going home."

"Cool...Hey, can I have your phone number?"

"Um, huh? My phone number? Why do you want my phone number?"

"Because you're a really cool guy."

"I am? But you don't even know me."

"No, but you seem really cool."

He was probably the most persistent guy I've met in Sydney yet. And he seemed like the type to call, not text. What in the hell would we talk about? I'm not a phone person as it is, and what could be more awkward than trying to make conversation with a 12 year old who picked you out of the crowd just because you seemed really cool? Before I could think of an excuse to make a hasty exit, Jeffrey was handing me his iPhone.

Now being a conspiracy theorist and lifelong hypochondriac, my mind went to all of the worst-case-possible scenarios. Were we being watched? Was Jeffrey part of a sting operation to catch potential pedophiles?

I started to think of my defense. Well, he had approached me…both times. But I had engaged him. And now my fingerprints were all over Jeffrey's cell phone. What was I going to do?

I thought about denying his request and going about my way, but my paternal instincts got the best of me. He seemed like a good kid, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings. Also, one of his friends had dropped to his knees and was bowing at us in awe. Was that considered the ultimate badge of tween honor, to get the old guy walking by to talk to you? Why else would a little kid be the least bit interested in some random grown-up?

I decided it probably wasn't a sting operation, since his buddy was clearly in on it. So I plugged in my phone number…well, most of it. I mangled the last few digits, just to be on the safe side. Sure, he'd probably still be hurt, but I wouldn't have to be around to watch it. And best of all, I wouldn't be receiving any unwanted calls from the authorities.

As I walked away, I knew I wouldn't be taking that route home again. It was nothing personal against Jeffrey. He seemed like excellent BFF material…for someone closer to his own age. But it's probably time for me to start actively courting an older fan base.

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