The Rules of Engagement

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Rebecca Lee

The Rules of Engagement



I was sitting outside of a coffee shop one afternoon when it happened. My intuition could not save me.
  “Your face reeks of death!” A frazzled man in a Greenpeace T-shirt waved his arms and shouted at me. He paced back and forth close to my chair like he was waiting for just the right moment to pounce. His face was sweaty. His hands were trembling. If I had known better, I might never have had to hear those words at all.
  His face was scrunched up into a tangle of lines swimming across his forehead. His hands swayed nervously about his shirt. I watched, calculating his movements, wondering what he was thinking. He clutched something tightly underneath the fabric of his shirt. Was it a book? Or was it a gun?


The definition of what’s appropriate versus what’s not, can morph so seamlessly that I can’t always figure it out on my own. Although I knew the Greenpeace Man was acting inappropriately, I couldn’t figure out how we had gotten to that point so quickly. I have this confusion because of a neurological disorder called a Nonverbal Learning Disability.
  Having a Nonverbal Learning Disability means I have problems with processing visual-spatial information, facial cues, and social functioning. Trying to read people’s reactions and motivations is a tricky minefield to walk through.
  If my brain were visible, it would be a long gray filing cabinet. Inside is my system of calculated responses. Each drawer consists of long files with rules and theories for different kinds of interactions. These are the rules I’ve learned through living. I love my rules. I live by them.
  There are the Friend Rules: Try to ask about them first. Always look people in the eye. Ask questions. Find connections to tie back to broader conversations. Apply their knowledge to greater concepts and see if it holds up. Learn.
  Then there are the Dating Rules. These are harder. Don’t laugh at other men’s jokes for too long. Always shave your legs. When he walks through the door, stand up and greet him. Make sure he knows he matters.
  The hardest however, are the Safety Rules. It’s hard not to instinctively give people the benefit of the doubt. When you live in a town where people are generally friendly, optimism is natural. But how do you know which people are trustworthy if they all say the same things? Are some strangers safer than others?
  The drawer in my filing cabinet for strangers is scattered. The one index card that surfaces the most is the one that reads: People need to be heard, regardless of how they behave. This works most of the time. When it doesn’t, I know I’ll figure it out later. Usually that night or the next day. At some point, I usually get it.


This was the case two years ago when during a spring rain, a man knocked on my front door. He was an older man with a rake in one hand and a shovel in the other. He looked tired.
  “Ma’am, do you need any help with this yard?” The man pointed to the overgrown grass in my front lawn.
  “Well, it sure looks like it,” I stared at the grass. “I don’t deal with the landscaping part of this house though. That’s up to my landlord. I can jot down his number.” I offered. The rain had soaked through the man’s T-shirt and his hair was dripping wet.
  “Would you like to come in while I find a pad?” I asked.
  “Yes, Ma’am,” the man eagerly accepted. It was only for a minute. He was soaking wet.
  I walked back to the kitchen to find my notebook. The warm glow of my lamp lit up the wooden table and yellow floral curtains. A mason jar full of roses sat in the middle of my kitchen counter. My notebook was not there. “What did I do with it?” I mumbled, going through each one of my cabinets.
  The man stood hesitantly in my living room. A low-backed love seat occupied the space just below the window and he looked at it curiously. Mud flaked off his work boots. “I’m going to take off my shoes,” he said, lowering himself onto the love seat.
  How long was he going to stay? I wondered. The filing cabinet told me not to be pushy. Be polite. Be generous. The filing cabinet was overflowing.
  You don’t have to, I started to say, but he had already begun to untie his laces. I rushed through the living room, still searching for the notepad. “I know it’s in here somewhere,” I said.
  “Any piece of paper will do,” he said.
  “Yes, yes,” I grabbed an old receipt from the bottom of my purse. “Now I just need to find a pen.”
  I hurried back into the kitchen to search the cabinets once again.
  “Ma’am,” the man called out.
  “I hate to be a bother, but I’ve been walking around here all day looking for work and I’m pretty worn out.” He leaned against the back of the couch, his head resting on the window pane. “I noticed you got a coffeemaker there on the table and I was just wondering . . . would it be okay if I had a cup?”
  “Well,” I said looking at the almost full pot of coffee. “Sure, let me just grab a cup. I know where those are.”
  I reached inside the cabinet for a third time and pulled out a pink Melmac teacup. The only clean dish in the kitchen. “Gee—I’m really sorry about this,” I filled the tiny cup up to the brim. “I know this isn’t a very manly cup of joe, but it’s the only cup I have that’s clean right now.”
  The man took one look at the shiny, pink teacup with the delicate handle and raised his eyebrows high up on his forehead. “That’s all right ma’am,” he took a gulp. I heard a hard swallow as he glanced around the room again. The living room looked like fall itself. Painted in muted yellows with orange furniture, it was, autumn persevered all year round.
  “I’ve just got to find a pen and we’ll be all set.” I hoped by the time I found the pen he would be done with his coffee.
  “Ma’am, you lived here long? You got some nice decorations around here.”
  “Oh, not very long, I guess,” I said. My purse. My purse had to have a pen in it. Why didn’t I look for a pen when I found that old receipt?
  I walked back to the living room and started to riffle through the black leather Coach bag.
  “You like art? Pretty lady like you, I bet you like a lot of pretty things. People always tell me to get some art in my house.” The man wandered over to a poster of Roy De Forest and stared, lost in the green jungle of art. “My place isn’t this fancy though.”
  I raked my fingers through my hair, pressing and pulling at my scalp. My purse was deep with trash. Lighters. Empty cigarette packs. More receipts. Loose dollar bills. Floss. I started to take all the items out, one by one. There had to be a pen in there somewhere.
  “Aha” I felt the tip of something sharp and slippery. Pretty soon he would be gone.
  “I’ve got it.”
  But as I turned around, the man was right behind me, taller than I had imagined. He stood just a couple feet away with his arm outstretched. He handed me the tiny, pink Melmac teacup, the handle fitting just inside his pinky. The cup was fully drained.
  “Ma’am, do you think I could have another?”
  The man stayed in my living room, drinking coffee while he talked to me about his church. He was convinced that I needed to come next Sunday. With him. After briefly considering it, I realized that this man had been in my apartment for over an hour. I nervously made up an excuse about an appointment I needed to attend and the man left. Only to return the next week.


Over the course of the next year, the man showed up a handful of times to see how I was doing. Every time I opened the door, I felt the humiliation of my naiveté all over again. Be nice. Be conversational. Don’t let him in, the new index card read. I had let a stranger into my home. I had welcomed the discomfort that I felt during that hour while he sat in my living room drinking cup after cup of coffee. I would never do that again I later swore to myself.
  Except I did. I continued to talk to strangers. They seemed nice enough and before I knew it, I was in a conversation. It was as if their words had a magnetic pull, one that I could not ignore.
  This was how I ended up talking to the Greenpeace Man. He came up to me outside the coffee shop, asked me why I was smoking a cigarette. That was all I needed. Rule Number One, ask him about himself.
  “Do you smoke?”
  “Absolutely not,” he shook his head a little too firmly.
  “Well, I smoked my first cigarette when I was twelve. I thought I’d look more mature. Like an adult, you know?” I looked him in the eye. He didn’t look back.
  “I plan to quit sometime next year though. A little at a time is a good way to do it. Cut back and then maybe switch to those e-cigarettes. Then . . . gradually . . . over time, I’ll be able to make it a lifestyle.”
  Now I just had to tie this back to a larger concept.
  “Smoking, I feel,” I paused for effect, “is a personal choice. One’s body should always be one’s responsibility, thus one’s decision on how to run it.”
  But he didn’t seem to be hearing me. Did he not listen to people the same way I did? I thought about the index card. Regardless of behavior, all people need to be heard.
  “Do you want to die?” He inched closer to my chair.
  “Well, not right now,” I answered honestly.
  “Do you deserve to live?” His voice was growing shaky.
  “Well . . . I think so.”
  “How many lives have you saved?” He leaned his head so close to mine that I could smell his breath. Salty and stale. His eyes stared past me, into a space I could not see.
  “Oh, plenty, I suppose,” I laughed. “Depends on what you mean by saved.”
  “Do you know Jesus Christ?”
  It was then that I noticed he was holding something underneath his shirt. Was it a book? Or something else?
  “You reek of death!” He shouted. My face went white. My filing cabinet was empty.
  The police showed up a couple minutes later. A couple from inside the coffee shop saw what was going on. Apparently the stranger had harassed them before they took their business inside. When they saw him pacing around me, they phoned the police immediately.
  “Did you do anything to make him angry?” The officer asked.
  “No,” I said. I left out the part where I talked to him about my smoking habits. If we were both engaged in conversation, did I deserve whatever came from it?
  After a few more questions, the officer told me I was free to go home. Cautiously, I walked the several blocks back to my apartment. Alone. When I stepped inside my living room, I sank against the yellow walls, dropping my purse to the ground. I was safe.
  A few weeks later a man from the apartment building opposite mine knocked on my door. I saw him approach my apartment before he even stepped foot onto my stoop. He was wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and a baseball hat. He was probably in his twenties. He didn’t look dangerous, but I didn’t know him.
  I opened the door, leaving the chain lock latched.
  “Can I help you?” I asked.
  “I was wondering if I could park my car in front of your house,” the man said. “The complex parking lot is all filled up.”
  I nodded, still looking at him through the crack in the door. I didn’t feel threatened or scared by him, but a part of me remembered the Greenpeace Man.
  When someone I don’t know comes up to me now, I prefer to think of our relationship like a crack in a doorway. I’m willing to listen, but I’m not willing to let them in entirely. It’s the crack in the door that gives me enough distance to be able to pause.
  “Yeah, you can park on the street,” I said.
  “You sure?” The guy in plaid smiled at me.
  Fishing for the right index card, I searched through my invisible filing cabinet as if it were the most natural thing in the world. For me, this is where my safety lies. My rules, my cards, and my sense of self is secure in its own education.
  “We’re neighbors,” I said to the man. “It’s probably fine.”