[Disclaimer: Sort of fiction, mostly. Names have been changed blah blah blah. End of disclaimer.]

Let me start by saying I’m extremely judgemental. Extremely. When I first landed in boarding school, I assumed the role of watcher. I looked at every girl I met and decided instantly whether I liked her or not. I didn’t have any basis for my choice. It was simply gut feeling, and I held on to that gut feeling for four years or more. Granted, a few people surprised me. The girl I nicknamed Lady SuperFrown ended up being the sweetest girl on earth, and on the days she wasn’t frowning, she had a killer smile. The girl I thought was pleasantly assertive and strong ended up being a bossy bitch. And the girl that was pushy and annoying turned out to be my best friend.

In the grown up world, I’ve pretty much stayed in my cocoon. In campus I shuttled between class and books, so I never really talked to people. Then I confined myself to my house for three years with no one but my little girl for company. After that we were in a foreign country [What. Tanzania is a foreign as it gets. They even think different.] I speak Swahili well enough, but I’d stutter, lose all the nuances, and end up offending everyone, so I just avoided them.

Back home, I was thrust into people for maybe the first time ever. I could hide in my house and bond with my computer, but working freelance meant I did have to mix with clients once in a while. It also meant I had to physically mingle with online people in various capacities. Some were colleagues, others were clients, and some were simply crushes gone bad. In the process, I learnt a lot about second first impressions.

There are people in this world who have presence. You spot them in a  crowd and it’s like no one else exists. I’m not talking about love at first sight or anything like that. It’s just that some people have – you know – the ‘it’ factor. I was in a mat this morning and I saw this little Japanese girl. She must have been five feet tall, and she wore shorts and a blouse. She’s not a kid – she looked 28 or 29. But for the five minutes that we were stuck at the roundabout, I didn’t notice anyone else, and I’m not even sure why. Maybe it’s because she had pretty hair, or because she was lighter than everyone else, or even because the rest had layers and layers of clothing while she had on a checked shirt and shorts. Whatever ‘it’ is, that girl had it. She made a strong impression.

I’ve met people who’ve made strong first impressions, only to cancel them on the second third or fourth meeting. There’s Katana, the manager I met during one freelance gig. When I first met her, I didn’t pay much attention. She’s very graceful despite her size, a real African woman, all power suits and heels. I assumed that her confidence was connected to her beauty, and that she was a bit of a busybody because she kept butting into exchanges that had nothing to do with her. I thought she might be a bosses’ pet, and that her clout came from proximity to authority.

She would make a lot of snap decisions concerning the project, but I secretly thought she was a little, you know, blonde. She made declarations that were obvious and unoriginal, yet she made them with confidence and carried herself like the world was her underling. She had the air of a pretty girl drifting through a world of Plain Janes, or at least that’s what I thought. She would walk into the room like she knew everyone was looking at her, and she commanded attention when she didn’t get. Naturally, she didn’t get along well with all the other women, but it didn’t seem to faze her. She seemed to almost expect it, and even thrive on it, using it to justify her condescension.

Three months down the line, I was invited to a board meeting … and she was chairing it. It turns out she owns the company. Oooookaaaaay. I didn’t treat her any differently after that, not even when I saw the car she drove and the house she lived in. She got a little tipsy during some cocktail thing and did some name-dropping and payslip shoving, and I finally realised where her attitude came from. She could easily afford to buy me, five times over! But the tipsiness also made her human. She showed off her soft, nurturing side, and I decided she wasn’t so bad after all. When we met the next morning to go over a brief, she got out of her car, handed me some files, and topped the load with an ashtray for me to hold while she dusted off her cigarette and talked on her cell phone. She did say thank you when she was done smoking, so I suppose that’s something, but still, can you say ouch?

Then there was Barbara. She was the PA to a web developer that I was working with. Yes, I know web developers don’t have PAs, but this one does. When I first saw Barbara, she had this look on her face. It was like she’d sized me up and decided that I wasn’t much competition, so she could afford to be nice to me. And she was, but only from afar. She was extremely polite on phone and email. Her boss would call to see if she’d gotten me drinks or stationery or food, and she’d always answer with a voice dripping honey. But she would never speak to me directly or follow through on any of her bosses’ requests concerning me.

Then one day, something touched her – I’m not sure what – and she went totally human. She came up to me at lunch and we chatted about movies and music and boys. Turns out she has a crush on her boss, and could only let her guard down once she was sure I wasn’t interested in him. If only she knew he sees me more as a boy. Either way, she surprised me by how cool she turned out to be. She still has lapses of girliness where’s she’s downright bitchy with me, but I just assume it’s monthlies, and we’re pretty much pally nowadays. Sometimes, when her mood switches get really extreme, I wonder if she’s schitzophrenic, napoleonic, or just a really good actor.

Speaking of being seen as a boy, there was this one girl, hotshot accountant type. Let’s call her Dana. She was the only girl in the boys’ club of senior management. I’d followed her job profile for a while, and she was always photographed in girly stints and poses. Fashion events, hair exhibitions, bead galleries, she was always there. She seemed vivacious and feisty, always being interviewed for some radio show or other. So I assumed she was the flower of the firm, and that she was their soft touch, their bid for affirmative action. I didn’t doubt that she was good. I mean, the firm was top notch, so affirmative action or not, she’d have to be awesome at her job to get there. It wasn’t the kind of place you could get into on your back. So I was more than a little intimidated about meeting her.

When I finally  did meet her, she seemed … well … quiet … and guarded. Very guarded. I thought she’d warm up eventually, but six months into the project, she was still all hunched body langauge and one-word answers. I eventually asked her assistant about it, and he laughed at my shocked expression. ‘Didn’t you know? She doesn’t like women!’ Oh. Right. Didn’t see that one coming.

The other surprise girl was sort of … different … so let’s call her Shaquilla. She’s the partner to one of my clients, so she’s in charge of PR and Marketting. I’d bumped into her online and thought she was a little – well – blonde. But when I heard her title and her credentials, I assumed I must be wrong. After all, she had a 50% stake in a blue chip company, and she wasn’t anyone’s daughter or wife, so she must have something in her brains. I met her quite a few times over the next few months, and each time she did something silly, I’d defend her and wish it away. But by the time I picked my final cheque and left … well … she has really good taste in shoes.

And just so you don’t think I have it in for girls, let’s do a few boys as well. There’s Mwema, the driver who was assigned to me during one gig. He had to take to me to odd places at even odder hours, and he seemed kind of aloof and distant. No matter how hard I tried to engage him, he was like a rock. He’d watch me and listen attentively like he planned to act on every word, then he’d do whatever he wanted. Real phleg that one. We’d be driving in my hood and I’d suggest an alternate route he could use, and he’d pause and nod … and use whatever route he wanted anyway. One day, I just flat out asked if he resented driving me, and if he’d rather have me assigned to someone else. He didn’t respond, but the next day, Madam Boss caught a ride with us. She took the back left while I took my usual shotgun seat.

That woman makes Cruella de Ville look like a saint. She’d ask the driver to take one route, and when he did, she’d blame him for taking it, claiming that he was an expert and should know better. If she caught him using the rear view mirror, she’d swear worse than any sailor and fire him on the spot even though – clearly – she had no jurisdiction. Once or twice, she threatened to throw him out of the car  and drive it herself, but recanted the demand once she realized the harm it would do to her nails. And when he finally dropped her off, she insisted that before taking me to where I needed to go, he should go back to the house … to get her dog. No, it wasn’t a joke. At the end of the day, I bought the guy a big bottle of Johnny Walker and promised to be quiet and let him enjoy all future rides in peace.

Then there was the uber friendly guy who smiled all the time – Timmy. I haven’t decided about him, but nobody can be that happy all the time. And there’s Adrian, the flirty Finance Manager. I can’t really tell with him. There are times when I swear he’s hitting on me, and times when I think he acts this way with all the girls. Sometimes he pays such attention to details in my nature, remembering what colour my shoes were, or noting the flavour of smarties I enjoy. Other times, he ignores me for weeks at a time except for work matters. He seems so professional sometimes, but at other times he’s such a clown that I wonder how he ever got that six-figure job. He’s fun to watch though.

But there are two guys who have me curious – Peter and Paul. [What.] They’re twins in a sense, because they handle two sections of the same account. One handles PR and the other handles media. They’re both kind of quiet, but I’ve seen pictures of office parties that suggest they can get rowdy given the right drink. One of them has this habit of watching me with this … expression. It’s like he has a million questions he wants to ask me, but he can’t quite decide if he should. The other one is reservedly flirty, if such a thing exists. He checks on me once in a  while, and notices when I’m not at work. My brief is that I don’t need to be there every day, but he’s the only one that asks me where I was when and why. He never does it in a nosy way. It seems more like curiosity and concern. In fact, it’s almost … territorial. It surprises me when he does that, because when I first started the project, he seemed to almost resent me being there, but once he decided I was worth what they were paying me, he started acting almost like a boyfriend. But only two or three days a week. The rest of the time, he acts like I’m not even there. I’d love to get inside those twin heads and find out what they really think of me. Maybe I should rig up a mike in their office and hear what they say when I’m not around.

I think the most confusing person I’ve met so far is Jem. He’s gay guy that I worked with a while back. When I first walked into the office, he introduced himself, and he seemed really nice. He was friendly and open and we talked a lot about our personal lives. I felt like we’d made a connection. But then the next day he walked by like I didn’t even exist, and I admit that I was hurt. After that, he was different every day. I noticed he was unpopular with the girls in the office, which is strange because most gay guys are adorable. There were days he’d go out of his way to be polite to me, inviting me to sit with him at lunch and lending me a book he was sure I’d enjoy. Other times, he’d be mean and raspy and snap at me, so I’d stay out of his way and assume it was his periods.

Once in a while, I’d see a startling side of him. He had some rather mannish tendencies, which I found strange for his orientation. He sucks at taking hints and he has the EQ of a rock. He also has a tattoo on his … well … I’m not supposed to know about that, so I probably shouldn’t mention it, but let’s just say that when I found out about it, I started to wonder if he was really gay. He’s also – apparently – really good with kids. He spends most of his weekends babysitting for the boss. Anyway, I’ve known him for a year, but I haven’t quite decided what to think about him. It’s like he’s someone different every day, and it’s more than a little creepy. Maybe he’s just ISFP.

I suppose what I’ve taken from all this is not to judge a book when I first read it. It could be very, very different the second, third, or fourth time that I see it. It won’t really have changed, because you can’t alter words that are in print. But they might seem different in another mood, another light, another language. The words may change because of context or translation. The person I meet might be someone completely different and yet someone exactly the same, so I have to be open to the fact. It’s like Dr Phil says, life is made of a million first impressions – the first time you’re stuck in traffic, the first time you’re excited, the first time he surprises you with black forest cake and so on. People react differently to every first, so you have to allow space and time to make a composite impression  before you decide if you like someone or not. And even then, there are mid and quarter life crises, and breakdowns, and brain tumours, and alzheimers, and menopause. So you might know someone for years and end up thinking they’re a complete stranger and you don’t like them anymore, or that they’re cooler than you thought they were. I suppose I’m finally learning to accept that. I wonder if that makes me more grown up.

Nara Posthumus

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