“What does that mean?”

“He’s a shrimp,” the woman said. “In photos he seems average enough, but in real life you practically need a microscope to see him.”

“So he’s, like, the size of a flu germ?”

“Just about,” she said. “I’d put him at around five-nine.”

“I’m four inches shorter,” I told her, “so what does that make me?”

“Well…you know,” she said.

Before I learned to never, under any circumstances, read anything about myself, I’d occasionally stumble upon an interview I’d given. Then I’d recall the journalist who wrote it and mistakenly wonder what his or her writing was like. In Australia a few years back, I was surprised when a woman I’d very much enjoyed talking to described me as “bonsai-size.” This didn’t offend me. Rather, I was taken aback. She might have been an inch or two taller than me, but it’s not like I came to her knees or anything. I’ve been called “diminutive” as well, and “elfin,” as if I sleep in a teacup.

A few years ago I opened a paper in Ottawa and saw that the journalist I’d spoken to the day before had described me as “slight and effeminate.” Really? I thought. The first adjective seemed fair enough, but the second one threw me. I know I cross my legs a lot, but I don’t think my walk is especially ladylike. I don’t wave my hands around when I talk or address anyone as “Miss Thing.” In the end I decided the word was more about him than it was about me. But isn’t it often that way?

It’s one thing for someone to describe you in print, to go through several drafts and, after careful consideration, choose the adjective “Lilliputian” over, say, “pint-size.” It’s another thing when they blurt it out. “You horrible little man,” an Englishwoman once said after I’d written something she didn’t like in her book. In 1987, while I was home for Christmas, my sister Tiffany got into a fight with my sister Gretchen. I came in at the very end, just as it was breaking up, and when I asked what was going on, Tiffany said, “Why don’t you go back to your room and write some more about being a faggot?”

How long has that been in there? I wondered. It’s scary the things that come out when you’re mad at someone. Some years back at a small airport in Wisconsin, a TSA agent ordered me to take off my vest. “I’ve been wearing this for three weeks,” I told her. “Every day I’ve traveled to a different city, and this is the first time I’ve been asked to remove it.”

The woman was maybe ten years older than me, which at the time would have put her in her early sixties. Her dyed hair was cut short and was carefully styled in a way that made me think of chocolate cake frosting. “I want it off now!” she barked.

“It must be nice to hold such an important position,” I wanted to say as I started undoing the buttons. Then I thought of how snobbish that sounded and was ashamed of myself. Here I was, angry, and my first instinct was to attack her job—her class, really. Have I always been this person? I wondered as I walked through the archway in my stocking feet. What does it mean that my second option, “I’m so glad you’re not my grandmother,” wasn’t much better?

I later wondered how this woman might have described me and realized that all she needed to say was “the jerk in the vest.” Actually, in this context, the word “jerk” is unnecessary. As with “the guy in the white boots,” I think it’s already implied. I mean, really, a vest! What was I thinking? It wasn’t the kind that came with a suit but rather a “worker’s vest,” modeled on one from the nineteenth century, with pockets for all my mule-skinning tools.

She also might have described me as “the gay guy.” While this doesn’t bother me, I don’t think of it as the cornerstone of what I am. Given all my current options, I think I prefer “the little guy.” Who wants to waste his time bothering a person like that? So tiny. So inconsequential. A speck.

Stepping Out

I was at an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, listening as a woman named Lesley talked about her housekeeper, an immigrant to Australia who earlier that day had cleaned the bathroom countertops with a bottle of very expensive acne medication: “She’s afraid of the vacuum cleaner and can’t read or write a word of English, but other than that she’s marvelous.”

Lesley works for a company that goes into developing countries and trains doctors to remove cataracts. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” she said as our antipasto plate arrived. “These are people who’ve been blind for years, and suddenly, miraculously, they can see again.” She brought up a man who’d been operated on in a remote area of China. “They took off the bandages, and for the first time in two decades he saw his wife. Then he opened his mouth and said, ‘You’re so…old.’”

Lesley pushed back her shirtsleeve, and as she reached for an olive, I noticed a rubber bracelet on her left wrist. “Is that a watch?” I asked.

“No,” she told me. “It’s a Fitbit. You sync it with your computer, and it tracks your physical activity.”

I leaned closer, and as she tapped the thickest part of it, a number of glowing dots rose to the surface and danced back and forth. “It’s like a pedometer,” she continued, “but updated, and better. The goal is to take ten thousand steps per day, and once you do, it vibrates.”

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