being noticed in London

London sidewalks teem with people who are just trying to get wherever they’re going. There’s so much to look at but people’s eyes rarely leave the path ahead, or their mobiles.

Gawking tourists are an obstruction to be sniffed at. People standing still, looking eager, and holding clipboards are studiously avoided and best passed just beyond hailing distance. People standing still, looking somewhat defeated, and holding collection jars are avoided, I suspect, with a whiff of guilt or the defensive thought, “I’m too busy to stop.” Or perhaps they’re all simply tuned out as part of the visual noise of a large city. Eye contact doesn’t happen.

With the sheer numbers and diversity, even the odd ones tend to blend in to a degree. Or they get a passing glance until their oddness is comprehended or dismissed, and then they’re deliberately ignored or merely allowed to sink into the noise again.

So when we were out in London the other day, and my partner noticed people noticing us, it bore some consideration.

When we were waiting — on the Tube platform, on the train itself, at a bus stand — he would silently touch me, while continuing to survey our surroundings. If we were facing each other, he would grip my right wrist, the one without the watch.

More often, he would stand beside or behind me and place a hand on the back of my neck, usually fairly firmly, as a way of creating a loving connection without the need for words. Sometimes he stroked my nape lightly, and I would lean in to his touch.

It hinted at control and possession and thus play. It made us both take a virtual half-step out of the chaos, into ourselves and towards each other. It made me relax in one way, tense in another, and sometimes catch my breath — and then slowly and deliberately exhale. Sometimes it got me wet.

I don’t know what other people thought they were seeing. I don’t think they knew either, which is why, while scanning the environment and catching motion or a slightly unusual tableau, they noticed, and then watched, processing. At one point, while we were waiting for a bus, we observed a string of pedestrians passing by, observing us. One woman even made eye contact with me. They always looked away again: we’re a little odd but quiet and clearly harmless. Harmless? Well, we clearly posed no danger to them.

Of the few who saw, I wonder if any understood.

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