After being inundated for days by the presence of 800 women, gathered for an annual meeting, I found myself flanked by three males, in succession, in the space of a single day, at my right shoulder.
It's nothing really, but it strikes me now as funny, how this one deltoid could have been so socially engaged in such a short span of time.
Wednesday night, after dining on the second of what ended up being three ocean-based meals that week, with two female colleagues, at a restaurant enclosed by the thick concrete walls supporting a parking garage above it and painted in a very bad shade of blue, where the server brought us water but offered no other beverage, I took a social plunge and sat myself at the short end of our hotel bar.
Quite a feat for an introvert, the move did show calculation: no one could sit next to me, and I watched the baseball game and could see all the other people lined up with their backs to the tables.
My closest neighbor was reading a magazine. He was about 35 and married. He did not say anything or acknowledge my existence in any way.
It's an uncomfortable thing to be alone at a bar, for a woman who doesn't have a book or magazine, and whose hometown team is playing on the TV she can't see, while the game on the nearby screen is a languishing 11-0 in the sixth inning.
Drinking alone, exposed, it's not something I'm at used to at all.
I don't go to bars. My younger colleague laughed when I told her I had Googled "liquor stores." There apparently is only one in all of downtown Houston, though, and it was 15 minutes away on the other side of an interstate.
And bar drinks are expensive.
And bar-ing alone sends one of two bad signals: "I'm here to get drunk," or, "I'm here to get laid."
Or both -- though for a man especially it could also just be, "I'm here to socialize with whomever else happens to be in the mood and here to do so."
The man with the magazine paid and left. He didn't even finish what he was drinking, something in a highball glass, cherry-tinted amber, with ice that never melted.
His replacement turned out to be someone similar, without a wedding ring.
He ordered a Sam Adams beer and bantered a bit with the bartender.
My position also gave me full view of a rather large group of women from the conference who were gathered in the corner of the lounge, a square open-view area in the center of the lobby, itself open to the roof, 30 floors above.
At some point, a large man took up in the middle of the bar. He was about 46 and he did make eye contact. He proceeded to drink his face red in short order; later he would openly glower as another man, younger and more attractive, started in with this long-haired woman who was chipper, pretty and amenable.
Suddenly the women in the back corner burst out into applause. Everyone at the bar turned around. I barely had to turn my eyes to see what was going on; they were congratulating one of their leaders, a slightly stooping white-haired woman, who had just walked in from outdoors.
"She's a famous Catholic sister," I told my closest companion.
That broke the ice, so to speak, and we chatted off and on, then generally had a nice conversation, about the hotel -- he had been there many, many times, as it was a layover spot for his airline; work -- it was his last day as a flight attendant, after seven years of seeing the world, having his housing provided in Dubai and saving up a good deal of money; politics -- he is Canadian and took interest in the whole Donald Trump phenomenon; his Malaysian girlfriend from New Zealand, who also worked for the airline, had had a difficult childhood and whose parents stereotypically were anxious for her to marry and have children.
We shared an interest in the drama playing out between the pick-up man and the long-haired woman next to him.
I explained why there were 800 Catholic sisters at the hotel and why I was there, too. "I'm well-chaperoned," I said, jokingly.
He asked intelligent questions about what it's like to edit material for a religious publication.
We became Facebook friends.
The next afternoon, my colleague who had run the booth with me in the exhibition area for the conference and I were picked up by the shuttle van to the airport.
Another sister got in at our stop. A man got in at the next, and he sat next to her, behind us, though with a space between. Another man was picked up, and he got in the front seat.
The next man was tall and from another country -- and seemingly an other era, with his perfect teeth, small round glasses and tight, smooth afro.
No choice: I said hello, moved over and had him sit next to me.
In another culture, it would be unthinkable for strangers of the opposite sex to be so close. We were touching, off and on as the shuttle made turns, but mostly on, because there literally was no space, no place else to go.
It's weird how people will pretend in such situations that the situation is not happening. The coping mechanism for awkwardness is a polite kind of negation. He closed his eyes while we were on the highway. Sleep means you're not here.
So, our arms are touching. There is flesh touching flesh. And nothing will become of that.
In another circumstance, things would be so different. I kept thinking, "Do I feel anything?"
We finally arrived.
He laughed in surprise when I bounced out of the van. I guess it's surprising to see someone my age spring out like that. I suppose I have fun when I can. Next stop, TSA, the bodyscan and being flat-palmed on my breast that the machine flagged as "something."
The man I sat next to after that, once again in the dreaded middle seat, worse for being on an airplane, the middle seat between a woman on the aisle and this man at the window, was close enough for me to have kissed his left ear.
He kept a small computer open the entire time, even during take-off and landing, watching television shows, including "Naked and Afraid," the survivalist reality show from the Discovery channel.
He never once looked at me, and he barely looked out of the window.
The woman likewise watched golf on her phone, or swiped through a bunch of news feeds. When we landed, she did ask if I was home or going on and what was it like living downtown.
During the two-hour flight, I read a book, Milan Kundera's The Joke, and struggled against passing out from days of too-little sleep and too-long and too-social days.
Intimate proximity without actual intimacy . . .