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ESSAYS, NOVELS, AND COMPILATIONS

A two year romance was enjoyed at the mall using only eye contact without a single word being spoken.

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The Flirtation
The Eye is Love’s Tongue

 
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

 
Impatient to leave the mall and irritated at the funereal pace of the crowded, down escalator, my gait reflexively shifted into high gear upon merciful deliverance to floor level.

Instinctively emulating a race horse, which saves ground by hugging the track rail, I passed the Just In Time store in close proximity to the wall, at a pace that invited collision around the imminent blind corner.

Small calculated risks can be delicious when the downside isn’t too onerous.

Turning left onto the main promenade, I collided hard with a woman in as big a hurry to enter the mall as I was to leave it.

In one of those inexplicable mysteries of life, we both reacted with inordinately long, soul-piercing stares into each other’s eyes, conveying neither anger nor flirtation, just connection. Neither of us uttered a sound.

Subsequent to that sultry Friday in mid-June 1995, I assumed I would never see her again, and the encounter soon dissolved from consciousness into the soup of the week’s hundreds of other momentary encounters, pondered once, then purged from memory.

Such encounters constitute the “junk mail” of our interpersonal experiences, and the human brain has a “memory edit” function set on autopilot, which keeps the mind from being overwhelmed with the memory detritus of insignificant events.

For two years I had walked the upscale, beautiful, and huge regional mall from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. daily and returned to my home real estate office by 9 o’clock to commence the workday.

This strategy, in concert with a computer-monitored reduction in calorie intake, had reduced my weight from 207 to 185 pounds. My new strategy was to ratchet the effort up to two consecutive hours daily in a concerted effort to break the 180 pound weight barrier. That second hour loomed as unendurably boring. Nevertheless, on Monday, I would begin. Perhaps I’d meet some new and intriguing people during the 9-10 a.m. hour.

During my one-hour walks, I had often tried to fast-forward the clock by conjuring up imaginary lives for passers-by. I might bestow upon a grossly overweight man the secret life of an Olympic sprinter, or paint a meticulously attired business woman as an animal trainer for the circus.

This anti-boredom dynamic would soon be tested beyond my wildest dreams. Two years of forcing my imagination to “pump iron” would furnish the skills to construct what would soon become a mallwalker’s romantic roller-coaster ride.

"The eye is love’s tongue” is a quote from Phineas Fletcher, a 17th century British poet.

As I pondered the implications of the aphorism after discovering it during a session with Reader’s Digest magazine, I wondered just how complex a relationship two people could develop without ever being introduced, speaking, or touching. How long could an eye–contact–only relationship be sustained? What physical setting would be conducive to such a phenomenon?

The possibilities excluded work-related activities because the two principals would not be in control of events, thereby limiting flexibility, serendipity, and hence romance.

Since commitment engenders responsibilities and expectations, which demand introductions and verbal communication, commitment-building settings were inappropriate. That eliminated the myriad of social and recreational venues conceived for the express purpose of coupling individuals into committed relationships.

I concluded that a nonverbal relationship could only be nurtured in a setting which involved actual physical activity and movement, with encounters being regular and brief.

The activity would have to occur daily, or frequently enough to reinforce and evolve behavior, while being short enough in duration as not to impact on the participants’ regular social and professional lives.

I considered and dismissed a few obvious possibilities. Sitting in a classroom while taking a continuing-education course provides limited opportunities for flirtatious maneuvering and there’s no inter-relational flexibility or bodily movement.

Health clubs are a more malleable social venue, with snack bars, saunas, pools, and members circulating among equipment stations. Unfortunately, crowds fluctuate with the seasons, so regularity is compromised by long lines during busy cycles. Additionally, an actual workout requires total concentration making consistent contact in a relationship impossible to achieve unless you subordinate your health goal to your social goal.

The “eureka moment” then struck. What I was already doing was the perfect venue for the envisioned experiment. Mallwalking is an activity which fits all of the necessary criteria for testing Phineas Fletcher’s observation.

Malls are open seven days a week and you can set your watch by most mallwalkers’ schedules. Contact is brief, regular and non-committal. You have the flexibility to walk anywhere you wish, whenever you wish. Crowds, weather, and special events don’t affect mallwalkers and the dynamics are perfect for the flirting game I had in mind.

It occurred to me that Fletcher’s observation could carry the germ for a new sport tailor-made for the commitment-phobic. The essence of mallwalking includes no commitments, no responsibilities, and a painless exit when things aren’t perfect. "Mallwalk flirting" is an appropriate sport in an increasingly insular, cocoonish America where sports contracts and marriage vows are casually discarded and the influence of religions, schools, and families are diminishing.

Unfortunately, I had no willing prospect for a test case and once introduced to someone the spell would be broken and the fantasy ended. A partner must be a non-acquaintance, and that seemed to be insurmountably problematic to beginning such a fantasy escapade. I quickly let this daydream pass, and planned the next week’s real estate-related activities.

On Monday, I walked as normal from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., and stopped briefly for coffee at the Au Bon Pain in the mall food court on the third level, steeling myself for a second hour.

As I resumed my walk, trudging the first level in a counter-clockwise direction, a black and white blur of motion suddenly passed in a clockwise direction, rare for mallwalkers.

After another lap, I got a clearer look at the blur, and to my astonishment it was the woman with whom I had collided the prior Friday, wearing black tights and a white tee shirt.

With steely resolve she avoided all eye contact, said nothing, and disappeared after three more laps. Surely Phineas Fletcher himself was providing a deus ex machina to metamorphose my fantasy to reality. Could this woman possibly be a new regular mallwalker?

Serendipity had indeed visited me. After several days, it became obvious that she was a habitual 9-10 a.m. walker.

I faced an imminent decision to either say hello or implement my Phineas Fletcher fantasy. I opted for the fantasy, and it evolved into one of the most titillating experiences of my life.

Developing a complex relationship with only the eyes meant that I could not say hello to her. That part was easy.

I also had to ensure that she would never say hello and attempt to converse with me. That part required some research.

I spoke with two elderly men who regularly walked the first level between 9 and 10 a.m. They said they had never seen this woman initiate a conversation or walk with anyone. They added that when they passed her, she would look through them coldly, as though they didn’t exist. “Perfect!” I thought. That meant the initiative and the timetable would be left to my discretion.

But would she take offense at any flirtatious actions? I concluded that she couldn’t be totally anti-social if she was one of the two percent of mallwalkers who walk clockwise, because it is far easier to avoid eye and social contact if one walks with the crowd rather than straight at it.

So in spite of her gruff facade, I guessed that she would be receptive to friendly overtures¾her reaction to the leering old men with whom I had consulted notwithstanding.

My daily second hour was already passing more quickly.

My first tactical goal was to ascertain her daily lap count. It was between five and eight laps per day, always beginning on the first level and working up to the fourth. That translated to the possibility of face-to-face contact ten to sixteen times a day. She always walked clockwise against the predominant flow of traffic, and her pace was faster than all but one or two of the dozens of mallwalkers. That made it unlikely that she would pair regularly with anyone else unless she brought a friend with her. That never happened.

My second goal was to make her aware of me and to display an interest in her. I quickly fine-tuned my schedule to coincide with hers, and consistently looked directly into her eyes each time she passed. But I never said hello.

The third goal was to convince her that I was interesting, friendly and not inimical to her well-being. I accomplished this by wearing a wide variety of clothes such as Orioles’ caps and jerseys, bright colors, and sometimes a conservative blue business suit complete with briefcase. On days when I had client contract meetings I prepped at the mall.

I met and joined a wide variety of people, young and old, security and maintenance personnel, and after a month of watching me in animated and pleasant conversations with a cross-section of humanity, I was confident that she would feel safe with me.

I genuinely enjoy meeting and chatting with people and was not being manipulative. I would have behaved similarly with the other mallwalkers had I never met the mystery woman. In the same vein, there was no wife or girlfriend in my life to whom this adventure would be disrespectful.

Eventually, I sensed that her curiosity about me was growing. She began to stop in my path occasionally, ostensibly to gaze at an object in a store window or to examine a floor display. These are unusual actions for serious, fast-paced mallwalkers, who do not like to interrupt their pulse-rate once it is raised to the desired level.

These were her cues for me to stop and make conversation, which, of course, was precluded by my fantasy.

My failure to respond to the conversational opportunities she presented ultimately triggered the next step in the anticipated progression of reactions. She returned eye contact but thankfully didn’t speak.

When I still failed to respond with a simple hello, but continued to greet and chat with scores of other mallwalkers and persisted in making eye contact with her, I believe she got angry and perplexed.

But anger was better than fright. Had I sensed the latter response I would have short-circuited my fantasy immediately and spoken with her. She must have pondered the inconsistency of my persistent eye contact accompanied by a refusal to say hello, but fortuitously, she steadfastly refused to be the first to speak.

I can only credit an epiphany for the fact that she soon deduced what I had in mind. One morning her first glance included a smile, a roll of the eyes, two thumbs up, and an expression that veritably shouted: “OK, count me in!”

It had taken two months to arrive at this stage in our pseudo-relationship, but she now trusted me, was interested in me, and was willing to flirt on a daily basis without ever saying hello or hearing my voice. A once-in-a-lifetime relationship had been unleashed.

The tedious second hour of exercise I once dreaded now passed like lightning every day. The mystery woman embraced the fantasy with an enthusiasm, degree of imagination, and an assertiveness that lent an unanticipated degree of excitement to the game.

Had I always been the leader and she the follower, or vice versa, the game would have quickly lost its allure for both of us. The fun was in the chess match for control, which shifted constantly. The mystery woman was very assertive but as readily submissive, and that was a perfect match for me.

Approval or disapproval of behavior was controlled by a carrot and stick approach. The carrot could be cooperation with the other’s next request, an approving smile, or simply walking extra laps, i.e. additional flirting.

The stick could be walking fewer laps, not following the other’s lead to the next floor, refusing to make eye contact, a scolding look, or in severe cases, not showing up at the mall for a day or two.

The mystery woman, somewhere between 38-42 years old, was not gorgeous. No one would describe her as tall or short. No one would describe her as fat or skinny. In stature perhaps 5'5" and 125 pounds, she was in my perception an outstanding athlete.

She had the well-toned body of a swimmer, without the overdeveloped shoulders. She had muscle tone, without being a hard-body. But most of all she had that loose-jointed, easy walk and arm swing that is typical of a superior, confident, female athlete.

I fantasized her at various times as a tri-athlete, a golfer, a basketball player, a softball or lacrosse star, a tennis champion, and a horseback riding instructor.

Her walk was distinguished by the quirk of unconsciously swinging her right arm behind her back with each stride, evoking the image of a jockey whipping a thoroughbred to hasten it toward the finish line.

The walk was so distinctive that, after a few months, my peripheral vision would often spot a blur of movement two floors above, and the need to see any other distinguishing physical features was extraneous. I knew it was her.

Her hair was shoulder length, medium brown, thin, stringy and poorly styled—female athletes’ hair takes immense abuse, and elaborate or delicate hairstyles are impractical.

But she had a strong-featured, oval face with expressive brown eyes that exuded competitive spirit and a joy to be alive. Her face commanded your attention, and had some postures that transformed her big brown eyes into manipulative weapons.

She broadcast an aura of energy that I found irresistible. I frequently saw much more beautiful women at the mall, but my whole being awakened in this woman’s presence and that had little to do with gorgeous legs. Her standard uniform was those long black tights with a baggy white tee shirt. The wardrobe would soon diversify.

I’ve never read an adequate explanation of the spiritual dynamic which occurs when two people in a crowd instantly realize that they are attracted to each other while hundreds of other passers-by don’t even register in their consciousness. It transcends beauty, compatible ages, and other superficial elements. But it is real, and the mystery woman and I both felt that magnetic pull toward each other.

We began our relationship by evolving ground rules regarding eye contact. The key guideline for eye contact was variety.

In an early encounter, we both looked directly into each other’s eyes and held the stare at every single pass—a variation of the “who would blink first” game. I confess I ended this highly erotic experience after about twelve laps (twenty-four passes) because I felt awkward and didn’t wish to broadcast our adventure to the general mall population. That experience set the first ground rule of always stopping a behavior while wanting a little more, or before it became uncomfortable.

Her expressive face readily conveyed impatience, happiness, annoyance, lust, disinterest, excitement, boredom, and a panoply of other emotions, so eye contact was always an adventure.

During subsequent encounters, we sometimes locked eyes, sometimes one of us looked away while the other drooled, and sometimes we both feigned indifference. The three commandments for eye contact became, (1) variety is king, (2) teasing is OK, (3) no over-indulgence.

Next, we had to work out ground rules for the laps themselves. My mystery woman never arrived at the mall before 9 a.m. and never walked on weekends. From those facts I surmised that she was probably married—since she enjoyed the luxury of spending the morning at the mall—and was caring for elementary school–age kids. In Baltimore County, school busses run three circuits: senior high, then middle school, and finally elementary school.

Elementary school kids are last because that subjects them to lighter traffic and no dark waits on street corners. Mothers with such kids are never free before 9 a.m. That age group still demands supervision when they are home, so weekends are never free.

The mystery woman normally limited her number of laps to between five and eight a day, always beginning on the first level and finishing on the fourth. Exceptions were made to reward behavior that made her happy and they gradually increased in frequency.

If one of us wished to convey unhappiness, we only walked a lap or two. Making face-to-face contact once and then abruptly disappearing for the day carried a clear message. Her primary source of annoyance with me was my predilection for interrupting our walking rhythms by frequently stopping for brief chats with other denizens of the mall. My habit elicited some glares rivaling the degree of angst one might expect if interrupting a personal conversation to answer frequent phone calls. Most often though, we were both very happy and that would often translate into ten to thirteen laps.

All four levels in our mall have rotundas bookending the promenades with a larger one at the center of each floor. Levels three and four have additional rotundas at the quarter distances along the promenades. That architectural feature gives walkers the opportunity to break monotony with figure eights. They became a favorite tool of the mystery woman to keep me off balance, and she often used them to short–circuit a lap, sneak up behind me, and pass.

I copied her strategy and soon appreciated its benefits, although I was hard pressed to catch and pass her and the incentive to do so was admittedly underwhelming. Her tease was to indulge, set the hook, then quickly execute a figure eight and disappear like a will-o’-the-wisp.

Each day a lap-leader was determined. The technique was easy. When we initially encountered each other on the first floor, I took my cue from her.

She would either look directly at me and submissively cast her eyes down signaling me to lead, or she would stare at me with a devilish grin, leaving no ambiguity about the fact that she was in charge this day.

We developed a “never three days in a row” rule to govern the leadership role. This egalitarian approach avoided the imposition of dominant or submissive personas. It demonstrated a flexibility on the part of both of us that enhanced the experience, and, for me, injected a genuine element of passion into the fantasy.

She preferred the control role, but if she broke the rule, I would take a few days off from the mall. She intuitively grasped the implication, because upon my return, she would invariably assume the submissive role.

It’s probably stretching semantics to use the words dominant and submissive, because the sole mandate of the dominant partner was to determine when floors would be changed. That person would leave the first level after one, two, or three laps and select a different floor. It was the submissive person’s task to reappear on the chosen floor within one lap’s time, roughly five or ten minutes in duration.

Walking in opposite directions, hugging the mall walls, and not knowing when or where we would reconnect made for delicious anticipation, particularly on the second level, where several sharp dog-legs in the promenade increase the risk for collision between fast walkers.

I witnessed the mystery woman once nearly flatten an elderly man at a dog-leg on the second level. Infuriated he shouted at her: “I hope you also drive your car in the wrong direction, then I won’t have to worry about you anymore!”

After refining eye contact and lap technique, we began experimenting with control over dress.

I commenced the ritual in October of 1995 by wearing an Orioles cap during the Orioles/Yankees playoff series. She responded by wearing both an Orioles’ hat and jersey the next day.

The morning after the Orioles were eliminated from the series, she wore a shirt exhibiting the purple and black colors and the mascot of the Baltimore Ravens professional football team. When I did not respond in kind the next day—signaling that I was not a Ravens fan, and that she had not displayed an adequate period of mourning for the Orioles—she unleashed a withering frown on me.

In subsequent, less intense encounters I got her to wear spandex and she got me to wear a sleeveless shirt. I got her to wear pink and she got me to wear sandals and sunglasses. We frequently influenced colors, shirts and the length of shorts and this became a thoroughly enjoyable ritual. Our piece de resistance, however, was to be the table-1 ritual. It was  the most fun and maybe the weirdest in our entertainment portfolio.

I typically walked about twenty-four laps in two hours, and therefore continued walking after the mystery woman was done.

Table-1 is a small two-person table at the very edge of the third-level food court, only feet from the promenade where I passed as I finished my laps on level three. The table is directly in front of the Au Bon Pain pastry shop where I get coffee daily.

She began retrieving her handbag from her car, along with other assorted props, and would reappear at table-1 with some outrageous whipped-cream topped mocha-chocolate cooler drink from Gloria Jean’s, adjacent to the Au Bon Pain.

They open at 10 a.m., but by this stage of our fantasy my mall schedule was occupying me almost until 10:30 each day. This table-1 ritual turned me into her personal parade float during my final laps. 


After enduring a few weeks of this boy-toy role, I began short-circuiting my workout to commandeer table-1, while she was retrieving props from her car. Happily, she was willing to accept turnabout, walk a few laps, and sit at a table in front of me, reciprocating the opportunity to play voyeur. Ultimately, we had to apply our “never more than three in a row” rule to the race for table-1, row 1.

There was something wickedly erotic about sitting in front of or behind an intimate acquaintance, watching or being watched intently while never verbally acknowledging the other’s presence. We were often sitting so close we could have reached out and held hands. For over a year, every Monday through Friday saw one of us at table-1, row 1 between 10 and 10:30 a.m.

We began to enhance this ritual by adding curiosity builders to the game. I would bring Christmas cards to write at the table in front of her, or compose long letters to acquaintances. When she was the "viewee" in row 2 she would eat outrageous things, read newspapers, talk on a cellular phone, write checks, and invent provocative postures for the open metal chairs. We both attempted to make the other curious or passionate enough to abandon discipline and initiate a conversation. It never happened.

The closest we ever came to sabotaging our fantasy was when I inadvertently passed her in the same crowded aisle in the Rite-Aid drug store while she was buying an Easter egg dye kit. It was an extremely awkward moment that took us both by surprise because we were “off duty,” so to speak. I almost broke the spell then.

It’s hard for me to elucidate the depths of excitement and passion endowed to our relationship by one simple reality. On any given day one of us could venture to a mall forever devoid of the other. Without knowing as much as first names, there would be no explanation, no apology, and no possibility of tracing the missing partner. When one party ultimately tired of this fantasy, there would be no invitations to visit a mallwalking therapist in order to resurrect a neglected relationship. It would just be an indelible, happy memory.

It seems sadly and uniquely human that we direct less enthusiasm toward the greatest treasures in our lives than we do toward its mundane possessions and irrelevancies. Machiavelli pointedly expressed this another way when he enlightened a Medici prince about one of life’s regrettable but politically useful ironies: “We take advantage of those we love, not those we fear.” At some point this fantasy would have to end and it would be important that both participants leave with good feelings about it.

As time passed and our relationship evolved in complexity, the haunting awareness that any day could irrevocably be our fantasy’s last heightened anticipation for each adventure at the mall. The vague but ultimately certain end date to our illusion intensified and refreshed the passion each time we swam together in that same, private lagoon; accessible only by passing through that portal of the soul, the eyes.

I suppose one must depict a relationship devoid of the unglamorous minutiae of daily life, of any responsibility or commitment, as illusory. It’s an illusion I have no regrets about and savor the memory of.

This relationship was exhilarating, but my initial reason for extending my walk to two hours was to lose weight. My weight goal of 179 was easily achieved. A new benchmark was set at 169 and, with improved computer-monitored dietary habits, was also achieved during the near two-year span of this relationship.

I could easily maintain my new weight with one hour of walking a day. I could not indefinitely sacrifice half of every business day to sustain a whimsical adventure. As with our individual rituals, I wanted the relationship itself to end while the appetite for more was not yet satiated.

For one of us to simply disappear forever would leave a bitterly tainted memory for both parties, one with guilt and the other with rejection.

Like the kiss that broke the spell in the classic Sleeping Beauty, the proper signal for closure would be for one of us to stop and initiate a conversation.

I took that initiative in January of 1997, after enjoying our second Christmas together. I approached her outside the Hess Shoe store on the first level. She unhesitatingly stopped, and we chatted about enjoying the holidays with our families. She glowed when she talked of her daughter Molly. We didn’t broach the subject of our unique relationship nor did we reveal our names. We each just needed to finally hear the other’s voice, and it had the hoped for cathartic effect. The spell was broken. We parted with a long glance. I suppose that ending was my farewell gift to her.

Her farewell gift to me came the following day. She did not walk at all, indicating that she correctly interpreted our chat as a signal for closure. I could not bear to sit at table-1, row 1 again, so I  sat six tables down that row, gazing toward the main fountain in the big rotunda. Apparition-like, the mystery lady suddenly deposited a huge mocha-chocolate cooler from Gloria Jean’s on table-1. It was topped by a mountain of whipped cream, probably triple Gloria Jean’s normal serving. She was taunting me for the repeated finger waggings I had inflicted on her for that particular indulgence.


There was no verbal exchange. We would end the way we began.

But she was not alone that day. She was accompanied by a gorgeous two or three year old girl in a stroller, who had a proprietary grip on a floppy rag doll hanging forlornly over the side. My friend was introducing me to her daughter Molly, the ultimate display of trust from a mother to a mere mall acquaintance. I was moved to tears. For twenty minutes I was transfixed, while the mystery lady interacted with the blond, curly-haired toddler, who was extremely well mannered yet inquisitive and vivacious.

In a final gesture, she had Molly gather the trash, bypass a nearby receptacle, and carry it to a can close to my table. I savored the chance to see Molly up close.

From her perspective, I was a feature in the mall landscape that never registered in her consciousness. I pondered if her mother would ever enlighten her.

While a stranger helped Molly with her assigned chore—I wondered if it were intended that I be that stranger—her mother used the event as a segue to turn and exchange a last glance, an unforgettable moment of passion, significantly impeded by the glistening in two sets of embracing eyes.

Then mother and daughter slowly walked the steps encircling the main fountain, proceeded to the fourth floor, and vanished.

It was over. Two souls had touched, shared a fantasy, and left each other a precious memory with a happy ending. Our eyes had indeed been love's tongue.

I’ve never seen her again.

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