"I love your hair," the Compliment Guy told me one recent day.
It wasn't a good hair day or anything; in fact, that morning I had picked up a voicemail from my stylist telling me that it was time for my monthly appointment. And my reminder calls from her always come about five days after I start getting frustrated about how my hair is looking.
No, there was no rational explanation for this random comment, except that he is the Compliment Guy. This is what he calls himself. If you walk around the Dupont Circle area during the day, you've probably walked past the Compliment Guy and maybe you've been complimented by him, if you are a lady. The Compliment Guy doesn't seem to have many things to say to the gentlemen who pass by, even though some of them are far prettier than I am, and have much better hair.
The first time I noticed the Compliment Guy, I was only slightly taken aback by the realization that he was complimenting lots of ladies, but not me.
I watched him compliment this lady and that, and saw him glance at me and immediately turn to say something to the lady behind me. There have been few times in my life when I've wished that a man would make an unsolicited comment about my appearance; in fact, maybe this was the first such time. It seemed so stark and obvious when the Compliment Guy didn't find something nice to say about me.
I do have nice hair, usually -- hairdressers love it for its perfect amount of natural curl -- and I have often received favorable feedback about my eyes. Some people say I have a complexion to kill for, even though it's usually way too pink from blushing. Recently, in fact, a couple of coworkers made me blush profusely by telling me I had nice teeth and a beautiful smile, which I've never really let myself believe, even after two years of orthodonture in high school. I always focus on the Shannon Doherty-like gap between my front tooth and my bicuspid on the left side, or the fact that one of my front teeth is a crown, which seems, on some days, like the most obvious thing in the world.
Picky details aside, I do have attributes worth complimenting, but am not so stunningly beautiful that the Compliment Guy should go all speechless when he sees me, clearly unable to choose just one detail to praise. But this is what seemed to happen the first time we crossed each other's paths. He saw me and was, I suppose, temporarily overwhelmed by my beauty, then turned to focus on someone whose positive qualities were counterbalanced with some sort of flaw, the type of which is not readily identifiable when I saunter by.
I felt emboldened by the Compliment Guy's decision to ignore me that day, to pretend I didn't exist because mere words cannot capture my profound attractiveness as I stroll down a city street on a perfect spring day. I felt supermodel-stunning, and started wondering when the calls for acting jobs and product endorsements would begin to roll in. I felt invincible and incredible.
Actually, I felt a little obvious in my lesbianism. Either Compliment Guy just plain didn't find me attractive (there is, unlikely as it seems, always that possibility) or he knew that his efforts would be falling on deaf ears.
The second time I saw the Compliment Guy he ignored me again, and I started to get a small complex that I promptly conveyed into bitterness toward him. Obviously the Compliment Guy has psychological problems, or maybe just a vision defect, I thought. Whatever it is, it's his problem, and not mine.
The third time was a charm, though, as I heard his words as I approached: "You all look lovely." Yes, "you all." I was walking with two coworkers, attractive (and straight) females, and one of them then remarked about how the Compliment Guy always has something nice to say. I stayed silent, thinking that there is strength in numbers, and my beauty clearly shines strongest when I am comfortable in a group and not alone on the mean, cold streets of the city.
After that, I started watching the Compliment Guy when I'd see him out on the corner. I observed how aggressively nice he was to the ladies who walked by him. He seemed to have no regard for whether a woman was with a male companion, even if she was obviously romantically linked to her escort. He was intent on spreading good cheer and pleasantries to all females, with no expectations in return. He never bothered anyone or behaved in a threatening way, unless you think compliments are threatening. He wanted to make sure his niceties were heard, and once he accomplished that, he would move on to the next lady.
He continued to evade me, or I continued to evade him -- I'm not sure who was employing the active verb. Occasionally I would let myself wonder if a generic "You have a beautiful face!" was meant for me, when it probably was directed at the woman right behind me or right in front of me.
I started thinking that maybe my inability to get a break from the Compliment Guy had something to do with my inability to ever find a Complement Guy back when I was boy-shopping in high school and the early days of college.
(In case you missed it, that was copy editing humor, compliment vs. complement. Look it up, if you need to. And while we're at it, here's my favorite lesbian copy editor joke: Does k.d. lang have periods?)
I'd almost given up on the Compliment Guy when he caught me that recent day and looked me in the eye and said, "I love your hair." I was a little beside myself. I wasn't sure if I should thank him or ask him what took him so long. In the end, I met his gaze, as I try to always do with people who talk to me on the street. You can take the girl out of Iowa, after all..
So I looked at him, and said, "Thank you!" And then I heard the Compliment Guy say something he'd never said to another woman as far as I knew. It became clear then that I deserved individual attention from him. I learned at that moment that there was a special bond between me and the Compliment Guy; that we'd been doing a subtle and intricate dance around each other for months.
But no longer. That day, he continued looking directly at me and said, in a most gallant fashion, "Can you spare any change?"
Kristina Campbell welcomes compliments at firstname.lastname@example.org, and can be found complimenting herself often on these pages in her biweekly column "Alphabet Soup."