Smile If You Love Me

Remember that game from sixth grade birthday parties? "Smile if you love me," we'd croon at each other, twisting our faces into the kinds of dramatic and ghoulish expressions that only sixth graders can find hilarious. The winner was determined by whoever could keep a straight face and reply, "I'm sorry honey, I love you, but I just can't smile."

I was terrible at it. Making my classmates laugh was no problem, but when I was on the receiving end I couldn't keep a straight face. Usually I would burst into giggles before my friends could utter a word. All they had to do was look at me, and I lost my composure. I am a chronic smiler. 

I get it from my dad. So do my siblings: all three of us smile when we're nervous. We smile when we're frustrated, we smile when we're pissed. We can't help it. It's like a subconscious tic. 

My constant smile is both a blessing and a curse when I travel alone. On my cross-country bicycle tour, my grin was disarming. Strangers knew this friendly girl on a bike was not a threat, though they showed surprise that I was out there alone, carrying camping gear. My smile was my ticket to generosity, to offers of help and food and water and someone's yard to camp in. 

But there were plenty of times when I did not want to look friendly. Every woman, and probably every man, knows what I'm talking about. It's those moments when the back of your neck prickles, and your stomach drops. When you're the recipient of attention that you don't enjoy.

I was stopped outside a gas station, about to hop off my bike and get a snack, when someone whistled. "Hey, baby!" came the cry. "Where you headed?"

Other girls might have felt right at home with this flirtation. They'd gaze across the parking lot at the construction worker on his lunch break, and friendly banter would ensue. But as a paranoid twenty-two-year-old woman alone in the middle of America, I didn't feel comfortable flirting with strangers. I looked up, nervous. 

"Nice smile, sweetheart," called the man. Damn it. I thought, turning my face quickly towards the building. I snatched my wallet from my bike and trotted towards the grocery store entrance, my weird, wincing grin reflected in the long line of windows. 

I'd spent too much time inside, perusing the dusty shelves of packaged junk food.  There wasn't much that I wanted in here, but I loathed returning to that parking lot. Surely his lunch break is over by now, I thought twenty minutes later, heading out into the blinding sunlight with a package of cookies clutched in my sweaty hand.

"Hey cutie," came the call. "Show me that smile."

This moment requires some translation, for those readers who've never been a paranoid young woman in the midst of a bike tour: Nothing is freakier than the attention of a large man with a pickup, who asks you where you're going. In his world, it's a perfectly reasonable question for an interesting-looking young woman on a bike. In your world, it's a threat. Trying to explain this to him could take a while, and since you're not 100% sure that the man isn't a threat, you don't want to invite any further conversation. So you do your best to frown, throw your leg over your bike, and leave as soon as possible. 

"Where's that smile?!" yells the disappointed stranger. He's just trying to save face at this point, feeling embarrassed and frustrated that you're ignoring him. He's really confused right about now, because you definitely smiled at him earlier. Didn't you?

You ride off into the sunset. You let yourself glance backwards exactly twice, and then focus on the road ahead. I guess you should've practiced harder in the sixth grade, when your face muscles were still forming. You could've prevented a lifetime of accidental smiles. But now, for better or worse, your condition is chronic.