Justin Skolnick lives and works in Portland.

One v. five

Originally posted to blockquote.org on in Chicago, Illinois

She insisted I had ordered five tacos. I insisted I’d only ordered one.

Imagine my surprise when she came back from the kitchen with a five-tacoed platter. When I walked the long city blocks to her taquería I had a single taco in mind. I was hauling groceries around town in the cold air; home was another hour of errands away. One taco was enough to tide me over until I was home to cook.

That I had groceries in my backpack was more than the waitress needed to know. My case opened and shut with the order I knew I’d placed. Still, she was sure she was right and I mistaken — she said as much and in as many words. She showed me the handwritten check as evidence, and maintained the evidence as if what she herself wrote were proof, and she looked at me askance while I ate one taco and then, in a spirit of compromise, ate a second.

Her look was the look of one who suspects the other has not only misled her but who lies to conceal the misleading. The suspicious look implicated me as someone who misled her and was lying about it, and the look contained the threat that the trust on which our transaction was built teetered on the brink of revocation.

The look struck me because there wasn’t a lie, and there wasn’t any misleading. I wanted one taco, and one is the exact number of tacos I ordered. Had I wanted five, and ordered five (a larger number of tacos than I have ever ordered for myself) I’d have done something my friends know I do when talking about particular quantities of things: I’d have used my fingers to illustrate the number.

The woman couldn’t have known this about me, because she doesn’t know me.

She’s not likely to come to know me, nor the way I use my fingers to illustrate numbers. To judge by her response, she’s now less likely to want to know me. The response implied something about me.

There’s a certain trust people need if they want to know one another, a trust that other people are acting in an honest and reliable way. It’s a trust that precedes knowing other people — it prepares the ground for knowing people. The trust that people extend each other has to be mutual if real knowledge is to emerge between them.

Trust was conspicuously absent from her look of suspicion, and it was also missing from the handwritten evidence she held out for my inspection. Once again, I didn’t do anything to earn her mistrust. But in this instance, as in every instance involving people, the trust was hers to extend, to adjust, or to revoke, just as her criteria for extending, adjusting, and revoking trust are privately her own and not open to debate.

I don’t hold out hope that she has any interest in knowing me: her suspicious look and the lack of trust it implies conveyed an unfavorable evaluation of my character. A false evaluation, true, but perspective has a way of rendering falsehoods effectively true. As I said, untrusting knowledge is not true knowledge but a projection. She’d made an image of me, painted in the material of her mistrust. That’s an altogether different kind of knowledge of me — not an accurate kind, but still a very, very real one. And in light of that lie that was never a lie, except as it was painted in her self-protective imagination, the image of my untrustworthy character became something almost impossible for me to contest.

For all she knew, every word out of my mouth could be misleading. Of course, that’s not true, but I couldn’t argue that. Cast in the shade of mistrust, she could take any argument I offer to be misleading. To take an argument of mine in earnest, as a trustworthy argument, she’d have to trust me. And trust is a private, arbitrary, circular, and wholly unreasonable thing. So there was and would be no arguing.

I placed my order in good faith and I stood my ground, while she defended her honest mistake as if it were truth (her hand-scrawled check as proof). I ordered a taco; she transcribed a five.

When I left her taquería, the wintery air of the city outside felt colder on my skin than it had when I arrived, because it was, and not just because the temperature had fallen.