Related: Eye Gazing
I went traveling for a month. Not for fun, exactly. Not for fun at all, actually. My life was in desperate need of some change. Extended solo travel would be a challenge and a change, and that’s what I wanted.
The trip began with a week of hitchhiking in Ireland before relaxing in the museums of London and parks of Berlin. Then there was a blitz of couchsurfing in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Ljubljana. I spent time with scant old friends during that time and was fighting language barriers and matching problems to make new friends along the way.
Around one month in, I returned to Berlin. I was feeling so deeply isolated and lonely that I did something never thought I’d do: I went to a nightclub. And not just any nightclub. I went to go to the infamous, clothing-optional, sex-party atmosphere of KitKatClub.
KitKatClub is run by an Austrian couple in the porn industry, starting in 1994. It’s well known for having little clothing and a lot of sex, kink, and gay culture. Whenever I mentioned that I wanted to go, I was warned that it was more or less an intense sex party. Fine, but that wasn’t why I was going. I was going because KitKat was weird enough that I thought I could fit in my own weird experience.
I took a sharpie to some printer paper and cardboard. I made a simple sign that read “Silent Eye Contact.”
Where else was weird enough that my sign would be welcome?
By researching on forums, it seemed like the way to get in was to be scantily dressed. Preferably in black leather. Speaking English near the doormen was discouraged. I went with the expectation that I’d get turned away at the door for not being naked enough or German enough so that I couldn’t be disappointed by reality.
I was disappointed by reality. The hours on Google were wrong. They were closed that night, and I went home sad, tired, and defeated.
The next night rolled around and I tried again, arriving a bit after midnight. The doormen spoke only German to me, which I must have nodded along to convincingly enough. I got in, paid a cover, and got my bearings. It was scantily peopled so early on a Wednesday night.
I was surprised by a few things. First, all phones were banned, creating an oasis free of the panopticon of social media and the zombification of people on phones. Second, there were two cigarette vending machines in-house. My life expectancy politely asks, “Why? Why would you do that?”
After poking around, I was as mentally prepared as I could be. I sat down. Putting down my sign and hoping that people would take me up on it was terrifying. Yet… it wasn’t as terrifying as sticking out my thumb and hoping someone would give me a ride. I had successfully increased my comfort zone, or, at least, my not-literally-running-away-screaming zone.
After 10 uncomfortable minutes of waiting in a corner with only a sign for company, somebody bit. And then it didn’t stop.
1. The Auto-Smiler.
- When I smiled, he was sure to reflexively smile back, his stretchy grin flicking out sideways. It felt very fake. I smiled less.
- The most psychedelic experience. Something about how I was looking at his eyes made the rest of his face bend and morph disconcertingly. The disco ball lighting might have helped.
From the halo of our intense connection, the room began to notice!
2. The Innocent Beauty
- He didn’t blink at all. This is bad for your eyes, honey. Please blink.
- The entire time, I felt like I was getting held by the endearing eyes of a wonderstruck kitten.
And then a line formed. Now, several people were waiting to have eye contact with me rather than with the other people waiting. They all have eyes, didn’t they? Maybe it was because I had the sign. Maybe because I was female. But I think it was that I was the one creating and holding the space.
My rules for others was simple:
- No talking
- No smoking
- This is not a staring contest (a few people thought it was!)
I also had guidelines for myself:
- Be honest with my facial expressions. Try keepin my face relaxed by default.
- Be present with the person I’m with. Keep bringing my attention back to them.
3. The Stoic One
- He stared the longest and the strongest. I felt like a weakling. At first, he seemed dull and dissociated, like he only knew how to hide. By the end, I had respect for his undeniable strength.
At this point, I realized that I was not invincible. I imagined that each person would break off contact with me first, but as the night went on and each round of staring lasted an eternity, I found myself needing to break the space due to attentional exhaustion and strong need to rest my eyes. Next time I did this, I thought, I would bring along eye-drops.
One petite woman was ogling me from across the floor. She wanted to make eye contact with me, said her boyfriend, acting as her liaison. She wasn’t around at the right time and we missed out on that connection. Disappointingly. I think it would have been good for her. I wanted to make eye contact with at least one woman.
4. The Thinker
- Every once in a while, his eyebrows would go up! Despite my fatigue, this contact was comfortable. We had unspoken conversation while staring, projections on projections, and a real conversation afterwards.
- “Thank you. I came here to explore and find sex to fill my desire for connection, and this is what I wanted. But.. now what? How could I go back to the shallow thing after this?”
When Thinker and I were talking, a very uncomfortable man came over. His entire soul was twitching.
5. The Scared Man
- He couldn’t bear to sit still and stop talking. He kept fleeing and coming back.
- When he finally settled down, I was so angry! I glared at him, and he withered. I would have softened over time, but it was too much for him.
I took a break and tried dancing to the most repetitive oontz. It felt isolating in contrast. I feared that making eye contact in the rest of the nightclub would lead to men assuming I was flirting with them. I didn’t feel like turning down a bunch of random men, so I kept my eyes down.
I returned to my sign, tired and almost ready to call it quits. But I also couldn’t turn down the last person to come along.
6. The Newbie
- After about 2 minutes, he asked me what I saw in him. I scoffed. I told him that I am not a mirror. After 5 more minutes, he asked again. “Someone shallow and absorbed in being seen by others with no regards for seeing the other person!”
- It was hard to feel empathetic for him. I felt emptiness and lack of caring behind his eyes. It helped when we talked, and I realized that he was very young (19).
People liked watching this connection. I was angry and unhappy towards Newbie most of this time, but they didn’t see that. They saw connection between two “Lovebirds,” and were so touched by what they saw that they spontaneously brought over drinks and water. I’ve never gotten so many offers for free drinks before. I brought something valuable to the table, and wow! People wanted to reward that!
I learned some things that night. When eye contact began, I tended to have judgmental thoughts about the other person. As time went on, my thoughts tended to become more empathetic without trying. There’s more to be learned here about how judgment and empathy work.
Now I’m more conscious of the false polite smiles that I use to hide my feelings. It’s not easy to relax the jaw and cheek muscles that power our reflexive smiles, especially those of us from America, land of the eternally cheerful. I’m trying to make authenticity with my face my new default.
Around 5:30 am I left KitKat, heading back my AirBnB in Kruezberg to snag a few cycles of sleep. I took the U-bahn through a dusty sunrise with the shady company of a few winos and the lost souls of the early morning.
I slept well. I had been lonely, and I got what I was looking for.