I suppose I’ve led a sheltered life so far –not sheltered from people exactly, but rather the need to remember them… No wait a bit; I mean I remember them as soon as I open their chart, or see them in a hospital bed after I’ve delivered their baby… That’s easy. It’s the long term stuff -like who is that who just smiled at me on the street as if they knew me, or is showing me their no-longer baby and asking me if I remember how I did such a good job when it got stuck six years ago at three AM? You have to be allowed to forget when you retire –and so I have.
Forgetting is really easy when you get the hang of it. Every once in a while though, faces sneak through –or at least something does. It has always amazed me that even though things wrinkle and distort over time, there is still something of that original pattern that persists. Not the entire thing, to be sure –chins droop, stuff sags, and teeth move around a bit in the mouth or stare disconsolately at the gleaming new rack on the other side- but the face is still familiar. Even if, like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, sometimes nothing remains but the smile… Or the laugh.
I could feel the eyes coming, almost before they rounded the corner. I dread being accosted in a drug store, for some reason; and I especially hate it when, now that I am retired, I am caught in the laxative aisle. Pretending I was just passing through on a whim always seems lame, and trying to stuff the package back on the shelf before they arrive does not go un-smirked. I almost got away with it, though; she just about made it past me in her rush to get to something further down the aisle. Unfortunately, she was so focussed on the distant shelf, she knocked the package out of my hand.
I had been looking at the ingredients –merely out of curiosity, you understand- and her hip caught me by surprise. She stooped to pick up the container and glanced at it as she handed it back to me. Of course she tried to disguise her expression, but her lips were a paragraph that I recognized from long ago. And her eyes were quotation marks around something we had shared.
This happens all the time I’m afraid, and I’m never sure whether to ignore the face and pretend I’m somebody else that looks like me, or smile and assure them –and myself- that I am who I resemble. It’s a delicate balance to be sure and I don’t have a firm policy on this yet.
It’s not that I’ve allowed myself to go slack with age or anything; I’ve always expected, if not demanded, subjunctive tense usage by all those visibly younger than me, and I pride myself on fastidiously punching out only OED-approved words when I text. Oh yes, and my son showed me how to disable the auto-correct. But I have to admit to a certain grumpiness when it comes to events that purportedly required my attendance in the years before I began taking notes. The more unkind of the lumpen might whisper things about memory deficit, but I would dispute that.
Anyway, the woman hesitated for the briefest instant as our eyes touched, and I knew the tournament had started.
“I’ve seen you before, I think,” she said, tentatively. “Do you come here often?”
It always starts like this. I’ve invented a few distractionary techniques over the years, and I pulled one out at random. “I often buy my shaving stuff here,” I replied, thinking myself quite clever at placing my usual territory at some distance from the aisle of bowels.
Her smile said one thing, but her eyes were having nothing to do with it. “My mother has mobility issues, so I usually shop for her here,” she said, the smile now more of a token –the clear implication being that her mother doesn’t use after-shave. Ever.
I switched to another tack. “I have been known to frequent some of the local restaurants… Maybe we shared a lineup at Starbuck’s.” That seemed safe.
She sent her eyes to roost on my face –my nose to be exact. “Maybe…” The eyes trudged up to my glasses and then scrambled over them to my hair, wings akimbo. “But I recognize those curls.” She thought for a moment. “Did you used to wear your hair longer?”
I felt a little bit like I was being undressed, layer by layer. I nodded politely, wondering where this was leading.
“You remind me of someone I knew years ago…” A thought occurred to her and she blushed. “But he would have been grey… or bald by now, I think.”
I smiled; what else could I reply?
I could tell she was temporally confused. Things were not adding up, but she persisted doggedly –it was obviously intriguing her; important to her as well. “And I remember he had an earring in one ear,” she said, giggling loudly, but glancing covertly at my ears during what she thought was a clever distraction.
The giggle triggered something in deep in my catacombs as well. I’d heard it many times, but it was now nameless. Contextually bereft, and yet… distressing -like it had been long ago blocked and sealed away. And yet the eyes still probed, as if by scratching around on my head, they would unearth the golden key –the clavis aurea. I felt vivisected.
“Do you work around here?” she asked, like a fisher throwing out baited hooks willy-nilly.
“I’m retired,” I answered, hoping that she herself would take my bait that I managed to disguise with a smile.
She smiled as well, but a little too quickly. She recalled her eyes and settled her face to leave, but as she turned to go, she brushed me with another glance. “I guess it was another doctor…”
I nodded pleasantly, but when she shrugged, I could tell she didn’t really believe it. Like me, she was realizing that some memories are probably best left fallow for another day -or perhaps another aisle…