Age is supposed to be a time of change, I suppose; I’d be bored if things always stayed the same. But sometimes I wish that we could all come to some consensus on what it is that has actually changed. Sometimes I wonder if is just me who wonders. To my eyes, I look the same each morning in the mirror –a little grumpier, perhaps, a few more wrinkles around my eyes, and skin that seems determined to collect in folds around my chin, but things are otherwise sufficiently stable that I am recognizable to myself each day.
And so it is interesting to me that others do seem to alter under the impress of Time –especially those that have escaped my watch for uncounted years. They all say I haven’t changed, and smile as if expecting a tip, but in all honesty, they have, and the more perceptive of them can see the surprise poorly disguised in my face, no matter how I try to conceal it. It makes me wonder if they are simply better actors –better liars– than me.
But all these changes –however stochastic- must require a sophisticated neural methodology, otherwise we wouldn’t know who we were dealing with from day to day. And this would lead to social breakdown because there would be no more us and them… everybody would be a them and then where would we be? How would we know who was on our side? How would we know who to avoid, or gossip about? No, this would be too big a challenge for civilization as we have come to understand it.
I’ve lain awake many a night seeking the answer to what I consider the existential question of our time: how do I know you are who you say you are? And, of course, its corollary: So what – I mean, if I don’t know you anyway…?
I think I have arrived at a partial solution to this seemingly intractable issue. It is surprisingly obvious, and one that I am embarrassed took me so long to see. We, all of us, have been looking through glasses darkly. I think the answer to the awkward problem of recognition-over-time is simple: affectations. Our faces may change, our hair may thin, but our affectations are like the warts we wear: enduring, and however disgusting, as individually identifiable as, well, warts tend to be. Or scarves…
Often, affectations are for those of us who have nothing otherwise uniquely identifiable to offer posterity. My friend Joseph always prided himself on wearing a colourful scarf -a bib, really, the way he tied it. From the beginning he’d seen himself as unique. I’d hung around with him ages ago when I was in first year university on the other side of the country. I saw his affectation as a facade but since he seemed to have worn it for so long, he could no longer see beneath its thread-bare weft and I never had the heart to tell him. The next year he’d switched from Arts to Engineering and since the two don’t mix, I hadn’t seen him since.
And then one day, like the remnants of a dream, something surfaced suddenly in a long line up for breakfast at Tim Horton’s: a cowboy scarf –I mean who wears cowboy scarves in Vancouver, anyway?
We made our ways to the front at different counters and then, double-double in hand he glanced my way and blinked. Although I pretend I possess no noticeable affectations, he nonetheless identified me –perhaps we are blind to our own warts. I had no trouble, however and smiled and signalled him to find a table for us.
“Joseph,” I said, vigorously shaking a thin, bony hand after I’d stowed my coffee, breakfast sandwich and two bagels safely on the table in front of him –my eyes have always outstripped my stomach. He was all smiles, and tried to camouflage his inability to remember my name by saying I still looked the same.
“You’re just how I remember you, too, Joseph,” I gushed, “And I see you’re still wearing the…” I couldn’t think of a polite term for ‘cowboy scarf’ so I merely pointed at it and nodded my head as if I approved of how it made him look. Actually, it made him look silly, but my fraying grey sweatshirt probably didn’t endear me to him, either. “Are you living out here now?”
His smile faded a little, but he tried to look cheerful and he nodded. “How about you?”
“I’ve lived out here for years. I’m retired now, though, so I sometimes go out for breakfast…” His face, never full even back in university, looked quite thin and his facial bones unduly prominent –like cages around his eyes, almost. “Are you still working, Joseph?” It was an innocent question meant to draw out some memories, but I could see him struggling to keep his smile.
His eyes dropped suddenly to his coffee and he stirred some more sugar into it. In fact, he’d brought a few sugar packets to the table but he appeared embarrassed to add them to his coffee in front of me. “No,” he said, with what seemed to be a forced gaiety. “Not any more…” Then he looked up at me, the awkwardness fading. “What did you end up doing after I changed courses back at McMaster?”
I shrugged. “Oh, you know –I muddled through the arts degree and eventually went to UWO after I graduated…”
He nodded, momentarily transported to what his expression said was a happier time for him. But something told me the rest of him did not agree –or at least could not share in the joy. In fact, the only memory it seemed willing to accept was the scarf that hung limply around its pale thin neck, the only splash of colour on clothes that had certainly seen better days.
I was going to ask him the usual things that friends do after long lapses -how life had treated him since we’d last seen each other, and maybe what he was doing nowadays- but something stopped me. An awkward silence followed –almost as if neither of us dared to probe the other more than superficially. Memories can be dangerous, I suppose. He reached a little tentatively for his coffee and sipped it slowly, carefully -as if properly done, it could hide the need for words.
I smiled and picked up my coffee for an imitative sip, glanced at my watch as I did so, and pretended to be surprised.
“Damn,” I said, shaking my head and rising to my feet. “We must have been in that line longer than I thought…” I shook my head sadly. “I have an appointment for the car in about ten minutes!” I glanced sadly at my food and smiled. “Look, I haven’t even touched it… Have some if you like… Seems a shame to waste it…”
I took his hand and shook it warmly. “I’m so embarrassed about this, Joseph. Why not meet me here at the same time tomorrow for breakfast and we can reminisce about our lives -do some catching up?”
He smiled at me and nodded, but I could see just a hint of tears in the corners of his eyes so I turned and walked away.
And after I left, I could see him through the window, finishing my breakfast as if it were his own, but quickly, voraciously, in case I changed my mind. I knew I’d never see him again.