You and Me

A face is very personal –it is what our friends recognize about us, and it’s what we get used to seeing in a mirror. It may not be beautiful and it may have some features we’d rather it didn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s still us. And apart from reconstructive surgery, or some terrible accident, we’re stuck with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way –I like to know what to expect in a reflection. I like to know just who I am shaving.

I suppose there are many ways to compare faces: ‘“Most people concentrate on superficial characteristics such as hair-line, hair style, eyebrows,” says Nick Fieller, a statistician involved in The Computer-Aided Facial Recognition Project. Other research has shown we look to the eyes, mouth and nose, in that order.’  And we tend to generalize similarities, even though side-to-side comparisons might not hold up, so unless a face is truly unusual, it could be mistaken for another. I was once mistaken for Steven Spielberg when I was visiting the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. I considered giving autographs, but I am neither Jewish, nor do I write very well. And anyway, I don’t think it was my face as much as the baseball cap I was wearing.

But that’s just the thing –if I’d been wearing a turban, nobody would thought to ask. Context is everything; you have to be lucky.

Edward was lucky –he was always being mistaken for somebody he wasn’t. And since he wasn’t really anybody in particular, he loved the opportunities it presented. Even I felt special if he came over to my usual table in the window of the local Starbucks. A tall man, with wavy  greying hair and impeccably dressed, he always carried himself like royalty. He looked like someone you should know. I’d known him since university when he was just a slob, though. I think that’s maybe why we used to hang out together –in those days he made me look good. Now, it was me who basked in his light.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, coming from the cold of a blustery day in February. It was snowing outside and I’d seen him hurrying by through the steamy plate glass window. “I need you to do me a favour…”

The way he said it made me suspicious. I’ve never trusted an ellipsis, and his was as obvious as a gravel road. I sighed, and reached for my wallet. “It’s not money again is it Eddie?”

His eyes immediately flew back to his face and his forehead, in a long-practiced sweep, suddenly appeared insulted. “No. Of course not… But, if you’re reaching for your wallet, I wouldn’t mind a coffee… Twenty dollars should do, I guess…” he said, eyeing the solitary bill inside.

Damn the ellipses. They were spilling out of him today. “Want your usual bagel, too?” I thought maybe if I were generous, he’d feel guilty about asking me to do something outrageous for him again. Last month, for example, he wanted me to tell a woman he had just met that I’d seen him in a movie.

“You can tell her you saw it a couple of years ago and forget the name of it now,” he’d said with his eyes holding out their little wings like they were pigeons begging on the street.

We’d arranged to meet right here as if by accident. But when he’d arrived at the assigned time, he was alone.

“Turns out she was married, and her husband came back early from his trip,” he said and shrugged, as if he couldn’t win them all. “But he saw me talking to her in the mall, and walked over and asked me if he’d seen me in a movie somewhere, though.” All was not lost. It never was with Edward.

I tried hard not to roll my eyes when he returned with a breakfast sandwich, a bagel and two chocolate chip cookies as well as a coffee –venti size, whatever that means. Oh, and a latte.

“Didn’t have time for breakfast today,” he explained. “And I have to meet Charlene again for lunch…”

“Again?” I could feel what was coming next.

“She’s the director of a small local film company and she’s looking for a lead male role –something about a guy who gets lost in a forest, or something…” He suddenly sighed. “I met her at a party last night, and we danced the hours away…”


He smiled his best innocent smile. “And I told her I starred in a little Nigerian film about an explorer in the jungle a couple of years ago…”

“So where do I come in this time?”

He wasn’t so shy about rolling his eyes when the need arose. “So, it’s a foreign language film, and you saw it on TV when you were visiting Britain last year and you immediately recognized a person you hung out with at university. But you don’t remember the name of the film, however.” Then he winked –or at least he closed one eye as if it was practicing for another role. “And the name didn’t make any sense to me either, of course…”

“Of course.” But I still suspected something. This time it was the italics that gave it away.  “When are you…?”

Just then he looked up and waved at the window. “There she is. We decided to have brunch here…”

I allowed my eyes to roll for a moment. Charlene burst through the door, her glasses steaming from the sudden warmth. A beautiful, albeit short, blond she immediately recognized Eddie and hurried over to the table.

“Charlie,” Edward said, standing up politely to offer her his seat, “This is my oldest, dearest friend…” but before he could say my name he realized she seemed to recognize me already. In fact, her eyes were saucers.

“You never told me, Eddie,” she said, her eyes prisoners on my face. “Wait, don’t tell me your name. I’ve seen you in something…” She closed her eyes for a moment, scrolling through her mental celebrity list.

I could already see that Edward was annoyed. “No…” I said, self-consciously using the dreaded ellipsis in my embarrassment.

But her face turned coy as soon as her eyes flew back to their little cages. “You guys are so protective of your privacy, I know. I won’t say a thing,” she added with a little theatrical gesture as her finger flew to her lips to ensure me that my identity was safe with her. She turned to Edward and blinked. “You never told me you knew him, Eddie…” she said, blushing, and then stared at me with eyes that flushed not so much with recognition, as worship.

Sometimes words are unnecessary; I decided to bask…







Face it…?

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…