She had long since forgotten what it felt like to have a man’s eyes on her. She was forty-two, still passable for her late thirties, but had grown used to the fact that men weren’t going to look at her when she walked into a room, that she would be ignored no matter her capabilities, her joie de vivre, her “soul.” How she laughed to herself to remember her past reassurances of older female friends when they mourned their changing looks. These reassurances, she knew now, would have seemed as specious to them as her beliefs about the “soul” itself. How could she have known that so much of happiness was tied to what she had once thought was superficial?
One morning a year after her baby was born, she took the metro to the D.C. Mall. She wanted to spend a quiet day in the National Gallery looking at paintings, letting the silence and the beauty change her or refresh her in some way. She and her husband had lived in Gaithersburg for a few years but she had rarely followed through with her plan to get away from the house, to entertain herself with this rare private indulgence.
She closed her eyes as the train sped away from the station. She settled into the jostling car as it whirred along the rails. She was grateful that even the small decisions involved with driving a car were not hers to make, that at least for a while, there was little reason for vigilance. As the stops rolled by one after another she had to rouse herself to pay attention.
And that’s when she saw him standing by the door opposite. She hadn’t been sure what made her look at him, of all the men standing in the car, with their identical suits, grasping their briefcases and newspapers. He was watching her. She met his gaze. He did not look away.
Was he really looking at her? she wondered. Maybe she was mistaken. She turned, saw the car was filled with people reading, dozing, talking on phones. She resumed watching his blue, almost gray eyes. He smiled at her then, just a small turning up of his lips. He knew what she was thinking. It made her uncomfortable to think he knew something about her just from this one gesture and yet she felt something in his gaze that was innocent, that was merely curious, intensely curious.
She had to think about her breath and to make herself focus on her metro stop. When it arrived, she pushed herself up from her chair. She lurched forward. How very unattractive, she thought. She felt her face burning. She looked at his face once more before stepping out of the car. He was still watching her. He was still smiling. She stood on the platform while the doors closed and he did not let his eyes move from her face.
She wanted to cry. She liked him. Or she liked the idea of him, that’s what she realized later when she thought about wanting to cry as she stood there watching some stranger being pulled away from her. He was curious and he was handsome and there was something shy in his gaze too, something that made it safe for her to like him, and she wished she had stayed in the car and hadn’t been so true to her plans.
Years later, when she thought of the day the man had looked at her, she realized a part of her feelings of loss about becoming invisible had been about a lost identity but also a great deal had been about something else, that something that would never return to her in the shape of her yearning, in the empty space that is left when she finally became no one and everyone, both at once.
first published in Atticus Review