A pale reflection. That’s how I see myself when I am out and about in the city that I live in. I enjoy going for walks. I like the way the sun feels on my skin. I am refreshed by the air and being outside. I am invigorated as my muscles and joints move. But I am also intrigued and curious about the lives of the people that I see on the streets with me. Where are they going? What are they thinking? Would they like me if we sat down to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine? These are the thoughts I normally have; superficial, in the moment, and usually self centered.
In the vein of the superficial, I glance at myself when I walk by a window. Sure, I also look in and take quick stock of what is going on inside but really I’m looking and judging myself. How does my shirt look on me? Is my hair messy? Is this what people see when they see me? Again, a slew of superficial and self centered questions that occupy my mind. Most of the time when I look inside and spot sow one, they stare back at me. There’s a surreal feeling that lasts a moment as our eyes connect. Then my eyes dart away. I’m worried that I will have offended someone. I was taught that it’s impolite to stare.
On a rare occasion, I look in at someone and they don’t see me, or, they choose not to. When this happens, it’s usually people on their phones or the occasional back of someone, maybe side, at a bar or restaurant. Those moments, while less surreal are just as fleeting. I have to continue walking. Stopping to stare would rude at best. But there is one consistent thing across these encounters: it’s never with the same person. Which is why this specific encounter is so enthralling to me. So let me set the scene.
On the latter half of my walk I pass a café. It’s relatively new and is popular with university students. Extra props for opening and being successful in the middle of a global pandemic. The café has a smattering of seats on the sidewalk and tables the extend down one wall with the coffee bar on the opposite wall. There’s also a large plate glass window that can either be more mirror than window depending on the time of day and how the light is.
It was a typical afternoon walk on a typical afternoon. I begin to cross the plate glass window. My eyes are half focused on the half reflection of me. My mind is wandering. My eyes slide along the smooth reflective surface of the glass. Two orbs of darkness framed by white pass me. They’re eyes. Eyes on the other side of the glass. My heart skips a beat. My eyes and mind focus. A face suddenly comes into focus. The face of a woman with curly hair. She wasn’t looking at me but off in the distance. I instinctively turn my head and look across the street. I turn my head back and am greeted by a stone wall. I had t stopped or even slowed down in that moment and so was left to wonder who she was as my legs carried me forward.
The next day I was on my typical afternoon walk on a typical afternoon. Having forgotten the events of the day before I passed in front of the plate glass window. But this time, I happened to see the woman’s face before crossing directly in front of it. My legs slow slightly but I’m not stopping so I ready my mind for what I like to call the “Polaroid moment”. That moment where you want to remember as many details as possible. I walk in front of her and I notice that as my reflection crosses in front of her I momentarily see more of her. She is wearing a purple and black sweater. Her curly hair frames a face that has fine lines but looks kind and thoughtful. On the counter in front of her is a mug cupped in her hands. She was that same look in her eyes. A look of being lost in thought. And in a moment her face is replaced with the stone wall. Only this time, I remember her.
The next day I was on my typical afternoon walk on a typical afternoon. Except that it was quite atypical. I was hoping to see the woman in the window again. To gaze upon her face. I did t know why I was anticipating it. I come up to the café and my eyes slide along the plate glass. The half reflection of me and my surroundings is unbroken. The stone wall slides past. She was not there. I never saw her again.
To this day that brief encounter replays in my mind. What was she looking at? What was she thinking? Who was she? I made up dozens of stories over time. From the banal to the fantastic to the sorrowful. She was a worker in the city and was grabbing a coffee with a friend. She was waiting for a long lost love to magically reappear. Or she was reflecting on a life that hadn’t gone the way she planned nor wanted.
I still think of that day and occasionally make up the odd story about her life. But I also remember what those two encounters taught me. We only see what someone is on the outside. What our eyes tell us about their physical characteristics or actions or clothes. Like the windows I walk by in my typical walks, they are half-truths. Only showing the shell of us. There’s so much more to all of us.