Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Here's the Thing

You know how on the one day you haven't showered/have puffy eyes from crying/have paint specks in your hair/are all sweaty from the gym (you get the idea) you can be absolutely sure that you will run into your ex/whomever you currently have a crush on/your boss/the last person who dumped you (you get the idea)?

And you just know that if you'd seen the person the day before or the day after, it would have been an entirely different experience? And you wouldn't have felt awkward at all? So you resolve that you will never go out in public unless you have showered/put cucumber slices on your puffy eyes/washed the paint out of your hair/toweled off (you get the idea).

Well, running into someone you know/once knew/met in passing but still recognize—while you are basically bald (residual peach fuzz doesn't count)—can be a very fraught affair.

For one thing, the person might not recognize you—either because it's been a while, or because you're basically bald, or both.

For another, the person might recognize you but pretend not to see you—either because your last encounter was awkward, or because you're basically bald, or both.

For a third, the person might recognize you and even talk to you but seem really uncomfortable the entire time—again, either because your last encounter was awkward, or because you're basically bald, or both.

And I understand all of the above. I get stares on the street and on the subway as it is (creative use of scarves and enviable hat collection notwithstanding)—fewer that I might get anywhere other than New York City, but still. So I know that there is likely to be at least a moment—if not several long minutes—of awkwardness during any encounter with anyone who is seeing me for the first time (or the first time in five years) without hair, especially if they have no idea why it is that I have no hair.

And I do what I can to help those people work their way through the awkwardness. I pretend that I don't notice them staring. I supply conversation during pregnant pauses. I don't belabor the encounters, and I give them every opportunity to break away quickly.

And this means I am especially appreciative when I bump into someone who handles the chance meeting with seemingly effortless grace, who makes conversation easily, and who treats me as if it is 100% normal to be walking around hatted and scarved and hairless.

I had one of those encounters tonight.

I was walking through a hotel lobby, on my way to meet an out-of-town friend for dinner, when I saw a guy I'd grown up with. We'd been in school together from first grade through high school. The last time I'd seen him, I think, was at a reunion two years ago. The last time we'd had a meaningful conversation was many years before that.

He had different hair (but all of it), glasses I didn't remember, and a beard I'd never seen, but it was unmistakably him. I thought for sure I'd walk right by without arousing a glimmer of recognition, decked out as I was in my film-noir fedora and complementary brown print scarf. But our eyes met, and it was clear that he knew me—or knew he should know me—and we both stopped and said hello. I introduced myself to his wife (in part to clue him in, in case he wasn't sure exactly who I was), and we proceeded to chat amiably for a few minutes before we continued on our ways—they to the theater, I to dinner with my friend.

If he was surprised by my appearance, he didn't betray it in his expression, mannerisms, or speech. I didn't volunteer the reason for my current look, and he didn't ask. We had a perfectly lovely, perfectly ordinary conversation.

And that's what made it extraordinary.


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