…to look, a look, looking and then not looking, to have been looking, to have looked
Looking at people is a business fraught with difficulty. Just think about it; as soon as you do, you’re stuck. Just like me, you’re fraught. I’m fraught – fraught by a lot of different things: the day-by-day approach of my own death; the impossibility of achieving a balanced ratio of dried fruit to oat and malt flakes in a bowel of muesli; the thought that other people are just like me; the thought that other people are nothing like me; the fact that I can’t identify with earlier versions of myself (that twelve year old me is nothing like me, so is he dead now?); the preposterously large area of the country taken up just by roads, motorways, streets and footpaths; the thought that nobody loves me; and the realisation that I love nobody. But it is the thought of looking at people which has been especially fraught-ing me these last few days.
Walking along a busy street – passing say ten people every two to three seconds – your natural inclination is to look straight ahead, focusing on a point to the left or right of anyone’s head, or above or below their eye line, probably at a point in the distance, some mythical point which doesn’t exist. Like the end of the rainbow; you never get there. But getting there isn’t the point – of this mythical point in the distance. It’s never getting there. It’s not having to look into the eyes of those people you walk past. Because as soon as you do, as soon as your eyes land on someone’s anonymous face, their eyes meet yours and both sets of eyes, yours and theirs, quickly dart away again. Is it that there is a brief spark of realisation? Realisation of what? That you are just like them? That you can see them? You know them? Just what they’re like? What they’re thinking?
I just feel like I’ve been caught out. I feel exposed. I feel as though I’ve done something very wrong. Is that how you feel too?
And as your eyes have darted elsewhere, you have temporarily lost control. You’re not intending to look at anything in particular. And it is the natural inclination of your eyes, after millennia of the Darwinian jungle, savannah and classroom, to focus on something rather than nothing. And if you’re really unlucky, which you will probably be, your eyes will have landed on the gaze of another anonymous person and another and another, until your mind’s eye has been thrown about like a pinball.
But it’s so much worse when there are only one or two people walking past. Even worse if you’re a man (as I am) and you catch the eye of a woman. What a horror. How awful – the look of fear in another human being’s eyes. I want to call out that I have no intention of using my superior physical strength in order to subject you to the most depraved of sexual acts, I want to promise, to sign something, do anything to reassure – but of course I can’t. The least action I make, subsequent to catching this vulnerable woman’s eye, will be seen as an act of aggression. I mumble my apologies and walk quickly around the next corner. “I’m sorry,” I call out when I get home. I’d kick the cat in frustration if it weren’t already dead.
Last week my eyes landed on a pair of dark eyes which didn’t look away. It took me hours to recover myself.
Every day I struggle to avoid the gaze of homeless people, bank tellers, shop assistants and other people who I don’t know and who I have no wish to engage in conversation. What could I talk to a homeless person about? My home? How nice and warm my home is? The weather? I could perhaps attempt to uncover points of similarity – points from which a conversation could shoot off. But it’s cold outside and I have absolutely no inclination to speak to strangers. There’s no one worse to speak to – invariably they tell you their name, tell you all about what they do, ask you the most god awful questions and then say good bye – the most unrewarding and utterly vacuous experience every time.
But at least if you’re talking to someone you can get the measure of them, see that they are not monsters or such like. But what about the person who just stands there staring at you, perhaps mumbling a faint hello (or is it something nefarious that the person mumbles into his beard, scarf or hand?), perhaps smiling? What about him? What’s all that about? How can people be so god damn awful?
The man who gives out the free newspaper, who is stood directly in front of me whenever I get off the tram, no matter which door I use, is forever staring at me, trying to catch my gaze. What can I do but look up in defeat and smile? And so every morning I smile at this man who I hate more and more each day. How long will it be before I explode and scream obscenities at him?
But it is the furtive peak which is the most unbearable of all these petty human interactions; the avoidance of such glimpses prescribes how I carry myself (head hung low, eyes to the ground), where I go (avoiding streets with an irregular flow of pedestrians) and how often I leave the house (rarely).
Yesterday morning, walking up to the tram stop, I noticed the approaching figure of another human being, and straight away I focused my gaze on the double yellow lines at my feet. However, when my gaze landed on a break in the double yellow lines where a leaf clogged drain lingered in the darkness, I lost my concentration. I looked up. I looked up and my gaze landed, for the briefest of moments, on the focused eyes of that other human being. The horror. The sheer horror!
We both looked away simultaneously. But the look in those eyes! The fierce glint of the yellow streetlights! The faint light of recognition! The flicker of human life! The translucent blackness of the pupils!
I ran all the way to the tram stop.