His beard had grown in heavy, but he still looked as though he might be a little younger than me. He was dressed all in black, and so was I. I was walking up to the corner he was standing sentry on, where cars pull through, impatiently honking, California stop-rolling across the white line, just coming off the freeway. It was already dark out, and I was frowning down at my phone, trying to compose a message while walking. In the dark, the glare of the phone screen can wipe out much of my peripheral vision, like being encased in a dark bubble, nearly blind, if I am not careful. He had a coffee can in his hand, which he extended out toward the cars, shaking it slightly, but it was not an aggressive rattle; asking quietly for help, not wanting to be impolite. Without a home, but not wanting to make a fuss about it.
I am alarmingly broke by this time of the month; I already know my rent will be paid late. An unexpected expense, as they so often do, caught me off guard the week before, and I was able to just barely handle it at the time, but knew it would leave me in a bind almost immediately after, and now I am in it. This happens often enough that I can’t even pretend to be surprised by it; I am merely tired. I rarely carry cash as it is, because in my experience, those of us on the poor end of the scale don’t do well to have too much of it on hand; it seems to flow away even faster that way, and you’ve already started with so little. I grow too tired of attempting to recall all at once how much of both it, and digital sums in my account, I may or may not have. Having no safety net to speak of means constant vigilance, and it is exhausting. One balance to worry about at a time is more than enough.
Tonight, unusually, I had a few remaining dollar bills from another day with me, and a bit of change. I reached into my jacket pocket and handed what I had left to him. He didn’t seem to expect it, as I was on foot, approaching from behind his area of focus, so I folded it into his hand instead, while in his other the can remained extended away from us, still outstretched toward the freeway off-ramp. It’s hard for me, nearly impossible, to not give what little I have, on the rare occasion I do pass someone out on the street when I actually have something on hand to give. I’ve been far too close to homelessness myself on too many occasions — even now, I’m only really one or two more unexpected, more disastrous expenses away from it happening, and it’s always in the back of my mind. Growing up with no upward mobility in sight, reaching 30 and still having none, will do that to you. You don’t imagine success; you merely, by long, tiresome instinct, try to anticipate the impossible, to avoid disaster.
I also know, though, that little if nothing separates me from him. In all likelihood he can easily be a more talented, smarter individual than I, and that still could not keep a roof over his head. I know enough about bad luck and circumstance, about how expensive it is to be poor, to know this. He thanks me, and I tell him I hope he has enough layers to keep warm tonight. It’s been very, California desert-like, bone-chill cold this winter, in the night, and dampness from yesterday’s spots of rain still lingers in the air. He nods at me. He does not smile, but his eyes are kind, underneath the exhaustion and wariness.
He is looking right at me. I wish him a good night, but he calls after me: “You’re very beautiful!” I say thank you, because I am too flustered by what preceded that to know what else to say. He says again: “You are very beautiful. Have a wonderful evening!”
I am flustered by being looked at, by being seen. It happens so rarely, I never know quite how to react on the few occasions that it does. The understanding I saw in his face, I think, came from that. So many people let their eyes slide over those less fortunate than them, because it’s the simplest way to avoid guilt, or unpleasant thoughts. He looked at me the way one invisible person looks at another; like two ghost ships crossing the same stretch of sea in the night. He was surprised to be seen, and so was I.
I often wonder what it must feel like, to be truly visible to people, never having been much myself. I’m old enough now, and have tried enough approaches, to know that carrying myself differently, pretending different attitudes, projecting confidence I don’t have: none of it makes any difference. Nothing really hides the sort of person I am underneath artifice, which is more like a shadow than a person, or often feels that way. In groups that have to narrow out, I will always end up bringing up the rear, when people naturally arrange themselves. In groups in general, I can’t penetrate beyond the outside edge, whether I would like to or not. I know this is why a particular passage (among so many others) from one of my favorite books struck me so hard the first time I read it, and every time after, because it speaks to that complete lack of visibility — not as an object taking up space or blending into scenery, but as a perceptible person — in such an unflinching manner:
I saw myself for the first time as a thing, a thing in someone else’s mind. Of course I had always acknowledged my body, the fact of my visibility, but I had not been a thing, really, because I had been of no use. A pebble is a thing, a blade of grass is a thing, the broken thread in an old binding. But no one holds these things in mind, they exist in solitude. In privacy. I had known myself to be a perceptible object, a serviceable body, unlovely, unugly, unremarkable. Plain and capable, I moved through the perceptible world, and people nodded and asked questions and sometimes shook my hand, but no one, no one shrank me, remembered me, kept my image prisoner, arranged my body in poses, put words in my mouth, imagined me, used me, used me, like a spread-legged thing in a magazine, like a thing. I had not known until this moment, really, I had not believed that anyone had this power.
I think about it also, often, through the lens of the conundrum of being a woman in the world; a place where we are typically, naturally, unconsciously reduced to objects, despite not wanting to be, and yet still wanting to be seen, because that passage — that book — is very much about that, too. How often I’ve wondered how much of my desire for visibility comes from my own self, and how much has been forced upon me since a time before I was even conscious of it; whether reconciling those conflicting poles is even possible. There is a creative man I know, who claims to think of me often, but I wonder to what degree the fantasy he’s made of me in his mind can possibly have anything truly to do with me; he does not, at the end of the day, and after so long, know me all that well. I nearly had a run-in of some sort with another man just yesterday, which I was thankful to dodge; I have no idea what he might have wanted to say to me, but I know that I was never of any consequence to him, that merely by attempting to communicate with him at one time, I was already a burden, because I was so easily forgotten otherwise; even beyond that, he made sure to make it clear to me how little attention, time, or notice I was really worth to him. None of which surprised me, of course. He was simply following the narrative of my life that nearly all others before him had done. That’s not a plot twist; that’s merely one more day of being an indistinguishable piece of the scenery. All I really wondered, in the end, after so much wasted time, was why he had bothered with the charade in the first place; that he’d seen anything at all. Just a glitch, before the inevitable course correct.
I’ve held, and still do, a shamefully deep envy for those not just more fortunate than I as far as things like financial stability and certainty of self are concerned, but also just of those who are seen. I’m often quite sensitive to being treated by others as nothing much more than a piece of furniture or window dressing, despite being used to it, but have no means of correcting it. What would it be like, to move through the world and be regularly taken notice of? To have demands made on my time by those who wanted it, truly wanted my attention, rather than constantly having to remind others, even those with the best of intentions, that I am, in fact, still here? (They generally do mean well, and I know this; they just can’t help it. I certainly don’t resent them — how can I? If so few others really see me, why should I expect more from them? I try not to. Expectations like those would be the death of me. I may not be a pessimist, but I am no optimist.) I try simply to not draw any attention to it; it’s why I don’t do things like sit down and send a message to an old best friend I am no longer close to, acknowledging that we really are no longer close at all. What good would speaking to that in the open do? I understand it; he is not the first to, almost seemingly by accident or forgetfulness, just leave me behind. I look at all the people I know who actually have to juggle plans with more than one person at a time, and can’t even begin to fathom what it must feel like, having that as a problem. (To exist in such a space that you would even consider that a problem? Unfathomable.) Do mirrors reflect them differently? Do they somehow appear more substantial? I only know they exist on an entirely different plane of existence from mine. Those things happen to characters in films and books, to the more charismatic and consequential people I know in my life, but never to me. I feel myself, inwardly, goggle at them like one might view a separate species through the glass of an impenetrable display case.
But, earlier: It felt nice to be seen. It felt a little strange; sometimes, in certain periods, when it has been a long time since the last instance, it feels almost alien. But it isn’t a bad strangeness; it seems to root me somehow more closely to the earth. I feel less as though I am simply floating from one place to another, leaving nothing tangible behind; I feel more like the world does exist even with me included in it, too, every now and then. He smiled a little at me when I turned back a final time, and I wondered whether he must have felt the same.