Once, a few years ago, I was back in Chicago for a visit. My sister and I were headed somewhere on the El, I can’t remember where. What I do remember is that I spent much of the ride staring at an African American woman whose hairstyle was so elaborate she would have felt quite at home at Versailles, hanging out with Marie Antoinette. I was riveted. When we reached our destination I asked my sister if she often saw such dramatic hairstyles there. She looked at me blankly. “The woman? On the train? With the hair that stood about three feet high?” My sister’s response was, “I didn’t see her. I never look at anyone on the train.” I couldn’t have been more astonished if she’d told me she stopped breathing between destinations.
I look at everyone, everywhere. All the time. I am what what might politely be described as an avid people watcher. More bluntly, I stare at people. Constantly. Often without even being aware that I am doing it. I don’t mean to be rude, truly. People just fascinate me, in every aspect. I can’t seem to stop watching them. Sometimes, as you might imagine, this tendency lands me in some awkward predicaments. Once, at a coffee house, there was a really cute guy behind me. Well, significantly behind me. There was no graceful way to look at him, but of course, I did it anyway. It was evening and the place was packed for Open Mic night. I was about 20, so I’d been sober about a year. I was with a group of friends and was having a great time, but I could not stop checking this guy out. Could not. Toward the end of the night he actually came over to me. “Do I have a booger on my face or something?” he said. I was horrified and embarrassed… I pretty much wished the floor would open up and swallow me whole. But I was also newly sober, and immersed in a culture of honesty. So what finally came out of my mouth when I found my voice was, “No, not at all. You’re just really cute and I couldn’t stop looking at you. I’m sorry if I freaked you out.” He was shocked, and flattered. I was shocked I’d actually said it. I am not a flirt by nature. It turned out that he was sober, too (a coincidence, it was a mixed crowd). We actually exchanged numbers and made plans to go out, but unfortunately he relapsed fairly soon after. (Some people have gaydar. I have relapse-dar. I have a weird ability to be drawn to people about to fall off the wagon. I finally stopped making any attempt to date guys in AA. It wasn’t safe. For them OR me.)
That was a relatively nice example of what happens when I get caught staring. I do try not to get caught. I try not to stare, period, but in the end I always succumb to temptation. Gender is irrelevant. Age is irrelevant. As often as not, there is zero sexual interest behind my stare. I just like to look at people. Clothes, hair, the way they move… if I could draw or paint at all I’d be an artist. Oh, to have a profession where I could stare at people all day long, with impunity! Of course, sometimes people assume interest where there is none, and that gets beyond awkward. I’ve tried to stop. I’ve given up so many bad habits… I no longer chew on pens or pencils, and I stopped biting my nails in my mid-teens. Hell, I got sober at 19 and never relapsed. But stop people watching? Total failure. Abyssmal. I’d be an excellent witness, should I ever be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oh, the details I could provide! I could help a sketch artist develop pictures of anyone who’d been in my vicinity.
Of course, if someone looks at me, I get completely unnerved. I never know what to do. I do not assume interest; I’m not wired that way. In fact, I am more apt to think I only imagined the person was looking at me to begin with. I’m likely to be like Coffeehouse Guy and worry there was a booger on my face. And if it happens repeatedly, like when you catch someone looking at you and they look away quickly, but it’s so obvious? (I do that all the time, so I know exactly how obvious it is.) I still don’t know how to feel. I start wondering if I’m having a wardrobe malfunction, or something. I never think it could be for a positive reason. Not ever. I hope I never make anyone else feel this way. It certainly isn’t something I’d want. I swear I need Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. That way I’d never freak anyone out, and I’d never get caught.
On a different visit to Chicago, I think I was in my late 20’s, I went back to a meeting I used to attend to see if I could find any familiar faces. I did – quite a few in fact – which was great because of course there are no guarantees in AA. I was sitting there, and there was this guy across the table I didn’t know, or couldn’t remember. He was cute, though, so I continued to try to figure it out. We chatted at the break, and he said I looked familiar to him too, but he couldn’t figure out why. I thought maybe we just had frequented some of the same meetings, way back when. But after the break, as I sat there studying him – staring at him – it hit me. Coffeehouse Guy! Oh, my God. I started to laugh uncontrollably and had to put my head down to contain myself. It had been probably at least seven years, and I had only met him once. But there he was. So after the meeting he came over to see why I’d been laughing, and if I’d figured out where we knew each other from. Honestly, it was just as awkward all those years later. I felt like a total idiot, in part because I had pretty much been doing the same thing at the meeting I had all those years before. Staring. I had a better excuse this time, but still. My face got pretty hot as I refreshed his memory. He was very nice about it, adorably so. But I lived in California, so there was no hope. Also, it was safer for his sobriety if I wasn’t into him. I know, it sounds crazy, but it happened to me more than once, and not just with guys who were newly sober. I seem to unconsciously sense impending relapse. Why am I drawn toward it is a question I prefer not to contemplate. And after being happily married for 12 years to a completely normal guy, thank God I don’t have to.
So if you catch me staring, sorry. I probably don’t mean anything by it. It’s just an unfortunate quirk, this habit I can’t seem to break. Don’t be offended. And please don’t assume I’m into you. Because that gets awkward. Really.