I can fade into nothingness. I practiced my craft during the middle years of my widowhood. My face had lost the stricken look that often caused passers-by to ask, “Are you all right?” And I did not have small children tugging on me or hanging from my arms or hips, making noise and drawing unwanted attention. No, in those years from 40 to 49, with no makeup and nondescript reddish brown hair, too many extra pounds to count, hidden under my matronly professional suits or cute embroidered leaves or hearts adorned frumpy denim jumpers, I was invisible to most. Just another middle-aged woman alone in the market, the doctor’s office, the school auditorium. One of many. The benefit was that while people were not noticing me, I could observe them. I could stare and they never saw me looking.
I watched moms in those unguarded, automatic moments of wiping schmutz off a child’s face with fingers moistened with their own spit, handing an apple or several grapes from the produce display to a fussy child in a shopping cart, pulling a child’s pants down to tuck a shirt back in, then pulling them up and zipping and buttoning them as if they had not just exposed a flower or dump-truck under-weared tush for all to see. I heard the whispered warnings hissed so low that most never noticed: “Wait till I get you home.” Or “If you do that again, I will kill you.” Or “I don’t love you anymore.”
I saw men watching bosoms and bottoms of way too-young women out of the corner of their eyes while holding their kids’ hands in the ticket line at the movies. Or staring down the v-neckline of a waitress while their wife sat next to them rattling off an order for “Caesar salad, with chicken and extra dressing on the side.”
I saw children pinching younger siblings, snatching the last chicken nugget, and sticking gum under tables.
I concentrated on these human foibles so I did not have to watch a husband reaching for his wife’s hand as she walked next to him, an older gentleman holding the door for his equally frail wife or a couple my age sitting down for wine, obviously on a “first date, starting over” encounter.
Seeing signs of life and love were frustrating and painful. But they kept slipping in until I, too, decided to “start over.” Soon, I was holding hands, touching wineglasses in a toast, waiting for my chair to be pulled out. Mascaraed eyes, glossy lips, blond spiky hair, I was intent on being noticed, envied, desired. Shorter skirts, higher heels, louder laugh, my camouflage had been shed. I was no longer incognito. I was no longer unnoticed.
Or was I? Was that flamboyant creature really me or was I just hiding in plain sight? Was I being the woman I thought I was, the woman men wanted me to be, the woman who was no longer alone. The woman who was part of the crowd, the posse, the couple. Even then, I observed. In bars, at cocktail parties, at out-of-the-way restaurants. I watched women watching other women, comparing, contrasting, rating. I gazed at men under my eyelashes, over my shoulder, above the salted-rim of my margarita glass. Men sizing up other men, the guy next to them in line or the baseball player on the sports bar television. Couples were my favorites, the ones who belonged together and the ones who were just biding their time looking for the next best thing. Like me.
Now, a few years past my thinnest, blondest self, I travel alone again. Still blonde. No embroidered butterflies anywhere on me, flats traded in for spikes, I can once again blend into the background and observe. I do it by sitting quiet and motionless, slightly apart from my group, my friends, my family. I still watch. And I still turn away from the wife whose hand rests on her husband’s thigh, silently shouting “Mine” to the over-solicitous waitress and her over-enthusiastic husband. I give a blank stare to the couple walking on the beach, the man doing the bending to pick up shells for the woman’s inspection, a cane in one of her hands and a yellow beach pail in the other, a smile flickering at each damaged treasure he presents. I sigh at the sound of laughter from the grand-parents balancing a baby on each lap as their children dig in over-stuffed tote bags for the latest in bottles or pacifiers or blankies.
I am invisible again. Incognito in a world that I will only watch.