I stopped going out except to the hospital and the little store around the corner from me to buy food. I’d become familiar with the man who worked there, and I kept wondering when he was going to ask me what was wrong. I assumed they thought I had some massive tumour and were afraid to ask.
Finally I couldn’t stand the polite silence any longer. I blurted out my whole life story to the man behind the counter. I was holding a glass bottle of milk, letting the whole saga stream out of me, when the bells tied to the door jangled. A man completely, and I mean completely, covered in tatoos walked in. I stopped in midsentence and stared at him. He stopped in midstride and stared at me. There was a puma reaching across his cheek to his nose, which had some kind of tree on it, the trunk of it running along the bridge and then flowing up on his forehead. He hadn’t even one inch of naturally colored skin; his ears, neck, and hands were covered with lush jungle scenes and half naked women with seashells covering their breasts.
We finally broke our mutual stares, I paid for my milk, he bought a pack of cigarettes, and we walked out together, turning different ways at the corner.
One particular afternoon I remember very lucidly, an afternoon towards the end of my year-long separation from the mirror. I was talking to someone, an attractive man as it happened, and we were having a wonderful, engaging conversation. And perhaps because he was attractive it flickered across my mind to wonder what I looked like to him. What was he seeing when he saw me? So many times I’ve asked this of myself, and always the answer was a bad one, an ugly one. I sat there in the café and asked myself this old question and, startlingly, for the first time in my life I had no answer readily prepared. I had literally not looked in a mirror for so long that I quite simply had no clue as to what I looked like. I gazed at the man as he spoke; my entire life I had been giving my negative image to people, handing it to them and watching the negative way it was reflected back to me. But now, because I had no idea what I was giving him, the only thing I had to judge by was what he was giving me, which, as reluctant as I was to admit it, was positive.
That afternoon in that café I had a moment of the freedom I had been practicing for behind my Halloween mask as a child. But whereas as a child I expected it to come as a result of gaining something, a new face, it came to me then as the result of shedding something, of shedding my image. I once thought that truth was eternal, that once you understood something it was with you forever, a constant by which you could measure everything else. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. Society is no help; the images it gives us again and again want us only to believe that we can most be ourselves by looking like someone else, leaving our own faces behind to turn into ghosts that will inevitably come to resent and haunt us. It is no mistake that in books and films the newly dead sometimes are only completely convinced of their deadness after being offered the most irrefutable proof of all: They can no longer see themselves in the mirror. And as I sat there feeling the warmth of the cup against my palm, this small observation seemed like a great revelation to me, and I wanted to tell the man I was with about it, but he was involved in his own topic and I did not want to interrupt him, so instead I looked with curiosity over to the window behind him, its night-silvered glass reflecting the whole café, to see if I could, now, recognize myself.
Why do we stare, and how does it feel to be stared at? Do we ever truly see ourselves clearly?
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The ICU was created by Brian Lobel and Complicite, in collaboration with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Web design by Chipp Jansen, films by Simon Eves and design by StudioThreeSixty. It was made possible by support from the Cultural Institute at King's College London, the Wellcome Trust and the National Theatre.