I’m suffering a little writer’s block right now, so here is one from the archives, first published in Aug 2012.
I recently read a poem by Shel Silverstein from his book “Every Thing On It”. It is called “Masks”. It so typified, to me, how we go through life so conscious of our shortcomings, or just our differences, that we often never see beyond that. We fail to see that sometimes it is our differences that make us the same. I have reproduced the poem here followed by my take on the theme.
Ted ambled aimlessly down the mall, only half glancing in the windows of the stores that tried to seduce him to enter. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular. In fact, he wasn’t looking for anything at all. Although he came here often, it was seldom to shop. No, he came here to belong.
Now in his early twenties, Ted was kind of a loner. Not by design mind you, and certainly not by choice. It had been this way ever since he could remember. Ever since he had first discovered that he was different. To look at him was to see a young man with an athletic build. But beneath the shock of brown curly hair was a face that was a study in contradictions. While the mouth spoke of a ready smile, the eyes remained guarded and suspicious.
Ted was not possessed of a physical defect that was out there for everyone to see. He often thought that perhaps that would have been preferable. Everyone would be able to see the infirmity immediately and digest it, accepting him for what they saw. But Ted’s was hidden. Everyone saw a normal young man and accepted him as such, until he attempted to speak. Sadly, Ted was, and always had been a chronic stutterer.
As a boy, Ted had suffered the ridicule of his classmates. They didn’t mean to hurt him, but they did. He was an easy target and they took advantage of it. To them, it was all in good fun. After all, they were his friends. But Ted took it personally. At first he would try to laugh it off, but that only gave the antagonists a sense of approval. As he got a little older, he began to consciously harbor feelings of resentment and even a little anger. By the time he hit his early teens, he had pretty much withdrawn from most social activities, preferring instead to occupy his time and attention in solitary endeavors.
So it was that Ted frequented the mall. Here, he had discovered, existed the possibility to be with people without having to interface with them. The mall filled a need. The loneliness that captured most of his days was at least temporarily subdued when he could walk among the crowds of shoppers without an obligation to speak. He could use that ready smile without any further expectations. It was the closest he could come to fitting in.
Taking a seat on one of the benches near the food court, he studied the faces of those around him. He had become quite a student of the human condition, and could spend hours accessing the culture that moved around him. Some he found more interesting then others, like the elderly man that he often saw sitting on a bench nearby. He didn’t know if he came here every day, but he suspected he did as he was always there on the days Ted visited. He had often wondered, as he did about many of the people, what his story was. Who was he and what had drawn him to this place. Like Ted, he was sure he too had a story, a reason, a purpose for being here.
The truth be known, while watching the flow of passing shoppers, Ted secretly gave more attention to the young ladies, and would sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to have a girlfriend. He had never dated and doubted he ever would. This is as good as it gets, I’m afraid he mused. Although, his smile could be infectious, he knew that even if returned, he was helpless to advance the opportunity. He couldn’t face the looks of surprise and the rejection that came with it.
But today was different. A girl, a very pretty girl, sat at a table not too far away. Ted, while trying to be discreet, had difficulty taking his eyes off of her. She appeared to be about his age and quite frankly, he thought she was hot. He studied her as much as possible without being obvious, as if trying to commit every feature, every movement to memory. He saw her looking back at him from time to time, and felt that perhaps she was at least a little interested in him. How he would love to walk over there and introduce himself. Oh but if only he could. Watching her from afar he knew was as good as it would get. There was no way it would work, at least not for him. So it was that Ted, chanced one last look and saw her looking at him. For a moment they starred at each other until Ted gave her a smile and walked off down the mall.
Sandy had spent the whole morning shopping. She had always loved to wander through stores and, even before she was able to make purchases, would select items to try on or take advantage of the freebies at the department store cosmetic counters. It always made her feel better. And now that she had a job and a little money of her own, she found herself drawn to the mall even more frequently. She usually came alone as her circle of friends was limited and they all had their own schedules. Actually, she preferred to shop alone. She never felt rushed and could spend her time and her money as she wished.
As noontime approached, as was her habit, she progressed to the food court and, after reviewing her choices, ordered a slice of pizza and a drink at Sbarro’s. Upon receiving her order she turned and surveyed the available seating. At this time of day, it was usually a little more difficult finding a seat. Spying an empty table on the outskirts of the court, she quickly skirted the occupied tables and slid into the empty seat. As she sat there eating she would frequently look around. On one such occasion, she saw a boy sit down on a bench not too far away. It didn’t look like he had been shopping as he had no bags. But, by the same token, he wasn’t eating anything either. This peeked her curiosity. Why was he just sitting there. He appeared to be alone. The more she wondered, the more she watched . The more she watched the more interested she became. In his own way, he was kind of cute. She liked his unruly hair and his mouth that seemed to be hiding a smile. It was the eyes that she couldn’t read.
She saw him looking at her from time to time and became a little flustered when their eyes would accidentally meet. After finishing her pizza, she slowly nursed her soft drink, prolonging her reason to stay.
As time passed, Sandy’s thoughts started to dwell on the young man. What if he was interested in her. What if he suddenly got up and came over to talk to her. Oh My God she thought. What would she do then. Suddenly she started to feel very anxious and her hands became sweaty. She felt the space around her closing in. She must leave. She couldn’t risk his coming over.
She saw him stand, and her breath constricted in her throat. She knew she was but moments away from having a panic attack. That had happened before and she worried that it would happen again. What would people think. Although she didn’t want to, she felt compelled to turn and see what he was doing. When she did, she saw him looking straight at her. Their eyes locked for what seemed to be an eternity. Then he smiled, and moved on down the mall.
Sandy remained in her seat for a few more minutes as her breathing began to return to normal and the fear she had felt began to recede. She was relieved that it was over but also angry. Angry that it had to end this way. Angry that it always ended this way. As she stood and gathered her bags and prepared to leave, she could feel the hot tears begin to well up. Why me she asked herself for the thousandth time. Why can’t I be like everyone else. The question, unanswered, hung heavy in the air as she slowly walked away, favoring the shriveled leg with the heavy steel brace.