When You Are Seen
I was sitting in a movie theatre waiting to see Inception or Perception or Deception, some movie with a title that sounded similar, when a woman entered my aisle and then abruptly stopped right in front of me as I stood up to let her pass - like literally in front of me to have a conversation with someone she recognized two rows ahead. It wasn’t one of those quick exchanges like, “Oh, hi Joan. We missed you last week at line dancing.” It was a full-blown conversation that started something like, “Hey, Joan! Over here!! What’s up? Do you have wedding jitters yet? I remember when I got married…”
Being invisible is not new to me.
I’ve been invisible pretty much my whole life, first, as a girl, then as a short teenager, and finally as a petit woman. I’ve noticed that no matter what I do – fancy outfits, crazy jewellery, changes to my hair, no one notices. Or if they do, they certainly never comment. At this point, I don’t even see the use in paying for plastic surgery as it wouldn’t likely produce anything more than, “Did you get new glasses?”
In this particular instance, after flattening myself to the cinema chair for what seemed like a good four minutes, I finally said, “Excuse me, but could you please move over so I can sit down.” Granted, my tone may have been less than polite, but I don’t think it warranted her “Get over yourself” response.
Once, at a play, an artistic director and his wife sat directly in front of me. When they turned around (as invariably people in the entertainment industry usually do) to see who they might recognize in the audience, I waved, and they didn’t notice me. I looked them directly in the eyes and …nothing. They could not see the tree for the forest. I had to leave at intermission because I thought if they eventually DID notice me, it would just be too embarrassing to explain that I’d been behind them all the time.
At a prestigious event for the theatre industry, a woman from Theatre Ontario shoved me out of the way to talk to someone. No kidding. She swiped me clear off the map with a dramatic swooping motion and left me in the dust. My husband, who was with me at the time, couldn’t believe his eyes.
I frequently find myself talking about something to a group of people only to suddenly discover the circle has closed and I’m monologuing in a corner. I’ve even been at a dinner party when someone quoted me and didn’t even remember.
Being invisible is not the best characteristic for an actress in a profession where being noticed is a prerequisite. I once auditioned for someone who said afterwards, “Where have you been hiding?” I had auditioned for that same director and that same panel five times before. Still, you notice a lot when you are invisible, like how some people need adoration while others need validation. Who is having an affair with whom? Who is jealous? Who is hurt? Who is desperate? Who is stealing the cutlery? Eventually, it all finds its way into a play…or a blog.
In our family, my brother was the only boy. Between my mother’s sister and her brother, there were five girls, and I made six. My brother was special simply by virtue of his sex. I was a dime a dozen. A video at the time shows me trying desperately to get attention by throwing myself into a hammock only to be shoved out by everyone, including my brother. The final shot is all four of them swinging merrily, having the time of their life while I sit alone at a picnic table. My cousins didn’t even like me. Whenever they would visit, they’d take out my toys and play without asking permission or even inviting me to join them. Once, they told me they weren’t supposed to play with me because I was “…different natured than everyone else.” My cousins were, in truth, horrible children who stole my Christmas carolling money earmarked for charity, but that’s another story.
The thing about being invisible is that when someone eventually sees you, it feels like a miracle. The simple act of acknowledgement is not only proof that you exist, but depending on the person, it can be a real boost to one’s self-esteem. When on occasion I’ve been offered work at prestigious theatre companies, my first response is usually shock. Not because I don’t think I’m deserving, but more often because I’ve been noticed. I know Sally Field was parodied for saying, “You like me. You really like me,” after her second Academy Award, but perhaps what she actually meant was, “You see me. You really see me.” And when Ruth Gordon finally won her first Oscar at the age of seventy-two, she said, “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is…” She’d been in the business for fifty years. What she was really saying was, “Gee, thanks for finally noticing.”
I’m not entirely blameless. For the most part, I grew up not wanting to be noticed and learned the fine art of camouflage early on. Left to my own devices, I would wander around whatever city I lived in, pretending to be an international spy by using toenail clippers as my state-of-the-art transponder. If anyone noticed, they certainly never commented. At school, I hid behind people in photos and made my way, Ninja-like through hallways and classrooms. The family dog, Lema, probably knew more about me than any of my friends. She would listen, without judgement, to anything I said and even showed some interest if food was involved. The only time I was noticed was when I was playing someone else on stage. Only then did I feel comfortable coming out of my shell. But arguably, being noticed isn’t the same as being seen.
The summer before I left home to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in NYC, I was performing in a show I had written with a group of actors about the history of Niagara Falls. We thought we were exceptional as we sang (often flat or sharp) our fifteen original songs on weekend evenings at Oaks park amphitheatre at the base of Clifton Hill. My solo number (and the first song I’d ever written) was about Annie Taylor, who in 1901 was the first person and only woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live. Ironically, Annie Taylor died in the poor house, barely recognized for her daredevil feat.
Early morning shadows tell me,
That it’s time to rise.
Step into my costume.
Put on my disguise.
Pause before the looking glass.
Is my mask on well?
So convincing in my role,
That nobody can tell,
Underneath a piece is missing,
Left upon the shelf.
Though I teach the children words
I can’t define myself.
Five verses later, it ends…
Later, when I’m rescued
Will they even try to see?
The reason I have done this
Is to set my spirit free?
Or will they choose to say,
When they are mentioning my name,
That what I did was foolish
And was, therefore, all in vain?
Right now, it doesn’t matter,
For my stunt has been the key.
I’ve unlocked all the doors.
At last, I’m who I’m meant to be.
I loved how dark and mysterious this song was. I thought singing it made me mysterious too, but did anyone notice?
“I think Neal likes you,” my friend Tom told me one weekend in August as we were striking the set. We had just finished singing our “Disaster Medley.” Behind us, an ambulance was attempting to rescue yet another “Great Gorge” suicide attempt, and the five or six members of our audience had abruptly left our performance to join a crowd of curious onlookers. It was a regular occurrence that we had grown cynically accustomed to.
“Who is Neal?” I asked.
“Neal,” Tom replied, “The musician visiting from Eastman. The guy over there.” And he pointed to a lean young man sitting in the shadows by the wall.
The summer had been lovely, and we had two weeks of shows left before it would all end; before we all parted for other towns and other people. The air was filled with the scent of moonflowers and nostalgia.
“He likes me?” I asked. “He doesn’t even know me.”
“Well, he likes your song,” Tom said, “The one about the woman who goes over the falls in a barrel. He thinks you have talent.”
“What would he know?” I smirked as we headed to the shores of Lake Erie with guitars and firewood.
That evening, Neal followed me about interested in what motivated my song, or just me. He may have different recollections of this event, but to my mind, he pretty much monopolized my time. I had no real interest in dating. I was about to go to the Big Apple, and a boyfriend was not in the plan. So, when he departed for Rochester the following day, I didn’t think much more about him.
“He left you a song,” Tom reported the following Monday.
“Yeah, he wanted you to hear this song he wrote. Can you come over?”
I grabbed my bike and headed to his house.
“I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I said, not meaning to be rude but fairly certain that I was about to hear something amateurish and sentimental.
Tom had been my best friend for several years. I trusted him with my life.
“Is this guy for real?” I asked as Tom opened the cover of his Piano. “Tell me now, is he weird?”
“Are you?” he countered, “Am I?”
Tom had a way of putting things.
In truth, I was shocked at how good the piece was. Confident and self-assured it showed far more sophistication than anything I was doing at the time. This guy had talent, and more importantly, he thought I did as well. He noticed something in me. I was smitten. “If music be the food of love, play on!”
In the few short months that the relationship lasted (that portion of the relationship, because we are still friends to this day), I can’t remember anyone being more honest with me or more interested in me, with the exception of my husband. One particularly long phone call from Philadelphia to Niagara must have cost him a small fortune since we talked for nearly four hours. So, when Neal broke up with me the following Thanksgiving, I was crushed. I remember it was a rainy damp, cold weekend in New York. Instead of celebrating with my boyfriend and his family, I was sitting in my brownstone alone. I kept walking around the block, expecting him to be in front of my stoop when I returned. That was the year I discovered Haagan Dazs, thanks to my room-mates who had no choice on the holiday week end but to leave me alone crying my eyes out.
“There is nothing that can’t be cured with ice cream,” Ron suggested as he packed the freezer with Butter Pecan. And for good measure, they left me with the cat who sat on the cushion beside me as I cried.
“I don’t understand,” I sobbed into her fur. “What did I do?”
“Meow,” she replied in perfect understanding. Perhaps she’d had her share of breakups too. Quite possibly she just had her eye on the dessert.
What hurts the most about being dumped is the sudden and immediate chasm that comes from no longer being seen. The one person who spent hours listening to you talk about your life on the phone, who was curious about what makes you tick, is now no longer a part of your life. They no longer exist to reflect yourself back to you because, let’s face it, our friends and family are a mirror that we rely on to show us our good and bad points. Without them, we sometimes lose perspective.
The cat was polishing off the last bit of ice cream from the bowl as I petted her. She didn’t need any confirmation of who she was. In fact, she was more than happy to be noticed only when it was time to eat. Nevertheless, she indulged me as I sang along to Leonard Cohen.
I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new
In city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
But now it’s come to distances and both of us must try,
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.
She was a patient cat, but eventually, when the ice cream was gone, she jumped off the couch and disappeared completely ignoring me as though I’d never been there at all.