While I skimmed through the shelves of Target on State Street looking for dish soap, I heard someone call out my name in a lively yet unfamiliar voice. I fumbled for my earbud while I looked in the direction to see who it was. I realized I could not, for the life of me, recognize her. I waved back and smiled like I knew what I was doing (great performance, Cece!).
I purchased my soap, but the encounter left me staring at the floor as I tried to put two and two together. I was at odds with myself — this happened far too often. I couldn’t pin down where I knew her from. Was she a classmate? A friend of a friend? My neighbor? I had seen her before, I just didn’t know from where.
The following week, I thought about it in every class. I looked around the room in a game of “who is who?” She remains unknown. Almost as if I manifested it, yesterday, as I biked past the UMMA cafe, a girl waved at me. I waved back. Julia? No. Halle? No. Unknown.
Interactions like these make me nervous — if that wave turns into a conversation, it’s over. I will struggle to try to make small talk and hide my confusion. Or I might as well say, “I know we’ve met before, but where did we meet again?” in the hopes that my honesty can turn into an amicable understanding and result in an “Oh right! How’s so-and-so?”
At a party back in May, I greeted someone I recognized from class. While I spoke to him, I was taken aback because I had never seen his mouth — the last puzzle piece. I had processed his voice, his hair, his eyes and his ears for three months in class, but I had imagined a completely different lower part of his face.
That sensation made me think of Cadavre Exquis or “Exquisite Corpse,” a drawing game played in the 1920s by surrealist artists such as Frida Kahlo, André Breton and Yves Tanguy. In sequence, the artists took turns drawing specific parts of a figure’s body from head to toe. Each would then fold their drawing so that the next could illustrate with an unaffected imagination. In the end, the unfolding would reveal incredibly grotesque creatures: picture a two-headed lizard, a tree for a torso and tentacles for legs. The possibilities are endless.
First with Zoom and then with in-person classes, creating mental images of the totality of a person was some sort of variation of this game. Over Zoom, height is unimportant, fashion styles are narrowed down to upper-body attire and asking where someone is headed after class is pointless. In person but masked up, quiet voices become even fainter, eyes learn to smile and the years spent wearing braces were all for nothing.
In a way, we’re all constantly playing “Exquisite Corpse.” With internet culture, social media, dating apps … there is endless surprise in initial in-person encounters. And if we’re being honest, it’s not often a pleasant surprise — our imagination is so powerful that reality makes us feel powerless. The modernist artist René Magritte stated: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” We are creatures of desire and drive, making us susceptible to envisioning an ideal that is often unattainable. We dig deeper trying to find diamonds where there is only rough. Or, in my case, we give up digging altogether and forget.
Fleeting interactions make for little recollection. Unless impactful, the brain probably processes them as it does with the person who held the door open for you in Angell Hall or the barista who poured your coffee while your eyes fought to stay open. In some sort of contemporary twist to visual agnosia — the condition in which one recognizes and perceives objects but is incapable of identifying them as a whole — I am left confused with many of my daily encounters. I forget people’s names two minutes after being introduced; I can’t connect names to faces, faces to events or events to happenings. It is all a cloud of unconnected links that play a futile game of finding themselves.
I’m left feeling like Dr. P in the incredible book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” — a collection of stories that deal with different neurological functions depicted through Sacks’s patients. In this particular story, Dr. P partially suffers from visual agnosia. As the title indicates, he accidentally grabs his wife’s head, thinking it’s his hat, as he is heading out of the examination room. Claiming this is hyperbole, but it’s similar — I recognize eyebrows, hair and eyes, but they’re anonymous. I store nameless images and irreconcilable meetings.
This is not an attempt to atone for or justify a time I might have forgotten your name — do know that I feel terrible about it. I guess it’s a mode of stating that, through time, the word acquaintance has stretched itself like gum. In this day and age, your phone reminds you of exactly how many you have. It ebbs and flows — one day you wake up, and you’ve lost five friends without even interacting with them. Don’t get me wrong, I like the thought of befriending people — to some extent. It’s just that small talk is exhausting, and I am not the best at remembering rendezvous. If you’re reading this, girl from Target, I am sorry — and what’s your name?
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org