Eye contact

Monday, November 11, 2019 - 4:48pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

It was a typical Oxford Monday morning. I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop sipping my Americano, when a man with a giant cowboy hat walked in. He was dressed in a dashing suit jacket paired up with bootcut jeans, pointy leather boots and round sunglasses. It was distinctive, but curious style — a combination of mod and cowboy. I was sure that he was already accustomed to attention, evidenced by how he would automatically ignore anyone’s stare. But as my eyes were following his hat around, he caught my gaze and smiled back.

His smile was effortlessly beautiful. The man seemed unworried about rent, groceries or working overtime. I was immediately struck. Having been working days and nights on the 2,000-word philosophy essay in front of me, I had nothing but exhaustion on my face. With that effortless action, the man with a giant cowboy hat helped me let go of my annoyances for a while.

I remained static in my seat, and couldn’t help but start reflecting on this simple, yet miraculous interaction. Smiling at strangers? I hated even making eye contact with them. It’s automatic, almost precognitive, how I’d gaze elsewhere after only milliseconds of staring. People’s responses to my eye contact drive me crazy: They look back at you with their wrinkled eyebrows and frowning lips, as if you’re the reason for their bad mood. I might be overthinking, but nevertheless, their reactions impact my good mood. Truthfully, I’d prefer staring at the pavement. Not only does it help to avoid tripping, but also prevents anyone from turning me into a frazzled, introverted mess. 

On my way back home from the coffee shop, I paid attention to every person walking past me. It was December. Everybody spends their calories keeping themselves warm. People buried their faces in their scarves, focused on the song blasting in their AirPods. Winter increases efficiency – it’s always one destination straight to the next. That man’s smile, however, punched everyone who only wanted to move quickly in the face (including me). It was simply infectious. I should be able to smile like that and lift up someone else’s spirit in a snap of a finger. 

So I prescribed myself a mission: master the art of smiling. Having been accustomed to staring at the bricks on the pavement, it was quite hard to lift my head up. In the cold December of Oxford, the wind was fierce. My eyes, sensitive as they are, started to get watery. I started out my mission with some easy targets: grandmas. They walked slowly, leaving a good amount of time for them to realize my gaze. Then I moved to young girls, but avoiding the ones who seemed to me like drama queens. From there, I started to gaze upon every person that walked pass by — the sharp dressed middle-aged man, the backpack dude with giant headphones and the exhausted mom with a stroller. The wind was still blowing, and my disappointment was piling up — every single person looked away immediately when our eyes met.

Just as I stood on the edge of giving up, there was one exception.

On the narrow Oxford pavement, a man with a beautiful German shepherd by his side was walking towards me, together in their healthy, fast-paced steps. He seemed quite friendly. “Last one of today,” I spoke to myself. I looked into his eyes and smiled. Unfortunately, an amusing scene occurred: a strong wind suddenly swept through, and my hair flew all over my face. But in between strands of my hair, the whooshing of the wind, and my embarrassment, I saw a huge smile and heard the word “Hello!” from him. At the moment, this most commonly-used word in the world sounded more beautiful than any song on my iPod. The wind didn’t slow down its pace, nor did the man and his dog. But the sound of ‘hello’ lingered in the air. There it was — the genuineness that occurred easily and truthfully between two strangers. Nothing can sabotage the beauty, not even the most terrible, windy English weather.

On my way back home, something familiar suddenly leaped into my eyes – the cowboy hat! That man, in his usual suits, boots and sunglasses, was standing on the high steps of his hair salon. The salon is located at a busy crossroad. He has the perfect spot to watch the busy, fast paced, mind-their-own-business pedestrians. It was peculiar of him to stand outside on such a windy day, despite how fun people-watching can be. But that was the least of my concern, since it offered me a perfect opportunity. The wind — since I was walking in the opposite direction — swept all the messy hair away from my face. Everything seemed to work in my favor.

It was my chance to light up his day.