I took the 6:30 shuttle home from New York last Saturday. As I am wont to do, I lingered near the gate so as to be one of the first people onboard (after those first class folks – taking first class on the shuttle is something I will never understand). I like to sit right up in front, in order to get off fast. I sat down and put my bag on the window seat next to me, hoping to avert anyone from joining me. No dice.
I was texting and emailing on my iphone when a nice, albeit slightly doddering, elderly lady asked to sit with me. I stood up and let her in. I smiled briefly at her and then returned to my iphone. Overcome with the emotion of the day, I found myself crying quietly. Big, fat tears were rolling down my cheeks as I sat and tapped on my phone. I wiped them away as surreptitiously as I could, aware suddenly that my seatmate was staring at me.
After the doors closed and I was forced to shut down my phone, I sat back in my seat and shut my eyes, trying to contain my roiling emotions. The nice woman next to me said “you are breaking my heart.” She spoke almost under her breath, such that I wasn’t sure she was talking to me. I looked at her, enquiringly, and she repeated herself, looking into my red-rimmed eyes.
I was taken aback. Wiping my face with more fervor now, I laughed self-consciously. “Oh, I’m fine.” I said, hoping the conversation would be over. She wanted to keep talking. She asked me what I was crying about, and I tried as gently as I could to make it clear I had no interest in discussing it. I am terrible in situations like these, woefully bad at making my own desires (ie to sit in silence) known. This friendly woman was not taking no for an answer.
Then she dropped the comment that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. “You looked so hard when I sat down.” My head whipped around to look at her. Hard? “You looked so put together and self assured and I was shocked when I looked over and you were crying.” She shrugged as she shared this matter-of-factly.
I haven’t been able to get this out of my head. I am reminded of all the times my father has said that the great task of life is to understand how others perceive us. Of the wisdom of my friend’s comment about not confusing people’s insides and outsides. Of how frequently I apparently come across so radically differently than I feel.
It amazes me to hear this. I, who feels and is many, many things, but pretty much never either hard or self-assured. I, who mostly feels shy and awkward in social settings but is sometimes told she is a bitch. I, whose personality is defined in large part by a deep seam of insecurity that sometimes manifests as judgment. I was going to ask how it is that vulnerability can come across as such a formidable wall, but I realized that question is dumb: of course in 35 years we build up calluses over our sore spots, build barricades over the holes that have tripped us up over and over again.
I guess it’s no surprise that on a day already jammed full of reflection and introspection the universe sent me this slightly hunched little woman to remind me of this. To hold up the mirror for a second, just long enough for me to see the unattractive reflection and commit anew to change.