My daily walk at the mall had become a relatively peaceful part of my day. I saw a handful of other walkers repeatedly and acknowledged a few with a nod or a wave. A downside of the mall was that I sometimes ran into a colleague from the organization where I’d worked for decades before retiring. I could usually get past them with a wave, but on occasion one of them would stop to chat and “catch up.” I didn’t like the idea of people catching up with me. My retirement goal was to keep myself settled down, not to get too annoyed by people’s comments and opinions, but who wanted to hear that?
Early one afternoon when a comforting stretch of open space lay ahead of me, I heard my name from behind. I looked around, careful not to grimace or squint, and saw a former colleague, Gwen, approach. She didn’t mean to interrupt, she said, but she was here for a walk too and why didn’t we both just keep going? I agreed, no way of saying no coming to mind. Gwen had been our organization’s trainer, a believer in the importance of a good attitude. Attitude wasn’t everything, she argued, but it could take you a long way at work and in your life. At times I could tell she sensed skepticism in me, but I gave her good scores on class evaluations, never indulging myself in a dissenting opinion, such as my thought that we should not be brainwashed into believing that a range of feelings should be stigmatized or ignored.
Gwen had recently retired, she told me, and her relief had not yet worn off, an admission that surprised me. She again surprised me by saying that she’d often thought of me even after I’d left the organization. My head turned, and she gave a chuckle at the look on my face. It occurred to me that her husband had died of pancreatic cancer a year or two ago. Had she recovered from her grief? Had she decided the time had come for a new chapter in her life? I eyed an escalator to our left, imagining it carrying me away from her, and at that exact moment she asked: “We can’t really walk and talk at the same time, can we? Do you want to have a cup of coffee?”
I lacked sufficient social skill to decline her invitation. We rode the escalator to the lower level and stood in line for coffee, and it struck me that her face had taken on a more natural look, her smile in rest mode. My throat clenched as I pictured us sitting across from each other, nothing in common.
She paid for her coffee and I paid for mine, and we sat. She sipped hers while I pretended to take sips from my cup. I could see she had things on her mind.
“When you were in class, I felt you had doubts,” she said. “I remember your face, full of unspoken comments.”
“Why are you relieved?”
She took a moment to put her answer together.
“It has to do with the newspaper. When I was training I felt obligated to show a certain face to the class and to support an agenda that would be viewed as positive and encouraging leadership. So-called negative emotions were seen in the workplace as a problem to be dealt with. I convinced myself that we all had a role to play, and being positive and having a good attitude was a big part of my role, which included making people feel and perform better. I meant to be an example of the conduct expected of staff, and through my example I posed an implied question: who could be opposed to a good attitude and positive behavior? Yet, I felt what some in the training world call role distance, and I saw distance in your face, only more so. You knew I wasn’t telling the whole story. In the newspaper we see people in their natural state, greedy, vengeful, tribal, desperate for power, warlike. The newspaper, more than anything else, has broken my faith in people. I won’t blame you if you tell me to stop.”
I stayed quiet.
“Your face is sad,” she went on. “Remember Winstead in internal audit? Loud voice, always smiling and jovial, but underneath the big voice and smile I could see his essential meanness. If you accepted his smile and impeccable appearance as the real person you’d see him as a great guy. I think about him when I read about politicians who never stop selling an image of themselves. I imagine he might run for office and get elected. My thoughts are getting the best of me these days.”
“I agree about Winstead, but why mention him?”
“Because I see him as the opposite of you, and I wouldn’t want to sit and talk with him. I’m not responsible for the way he is, but I’m ashamed when I think that the surface he presents is consistent with the conduct I preached. There’s a particular reason I want to talk to you, and what I’m saying feels like a confession. Since my husband died I’ve been painting. I have no talent at all, and my subject matter is limited. So far, I’ve painted only women’s faces and they express something I need to let out in a way that is not destructive. The faces are all sad, frowning and grimacing, and no one else knows they exist. When I paint them I’m full of energy, but when I look at them after I’m finished they trouble me. Still, I keep painting, as if it’s a price I have to pay. I told one side of a story at my job, and my paintings are telling another side. I apologize for unloading all this on you. I can’t explain away or overcome the feelings in my paintings, and the idea of justifying them to someone else defeats me. I can tell myself I’d be a more effective person if I looked at things differently, but I don’t.”
“You may know that my wife died years ago. It’s been a long time, a brain tumor killed her, and I know I’ll never get over it or stop hearing her voice. Since then I’ve been waiting, not ready to put up much of a fight when my day comes. I don’t like to hear myself talk, and I usually don’t like to hear other people talk. I can’t form a physical bond with another person, and even when my doctor touches me my body shudders and I want her to step back. But I feel less alone because of what you said.”
“I’d like to paint you. Just your face.”
“I’d rather not. This is enough for me.”
“You wouldn’t recognize yourself.”
“I don’t recognize myself now.”
“Let me know if you change your mind.”
“See you around the mall.”
She reached across the table to shake on it. I hesitated.