In a public place thousands of miles from here, a stranger identified me as someone who lives in the same town as himself.
I happen to hate this town, where the person behind you in the checkout line might have a Nobel Prize and which for the rest of this essay let's call Hateville.
"You're from Hateville," sang the stranger, whose T-shirt was imprinted with the chemical formula for salted caramels.
"I'm not from Hateville," I countered. "I'm from comparatively sunny, friendly Los Angeles."
"But you live in Hateville."
"See, I knew that. Because you have the Hateville look. I love that look."
Beaming, both hands slicing the air, he traced my silhouette. Just so you'll know, he was half my age and traveling with his husband, as I was with mine, so this was not some pickup scene.
Pointing at parts of me, smiling as if giving me gifts, he started naming aspects of that look.
"Natural hair color. No dye! Makeup-free face. Sloped shoulders. Baggy jeans. Sweatshirt. It's so Hatevillean!"
"But — "
He went on:
"Scuffed shoes. Serious gaze. Not smiling. Smart eyes with dark circles underneath. Un-fluffy femininity."
People were now openly watching us, as if this was scripted performance art which would end with a dazzling punchline while Velveeta squirted from my sleeves.
"Mismatched earrings," the stranger crowed, forefingers twirling near my ears. "Totally Hateville in their I-care-notness."
"Listen." My voice came out low and strange, like gravel being shoveled. "I hate Hateville."
Saying this, I forced myself to sit up straight. It felt bizarre and artificial, like playing a birthday-party game.
"Aw no." The stranger smiled, stroking his chest. "You can't."
I do. I liked it long ago but now hate Hateville and live here mainly for family reasons, seething at its pompous, theatrical rage.
The last thing I would want is to look like I love it here, to represent this place, to be crowned Miss Hateville. Yet this stranger had done exactly that, as if it was a compliment, and how could I say: No no no, I look like this not because I love Hateville or feel at home here, but because I cannot stand looking into mirrors, which one must do to apply makeup, arrange outfits and color hair. Granted, salons color hair gladly, but salons have huge mirrors, so no.
How could I say: Stranger, I realize I am not a grotesque gargoyle. Based on random reflections in spoons and windows, I know I look "moderate," as Dad used to say, and/or "medium," as my best friend sighed on the playground long ago, enchanted that someone could be so average. But those countless times Mom hissed Fat pig at mirrors, punching herself as if stunned, made sinister their shiny constant promise of cruel surprise.
How could I say: Stranger, my hair color and face aren't choices but avoidance. My slouch is not sweet insouciance, but wanting to sink into the soil. My somber gaze is not intelligence, but Do yourself a favor, do not look at me. My shoes are scuffed because I cannot believe I deserve replacements. My earrings are a weirdo alert. My clothing is the couture of Easily Washed One-Size-Fits-All So I Need Never Know, Donned Without Looking at a You-Know-What.
I know I'm not the only one whose "look" is not a look but lethargy, the slow parade of having given up.
Are you, like me, wearing your self-loathing for all to see? Would you be as amazed as I to know how much it shows? Do you also envy the ordinary ones who pick out pretty jackets, pink nail polish, buckled shoes and pom-pom hats as if that was okay?
We should be shocked to learn that we look like we live in Hateville. We owe ourselves more. And yet entire empires can arise, and lives go by, without anyone asking why. I thank that stranger for his ignorance. At least I have stopped cutting my own hair.