I am standing in a downtown Starbucks, in the heart of officeland, with my son. The Starbucks is full of government workers but also just far enough away from my old office building that it’s unlikely I will meet anyone I know. Still, I see a few familiar faces, faces from another life.
For a moment the two worlds collide. The world in which I am not a government worker, but a writer and a mother, and the world in which I was a public servant and will be again soon.
I know I belong in the first world. I’m not sure about the second, though 12 months ago I would have said the complete opposite.
Immediately, subconsciously, I start to wonder: Do they notice me? Do they know me? Do they remember me? What do they think if they do? Or do I simply look like any other mother, out buying her kid more treats than he probably needs?
The theatre in my mind rages. That theatre that I people with characters drawn from my life, feeding them lines from my dark fantasies – or nightmares, more like. I give them a script full of judgement and criticism directed only at me. I send them out to wander upon the stage of my thoughts. I let them take over. I let their judgements take over. And I lose myself.
A man in the Starbucks stops my son, who is wearing his new Torres jersey, and asks him who he’s cheering for now that Spain are out of the World Cup. They have a quick chat and the man moves on.
Why did I assume it would be all about me anyway?
I have realized lately that this theatre of mine is open most of my waking hours. Some of my sleeping ones, too.
I am trying to turn off the lights, send the actors packing, shut it down.
The same day that I stood in Starbucks, I also ran into someone from my distant past. It was a dark, difficult time back then. It involved my ex-husband, his abusive and evil brother and his brother’s then-girlfriend. She has since managed to escape his grasping, nasty clutches but when we were all wrapped up in each other’s dramas – I in theirs more than anything, as I kept mine to myself – I thought she was just as culpable as him, just as untrustworthy.
I ran into her yesterday.
I was letting her walk out the door; she had walked past me without recognizing me and in that split second, I decided to let her keep going. But at the last moment, she stopped, turned around stunned and asked, “Is that you!?”
We chatted. We filled in some blanks for each other. I realized that the conflict she embodied was not hers. And the discomfort and fear I had always felt around her was more due to that long-running theatre of mine – and of course, the very real threat her ex-boyfriend had posed.
The other thing I realized as I talked to her and as I thought about her afterwards, thoughts interspersed with “I can’t believe I met Gail*,” was that you can never truly know another person. You can speculate, using the information you have. But in the end, it’s all perception. The “knowing” is an inference. But you give them the role you think best fits them and play them out across the stage of your mind anyway.
What good can come of this? It takes you away from the real world with the real versions of the people in it, and anchors you in your head, in your imagination. It makes it nigh impossible to learn any more about the real them, and colours them with your own fears and prejudices.
As I try to shut this damned theatre down, I become more and more aware of just how popular its shows are. And how often they play.
* name changed to protect all involved.