I find myself staring at ears a lot nowadays, on the subway or when I’m standing behind people in line at Peet’s. I zone in on the ear, or the back of the neck, or the elbow of the jacket, where it’s pulled tight but I can still see some wrinkles in it from where it’d been crumpled up and left in the passenger’s seat.
I try to memorize every detail possible, or at least take them all in.
The staring started after I got interested in other people and wanted to swim into their lives and know all their stories and secrets. I’m pretty sure that makes me the opposite of a psychopath, so you don’t need to worry about my mental health, mom. Also, I’m taking vitamin B12 which improves mental function and tastes like candy.
The ear is a very personal part of the body. Only best friends and lovers know the ears of others intimately. I myself don’t know my ears very well. If you stared at one long enough, you might get to know it better than I do, and then in that one way, you would know me better than I know myself.
The same applies to certain parts of clothing – the back of a shirt or a coattail. I’m not aware, as I’m going about business as usual, how my clothing sits on me, how the wind is affecting it or what the pattern of raindrops is on my back or umbrella. Only someone else could know those things about me.
In digging into these minute observations, the boring pattern of ear hair, where a certain mole falls on the neck, or the mundane way the fabric appears to be worn at the knees and the jeans are feathering, I feel – and stay with me here – that I’m taking back control of time and adding detail to the blurs that other people can become around me.
Often, during the past month or so, I’ve wished I could memorize every single face I see, the eyes and the nose and the skin tone and the blemishes, and that I could understand something of the story behind that face, where she had come from and where she was going, what he was thinking about and hoping, and everyone with a different story, all of them distinct but reassuring in their similarities, in the familiar concerns everyone has, the desire for good health and love, the dream of taking time off to be with family or friends or travel the world, the fears of being alone or not living a life that’s worthwhile.
Jostling, rushing for a seat on the bus, walking past others on the streets – this is the way I have to live in a city. I’ve learned the ways to cope when there are so many people and so many heartbreaks and joys that could burst out and give me some perspective on my life. It’s self-defense, and it’s necessary.
But on the MUNI, when I’m staring at ears and dress pants, it becomes clear that there’s really nothing between me and this other human, that I could reach out and start a conversation with them and they would respond as they would respond. That’s the real fear – that there’s nothing there, no barrier, not a single thing.
We’re all in the same vehicle together with our burdens and curiosities and there’s nothing stopping us from sharing them with one another, except for everything.
And now I’ve overstepped the bounds of this article of talking about my new habit of ear-detail-gathering, and I know longing for intimate conversation on the MUNI is bizarre and would be psychotic except for those B12 vitamins I’m taking, but I guess I just want to remind myself that life is more interesting than the boundaries I create for myself.