A Glance Away
Love is just a glance away,
A warm embracing dance away ...
--Frank Sinatra, "Strangers in the Night"
There we were, a dozen strangers on a train platform in Hartford, pretending not to know each other. I've long since forgotten where I was headed that day but not the sudden realization that we were all somehow intimately connected, even though I had never laid eyes on any of them before. There were telltale furtive glances, self-conscious attempts to avoid eye contact -- all of us careful to stay within our own space, seemingly lost in thoughts of somewhere else. Was I imagining this?
We've all been in those embarrassing situations when we encounter someone in a crowded place whom we may not wish to acknowledge . Perhaps it is someone we don't know well or haven't seen in a while, and we can't quite remember his or her name; perhaps it is someone we know only too well and just don't want to talk to. And so we look away or wait for them to make the first move, showing no signs of recognition.
The situation at the train station was obviously different, since no one is obliged to acknowledge the presence of perfect strangers, unless we bump into them accidentally, or unless they require urgent assistance. So why were we all behaving as if we had suddenly found ourselves standing in a crowded elevator next to a former lover?
Eye contact may be our most basic human connection, and there are elaborate rules governing how we look at each other. In Western cultures, you are expected to maintain eye contact with the person you are speaking to -- but not for too long, usually only three to five seconds at a time. Staring at another person is considered rude and may be regarded as threatening, yet lovers will gaze longingly at one another for extended periods. Babies are drawn to the gaze of their mothers during the process of bonding with them, while autistic children and stutterers have difficulty making eye contact with others.
Those strangers on the train platform in Hartford weren't behaving any differently than people normally do in such situations. It's just I was briefly able to see through the mask of anonymity that we usually don in public places. The eyes are indeed windows of the soul, as Shakespeare said, and we are normally careful to keep the curtains drawn. It's not just to protect ourselves from prying eyes; we are also afraid of what we might find. There is no shock of recognition quite like gazing deeply into the soul of another and discovering it is also your own.