the gaze

Getting the train I often have the intense mushroom-cloud sized desire for all of the inter-carriage doors to open simultaneously to create one unbroken line through which you could see an unbroken line of commuters breaking out into spontaneous dance. Like this. But in a train.

This morning I saw, again, older women pulling themselves along invisible cords, helping each remain upright whilst they negotiated the moving space.

I saw a Chinese man walk on with a set of oversized purple headphones, which looked like metallic ear-warmers. They acted as a sort of frame to the plum-coloured birthmark that had seeped across his face.

I saw a just-beyond-middle-aged couple walk on, hand in hand, both slightly overweight in matching too-tight striped polo shirts. They held hands even when they had seated themselves and whispered into each others ears like schoolchildren.

I stared at my shoes self-consciously for a lot of the trip – I was suddenly aware of how ‘the gaze’ is perpetuated in a train carriage in a way that is almost impossible in any other space.

‘The gaze’ is that social contract by which, by making eye contact with a fellow human being, you both acknowledge their presence and the fact that you are co-existing with them in real space and time.

This may be why we so seldom make eye contact – how much easier is it to look at a screen/book/train map than accept the responsibility of being within a metre of another human being? It avoids the absurdity of standing within breathing-down-your-neck distance whilst straining to contain yourself within your own space-bubble. Make eye contact and it may pop, leaving you naked and exposed to the conversational elements.

I suddenly realised this morning, sardine-squashed in with 17 other breathing bodies, that the mirror-like train doors only multiply this absurdity onto an almost grand scale. I couldn’t look at the doors without catching the reflection of another gaze. I found my eyes sliding over people/mirror-people like an eel.

I felt almost ashamed at my complicity in propagating these space-bubbles.


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