"Normality is the Great Neurosis of civilization."
from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
I’m an even greater curiosity in India. Regardless of averted eyes or speed of step, I’m greeted every day walking to the village center by stares of shopkeepers, taxi drivers, bicycle vendors and pedestrians; when I’m passed, I feel their eyes on my back.
Indians stare without shame. Sometimes six, ten eyes wide, faces blank, necks twisting, arms and legs suddenly in slow motion. Waiting for Little Gen to squeeze the scooter into a parking slot at the market, I take three watchers on, attempting to outstare them, to limited avail. This is a place where you should never be surprised to see anything: twenty people in a rickshaw, someone peeing in the street, an establishment called Baby Jesus Coffee Shop; and I’m a freak.
I’m not certain why I currently wear a hot pink bathing suit. Though I've been familiar with pool attention since I was wearing floaties, the left one bobbing helplessly on the surface of the water like a buoyed dingy. I might drown, but that arm wasn't getting anywhere near the water.
Now striding round the pool, I pray nothing trips me before I can get in the water. I’m more comfortable after submerged, but I’m still on stage. I can almost hear a collective intake of breath as I push away from the edge and disappear under the water. The eyes of three portly men on reclining chairs travel back and forth with me from pool end to end. I pretend not to notice, feigning the indifference of an astronaut at space camp, but I wonder what they’re thinking.
After two months, the abundance of onlookers is making me feel far more important than I’m sure is healthy. I’m exhausted. Self-importance can be so tiring. The novelty is wearing thin.
An older woman watches me poolside as I give the froggy breast stroke my best shot.
But her gaze is different. More knowing than curious, she holds an unabashed smile on her lips. She seems to revel in my swim. It’s disconcerting. This is the second day I’ve noticed her watching me, and when I meet her eye from a neighboring pool chair, she walks over to me and looks down warmly.
“I have to tell you, I just think you’re wonderful,” she beams. She tells me she has a grandson who was born with only one ear. She says the other kids at school are doing their part to confirm his abnormality.
“I know I’m his grandmother, but he is really very smart and very handsome,” she continues, regaling several scholastic and athletic accolades.
I picture fortune-cookie-colored skin and dark eyes from an Egyptian mother and English father, and smile, agreeing that he must be very special. And I know he is. But I can feel her burden. I want to give her something more to give him, to relieve his pain, to let him know that what seems loss is likely gain. A serum for immunity to conformity, now that’s the kind of vaccination I could get behind.
I recognize this woman’s story, but I’m suddenly humbled, because it’s not about me. When I can muster the generosity to meet stares with a wave of my tiny arm, it’s like a magic wand, turning blank faces into smiles. Works every time.
I was told this week of two blind men who used to visit this village. During a soccer match at a local sports bar, a power outage suddenly cut the television and the lights.
Out of the silent darkness, one of the men said with conviction, “Now we take over!”