I found myself chatting with a woman last weekend at Bill's wife's memorial service. I knew who she was -- a friend and colleague of Bill's at ISERP -- immediately, having met her several years ago at Bill's and Jill's wedding. But apparently she's come in to my library on a semi-regular basis in the intervening years, and apparently I never recognize her.
Context can be everything, I suppose -- bring back the Bill factor and of course I knew who she was. But I think at some point in the sordid, distant past I stopped looking closely at other people's faces. I was too busy looking at the cracks in the sidewalk in front of my feet, at the sky, at shoes and clothes and bodies hurtling through space. I was too busy obsessing over books or drugs or people I didn't know how to love very well.
Once, towards the end of college, I was walking across campus and eventually noticed a girl laughing and waving animatedly at me. I'd almost passed her by, this girl I happened to be deeply in love with, or crushing on, or whatever the proper terminology might have been at the time. She finally stopped chuckling at my obliviousness and we went and got coffees and chatted out on the steps as the late autumn dusk settled in around us.
Later she asked me what it was I was thinking about all those times when my mind went wandering off and stopped seeing anyone. I don't think I knew what to tell her.
Later even than that, I think I more intentionally stopped looking at faces when I was out in the world. So many times I thought those faces passing by were people I knew, sometimes people I loved, and so many times I found myself smiling joyfully, longingly, only to discover it was someone else entirely, someone strange and unknown and not who I had thought it was at all.
Eventually it just seemed easier to stop looking, in the hopes that other people would stop looking, too.
I've gotten better about it in recent years. I try to look people in the eye, absorb their faces, remember their names, stop hiding behind my own lack of recognition. It helps to be dating a man who, I know, will always find me in a crowd even when I can't find him. It helps to mind less about the embarrassment of introducing myself to the same person again and again. It helps to be able to just tell people that chances are I might not recognize them the next time we meet, and that they should just speak up for god's sake and say, "I'm So-and-so. So-and-so's friend. We've met twice before."