ON STARING— AN ESSAY
How is it, that when in public I make eye contact with a pretty girl, I must inevitably stumble? What curse has been laid upon my head, what powers have I profaned, that this is so reliably my lot? Who or what struck a pothole into the sidewalk precisely where, yesterday, my foot was to descend—just as my whole body received a great jolt of self-consciousness, as my eyes met another pair of dark and pleasant eyes? I hope you girls are getting a good laugh out of it, at the very least, but I am tormented.
The reflexive suggestion, reasonable of you to propose (and I chide myself with it also following every incident of the kind), is to “Keep your eyes to yourself.” Very well then, but are you being just? Are we not both seeing creatures, in a bright world? I like to think that I gawk respectfully, which I must insist is even quite noble, given the odd point in world history at which we now exist. The masks are coming off at last; the populace, grown weary of plague restrictions, has ceased troubling—they keep their masks upon their wrists, to show they have them, and could wear them, if asked to; but so rarely, even indoors, does anyone care any longer. Now cheeks, chins, lips and noses are emerging once more, and it is a Spring of human faces in the city, as exhilaratingly novel and longed-for as any spring I have previously had the pleasure of meeting, and therefore just as challenging to avert my eyes from. Indeed it seems inhumane (see, the act of justifying myself even emboldens me), inhumane, following that awful social winter of Covid-19, to deprive me of its spring, for propriety’s sake.
Only, true, the daffodils do not cause me to stumble, for the deciding factor in that is the meeting of eyes, and therefore of consciousnesses, therefore of judgments. And yet, nor do the men with whom I occasionally engage in staring matches stumble me, despite that, in this, there is always a perceived hostility, which ought moreso to unsteady me than beauty, than femininity. But this is not the case. When I walk about the city, headed this place or that merely as an excuse to walk, and among the hordes at Monastiraki my brain picks up from the periphery a certain warm glow—when I slow my pace admiring the splendor of this or that face, the lines of it, the soft slope of the nose or its charming bump of cartilage, the shoulders drenched with profusions of curls or the hair falling straight down the back or ponytailed high, the neck exposed or not exposed, the chin dimpled or jutting, the jaw set narrowly or Slavically-wide—mesmerized by the cohesive or pleasantly incohesive elements of a given facial structure, I do indeed seek to avert my gaze in time, but am ineffective; and when suddenly the eyes are given me also to apprehend, such a thrill electrocutes me that I become conscious of each of my toes, of my weight shifting now from the ball of my left foot to the heel of my right, and again to the ball of it, propelling me—this single step becomes a process of twelve hundred discrete moments, each of which must be managed precisely—which is, in a word, impossible—and so I stumble.
I envision the girl’s face to whom I embarrassed myself yesterday, and see very clearly all her facial structure, except the blank where her eyes must go; for just as her face turned to me there came the shock, and a step which seemed for a flash to be the infinite step at last, the final plunge into the underworld unwarned. Adieu, thought I, and I do not care. But alas, then there came the earth again, or rather the unfortunate pocket of dust and litter to serve as footing quite too late, and which in that imperceptible space of time I had already decided I did not want or need.
I could cast blame upon the city of Athens itself, for failing to maintain its walkways, or for building them of such a material as becomes as slick as ice after a faintest drizzle of rain. But there need not be any pothole, nor any slippery tiles. I am well-known among friends and family for my clumsiness. Meeting a pair of pretty eyes, I have stumbled over my own feet, shouldered streetlamps which were by no means camouflaged or obscured, butted signposts with the tip of my forehead, or simply buckled noticeably at the knees between strides. It is as though, in the depths of cognition, my consciousness had begun to disperse; but, just as when daydreaming, you cross a street at a red light and are roused with a crash by the screech of brakes and the long honk of a horn, likewise the gaze requited jars me back into my head too forcefully. I think that this to some extent explains the lack of a jolt, when my eyes meet others’ upon whom my sight finds less to linger over, my mind less to cogitate upon. The homeless, the physically anomalous, or the merely strange, I also permit myself the gratification of staring at, but when I receive their eyes in response, though I turn away in shame, there is nothing of the “jolt of returning” in it, as I don’t go deeply enough into my mind.
This could be attested to by the jolt which today I did receive from a young, possibly Kazakh man, on whom my distant gaze fell only incidentally, for he by sheer chance wandered into it, while I was deeply dreaming, and there stopped. I did not even really notice him, until he, noticing me, gave a wild contortion of his face, which was as much as to say: “Stop staring,” if in a much cruder language of expression, as it seemed to me. I experienced an almost audible shattering of thought, much stronger than yesterday’s incident with the girl, for I had been much deeper within myself when the call to the surface came. (Yes, such is life in the city! You can’t even daydream here for free, someone will walk into your line of sight and startle you out of it, as though it were inappropriate to publicly indulge the imagination. No, you must fork it over for bare walls to stare into).
Well, following these incidents, frustrated immensely by the necessity of shepherding my eyes, considering it unjust that I should be tacitly forbidden to gawk in this realm of visual stimuli belonging to me as good as anyone—muttering that it was a very stupid man who invented the propriety of keeping the eyes to oneself, a man with empty head and eyes of stone needing no nourishment, an uncurious man desiring to leave alone and be left alone, and a bloodless, decayed mode of existence for all—frustrated so that my bones almost rang within me, just two hours ago I decided, once and for all: Not me! I shall be a starer unabashed, now and forever, prepared and eager to accept the consequences! If I find reason to stare, I shall henceforth cease perambulating, in order more entirely to stare, even to leave my body behind me!
Yet I am not so brash as to deny or avoid mentioning the colossal power of sight, not merely as an inward stream of information, for it is not merely that, but also as a consistent, communicative outwardness. The met gaze, for the parties involved or for observers of those parties, may signify grave truths—may invert the meaning of a statement, reveal disgust or amorousness, initiate an affair or trumpet the end of one, start fights, start wars perhaps. After all, eye contact cannot be held by three. It is the most intimate thing. Surely, therefore, sooner or later someone will take offense, shout, throw a punch, a slap, spit—so be it. I have made my choice. That is life, and I invite life, I invite it with my stare. I accept as my own all the shapes and colors of the world, and all the turns of life, for better or worse, that my insubstantial stare may set into motion.
Athens, October 2021
Carston Fairel is from Royal Oak, MI, but is currently living and working in Athens. In his lonely hours, he is fond of writing. This is his first published essay.