“How are you?” Felicia asked as she breezed into the room. Felicia was my coworker, and she always seemed to be in a good mood. I didn’t know how she did it. Sometimes I envied it, sometimes it annoyed me. Mostly I hated having to lie. “Fine, thanks” I replied, attempting to inject a little enthusiasm in my voice. I even managed a smile as I turned my attention back to my work. “You look nice today,” she continued. “I like your hair.” “Thank you,” I smiled again, trying to look particularly busy. Not that it was unusual. The lying, I mean. I had to do that with everyone. Nobody wants to hear my troubles, especially when the troubles were difficult or impossible to articulate.
The fact is I didn’t know how I felt. I mean I knew I was well enough physically. I wasn’t feeling sick, no headache, nothing like that. So I guess that saying I was fine wasn’t technically lying. It’s the other stuff, what people mean when they talk about “feelings,” that was lost on me. I didn’t know how I felt. It was like a void where my feelings should be. Uncomfortable, nervous, self-conscious, things like that I felt frequently, unmistakably. But moods, emotions, there was just nothing there.
As a woman, I knew that wasn’t normal. Women are supposed to be so in touch with their feelings. Men are physical, women are emotional, at least according to the stereotype, which I knew was a load of bullshit, anyway. But the fact is, I didn’t have a clue how I felt. It wasn’t always that way. I remember feeling things when I was young. Unfortunately, what I felt was sometimes pretty shitty. And, of course, that’s just not okay with most people. So I learned to internalize them. I had become a master at stuffing my feelings down. I gradually discovered how to suppress my dark feelings, hiding them behind a mask. The Beatles song Eleanor Rigby comes to mind. “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” All I can say is that Eleanor Rigby was an amateur. One face? I have a dozen faces ready to don in an instant, depending on the situation. It was easier if the face wasn’t necessary, if people just left me alone. But when they tried to connect, like Felicia did, a false face was required. I couldn’t let her see the darkness, or the emptiness, lurking inside.
Getting through the day didn’t require too much interaction with Felicia or anybody else for that matter. Still, it was important that my face remain at least neutral, just in case anybody came along. Wearing a false face all day was tiring, but with a neutral one, I could kind of “set it” in place. My features could hold it and it was easy enough to pull another one over it, when necessary. Still, it was even easier to shed all the masks altogether and just let my face do its own thing. Even though I didn’t like the look of it. I caught a glimpse in the rearview mirror as I was pulling myself into my car after I got off work. My eyes were drawn and droopy, the lids sagging down as if they weighed a pound each. How the hell did I hold those things up all day? I sighed as I started my car. “Better get a handle on it,” I told myself.
Steve hated to see me looking like this. I usually got home a few minutes before him, so I would have time to “pretty myself up” for him. That would require putting on a different face, of course, but also touching up my makeup, to cover up the shadows around my eyes. And I had to clean up my fucking language. Women aren’t supposed to talk like that. But that was easy enough. I was already accustomed to holding back my profanity when I was around Steve, to be “ladylike,” another thing that I had learned in childhood and adolescence. “Are you okay?” Steve asked, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, pulling on my prettiest smile. “Why?” “You look like shit.” There was an accident on the highway which caused a traffic jam, and it took me twice as long to get home. Steve was already here when I pulled into the driveway. I mumbled something about being tired and tense from the drive home. I smiled again, but it felt more like a grimace. I took a few minutes in the bathroom to relax and to secure my happy home face.
Dinner was quiet but not strained, although I noticed Steve studying my face several times. That made me self-conscious. Was something showing through that I didn’t want to show? “What’s wrong with you?” he finally asked. “Nothing,” I insisted. “I’m fine.” His face told me that I wasn’t very persuasive. He asked, if I felt sick? If I had a headache? If I was coming down with a cold? Apparently unconvinced, he moved on to less physical ailments, and I could feel myself becoming more and more uncomfortable. Like I said earlier, I felt uncomfortable pretty frequently.
After continued verbal poking and prodding, he finally got me to admit that I didn’t know what I felt. I didn’t have to explain. It had been discussed before, but I hadn’t mentioned it in a long time. The last time I did, Steve looked at me with the same expression that was looking at me now. “Do you have any idea how crazy that sounds?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” I said in barely a whisper, lowering my eyes to my plate. I hoped that the subject could somehow blow over. I willed the phone to ring, or for someone to knock on the door. No such luck. I heard a sigh, and I looked back up at Steve. His face was stern, but there was something else. I tried to figure out what it was, without staring. (I didn’t want to appear defiant.) Finally, the lines on his face began to change. The expression was the same, but it gradually occupied someone else’s face. That’s when I recognized it. I saw my mother looking at me, stern and disgusted at my weakness.
One of the first times I remember her looking at me like that, I was in my teens. I was feeling a strange sadness, one with no discernible reason. She told me to stop moping around, and when I couldn’t, that’s when I saw that expression. “Take it to your room,” she ordered. “You don’t get to bring everyone else down, young lady. Go deal with it, and then you can be with us.” My first experience with depression, and several after that, earned me that disgusted, icy expression. She didn’t know or didn’t care to learn, that mental issues weren’t something you could just turn off because they made other people uncomfortable. I didn’t know anything about that at the time, though. I just thought that there was something hideously wrong with me. I was a freak. But her reaction was similar to when I was happy about something. If I visibly expressed joy, or worse, giddiness, that stern face brought me back down. I was told to calm down, to show a little decorum. After my mother’s philosophy had been reinforced by a couple of boyfriends with similar doctrines, I finally learned to, well, not turn my feelings off, but to suppress them, hiding them behind false faces. After a while, I became so adept at suppressing feelings, both good and bad, that I no longer even recognized them.
I came to feel like a jar that was cracked, and whatever had been inside having leaked out and dried up. I learned to live like that every day, an emotional void, yes, but neat and clean. Still, that usually wasn’t okay with people either, so I mastered the ability to display a face for all occasions, a simulation of whatever mood I determined was expected of me. And now, that stern, accusatory expression was looking at me again, all these years later. Except that this time it was on Steve’s face. I felt that old freakish feeling, of being a cracked jar, dried up and empty. “Excuse me,” I said as I stood up, “I need to go to the bathroom.” Steve looked at me expectantly as I returned. I had taken the time I needed to pull myself together. I smiled at him as I sat back down at the table. “Sorry,” I said with a sigh, “you were right. I wasn’t feeling quite well. But I’m fine now.” To prove it, I smiled again, a real smile. The one that was expected.