So I came into your work one day looking for you, and I walked up to the receptionist about to ask for you when I realized that I couldn’t remember your name at all, not even a single syllable. I had a couple guesses, but none of them made the right noises in your head.
It’s like when you’re asking someone for the title of a book they read at a bookstore, because you work there and they want to buy it, and all they can describe is the image on the cover of the book, and they give a couple half-hearted attempts at a title but they just can’t remember it at all. And you think, oh jeez, this person is awful, I mean how can they do something like this to me, until you’re visiting the bookstore yourself and you’re looking for a book and that’s all you can remember. A cover image, and some tiny phonetic slices of a title. And you’re standing there like a dying fish saying “It started with an ‘A’ I think…maybe it was like ‘Another Chance’? But it wasn’t ‘another’…” and the poor guy behind the counter is just staring at you, and you know he’s thinking, oh jeez, this person is awful, I mean how can they do something like this to me. And you just feel like shit.
I always thought it was a little cruel that they did a ton of different covers for one book, especially the old ones and the really popular ones. Each cover should have one book, and each book should have one cover, and they should all be totally unique. So that when you go into the book store, you can say, “The blue book with the bell on it,” and they hand you your book.
Anyway, that’s how I felt there in front of the receptionist. I could describe you to her, but faces just have tiny variations, like book covers. Like how there’s that popular series out now with the red and white and black covers, and they’re terrible books but great covers. They catch your eye and make you pick up the books, even if they’d never appeal to you. But then this company trying to push a bunch of old classics said, “Hey, I bet we can dupe people into buying our book if it looks a lot like those popular ones.” And now you’ve got all these books with covers that look the same, and some of them are these really excellent classics but some of them are these pop novels that just sell loads of copies, and unless you check out the specifics there’s almost no way to tell them apart.
That’s what happened with Marilyn Monroe. She was a brunette with long hair and a pretty face with one ugly mole, and then she bleached her hair and cut it short and made the mole a “thing”, so all these girls now get pierced right where she had her mole because it’s a “thing”, and Marilyn was pretty and she had the mole, and they want to be pretty like Marilyn, so they’ll make a fake mole just to be like Marilyn. They saw a book cover that worked really well, so they made themselves look like their favorite book.
Not that you’re imitating a celebrity or anything, but just that there are so few differences between people anyway. I mean, it’s not like I’d describe you to the receptionist and she’d reply, “Oh, you mean like Marilyn Monroe?” because you look nothing like Marilyn Monroe. But what can I say really? “Well, she has such-and-such color hair, and her eyes are so-and-so [I always thought determining people on eye color was weird, since truly blue eyes or truly green eyes are pretty unusual when you think about it, and the rest is a muddling brown, or somewhere in a spectrum], and her nose might be described as a button nose, but probably not…” and then you devolve into opinion. And eventually it is opinion. Without a photo or anything, any description I give of you will just be vaguely similar to your real face, but it’s up to the receptionist to imagine you according to my description, and I mean, it would be really difficult to describe you so accurately, down to the last perfectly placed atom, down to every molecular unit of your being, that the receptionist will totally perfectly and completely understand me and say, “Yes sir, she’s on the tenth floor”. Like with the book covers.
I guess what I’m saying is that we judge things visually and instantaneously. Speaking of Marilyn Monroe: just the other day, I was riding the train when I saw a woman who looked just like Marilyn Monroe. That was the first thought in my head: “That woman looks just like Marilyn Monroe.” But then I took a second look and realized that she barely looked like Marilyn Monroe. So you look at a book cover and think “that’s blue, with a window and a child.” But then you take a second look and it’s not really blue, because though there are bits of blue it’s mostly yellowish and white, and the window is actually a door and the thing you thought was a child is a teddy bear. That’s a bad example, but you get the point. A glance isn’t all there is.
But what I mean is, we try to put things in context. And for people, our context is famous people. Faces that you see a lot, even if you try to ignore them. And for books, our context is covers. But that’s really not all there is to it. I mean, I’ve seen you chatting with that same receptionist a few times. I could have described you as “the friendly girl with the hair you complimented last Wednesday who chats with you in the elevator sometimes”. But I didn’t. And I could describe the book as “that moderately sized novel, not famous but not bad either, that featured a child narrating as the main character seeking out his lost teddy bear, written by a pretty famous author who’s mostly done thrillers but is branching into literary fiction.” That’s a bad example, but you get the point. I didn’t do that.
Instead, I marched through to the receptionist and asked for you, because with all these thoughts of Marilyn Monroe and book covers and teddy bears, I’d forgotten to forget your name, and it surfaced quietly as I walked up to the desk and asked.
Michael Landes, Age 15, Grade 10, The Dalton School, Silver Key