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The Gaze

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Norm walked past her nearly every morning on his way to work. She was always there, always wearing that same shabby blue sweatshirt, always sitting cross-legged on the same stretch of grimy sidewalk. When he passed, Norm did his best to avoid returning her gaze. It was a funny gaze, not beseeching, imploring, or pleading as one might expect of someone in this woman’s circumstances, but full of fire and rebellion, a relentless, evocative gaze that left Norm with an unsettled fluttering in his stomach. Thus, he became very good at occupying his attention elsewhere. Some afternoons he pretended to answer an urgent text as he strode past, other times, he fished a stick of Trident gum from his pocket and very laboriously unwrapped it.
Norm was fooling no one. And he knew it. And still he couldn’t look at her.
There was something in the woman’s eyes that carried all the force of a bolt of lightning. That gaze did strange and amazing things; it reflected Norm back at himself and made him feel atrociously guilty and incredibly sad. He didn’t know why and had long given up trying. But he supposed it had something to do with the fact that he was a contributing factor in this madness, this corrupted society that was so generous to some and left others destitute and adrift on city streets. It made him question himself and perhaps that was a good thing, as the doubt gave way to a change in his ways. Norm waded into a murky pond to retrieve a little girl’s soccer ball; he shared his umbrella with man as they waited for the bus; he found himself stopping to pluck garbage from the pavement, and abandoned Facebook in favor of nights spent drawing, thinking, and devouring the written word.
As he inadvertently transformed, Norm discovered that he was not becoming someone new, but rather returning to the man he’d been before his generosity and integrity had diminished. Yet this isolated him. He noted, with a certain sorrow, that he was vastly alone in his desire to better the world. Everyone else rushed on about their business, fretting over their little troubles in their little minds, never stopping to consider the consequences. It was a haunting realization.
On a rainy Wednesday in September, Norm decided to move to bustling Shanghai for a higher-level position in his company and an opportunity to look for other more illuminated people, should there be any. He left his apartment that afternoon feeling decidedly bittersweet and wandered down to Lou’s Flower Shop. There, he bought a pink carnation. Tucking the flower into his jacket, he went to find her.
She was cross-legged on the sidewalk when Norm walked up to her, looking straight ahead, sitting tall and wise and strong. She seemed to have heard his approaching footsteps, because she looked to the left and pierced him with her gaze. That gaze, that was defiant and stirring, provoking and brave, angry and even—dare he say it—a little bit hopeful. It was unforgettable, uncontainable, irrepressible. It made you wonder why.
Norm handed her the carnation and she took it, still gazing at him.
“It’s to say thank you,” Norm wanted to say, but found himself utterly without words. There were times when there was simply no way to verbally express certain feelings, and so he thought it best not to try. A beat passed. She looked at him. He looked back. Something passed between them; a spark of understanding, a recognition. And after an indeterminable while, he concluded his gesture of gratitude with a quick nod and turned away.
He was halfway back to his apartment when something struck him: he did not feel unsettled at all. Norm stopped dead in the swirl of pedestrian traffic, smiling faintly.

Actually, he felt complete.




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