It’s nearly impossible not to stare at the people you see in amusement park lines — you know, the lines for the really popular roller coasters that wind over on themselves row after row after row. If you’re lucky, you get the kind of lines that have televisions with park commercials or stills of photos with people flying down the coaster’s largest hill. On a hot day, maybe you’re in one of those line that has cold mist with oscillating fans high above your head.
Sometimes, if you’re not paying attention, you hear the distant whispers of “Go! Move ahead please!” from impatient line riders behind you. Kids leaning on the railings. Couples leaning on one another. And teenagers talking about how this is their 12th time on the ride today.
Though roller coaster line etiquette requires us to look away from the people we’ve seen over and over again in these locked positions, it’s impossible not to notice.
One hot summer day, we were winding our way through the line for “The Bamboo Chutes” at Storyland when I noticed people staring at us. I noticed them appropriately ignoring us but then being drawn to her little face. They looked away as the line moved again, only to sneak another peek when we met again at the twist of the line. Over and over, person after person, young and old — they all were looking.
I turned Joli towards me and looked closely at her face. Maybe her eye was turned upside down. Maybe she had something on her face. By the way I was looking intently at her, she wasn’t sure if I was mad.
“I’m just exercising my eye, Mommy,” she replied innocently. Her two eyes pointed in my direction, their chocolate brown circles brightly focused on my face. “Like this,” she continued. Her left eye rolled around and around, moving her dark brown pupil up-down-left-right and all over. Her right eye, a prosthetic piece, stayed fixed in my direction.
No wonder they were staring, I thought.
Over the past five years, Joli has chosen her own times when to be public about her prosthetic eye and when to keep it her little secret. I once witnessed her tell a mother at her karate class about her prosthesis. She sat right next to this woman, put her little tiny hand on the mother’s hand, and whispered quietly, “I had eye cancer. My eye is fake. Did you know that?”
Joli chose when to tell the 24 kids in her public school class, when to talk about it with students at my college, and when to tell new friends she meets. Some days she wants to talk about it; other days she doesn’t.
“Okay, honey. That’s great you’re exercising it, but I think people are watching you. They might not understand that one eye is fake and one eye is real. It just looks a little different from everyone else,” I said quietly. We still had an “Estimated Wait Time: 16 minutes.”
“But you told me different is good. You told me that it’s okay that I’m different,” she said. I could see she was confused.
I went to the gym early on Sunday morning so that I could use the steam room after my workout. It was my first time using it, my first time showering at a gym, in fact. I walked into the locker room crowded with more than a dozen women who had just finished a step aerobics class. They clearly were “gym regulars” and knew each other by name, laughed, shared their weekend stories, and reveled in their girlfriend-hood. Having just joined this new gym, I felt invisible. I felt alone. And, as I began to undress, I felt the need for attention. I’ve never been one for publicly showing my body — even at an all womens’ gym — but I felt such an urge to walk around without my top on. I wanted, damn it, to proudly show off my chest. My 16-inches of scars. I wanted to pull my shoulders back so that the football-like breast mounds rose high, accenting the lack of nipples, pigment, or buoyancy in my chest. I wanted someone to look, then look away, then discretely look again. I wanted to catch their glances, smile, say “Yes, I had a mastectomy”, and flash my badge of courage.
Instead, I grabbed my towel, held it close to my body, ran into the steam room, and prayed no one would walk in. Even in the dark room, opaque with heavy thick vapors scented with delicate eucalyptus, I kept my towel pressed against my numb chest, unable to feel the rough texture of too little fabric softener.
I understood Joli’s need. I understood her desire to show her eye — to show her strength — and to prove to herself and the world that she is a warrior. She wanted others, amidst their cotton candy and their oversized turkey legs wrapped in foil, to see that she was different. She wanted them to stare, to notice, and to feel less invisible.
She wanted to show off. Show off her courage, her battle wounds, and her will to survive. I now understand that need — the need to keep both secret and survival.
I understand the need to show off.
Peace, love, and ready for the world,