I was seated at a diner somewhere near Bemidji, drinking coffee with—was it M? or an old boyfriend?—waiting for eggs and toast, when the waitress came to warm our coffee and said,
“I’m sorry to bother you, but—” and here she looked around shyly, “aren’t you Sandra Bullock?”
Want to make a mousy girl happy? Just say those words. This was a good 20 years ago now, mind you, around the time While You Were Sleeping came out, when Sandra Bullock sported long bangs and waves and big baggy sweaters. For a brief moment our styles and cheekbones intersected and a waitress in a small-town Minnesota diner was convinced I was the real deal, sitting in her booth. I laughed it off with my breakfast companion. As we paid our bill I saw our server hovering in the kitchen doorway, pointing me out to another waitress.
I am often mistaken for people I’m not.
Only last week in the bustling corridor of Penn Station a middle-aged, smartly dressed woman brushed past me and my daughter. She turned as she passed, paused and reached out to touch my arm before she stopped herself—
“Oh! I thought you were my friend!” she exclaimed, shaking her head as if to clear her thoughts; she’d nearly embraced me, a total stranger.
Like in New Hampshire when I’d gone to hear Hillary Clinton speak on the grounds of the Concord state house, 9-year-old S by my side. This time I was mistaken for a mother from a local school. “You look just like her!” the woman insisted.
Standing next to my neighbor at a farmer’s market in St. Paul buying apples a few summers ago I was mistaken for my neighbor’s twin. Not just sister: identical twin.
Am I some chameleon, taking on whatever aspect people wish to pin on me?
In my 30s it seemed a constant refrain when introduced to new people: “Haven’t we met before?” their inquisitive eyes taking in the shape of my face, convinced we’d met in some previous setting, though I never recognized them.
In those days I thought, hopefully, that it was the headshot accompanying my monthly column in a local business journal that they recognized, but no one ever confirmed that as the source.
Sadly even I have mistaken myself for someone I’m not over the years. I have underestimated, undersold, downplayed my worth; convinced myself the goods are not there, the talent is absent. Banished my own spirit with disparaging self-talk. To what end?
Some days other people will mistake you for a stranger, but some fine day they may do you a good turn and remind you who you are.
My neighbor took photographs of my family a few summers ago in our backyard, of us hamming around by the garage, sometime around the fourth of July. I had just quit the competitive rowing program mid-season: a birthday present to myself, I laughed darkly. Released myself from the torture the program had become, from the rowers who didn’t seem to want me there. Quit to stop the internal monologue of why on earth I showed up for practices that left me humiliated and forlorn. I was down; I hadn’t rowed in a week. I didn’t know how to find my way back to the boathouse.
I opened my neighbor’s email with the pictures attached one summer night after everyone had gone to bed. I smiled to see my girls and their long legs, M holding our husky in place, my mother turning to me with a sweet smile and eyes that urged me to make my neighbor stop taking pictures. And the photos showed what I expected to see in myself: a sad smile, reluctance personified.
But one image stood out, unposed, caught mid-laugh, slightly out of focus. This one brought a sudden recognition: I saw in this photo a rower, an independent rower, a strong woman who could surely handle a single by herself, a woman who did not have any reason to put herself down. I was startled that the woman in this photo could be me.
I had mistaken myself for someone insubstantial, a person of no consequence. Begun to think of myself as I thought others did: A pipsqueak!, as one woman on the team had put it.
Physical attributes that cause a waitress to mistake you for a famous person are not worth much. Nor is a passing resemblance of a rower sufficient.
A few weeks ago, after a morning row, a rower better than myself asked if anyone had asked me to race at the Head of the Charles.
No, I laughed. What a question. I’d already told the coach I wasn’t vying for a seat in those boats. I was surprised by the question—those were seats women fought for with erg scores and on-water performance. Shed tears over when denied. I’d begged off the erg test, blaming it on my bum wrist.
“It’s like you wrote,” he went on, “’Can you see me yet?’”
I blinked; he’d read my words. Remembered them. Was now quoting them back to me.
“You’re noticed,” he said. “You’re seen out there.”
Once in a rare while, someone can hold up a mirror and show us who we are, repeat back our own words to our stunned selves, capture us in a camera’s flash. Snatch our essence from thin air and feed it back to us like porridge.