I lost my bearing not too long after the robots began to sing. It’s part of a childhood memory that could only have happened within a particular context, though the realization of a certain experience there haunts me still. I was enjoying the second in a series of pilgrimages my family made to Disney World. It took us several days to drive there by Vega, my brother and I lying on our backs under the hatchback’s glass nearly the entire way. Staring up at the sky for hours on end, the long transition from our mundane world, with the freeway sections palpating us the entire way like the clicks of a climbing roller coaster, had a dissociative effect. By the time we arrived we were stir-crazy and rabid – Disney’s pliant subjects.
General Electric’s Carousel of Progress was like an immense theatre in the round with its stage divided into quarters. On the stage an animatronic family straight out of the early 60s delivered a drama in four parts, with each section followed by the quarter rotation of the entire audience around the center stage.
It is perhaps to this cumulative disorientation – of being rotated in the dark, already beside myself with excitement, and a million miles away from anything familiar – that I can attribute my mistake. To my recollection we had taken our seats with my father’s girlfriend to my left, and my father to my right, with my brother next to him. So it was when the lights went down. During the course of the presentation my mind was positively achatter, and I vented some of this via a running commentary to my father’s girlfriend, nudging her in the side so that I might deliver another insight. “Look at that guy’s hair! Their kid looks like the dog! If that guy’s a am-a-no-tronic then how come he’s getting older?”
I remember all of this as if it were yesterday, because when the lights came back up after the show the woman on my left stopped being my father’s girlfriend. I had been confiding my thoughts to a complete stranger for the duration of the show. I was mortified, and felt lost suddenly. In desperation I shot a glance to my right to make sure my father was still my father. He and his girlfriend were both sitting obliviously to my right. For her I felt a special kind of scorn. She had betrayed me somehow, just as much as the stranger to my left had. Indeed, this strange woman might have said something to me to stem my utter loss of face. “Kid, I’m not your friend.” Or simply, “Don’t talk to me.” That would have been enough.
Instead, there is a basic mistrust in my own perceptions that I harbor to this day. Are the people I think I know really who I think they are? The only way to be sure is to look them over with the intensity of an archaeologist with a fossil, and even then I never can be too sure. When I recognize a friend from across the park and wave to them, I can’t be certain whether they’re waving back only because it’s best not to upset the crazy man. There’s always that moment of doubt – I’ve been wrong before. When I come up and rub my partner’s back in the grocery store, there’s no reliable way of telling whether I’m groping a complete stranger. Will they be receptive to my desperate pleas once I’m caught? “Oh my god, I’m so sorry – but I have identity issues!”
Maybe the only real solution is to avoid recognition of any kind. Do not make eye contact, and never speak first. Hold everyone in suspicion until they have repeated the pass phrase.
Or maybe it’s the opposite. Stop caring altogether, and greet people I don’t know as friends, and rub peoples’ backs without inhibition. Why should there be social boundaries of any kind? It’s a small world, after all.