The two girls never seemed to put their phones down all through lunch. When their food arrived, they both took a photo of their plates before they started eating. One girl even showed the other one the photo she took of the food which was still sitting untouched on the table.
Fascinating creatures, he thought.
But his curiosity was roused by more than the mere ubiquity of their smart phone use at the lunch table – a practice that was all too familiar, and frankly, hardly worth mentioning. Several of the adults in the restaurant were just as preoccupied with their phones. No, he was fascinated by something else. These were teenage girls in high school, after all. The ultimate mystery of the universe.
There was something that was just scary about them, he thought – and he wasn’t sure what it was exactly. And it wasn’t that they were particularly beautiful. One girl was tall and thin and not unattractive but not intimidatingly pretty either. The other was shorter, with freckles and rosy cheeks. She was cute, but again, not intimidatingly so. These were just your average teenage girls. Probably not the popular girls but not the untouchables either.
What is it about this creature, the teenager, that is so disarming, he wondered?
Maybe it was the honesty of their faces, he thought. Maybe it was simply that those faces told the truth. Still too young to have formed a permanently cheerful social demeanor to wear in public, their faces betrayed a sense of general boredom, a dissatisfaction with the ordinariness of everything.
What is so scary about meeting the gaze of such a face is that it has not learned to lie – or is not willing to – not just for your benefit, that is. The teenager’s face is not yet willing to offer up the politeness of a comforting smile when entering a room, for example. No. Not these faces. Not the teenage face. The teenage face is still young enough to glare at strangers; young enough even to scowl at family – naive faces with eyes that do not hide their contempt. Eyes that radiate judgment upon every last thing. It is the eyes of the teenager that deliver reckoning upon the world.
On the one hand he watched their faces to better know a certain truth about the world which he had forgotten. But on the other hand it was scary to watch such faces because they will also tell you the truth about yourself and he did not want to see the truth about himself.
This is what the teenager represents, he thought: that beautifully hopeful creature who has finally gazed upon the real world, only to be let down. The eyes of the teenager accuse you of being complicit with the world’s shortcomings, as if it is your fault that the world is the way it is; as if all of us, we, the older generations, have failed to deliver to them the world that they know they deserve. The eyes of the teenager seemed to say, “Is this the best you can do? Are you really satisfied – with this? With this?”
He was worried that he was staring too much. But they did not seem to see him, even when they looked right at him. The shorter girl, the cuter one, met his eyes one time and he thought he was caught but it was as if she saw right through him. He was reminded of how a cat will look at you sometimes. They see you, but they don’t see you. It is as if you are just another piece of furniture in their world. The eyes register only boredom after having fallen on you, as if expecting to find something interesting but disappointedly discovering only another chair.
I am invisible to them, he thought.
The man looked around the restaurant trying to imagine what the girls would see. A bunch of sad old people is all. It must be their age, he thought. Their lack of it, that is. A lack of experience, and perhaps, therefore, of empathy.
There was an elderly woman in a wheelchair sitting behind the girls at a table of five: mother, father, and two sons. The mother had wheeled the old lady in. Mother and daughter, the man thought. The boys were a little older than the girls he had been observing. Perhaps teenagers still, but probably a little older, he thought. They made more of an effort to pretend to not be bored than the girls did.
The man looked back to the girls. What did they see? What could they see? They know nothing about being old. They know nothing of loss. They cannot imagine the sacrifice of raising a family, of taking care of a parent. They really are like cats, the man thought. They do not really see people, they only see the appearances of people. They see wrinkles and sagging, old skin. Those eyes might bring judgment, but not justice.
The man began to look around at the other people in the restaurant. He looked at the woman sitting to his right, behind the flowers on the divider that separated the section he was in from the one where the woman sat. She was probably in her seventies. She had white hair and a wrinkled, pretty face. She too was sharing lunch with her friend. She did not have a phone (of course) and she did not look bored. She was fully present in her conversation – even when she was just listening. Her gaze remained fixed on her friend. There was a sparkle in her eyes and a kindness on her face that comes when you are genuinely enjoying company and conversation. The man appreciated this and he was thankful for the woman.
And then the man began to feel something different toward the girls. He realized that one day the ordinariness of sitting across the table with a friend at lunch on a Saturday afternoon would be treasured for the extraordinary gift that it really is. How could those girls possible know that? Only age can teach such lessons.
The man watched as the two young girls got up to leave. No, their faces do not lie, he thought, but they do not tell the whole truth either. And how could they? They are only teenagers.