FACES, LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE, can be looked at and not seen. Walking down a sidewalk at rush hour or attending the World Series, you're surrounded by thousands of them, but they might as well be balloons at a political rally for all you notice them individually. Here and there one of them may catch your eye for a moment, but in another moment you've forgotten it. They are without personalities, without histories. There is nothing to remember them by. They are anonymous strangers. As far as you are concerned, they simply don't matter. They are too much to take in.

But the odds are that for at least one other person somewhere in the world, each of them—even the unlikeliest—matters enormously, or mattered enormously once, or someday, with any luck, will come to matter. The pimply boy with the beginnings of a mustache, the fat girl eating popcorn, the man with no upper teeth, the suntanned blonde with the disagreeable mouth—if you set your mind to it, there's hardly a one of them you can't imagine somebody loving even, conceivably even yourself. If the fat girl were your kid sister, for instance. Or the pimply boy to grow up to be your father. Or the toothless man to have been your first great love. Each face you see has, or used to have, or may have yet, the power—out of all the other faces in creation—to make at least some one other person's heart skip a beat just by turning up in an old photograph album, maybe, or appearing unexpectedly at the front door.

Needless to say, it's easier to imagine it with some than with others. For all her good looks it's harder with the suntanned blonde than with the sweaty truck driver shooting a squirt of cut plug, but even with her you can probably manage it in the end. There's hardly a face coming at you down the supermarket aisle or up the subway escalator that you can't manage it with, given the right set of circumstances, the right pair of eyes. You can see even the bitter faces in terms of what probably made them that way. You can see even the hostile, ugly faces in terms of what they must have been once before the world got to them, what they might have become if they'd gotten the breaks.

Every now and again, however, you come across faces that are too much for you. There are people it's impossible to imagine loving if only because they look so much as though they wouldn't let you even if you could. If there are faces of the blessed to be seen in this world, there are also faces of the damned. Maybe you can love them for precisely that reason then. Maybe you're the one who has to love them because nobody else ever has.

In any case, the next time you find yourself in a crowd with nothing better to do, it's a game worth playing. 

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words  

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