Friday, September 2, 2011

The Sad Faced Girl

My daily commute is a long one. I bring a book, I listen to music, I tweet and Facebook and blog and email and stumble upon things, but it's a long ride in what amounts to a moving tube full of interesting people. Like everyone else, I look around to see who my neighbors are. I'm a psychologist, and when you're a psychologist if you don't have a natural interest in people you're going to be a very bored psychologist in a very short time, and I'm anything but bored. I love studying people's faces and thinking about their stories. I don't "analyze" them, as people always seem to fear, but I like imagining what they're like and where they're going.

The first time I saw her, she was in the car ahead, obscured by dirty MAX windows and the vibration of a moving train. It was early, and I was just sort of glancing up from my book, and I saw her.

I saw the Sad Faced Girl.

When I was in grad school, learning to be a therapist, I had a classmate with a naturally sad appearance. This classmate was warm and witty and full of life and just cursed with a visage that evoked a feeling of moderate despair any time she looked at you. Not a great package for someone who gets paid to listen to bummed out people, and to this day I wonder if she ever made it in the psychology world. My guess was that she would eventually leave the profession and take up something more physically appropriate, like delivering funeral wreaths or telling people that they've been elected Speaker of the House.

The Sad Faced Girl makes my old classmate look like a smiley-face icon. She's so imbued with this classic, heavy sadness that I envision her face framed by the cold stonework of a medieval tower, her gaze longingly sweeping over the land from which she's been exiled. In my imagination, she has experienced a terrible loss, her heart heavy with it, her entire being slowed to a near crawl, her existence reduced to the experience of Olympic-quality mourning.

The next time I saw her, she was in the same car as me, facing forward, eyes closed. She was listening to music. I could only imagine the music - some dark minor-chord bereavement, bagpipes or maybe just a recorded voice intoning a list of victims of some horrible disaster. She looked tired, she looked downcast, she looked... sad.

A few weeks later, she boarded the train and sat right across from me. I understand the rules of commuting, and despite my urge to plumb the depths of her soul, I held my counsel and just cast a furtive glance once in a while. Her face was clear-skinned and pale, framed with wispy blond hair. Her eyes sparkled with intelligence. Her upper lip, though, was a genetic gift if one wanted to look permanently dysthymic, her Cupid's bow deeply indented, curling the rest of her mouth into a melancholy curve. Like my grad school classmate, she was destined to look sad no matter what she felt like on the inside.

The Sad Faced Girl's big secret was that she probably wasn't sad at all.

I tried once or twice to coax a smile from her as we rumbled through Orenco Station or the Beaverton Transit Center. Like all well-versed MAX riders, though, I knew better than to spend my time leering at her like a fixated schoolboy. Respect for personal space and for the eye-contact boundaries of others is one of the things that allows us to ride along, packed like slices of bread, and to pretend as though our arm isn't rubbing that of a stranger.

I see her now, every once in a while, and resist all attempts at diagnosis. Sadness, maybe not, but Sad-Faced? Severe. Chronic, with no inter-episode recovery. And she's fine just like that.

I wonder how I look to her.


  1. Love this. Matt gets mad at me when we go out to eat and I am continuously speculating about what other diner's lives are like. :)

  2. I honestly wish I could see how other people see me. I get comments like 'are you okay?' or 'you look mad' all the time. Which would be fine, except that I'm usually pretty evenly keeled. So when I'm sitting in the sun, and someone causally mentions that I look angry, it puzzles me. I keep wondering how many job interviews or dates I've lost out on because someone 'thought I looked upset'.

    When I first read your title, I so thought you were going to break into Mike Doughty's Sunken-eyed Girl. :)

    Sunken-eyed girl in the sandwich shop,
    Ladle my soup from the kettle pot,
    Swoony my self with the smolderin' looks,
    Parsing that gaze for the right intention.
    Sunken-eyed girl don’t let me go,
    You’re the whole world and you barely know...

  3. I am sad faced by nature. They say, "Smile! It can't be that bad". But, how do they know how bad it is? Maybe I just lost my brother? Maybe life is perfect? I have a sad face, and one can only guess.

  4. jawsome - tell Matt to loosen up! Sheez!

    blackdwarv - I actually spent a lot of time being accused of being stoned, which maybe is a bit of the same thing. You're stuck with denying things all the time, which puts you in a bad starting spot.

    Anon - your comment brings up an entirely new post idea for me - something about how maybe the best option is NOT to immediately try to cheer someone up. Thanks.

  5. Maybe Sad Faced Girl is just deep in thought or totally immersed in her music whenever you see her. Maybe it's her only "alone" time - the only time she gets to herself because she has a family at home who demand things from her as soon as she gets back home until the time she leaves in the morning.


  6. i would love a post about how not to immediately try to cheer someone up, and i would probably repost it a bajillion times... nothing pisses me off more (ok, there are probably things that piss me off more but you get what i'm saying)

  7. Anon - you get it! The point of the piece is non-judgment and empathy, which is why I was wondering at the end what others think about me. Definitely can relate to having the commute be my only alone time. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Rachel, will do. I'll write it up in the next day or so. Good plan!

  9. "I'm not angry, it's just my face." Even when I feel like I'm emptying all over the place, people tell me I've got the same old look.

  10. Julip - I hear ya. As noted above, I was told for about 20 years that I always looked stoned. It's a weird handicap. :)

  11. I have one of those faces too. I'm pretty transparent, whatever I'm feeling shows right through - but when I'm just quiet in thought, my face naturally looks sad. I didn't realize how much so until we made casts of our faces in drama so that we could build masks (we were studying Commedia dell'Arte) and I really just looked at the structure of my face - not evaluating for expression, makeup, looks, etc - just my face, in white plaster, sitting there looking sad. And I *knew* I hadn't been at all sad when they were making the mold for the cast. Interesting stuff.