Coming back after 30 years abroad is like entering a costume party. As eager as I am to see old friends again, recognizing them isn’t always easy. Most have gained pounds of experience, and some of the men appear to be wearing a wig of baldness, complemented by a large beard. Wrinkled masks are common, as are exaggerated eyebrows among the women. But best of all is my own disguise. Nobody sees through it. At times, I imagine I’m wearing an invisibility cloak—the likes of which you read about in children’s books. To begin with, I was hurt by the fact that nobody recognized me, but lately, I have learned to enjoy it.
Typically, it happens this way: I recognize someone from decades ago, a classmate or an old friend. At that point, I decide I want to enjoy the occasion twice. My first move is to greet the person by name with a broad smile and a big hug. This move generally shocks the victim considerably. I look at the individual’s face and see complete amazement. The expression in the eyes tells me the person is now rapidly flipping through pictures of faces from the past, taking into account the addition of wrinkles, years and experience. The brain is in obvious overdrive, racing down memory lane. I allow this to go on for a while, until I decide the victim has suffered long enough. Then I introduce myself. That creates another expression on the old friend’s face—utter astonishment. The person in question had clearly long since forgotten that I existed, but seems pleasantly surprised to see this face from the past revived.
But not every encounter is that way. There are variations. Recently, I attended a concert at Harpa Concert Hall. The conductor that night was the son of good friends of mine from my student years in the US. As I left the building, I noticed him by the exit, busy talking to his sister, who lives with her family abroad.
“So, brother and sister are here,” I cheerfully addressed them as I approached. Then I shook hands with the conductor, whom I had recently seen at his parents’ house, and congratulated him on his performance. After that, I shook hands with his sister, and said,
“It must be 20 years since we last saw each other— when you visited us in the US.”
She nodded and appeared to recognize me. I was in a chatty mood and started reminiscing about that visit, when she spent a few days at my house, along with her husband and young children. I went on and on to remind her of little details from those days. While I spoke at great length, she didn’t say much, but smiled politely. Finally, I asked her,
“So, how long are you staying in the country this time?”
There was a short pause before she answered,
“Actually, I live here.”
Her response startled me a little. I said to myself,
“How come her parents never mentioned that she moved?”
But to her I said nothing. There was an embarrassing moment of silence. I didn’t get a chance to make an appropriate comment, for now her brother, the conductor, cleared his throat and remarked. “This is not my sister you’ve been talking to; it’s her daughter.”
I was taken aback by his words, but did my best to retain my composure. The woman who stood in front of me was the spitting image of the one who 20 years ago had paid my family a visit in America. The thing I had forgotten to take into account was that she didn’t look a day older than she did then.
I explained to the no-longer-siblings that my miscalculation had to be excused since mother and daughter looked astonishingly alike, but I must admit that by now, I was eager to make myself disappear. For the first time since my return, I was the one utterly astonished and in desperate need of an invisibility cloak—a real one.