Eyes carry weight. It is a matter of degrees, of course. A glance feels light on your skin, only a prickle to indicate someone is looking at you. A glare, on the other hand, carries weight. A glare lands on your skin and sinks into your bones. You feel a glare throughout your body. I’m sure some people handle the weight better. I’m sure those who are used to people’s pointed, unapologetic glares can still walk with their heads held high and their nervous systems intact. I am not one of those people, and with all these eyes on me, I am out of my element.
This whole mess started because I was too good at being invisible. As a high school babysitter, I noticed that parents would argue, gossip, and reveal dark secrets while in my presence. It seemed like they couldn’t care less about being overheard as if I was just a house cat wandering around. One of the mothers had friends over for a card game and they discussed the game they played by trying to seduce the young, new male teacher who’d just started working at their children’s school. The next day at school, I felt for the first time that I had something to say that other people wanted to hear.
The rush and esteem of it all fueled me. The addiction of it fueled me. I craved the attention. The way I knew I had someone’s full focus as they bent their necks, curved their spines, tilted their heads, all to get a better listen to the soft whispers of the secrets I had in my possession. I started collecting gossip the way others collect coins or stamps. Casual at first then with a full blown lifestyle of dedication.
I work as a receptionist for the Doctor’s office in town. It pays decently well, but that is not why I took the job. Is there anywhere more vulnerable than a doctor’s office? Anywhere so ripe for secret conversations to be heard? I made it a game for myself. Maybe that became part of the problem. I focused on the statements people made and not the sentiments they’d feel if others were to know. In my game, each kind of gossip earned me a certain amount of points. An embarrassing infection, not worth very much. Who cares if their neighbor is not very hygienic. If someone came in for an STI…or a pregnancy test…especially if that woman was married or in some cases unmarried. Well, now that was prime gossip and worth lots of points.
That’s why I felt incredibly eager to spread the news that I’d seen Mrs. Porter come to the office to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Clearly, she’d been having an affair. I set things in motion that afternoon when I picked up my lunch. I knew Mr. Porter’s sister’s best friend worked the checkout line at the lunch counter spot at the corner of Third and Welch. I struck up a conversation with her. Something, I’d never do unless as a means to an informational end. As the chit chat droned on, I asked if the Porters were getting divorced. She emphatically denied the possibility saying she had never seen a married couple so in love.
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I guess I shouldn’t really say…”
“Oh come on, just tell me.”
I headed back to work knowing that by evening at least a dozen people would know. I felt a glow in my cheeks, a heady feeling. I never felt guilty. I didn’t force Mrs. Porter to cheat on her husband. I just was the one bringing her adultery to light. If anything, you could say I was doing Mr. Porter a favor. Or so, I had convinced myself.
Everything continued on as usual. I finished the work day. I ran a few errands. I fed the cats. I watched my show. I fell asleep not expecting the next day to be any different than the ones before it.
She arrived two hours into the work day. I’d managed to return most of the voicemails and reschedule the last minute cancellations. I felt productive and slightly bored in a sleepy kind of way. I woke right up with adrenaline surging through my blood stream when I saw Mrs. Porter with her long, fit tennis legs stride straight through the front doors right to my desk. I’d never noticed the icy, blue paleness of her eyes. I felt goosebumps rise all over my arms.
“Where do you get off telling people I’m having an affair? Who do you think you are to act like some old, doddery town gossip? Do you get off on trying to ruin people’s lives?”
I stammered and stuttered. I always knew this was an inherent risk of my hobby. People tend to not appreciate when their dirty laundry is aired. I’d never been confronted with the repercussions of my actions before, and I never expected it to be so public. I looked around. Everyone in the waiting room flitted their eyes from their banal magazines to us and back again.
“First of all, I’ll be reporting this HIPAA violation to Dr. McCoy for your breach of confidentiality. Second, not that it is any of your business, but my husband and I have no secrets. We are in an open marriage and regular screenings for sexual health are a normal part of our relationship and have been for decades. Third, I hope you find a new way to fill that sad, pathetic void in your life that makes you want to try to destroy other people’s lives.”
Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked out the door. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. Deeply shocked, I just sat in my chair with everyone in the room glaring at me. I started to hear whispers and mutterings.
“How despicable of her to try to break up a marriage. She must just be unhappy that she’s a spinster.”
“She’s always been so nosy. I never liked her much. Ever since she spread that gossip that made Principal Hanover change school districts.”
“How old fashioned of her to never even consider the possibility of an open marriage. I don’t think her words will carry much weight any more.”
Their glares bore into me and the weight starts to crush me. There’s an elephant parked on my lungs. I sink in my seat. Vulnerable, out of control, the victim of an untamed narrative. I know how this goes. It will take on a life of its own the way gossip always does. It will spread like wildfire, and I feel myself go up in smoke.