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Three Variations on Inscrutability

It’s impossible to gauge the emotions of the man who works the all-night shift at the gas station under my window. Is he happy or sad? Bored or engaged? He doesn’t speak and his face is always neutral, his gestures always made at the same unhurried pace. If you knock on the thick glass divider and he’s watching TV or checking inventory, he turns after a moment, without acknowledgement.

Today I went to an open house on the Upper East Side. The owner still lived there, but though her belongings implied a sunny disposition, they said nothing about her age. A few small and pleasant but forgettable paintings — one of a horse, a group of horses maybe? — a bright red, billowing couch guarded from cat hair by a mint green sheet, a couple overloaded racks of the moderately decorative belts and hats in which your imagination costumes kindly librarians, regardless of their age.

A car service driver who glares when you can’t give him instructions to a well-known street, but rather than calling dispatch holds a conversation on speakerphone with a plaintive-voiced woman he’s promised to pick up later. He speaks in Spanish, you hardly even know the rudiments, but his tone is sharp and hypnotic. “Habla espanol,” he reminds her; but isn’t she already? Or did they slip into English minutes ago, without your realizing? The sudden inconsistency of your memory makes the past seem unreliable and ambiguous.

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Monarch Butterfly, Dead Horse Bay