Exactly how much of an affront is it if you meet an old acquaintance and think he or she is someone else?
There I was in the supermarket, having braved the icy roads outside, searching for kitty litter. With my handknit Nova Scotia watch cap pulled way down, I probably wasn’t easily recognizable at that moment myself. But the other person didn’t make the mistake, I did. And, really, I should have instantly known the young woman I greeted in the produce aisle; I have known her since she was a child.
She was perky and chatty. I, just back from a discombobulating multilegged air journey to Canada and Boston, still had — as soon became obvious — my head in the clouds. She had read my recent column on the efficacy of wheelchairs in airports, and told me she was shopping for chickpeas and spinach. We shared a laugh when I told her what I had come for.
“You’re in the wrong aisle,” she said. That’s when things went off the rails, as it slowly dawned on me that I thought I was talking to . . . someone else.
“Is it true that you are working on a book?” I asked.
She gave me a quizzical look. “Who, me?”
I forged blindly ahead: “Your husband is Steve, right?”
“No,” she said, “my boyfriend is Sebastian.”
Oh, of course! They have been a couple for years and years. I realized now who this was. We parted ways without adieu, me with a dreadful feeling of embarrassment and she, as I later learned, with a big, suppressed laugh.
The next day, wanting to save face, I decided to apologize. I am of her mother’s generation, at a time in my life when slips of the memory sometimes seem portentous. (Or, if not that, at least forgivable. I hoped.) So I tracked down her email address, and sent a mea culpa.
It turned out that although she had found the whole thing funny, she wasn’t particularly surprised.
This was because, as she explained, it happens to her constantly. “For one reason or another” she wrote, “people think that I am someone else. I mean many, many people, celebrities especially. I have been stopped on the street and asked about my husband and kids and my new movie or book by the likes of Uma Thurman, Bob Balaban, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bissett, Dianne Von Furstenberg, Madeleine Albright, and Paul Simon. So you see you are in very good company!”
Whew. Can you believe it? I can, because I do indeed know this lovely woman, a friend and classmate of my children’s: She has always had the unmistakable natural magnetism of, yes, a movie star, even though she really isn’t famous outside of her hometown. I felt a lot better. It helped to imagine this whole thing happening with Lauren Bacall in the role of me.
Now, one odder note is that my mistaken-identity victim doesn’t actually look very much like the person I mistook her for (also a member of a younger generation, also pretty, also someone I’ve known for nearly a lifetime). A little perusal of Facebook turned up photographs of the not-really-much-of-a-doppelganger, who, on closer consideration, looks more like my mistaken-identity victim’s mother.
I have decided to blame the whole thing on the fact that my victim was also wearing an uncharacteristic hat.
Maybe she will run into the third party — the one married to Steve — in the supermarket, and figure out who I mistook her for. She always has been bright.