When faced with a crowd, I often find myself in the act of people-watching. I subtly observe the people walking around and focusing on their own days. She looks annoyed, I wonder what happened? He seems like a fussy dad, I wonder what his kids think of him? She’s hugging herself, what does that say about her? What is his life story, I wonder? Often, you might find yourself building scenarios in your head or asking questions that will never be answered involving these strangers you may never see again. Sometimes, it leads me to think about myself and how I appear to them. Upon reading Sarah Lumba-Tajonera’s short story entitled Eye Candy, I am reminded of this habit of mine, and how those around me have individual lives I’ll never see through their eyes. It’s sonder: the realization that each person you encounter has a whole different life as intricate as your own.
Our story begins with a middle-aged woman named Maya who waits for her husband’s arrival at a high-class restaurant. As the synopsis puts it, she’s a self-righteous person. Upon diving into the story further, though, we can see more traits that tell us how much of an interesting and complex character she actually is.
Maya is a person full of thoughts. In the beginning, she keeps to herself, always looking around and being observant of her environment (an efficient way for the author to set the scene) and the people around her. These observations come with her own thoughts, opinions, and assumptions. Further into the story, you can tell that she can get lost in her own thoughts, to the point where intrusive ones (regarding Andrei, specifically) or self-built scenarios (Maya thinking of what the witch could have been thinking during Andrei’s absence at the table) come into her mind.
It’s not until her eyes land on the witch and the witch’s companion that we learn more about her beyond the synopsis and her observant nature. Though the story is in third person, I find that there is always some character truths laced into the narrative of this point of view. This point of view, though not directly coming from Maya herself, oftentimes reveal things that align with how the characters themselves see the environment. The fact that the woman nearby was given the label of a witch, though most likely due to her age, could reflect on how Maya has a bit of a judgmental side to her, though not expressing it out loud. This can tie in to her mentioned self-righteous trait.
This judgmental side and self-righteousness can be seen with how much she pays attention to the couple over on the other table, how she’s so transfixed by their public display of affection and how she would internally scoff at the sight, as if it were something deserving of being shunned.
Maya is also a bit of a people pleaser. Not for the benefit of helping or boosting others, but more so for her own benefit. This can be seen with the following paragraph:
Those words, together with all her little gestures in her fifteen years at the bank, the way she, with hands loosely clasped in front of her skirt, listened to her assistant’s marital woes, how she patted the little backs of underlings in the elevator just to say hi, the little key chains and fridge magnets she gave away to managers after her annual trips abroad…all these gave her an edge, assuring her of a comfortable retirement. People always remembered those little, meaningless things.
This paragraph’s mention of how, “all these gave her an edge, assuring her of a comfortable retirement” introduces one more characteristic that I think makes up the core of who Maya is in the story’s present day.
Maya, as seen throughout the story, seems to be a person who would rather stick with tradition or would rather stick near the safety net of life.
She always had a need for order, to put everything in neat little columns: profit and loss, asset and liability, henpecked husbands and philanderers…. This was how she had always balanced the books, had always kept a well-balanced life.
A well-balanced life is what she goes after. She has a decent job, she plays it safe with peers in order to not get on anybody’s bad side for a comfortable future, and a husband.
Most nights he came home tired from wining and dining stakeholders from their branches around the globe or from managing people and covering his ass the whole day, he would always say. She shouldn’t complain, she knew. Their life, so far, had been great.
Their life was great. Maya sticks with what’s safe, what’s comfortable, and is content with it.
However, there is a certain reluctance within Maya that the reader may spot throughout the story. You start to question: is Maya truly content with such an assured life? You can tell that she has thoughts of diverging from the traditional — how she battles over only choosing a salad from the menu like she always does, or if she should add more daring dishes to her meal. Ultimately, she decides on a salad, letting thoughts of how her age was affecting her physical state influence her decision.
The presence of this trait is exactly why she doesn’t feel like a character who is whole or complete. There’s always this feeling of Maya missing something or longing for something that we can sense while reading the story. The complete want for a safe and assured life in her later years is what starts this longing and what makes up the hole in her character.
This part of Maya, the way I see it, also plays into what her conflict with her self is. The conflict of the story is that of man vs self. Although there is a presence of man vs man with how Maya has some tension against the witch, it’s apparent that this tension actually stems from Maya’s conflict with herself.
Although not explicitly stated, Maya seems to long for a life like that of the witch’s. Her trait of self-righteousness seems to be a mask for what she really feels: regret in regards to how she lived her life. It can be seen as a form of a defense mechanism. She longs for something like that, but she knows it’s too late, so she turns to looking down on that way of life. Flashbacks of how carefree her youth was with Richie seem to communicate this realization and this desire. Though a small detail, her second-guesses with her menu choice can actually be a representation of her repressed want to still live life in a daring and free manner.
It’s the desire to do things. May it be as something as simple as indulging in the calories of the dinner menu, or something like sexual desire with one’s partner. Maya is a representation of how this desire is eventually whittled down by the passage of time — by age. The witch, to her, is a reminder of what she misses and what she longs for. The witch is a reminder of things she regrets not indulging in, because of how a comfortable retirement later in life has a price to pay: playing everything safe instead of living how you want to.
The heated kiss she gives Richie at the end, seemingly laced with hope of bringing the thrill of her earlier days back, is a last attempt to see if she can still retain this desire and live life like it should be lived.
She kissed him firmly on the lips, kissed him with her wet, needy lips, trying to bring back what had been lost before it was too late, before she was too old to want.
Like all stories, there is certainly a takeaway to be had here. There’s a certain truth in Maya’s character. Later in life, when you look back at your decisions, you might ask yourself: am I satisfied? A relevant comparison to this situation that the youth may be facing today is the problem of choosing a career path. If I don’t pursue what I truly want, how will it be for me in the future? Will this make me happy, will this make me satisfied? How do I live my life?
Although the story does not outright mention the conservative/traditional implications of Maya’s situation, it still reminds me of how society in present day still sees things such as having a husband, being a wife, or having a stable and socially-acceptable job as the epitome of a fine life. I highly disagree with this age-long sentiment, and believe that life should be lived however way an individual so desires. Happiness and contentment is subjective and should not be determined by the presence of things such as those previously mentioned. The story presents this with its way of perspective: Maya’s life may be appealing to her or to most, but the witch on the other hand is clearly content with her own. To each their own.
Sarah Lumba-Tajonera’s Eye Candy is the representation of self-conflict and works of character study at its best. Reminding us of how to live and how those around us can serve as reminders to reflect, it has certainly left a mark on me, and definitely prompts a bit of reflection within me as a reader.