I was in the gym the other day, bored as usual, perched on a machine that faces the front door. I like this spot because if my reading material fails me I can watch people come and go. I compare figures, look at outfits, marvel at the age ranges and varying levels of commitment. This night I was startled by a man who walked in dressed from head to toe in camouflage gear. Curiously, I felt my reflexive revulsion at the obvious war associations give way to a sense of admiration for his style and purpose. None of his cammo collection matched. He was wearing a heavy vest that appeared to make you invisible in a snowy desert and pants that would help you blend in in a forest. His t-shirt was a faded khaki print that I suppose would render you undetectable in an army barracks. He was a bland, 30-something person who did not seem to be wearing this getup with any irony whatsoever. The fact that he was in a gym, dressed in a theme that was useless for either stalking prey or working out, seemed lost on him.

As he plopped on the sofa next to the front desk, I thought of a trip I took several years ago to Key West. I had been in a pool, floating on a pink blow-up raft, when I saw my first gecko. The setting was unusual for a million reasons. I never frequent pools, the sun, or resort towns. I was there visiting one friend and lots of people I did not know. I was supposed to be recovering, pondering, sorting out big issues like Marriage, Identity, and Life, and instead was mostly drinking frothy cocktails at all hours of the day. I turned over on my stomach and noticed a green lizard by the side of the pool at eye level: tiny, exactly the same color as the big green tropical leaf it was crawling along. Then I noticed a dark brown gecko on the brown fence, a light brown gecko on the patio, a blackish gecko on the bark of a tree. If you squinted they were everywhere, no two the same shade. Once I got over the creepy Hitchcock feeling of being surrounded by so many lizards I began to speculate whether or not there were different-colored geckos or if they really did change from surface to surface like chameleons. I thought of catching one and changing its environment, but at the time preferred mystery to movement.


Later that night I was out to dinner in a dress I had bought for the trip. I have never worn it since — clingy rayon, swirling with garish pink, orange, and red flowers. It moves with curves, it flounces, and in the right light, if my arms are in the right position, it offers a hint of cleavage. I imagined myself swaying to a Latin soundtrack, feeling like Maggie the Cat played by Elizabeth Taylor in the Tennessee Williams play. With the exception of my friend, the people I was visiting knew nothing about me. I had no past, no drama, no therapy appointment in four days. In the present I could be anyone, and I chose to be a woman who wears trashy dresses. I said very little that night, held my glass off to the side, and checked my lipstick in windows.

In the prop plane on the way home, as I pulled out my New Yorker magazine and began reading an article on something relevant and intellectual, I was distracted by my men’s clearance rack jeans shorts and worn-down Birkenstocks. Was this projection any truer than the one lilting down the streets of Key West? How much of my life was gecko-reactive and how much reflected a true internal compass?


I am often guilty of dividing people I meet into two categories — reptiles or mammals. Reptiles are cold-blooded and therefore need to move into the sun when cold and into the shade when hot. This kind of person depends on the people around them or the situation at the moment to determine their mood. If everyone else is having fun, they have fun. If everyone is sad, they are sad. If the situation is too much one way or the other, they have to move in order to create change; they cannot weather circumstances that are uncomfortable. Mammals are warm-blooded and have a set body temperature. No matter how extreme the environment, they stay the same; they can remain distinct and put on a coat rather than have to walk away. Change for mammal people depends on something outside of bad weather — they choose their reactions versus being compelled.


I think of geckos and reptiles and mammals as I go to work and wear my enthusiastic work voice and my years-of-experience work wisdom; come home and like Mr. Rogers slip into my fun-mom-do-your-homework role; sit at my computer and switch on my this-is-who-I-would-be-if-I-were-not-a-sell-out-to-the-establishment persona. What would happen if I appeared in all my Technicolor glory in any one of these contexts? Or is the idea that we can truly compartmentalize, obscure ouselves, also a fiction? Maybe we adapt only in our own heads: to the world we are always a brown lizard as clear as day on a green leaf. In her don’t-pigeon-hole me anthem, “In or Out,” Ani Difranco dares her listener to see that she has “stripes and spots, too.” She snarls like a true mammal, but I look at the slinky dress in my closet and wonder.


All this runs through my head as I watch the guy in the gym wearing mismatched cammo wait for his girlfriend, who bounces along in appropriate black spandex. I stare as they mumble a greeting. Why does he intrigue me? There is something absurd about wearing clothes meant to conceal and yet mix them up in such a way as to stand out more — a target for people who position themselves to judge. Clearly he doesn’t give a damn; he just found what he found to wear and wore it. Perhaps he is a mammal — or perhaps he is just searching for that arid, snowy forest of khaki colored trees, just like the rest of us.

3 responses to “Camouflage”

  1. p: i loved this. again, you have such an anthropologist’s eye. do you think the guy could possibly *not* have realized he was wearing all cammo? maybe he’s just color blind.

    your piece reminded me of arguments stephanie and i had long ago. she maintained that “integrity” meant being the same person in all situations, having your outward self synch perfectly with your interior conception of who you were. i thought audience-appropriate performances were perfectly appropriate. i’m starting to lean a little more toward her position. the older i get, the more settled i feel, and i have plenty of friends, so people can kiss off if they don’t like who i am. i’ve felt that way most of my life — to a fault — but at the same time i spent the first 30-so years of my life worried about pleasing people too. it’s a tough burden to shake, that old audience-oriented subjectivity.

    i love your final line best of all. xo — bw

  2. Mikelle F says:

    When I was twelve years old, I went to visit my sister, thirteen years my senior. She lived in southern California near my grandparents, so one evening we went to Gramma’s house. On the way back to Janet’s house, I asked her why she spoke with such a different voice to Gramma. It was the first time that I was conscious of how different people behave depending on who they are with. I tried to suggest that such adjustments in language and voice weren’t necessary. She laughed in my face.
    I’ve tended towards mimicking those around me, which is probably why I have gotten along in many environments: foreign countries, new workplaces, etc, but, like Bryan, I think I’m doing that less and less. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of growing up.

    Great post Pandora.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    I sometimes find myself mimicking others’ speech patterns, such as when I’m at my aunt’s place in Blythewood, SC. and adopt a modified version of her down-home drawl (my family is from the Carolinas, but although both my parents have Southern accents, my brother and I don’t (usually)).

    Also, I first noticed in college that whenever I wrote letters to friends at home, I’d write in the voice of whatever author I was reading at the time. A little snippy-snappy Baldwin, a little brusque Hemingway. I didn’t mean to; it just happened. I suppose I should have guessed then that ghostwriting would be the perfect career for me.