Life affords many opportunities to encounter various types of people. With some very few I feel kinship; with more I feel enmity, but with most I just feel a vague sort of nothing.
There is one man, however, who stands unique in all my acquaintance. He has a name that I have come to learn, but ‘The Stranger’ fits him better. Strange not in the sense of being ‘other’ from me (although, indeed, he is very different from me!) but rather because of his ‘otherness’ when compared to all others; because of that uniqueness from all other men he possesses.
I can’t remember when I first met him, this Stranger, but it was quite a while ago. He had been present as a periphery character for years. Do you know the feeling of having ‘known’ a man for years, without actually really seeing him? It is like that with the Stranger and I. When I finally met him, he had been there all along; that feeling of knowing without knowing had never before been more palpable.
For a time we would pass each other without really making eye contact; furtive glances without meaning or intention. The quick quarter-nod; you know the one: it joins acknowledgment with ambivalence; acceptance and dismissal; both sentiments equally and greedily desired, devoured, and accepted. For a long time I would see him off and on, perhaps once a week or so, yet not altogether too often. We lived, he and I, on that diet of contrary sentiment contained in the quarter-nod. Eventually, however, the frequency of our meetings and passings-by increased.
There is a time of specified length after which continuing to ignore someone becomes comical; or downright painful, if extended much longer. By the time we finally spoke, the Stranger and I had several times stood, side-by-side in silence, far into that painful sort of awkwardness.
I justified it with a number of reasons. For one, he always seemed so busy- not that he was every really doing anything, but his placidity was purposeful. He was impatiently motionless. That sense of restlessness affords one a certain space that even awkward silence cannot wholly eliminate.
Second was that vaguely uninterested look; you know the one; it says “I’m capable enough and willing to engage you…” but simultaneously warns those who would adventure such an engagement that it will probably end in condescension. Not enough patronization to offend, course, but just enough to firmly preclude a second attempt at conversation.
The third and my favorite reason is that we used to only bump into each other when there were so many others around. If there is a person you wish to avoid (not that this Stranger was such a man) it is far easier for both of you when there is a great crowd of others to run interference on your behalf. A changed subject, a re-directed glance, a timely interruption; all of these tools are on the table when there is a crowd. Without a crowd hostility is far harder to mask. Only indifference is more so.
The fourth reason was that we ran into each other so infrequently; but as I said before that rationale had begun to deteriorate: I started to run into him often. Not that he ever followed me, or I him; or that we seemed to have similar routines; it was the very same sorts of meetings we previously had, just more of them. At the bar, on my afternoon run, bumping shoulders at the grocery store. It was as if the fate-driven mechanism that was orchestrating our meetings was suddenly fed too much fuel or kicked into overdrive. The mechanism, or it’s driver, was behind schedule; he had run out of patience with my powers of rationalization and avoidance.
The corollary to to seeing each other more frequently was that we began running into each other alone. Not strictly “alone” in the truest sense of the word; there would always be another present. But they would be down the hall, or at the other end of the platform, or further down the street. There is an intense loneliness in being almost (but not quite completely) alone; a loneliness greater than that of a large crowd (and much greater than true isolation) comes from being physically near to a smallish number of other lonely people.
Even with our mutual brusque and disinterest, one day it suddenly became clear to me that we were ‘seeing’ each other as we passed. Of course I mean ‘seeing’ is the weakest sense of the word, but even that kind of ‘seeing’ is quite different and far stronger than ‘passing’. I’m sure you understand, and if you do, then you will also understand the death-stroke that this sense of awareness dealt to my feigned ignorance and pattern of avoidance. Indeed my isolation from the man was riven to the heart, and the short remainder of my avoidance of the man was just boring, inevitable blood loss.
It was the simplest things, the ‘seeing’: a raised eyebrow or that extra tenth of a second of eye contact, the quizzical question mark at the end of the quarter-nod that ruins it’s insualrity completely; those vague nothings that change everything. I’m struck now by the sense that I may be misunderstood- does it sound to you like I’m describing a budding romance? If so I’m torn- torn between a dismissively embarrassed laugh and between telling you that you’re seeing truly. Perhaps what I mean to say is this: if you think that, in a non-romantic context, a person can’t have the same sort of gradual awareness of deep connection and incipient intimacy with another person as he would in a romantic context- well then all that you and your lack of introspection deserve is a laugh, and a handwave.
Anyway that’s how it was, that slowly dawning realization that can’t be perceived while it’s happening. Eventually the silences became unbearable and started to feel silly, which is how it goes most times. The nature of the equation became different; the inequality inexorably turned. It wasn’t abrupt, our first conversation, you know; not like a paragraph-type conversation right off the bat. But I cracked first. And damn him if he ever, ever let me forget that in that knowing, silent way he had about him.
I made some comment about the weather, and that was all. He flashed me that blank face, you know, that kind of feigned surprise that wants to ask (“are you talking to me?”); but he knew, that bastard, and he was expecting it, I’m certain. Even he, though, couldn’t give the implied question voice, for this was one of those one-on-one, alone-but-not-quite sorts of meetings. We were standing on the platform, minding the gap, waiting for the express. There were a couple others (vague-nothing types of others) on the platform, and they’d get on, and he and I would get on, and then he’d get off at the third exit; and I, the fourth. Our well-known routine of intimate indifference.
Given what eventually followed from that first conversation, I’m plagued with wondering why I didn’t just walk away from the Stranger, since standing there beside him made me so potently uncomfortable. But of course, I only wonder that because the visceral reality of the moment itself is gone. Like an artlessly accurate photograph, memory can resurrect a spectre of a scene, but the blood-price is the essence, the soul; the timestamp of the very moment- lost forever.
I am given to fits of hindsight, regret and redoubt circling over my mind at times with their black wings. Ah, hindsight and foresight, those pompous luxuries! Enjoyed at their own risk, those speculative monsters, ravenously betting on a deadly game from the grandstands! They observe the arena, that sneer of disdain and mild discomfort on their face, berating and goading the contestants from a perspective both biased and uninformed. The sand and grit far below are seasoned with the sweat of the Champion: Discernment. Only he does grim battle with that beast named the Present, and they grapple and snarl, and strike with fist and claw; and the air between them is teeth and dust and steel.
Scarlet drips from those combatants in a hundred places; swift death waits in every distraction. Yes, the ears of that champion have long been closed to the frothing, idiotic howl of the luxuriant monsters in the stands. Hindsight and foresight, the fattened carrion-birds atop the carcasses of the victorious and the fallen.
Anyway, the weather was how I breached it with him. I don’t remember if the weather was good or bad, but it was a stupid thing to mention either way. We were underground. I think he let me know that too, in that half-second blankness before he answered. I don’t remember his answer. Honestly, I don’t remember much of anything the Stranger ever said to me; it was always in the way he said things, the feel of his words. It was the pictures he would generate in my mind, the question mark in the emptiness just behind my eyes; but the edges and detail of those images are long gone and only the phantoms of elation and despair are left, like the ethereal memories of a delicacy’s flavor.
That first conversation consisted of my remark about the weather, and his reply, at that was the end of it. But oh, the relief of that conversation! It was good, so very good to divulge that terrible secret: the secret that we saw each other. I quietly relished the goodness of our shared understanding: we existed; and the unquiet of unknowing was past. I had initiated, and he had responded. But after that initial exchange he was silent. The conversation was over, and there was the Stranger still standing there, unmoved. Unchanged. Now that he existed, He was content to just go on existing.
There is an agony that hides from the bearer by growing so slowly in the mind that it is only perceived when it reaches it’s apex and not a moment before. Well, in that moment I knew that agony; it stared me in the face there, two feet away, without looking at me. It emanated from him like a black aura, a hateful aura, an aura that hated me and that I hated in return without pity or reservation. You’d never know it, looking at him, with that smug reserve, that ineffable calm.
Moments after our ‘conversation’ ended he suddenly looked back at me. It was a shot across the bow: he looked at me for just a hairsbreadth too long; the corner of his mouth curved upward just a micron; always in inches and increments; that was the way of him; but for him an inch moved a mountain. From him a smirk was an open-handed slap, resounding quietly in the empty subway.
He looked away after that eternity of an instant, and I remember that the track groaned a mile away as the train came on at fifty-five miles an hour, and he and I had sixty-five and a half seconds of steadily diminishing silence. It was a blazing, desperate, writhing silence; the sound a star makes as it crosses the event horizon; a tearing, ripping, anguishing silence. The Stranger shouted that silence at me with all of his vulgar monotony.
At last, the track before us wracked and the hissing squeal of pneumatic brakes announced the arrival and salvation of the train. The door opened, and we got in. I got in. He got in. The nothings got in. I felt the closeness of the subway car like a weight. It seemed like a reverberation chamber for the Stranger’s silence.
I stood at the back of the car and held the smoothly polished rail and felt the reassuring pleasure of my fingertips just barely touching one another around it’s cool, perfect circumference. The feeling flooded me with confidence. I sighed, audibly. The silence of the Stranger quieted. I looked up to meet his eyes with a strong glance and, perhaps even a bracing joke.
But the Stranger was already smiling. He was laughing light-heartedly- with a passenger, with a nothing. He gestured and he shrugged. He leaned in, smiled warmly, and he chuckled! The vague nothing with whom he spoke was enraptured; a child giddy with joy and amusement as the Stranger regaled them with tales of the unknown realm- glimpses into the depths of his Reality; escorted into the faerie world of his higher existence by his effortless authenticity and charm. The juxtaposition of the Stranger and this nothing was made into a concrete thing in this side-by-sde comparison; it was as undeniable as the heigh difference between them; the Stranger condesceing to lean physically down to mee the eye, dialectically adjusting his well-mannered accent to suit the rough nothing’s impediment, widening his smile to embrace the innocent grin of his conversant.
I was desperate for their conversation to end. Minutes passed. The talk was tapering off. The nothing nodded and half-turned away. I started to breathe. Just as it was ending, suddenly the Stranger prodded the nothing with a question! Oh, the way their eyes lit up at that question! Up rose the tempo of conversation again, now with the nothing talking jovially of family, occupation, something, nothing. We came to the first stop. The noise of them talking went on. So did the train. More minutes passed in this way; the nothing stumbling, truncating; the Stranger stooping with a smile and a outstretched hand, prolonging the dialogue.
At last the second stop was called, and as the train slowed the conversation of the nothing and the Stranger drew at last down to an amicable close. With profanely obvious reluctance, the nothing gathered drab possessions, walked through the door, looked back at the Stranger one more time, and stepped onto the platform. As they did, the stranger leaned out through the doorway and called with a smile and newfound, almost comic familiarity.
“See you tomorrow!” The nothing turned back and smiled a huge, stupid grin, all of teeth and guffaw; then the doors closed and they were left behind as the train lurched away.
For an instant I know that my surprise, my fury got the better of me; I stopped processing information just long enough to miss the Stranger glancing back at me for a nanosecond with what I am positive was a smirk on his face; but by the time I realized it and looked up he was staring off into the deep of the tunnel, an implacable fortress again but with a twinge of satisfied superiority.
It was too much to stand, in that moment, his affability with that vague-nothing person. I was dying, mentally; the furnace of my mind just churning with rage. That incredulous betrayal! An unmovable wall of poise and unapproachable dignity? The gall of this poseur; this charlatan! And where did he spend his beguile, his charis? On the nothing? The waste made me dizzy with anger and fear.
Now was all my silence, my awkwardness, my stunted try of conversation shown for its reality: a tattered imitation; a fool’s blunder, an example of failure so abysmal that even ridicule soars above it. There in the cramped coach he stabbed me with that same silence as before, only now I knew what it was: it was his roaring laughter, pouring forth, bubbling over, filling all the subway car till it bulged and its rivets groaned, drowning out the clack of the track; he laughed at me as inaudibly as the rising of the sun; laughed at my smallness, tormented me in my inadequacy.
I couldn’t bear to look at him. I nearly convulsively covered my ears. With an effort I gathered my senses together and heard my station called. I lurched forward with a jerk and left the train without looking back; with my back turned I could imagine his mouth contorted now in a twisted grin, eyes wide in laughter; but I knew that if I looked back I would only see that same stolid face. I put one foot in front of the other. I crossed the gap and felt the juxtaposition of the solid concrete and the vibrating coach floor.
On the solid ground my confidence ratcheted quickly skyward. Half intentionally, half compulsively, I spun to glance at the Stranger still sitting in the train- but now I couldn’t find him. I searched left and right for seconds; how could he have vanished? I begin to check another car when that terror laid hold of me: How long did I stand on that platform, searching the train windows like a child, looking for this man; and surely he was watching me unseen from another car with that damnable smile…! Rage wrenched me away from the train just before it left the station.
Humiliation-flushed, I stalked from the platform. One pillar passed by my left ear. WHOOMPH. Another. I wasn’t really standing there that long. Another Pillar. I passed them so closely that the rush of them sweeping past me was a howl in my ears, my oxfords clapping the ground at a regular rythymn. Shame crested like a thought-flood, and I imbibed the sounds like a drug; WHOOMPH, Clomp, clomp, clomp, WHOOMPH. He wasn’t there; he must have switched cars. Whoomph. He wasn’t thinking about me. Whoomph, clomp, clomp, clomp. My heart sank slowly from my throat.
The pillars were long gone by the time I hit the steps, leaving the subway station behind and crossing the street.