Concept: Lives in Parallel

When you’re young, the people who will be making headlines and writing the books and curing diseases when you are an adult, are, at present, your age. They haven’t become important yet and they won’t for many years. In fact, right now they are sitting at the dining table, eating jam and toast; or trying on their ballet slippers for the first time; or waiting in a café; or throwing a football across to their father; or mourning the loss of their father; or roaming the streets of Antwerp with their hands in their pockets; or reading a mediocre romance novel. They unknowingly write their pasts, these important people, existing with you on a common plane in time and space. Young, uncertain. So, who says that history can’t be yours?

 

People Seen

I.

Boy in store

Flaming red hair. A small mouth, until he smiled; then it lit up his whole face. Skin so milky white it looked as though he could burn in a cool breeze.

 

II.

Woman in restaurant

She stared down at her plate as though it was her broken, twitching heart sitting there instead of cold roast beef. Using her fork to move the pieces around so that they might bear some semblance of a whole.

 

III.

Man behind woman in the restaurant

He pushed the chopsticks together on his plate, moving with the deliberate and calculated precision of a blind man – and he did seem blind. It was the way he peered down through fluttering eyelashes, eyes almost shut.

 

Julie

I.

It’s my second year of university and my roommates do not acknowledge me when I walk into a room. “I feel isolated. I want to come home,” I say to Mum on the phone.

“Go to the bookstore,” she commands.

I do. I buy some books and feel better.

 

II.

My roommates have forbidden me from turning up the heat. “I miss you. I want to come home,” I say, shivering.

Mum is silent. She’s thinking about something.

“When you miss me,” she says slowly, “look at the moon.”

I stare out through the window of my basement room at the moon, hard yet soft, like an eggshell.

 

III.

My mother is self-conscious of her curls, which have a habit of sticking up in every direction. She has taken to wearing my younger sister’s baseball hats, which say edgy things like “mood” and “antisocial social club.”

She starts saying something but I interrupt. “I can’t take you seriously in that hat.”

“Why?” she says.

I shake my head, smiling, so glad she is there. Hat or no hat.

 

Phenomenon: Sad, Drunk Girl on Bus

We are strangers. She messages her boyfriend and hands the phone back to me, saying, Thanks for letting me borrow it.

At least he knows where you are now, I sigh.

She smells of alcohol, and is wearing a very short dress that rides up on her thighs. Beige heels. Then she asks, Can I talk to you for a while? Just small talk. Don’t feel obligated to say yes. You can say no, if you want to do your own thing.

It is very late at night, I think. But I close my book, agreeing, because I always do—because I always have to—with the people on the bus.

Three minutes in and I am her confidant. She is a half-Dominican, half-Quebecois mix who admits that she can speak neither her mother’s Spanish, nor her father’s French. Her parents are separated and she lives with her older sister in a basement apartment. She’s going to McDonalds to exist, drunkenly, with her boyfriend and to bother the employees. What could be better?

Her smile falters. She knows it is strange, and says so.

At least she knows.

Ten minutes in and I am an unlikely friend, made privy to the hazy world of the sad, pretty drunk girl. The pleading gaze. The alcohol-induced charisma: arm slung coolly over the back of the seat, swaying with the rhythm of the bus. Uneasiness bubbling somewhere underneath. A flicker of self-consciousness every time I look away, out the window, away from her.

Look at me, she screams silently, hazel eyes wide with childlike ferocity. Like I have all the answers.

Twenty minutes in and we are adversaries.

What’s your background?

Jamaican, I say.

Oh, cool. Her eyes light up, the thrill at the duality of my citizenship. The way I am suspended perpetually between two lifestyles,

Two cultures,

Two modes of being.

You’re pure, though, she says, and my ears buzz, as though clogged with radio static. I ask what she means.

Other black girls stand in groups and stare at me; they ask what I am. I’m just a person. But you’re not like them. You’re pure, you know?

I don’t.

Thirty minutes in and my stop is here, and we are strangers once again. It’s a shame; I was just starting to get used to the smell of the alcohol, the way she leans forward as if to absorb my words before they dissipate into the air, her story, the subtle storm that bubbles beneath her skin.

Once off the bus, I weigh the encounter in my hand, like a stone with heft. The desperate, heavy way she stares at me; the way she measured my movements, my discomfort.

I stand at the corner and look up as the bus drives away, expecting her to wave, but she does not see me. She is moving breathlessly through the aisle toward another waiting pair of ears, as though our small words are her sustenance, and she is starving.

 

Commuters

I.

Yesterday on the bus, I forgot what I looked like. Surrounded by people, I made mirrors out of their eyes and saw myself as I imagined they saw me.

II.

There are two kinds of people in the world; those who look through the window to see to see their own reflection, and those who look through the window to see what is outside.

III.

Isn’t there something poetic in the way the commuters swing – listlessly but in perfect unison – with the lurching movements of the train? They ignore each other with an almost passionate conviction, but are thrown in all the same directions, reminded constantly that they are all vulnerable. All in the same car.

IMG_1057
Some men I saw on the Toronto subway, packed together like sardines, all sleeping.