Feeling a little pent up, I threw on my coat and went out the door with the excuse of seeing about having our pitiful carpet cleaned – the first step in a patently bourgeois mishap. I made it down one flight of stairs before crossing my chest with the SpectaclesTesticlesWalletWatch genuflect, then bounded back up when my wallet missed roll call. I wasn’t expecting to need it, but it has a comfortable presence in my pocket all the same.
On the street, every passerby breathed a soft presentiment, except the children bouncing home from school in their white lab coats. The sea breeze, filtered by a hulking oil refinery, brought fumes. Ahead I could see a man whose blue and black jacket I knew well, walking in the same direction as me across the street. We’ve spoken before: his smooth, but incessant French always draws me in for a few minutes before I inevitably bow out, almost impolitely, like slipping away from an elder family friend brimming with so much experience they never stop sharing it. His fluency stands out from the rest of the mecs in the neighborhood, and, to be fair, I learn more than just language from him. But like the old family friend absent-mindedly turning down the dial in their hearing aid, his fluency also conceals the need to speak to someone. And Taariq’s (fictional name) words further conceal the need for money, which he expresses as casually as possible when I begin to slide up the street toward my building. A coffee at a cafe, that’s all, and I always give him enough, something just short of folding, feeling the wedge it drives between us. A wedge that was always there, but had to be uttered at last.
But on an aimless excursion, you (or maybe just I) try to keep it light as the breeze, passing through as if the world were a simulation that functioned as normal, only without any hangups, nothing too heavy or tedious. Here begins the loathsome tale of the well-fed and fancy-free.
Seeing Taariq not see me, I listened to two opposing voices in my head for a second and a half, then turned on my heel to take the long way. It felt better, now, walking more truly alone with the anticipatory phantoms of conversation no longer a possibility, and thus silent in my mind. The wind still reeked.
When I got to Mohammed the Grocer’s, he was immediately there. Walking purposefully with his eyes fixed ahead, though just fixed enough that their peripheral intent was palpable. Suddenly he changed from justpassingby to fancyseeingyouhere: “come away a bit, I want to talk to you.” The image of an inwardly fuming grade-school principal, whose single beckoning forefinger could inspire Hitchcock, flashed before me as a weight dropped in my stomach.
“Viens,” he said again, from just beyond the invisible but existent threshold of the grocery stand.
Playing it cool, I said hellohowareyou, where can I find a carpet cleaner, fool that I am, pretending to ignore his eyes which screamed, “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK.” He had a fast, wild look in his face, and when he took my arm to lead me ostensibly to the Lavage across the street, I felt an angry force in his touch. I shrugged him off, turning back to the safety of Mohammed’s vegetable domain, lighter and protective even if, or perhaps because, Mohammed still calls me Ken.
Just as quickly, Taariq disappeared, and I bought two oranges in a feeble attempt to make it seem like that was why I’d come there, smiling through my anxiety. Before leaving back the way I had come, I gave my change to the old, half-blind man who always sits in front, and who had mouthed a kind “Salaam, kulshi bikhair?” to me somewhere in the haze of the encounter.
Oy! Taariq must burn at my financially secure demeanor, passing through his country like it were an amusement park, my blue passport ever at hand to whisk me back to some imagined paradise with its favorable currency and unique depravities. But maybe that’s taking it too far. Fear clouds judgement so consistently, yet that beast in his eyes was Hunger all the same. What it does to him it would do to me, just not this time. So, I scamper off to my safety, my roof with an oddly large orange to snack on, a brutally industrial horizon to muse at, muse about my place in this human forest that unveils its jarring darkness and danger so seldom to me. I muse about the faraway shape of my friend who prowls his sidewalk in front of the salon as if held there by a curse, a trapped and suffering being who makes an easier study of Great Compassion from a distance.
P.S.: My last words preceding this post were an exhortation to recall abundance, now, just a day later, I’m confronted with its unavoidable limits. Rather than take it back, I prefer to cope with the contradiction.