Thursday, 8 May 2008

'The Passenger'

She sits across from me on the tram back from Wimbledon. It is 12:20 AM, it’s the last train of the night. She is clearly tired. She keeps yawning, in threes. She has probably had a long night. (Haven’t we all?) I wonder if she went to a film like I did. Maybe it was a horror film – she stares out the window with a look on her face like she’s afraid of what she might see, but at the same time she can’t look away. (You’re safer if you look – more aware – prepared.)

This is when I start to notice the strange way she is moving. (Or should I say ‘ways’?) She jerks her head up and down in rapid motion – like (I Dream of) Jeannie, blinking so hard her head nods – but no magic happens when this woman does it. She simply jerks her head (for no reason?). Come to think of it, she blinks too. It is a strange blink, her eyes scrunched together so tightly, lines appear in her forehead and her nose draws upward so her whole face is pulled into one terrible closed expression –

only to be released into a full expansion, the eyes at once growing larger –

and larger –

and larger –

until the liquid splashes over the pupils in a coating, as though the lids are closing even while they are open (how do I know this?) –

only for the whole process to repeat, over –

and over –

and over again –

until she seems to be weary from it, and she reaches into the brown bag she carries, fishing for Nurofen, to cure the migraine she has obviously been afflicting upon herself. (Why can’t she stop?)

This bag. There is something curious about it. She clutches it tightly, checking it time and time again – for what, I can’t tell.

She checks it again, and everything appears to be alright.

She checks it again –

and again –

and again –

and I realise she’s making sure her mobile phone has not fallen out of the bag. Now, in a panic, despite finding the phone there a few moments ago, she seems not to feel it, and she searches frantically –

searches so much, she does not even see it. She pulls out the entire contents of the bag. They consist of practical items. A book (in case she gets bored), with a book mark (that matches the book, in colour and theme), a hairbrush (in case it is a windy day), an umbrella (even though it was sunny all day), an extra jacket (she must have spent ages packing this bag, to make it all fit!), a nail file, a small bottle of cover-up make-up, a tiny mirror, keys, a small notepad and pen, an assortment of CDs (in case her mood changes midway through the day), and an extra set of batteries for a CD player that sits in one of her coat pockets. In short, she has come prepared – for nearly anything. At last she realises the phone was one of the first things she pulled out, actually. She gives it a look as if she never even saw it, and she is scared of it now – like she believes it just magically materialised from nowhere. But, all in all, she is relieved it’s not gone – and she shoves everything away again –

except the make-up and the file. She has decided she needs these. She touches her face –

all over –

every single millimetre. She runs her fingers unhappily over the skin with a look on her face that suggests it is not smooth enough. She looks fine, but she can’t see that –

or, even if she can, she can’t feel it. She quickly, secretly (she thinks), opens the make-up and applies it over various places on her face that she imagines are flawed. She avoids checking her mirror, though –

maybe she’s afraid of what she will see (like her fear of looking out the window). Maybe she is scared to look anyone in the eye (even herself). Now she takes the file to her hands. The nails are shaped so evenly, but she is unconvinced of their perfection. It appears one is slightly rough, at one place –

so she smoothes it –

and it upsets the symmetry –

so she files more –

until it’s shorter than all the other nails –

so she files those –

until all her beautiful long, shapely nails are short, depleting her of some of her grace and making her hands look almost childish – and the filing has chipped some of the bright varnish off one nail – so she quickly sets to work at peeling it entirely off of every single nail. Then she works on her cuticles. Sometimes cuticles will get in the way of varnish, and women will push them back a little. She obviously has done this – but she doesn’t like how she can see them now, like rows of dead, limp skin – so she picks at them – she presses them with her file, pressing deeply on the nail (it must hurt), and pulling, pushing – tearing off the cuticles – maybe even with her teeth – with a struggling expression on her face, like she doesn’t want to do this, but she almost can’t help it – until her fingers start to bleed. She looks at the blood casually, like she is used to it. She even pulls out some tissue from a coat pocket and presses it to her hands to stop the bleeding (as if she was prepared for this, too). Then, as though determined to inflict as much pain upon herself as possible, she picks at a scab on her arm – again, like she doesn’t want to, but she has to – like someone else is there forcing her to. And then she chews the inside of her mouth, pushing the cheeks around so her teeth can reach difficult places, making her face take very strange shapes –

and triggering her nose to work up and down, the nostrils flaring out, then in again, over –

and over –

and over again –

forcing her head to jerk more strongly (it has been jerking all this time), and the eyes do their weird blink, now with the eyes rolling in odd directions, or looking to the sides of her, straining so far they go into her head and almost all that is visible is the whites (she must make herself blind that way, sometimes) –

and all the while her jaw has begun to clench tightly, or snap open and shut –

violently –

over –

and over again, as though the first snaps were not satisfactory, did not register in her brain as happening – like testing a microphone repeatedly until the sound finally starts to work and you know your audience can finally hear you – except her own brain is her audience –

and she winces with each snap (doesn’t she wear down the enamel on her teeth, that way?) –

and I notice her shoulder is twitching, like the result of a painful muscle spasm inside. The arm sometimes hangs limply at her side, as though dead, and each time it twitches (like it has a mind of its own) she puts her other hand on it, as if to steady it (but she knows it’s a pointless effort) –

and then I see her hands, the way they freeze up. The fingers clench into awkward positions, like arthritis (but not quite). She often bends the digits – relentlessly – ceaselessly – until she hears a quiet, soft crack –

and then proceeds to crack all the knuckles, many times. Once, it hurts, but mostly she seems used to it – like the blood –

and she suddenly appears to notice something wrong (again) with her nails –

and out comes the file, her head bent over, her eyes sheathed behind glasses pressed almost directly against the fingers, as though scrutinising the atoms in the nail – like trying to see the rough, broken fibres that make up the tips, the way they show you in infomercials in order to scare you into buying their nail hardeners. She scrapes the edges with the well-worn file until the nail becomes so short she actually drops the file in shock at the sudden pain that has come from beginning to file skin.

But she picks it up again and continues to file anyway (carefully, though) – she has to make it even.

Frustrated, she puts her fingers to her mouth and nibbles at the edges, pulling at the skin. From what I can see, you can’t tell how mangled they must really be – she’s lucky that way. She tears at them like a lion ripping into an antelope. They should be ugly, like that torn animal. Yet, from a distance, they take the appearance of normal hands.

Now she puts these hands to her hair and rubs her fingers against it for some unknown reason, smoothing out the loose strands perhaps, or maybe feeling for moments of dry scalp, or maybe she has wounded even her head and (unwillingly) scratches at hidden (possibly self-inflicted) scars there –

until her arm is over her head, making her look very strange.

The way the tram moves now, I can see the other windows reflected in the one beside me, so that I am watching a reflection of a reflection, and eventually it looks as though the tram I am in is actually driving toward me at the same time as containing me – and I see the other passengers are noticing the woman across from me.

She stares hard at an insignificant place on the seat next to her, as if trying to burn the corners into her eyes – and then touches the edge of that seat – then touches it again, pressing her fingers hard into it, as though she wants to push her body through the seat. She taps her foot on the floor, almost as if she is impatient (although her face contradicts this). She taps it like she cannot stop – like, if she sits still for even one second, something will go horribly wrong. (Maybe the world will end.) She fidgets, her hands running along each other until the feeling makes her uncomfortable – her feet tapping harder now, like her snapping teeth, like the tapping is not satisfactory unless she pounds her feet harder and deeper into the ground – like she needs to feel the floor pushing into her limbs, through her limbs, in order to feel grounded, composed – in order to be able to stop tapping her feet. But it never seems to be enough – she never seems to be able to stop – and her hands now press against her head more heavily – harder – and harder – until she is pushing the skin all around, at the temples mainly, like a madman coming upon his ingeniously diabolical plan for world domination – and she has no idea how ridiculous all of it makes her face look (or does she?) – if she could just sit still, relax, let her face fall into its natural look, I think she would be pretty – but it’s hard to see that through the mess of motions she has become.

Suddenly her phone rings, and she races for it, as though embarrassed at the ring tone. And, when she answers, her onlookers have the chance to realise what is wrong. In short bursts, she speaks, interrupted severely by the jerking of her head –

the clenching of her jaw –

the clicking noises she makes in her throat, now that her voice has been activated –

and she says:

‘Hi ------ I’m on ------- the tram, now -------I’m alright ------- my tics are going ---- crazy, though --- not enough sleep ----yeah’ (swallow, throaty click, head jerk) ‘Kkkkk ------ Rrrrr --- rrrr --- rrrr ----- sss-s-sss --- ttttt – sorry ------ I can’t talk (tttt) now really ----- okay, yeah – bye.’

These strange, random consonants come like echoes of all other sounds she hears around her on the tram – and I realise, I had not taken notice of it before, but she has been doing this through the whole journey – mimicking the other voices, how words have been said –

and now I see she even mimics my expressions, for she has caught me watching her. I quickly turn away, and she does the same, as though we were never staring at each other.

I often watch people on the tram or the train. We all do. And we make judgments. It’s almost unavoidable. But this poor woman – young woman, in fact – has endured all the tram stares, and probably has endured them (how many?) times before – stares, as though she’s crazy –

mildly retarded –

who knows –

abnormal, certainly. Yet I saw the book she pulled from her obsessively (compulsively) packed bag – The Idiot by Dostoyevsky – so she must be mentally capable –

and that phone call – ‘tics’ she said. This woman is not crazy – she has Tourette Syndrome – and obviously so many other symptoms (or conditions) that go with it.

And these are just the tics I see on the tram –

controlling her –

forcing her to do things that actually hurt her. How difficult it must be to be her – to have a brain like hers – who knows how else it affects her, when she is leading her life away from this tram – who knows what childhood memories she holds in that brain of hers – if children used to point it out to her, ask her why she blinked so much, or rolled her eyes – if they gave her names, like ‘bunny’, because of her twitching nose – if she ever knew how to answer back, because she was too young to understand what was going on in her body, and realise her behaviour was not her fault – if her parents ever understood what was happening to their daughter, that she didn't mean to be obnoxious but she simply could not help it – who knows the strength she has found to ignore the stares and the pain all these years, and just carry on as though everything is normal –

or the private tears she has shed when everything has gotten to be too much for her, and she starts to believe those stares, believe nothing about her is normal –

and how many times has she suddenly become so self-conscious that she starts to imagine those stares, even if they aren’t real?

As I think this, I notice we are approaching my stop, and I press the button. ‘Tram Stopping’ lights up in a neon sign above my head, and I stand – and she stands too. We both move for the doors but, when I move away from the windows, she disappears.

It’s funny how often I forget it’s my own reflection.

'The Odd One Out'

His name was Donald.

He sat in the far end of the tram, huddled in the corner--as far away from the crowd as possible. His work demanded privacy.

With a nervous look he hastily pulled a newspaper out of his worn briefcase. In truth, it only contained this single newspaper. His wife liked to believe it contained more--secret, important documents, for a job with the law firm that employed him, perhaps? But no.

Still, this newspaper could be called ‘important’, for it was so to him, if not to anyone else. It would be difficult to explain this to his wife, though. He was certain she would not understand the logic behind it. Besides, his work required absolute secrecy, and it was safer to let her think he merely worked in a law firm than to tell the truth.

And so he pulled out the paper and poured over it. He had been looking forward to this moment all day. It was the whole reason behind his going out, in fact. Yes, that morning he had woken as anyone would. He had lain in his soft bed a moment, refusing to admit morning had come and he needed to leave that place of comfort, and then had suddenly remembered--in a flash--he had very important, exciting things to do that day.

He had jumped out of bed quickly and hurried about his business, hardly stopping to eat. His poor wife had stared at him in half surprise as he brushed past her with a distracted, ‘Good morning, dear--goodbye, dear,’(only half surprise, because she had grown used to her husband’s eccentricities) and had returned to her own affairs as he whisked out the door to greet the world that anxiously awaited him.

He liked to greet that world with a smile, but always found this difficult to accomplish, for his attempts at smiling generally resulted in very strange expressions that seemed to suggest their possessor was more nervous and afraid than joyful and friendly. Sometimes he would stand in front of the mirror and practise his smile, but after a while felt very plastic and couldn’t muster up enough true good feeling to create any smile but a false, empty one, and so he would give up. For that moment, anyway. He would always return to the practice later.

And so that day too he greeted with a hapless expression of happiness mixed with confusion--and of course mystery, for is that not why he was there?

He had made his way carefully to each newsstand in the street. He was quite proud of himself, for, despite his eagerness, he had managed to carry himself like a man without a care in the world, like one who simply wanted to buy a paper without any ulterior motives--or at least he liked to think he carried himself this way; in fact, he had no idea how he appeared to the rest of the world, and the fear that he might have been found out made him more nervous and affected his smile greatly.

Now he sat, as has been said, in the far corner of the tram, studying that precious paper he had saved for this moment. All day long he had been waiting in agony to see what wonders this paper would hold for him, and now his desires would at last be satiated.

Quickly, he flipped through the pages, bypassing all the major articles--and even the minor ones--at last finding what he sought: the crossword puzzle.

Yes, the crossword puzzle, for this was what held so much meaning to Donald, above anything else in that paper. What use did he have with so many headlines? ‘WAR WITH IRAQ IS NEAR.’ ‘NEW REPORT SAYS JACKSON HAD CURSE PUT ON SPIELBERG.’ Gossip! All of it, whether serious or not--it was all gossip, to Donald. No, the truth lay hidden deep between the lines, beneath the surface. The truth, in fact, lay in the crossword.

Again, Donald was quite sure no one else would understand this fact. He was quite surprised with himself, even, for happening to figure it out. After all, surely he was a rarity for doing it. Perhaps he was even a ‘chosen one’. The thought often occurred to him. He was intelligent enough to understand he was different from those who surrounded him. He felt that perhaps he was marked out--marked out for something wondrous, something powerful.

What was this truth that lay in the crossword?

In honesty, Donald himself wasn’t sure. That was the point of him searching with such fervent analysis. He had done this with many others. There were messages in those crosswords--codes hidden in the answers to the questions. It wasn’t always so. Many crosswords held no meaning at all. They were empty and useless, only there for frivolous entertainment--yet then there would be one out of hundreds that would hold another piece of the puzzle he had been attempting to unravel for the last six years. He was still unsure what this puzzle was, but that only added to the excitement. After all, what a discovery it would be when, one day, he would not only unlock the mystery of whatever it was that held such a mystery, but he would understand what it was that held that very mystery, too!

He didn’t waste time reading each and every crossword in existence, though. Of course, that would be next to impossible. At first he had tried this method. However, after some time, being the clever man he was, Donald discovered a pattern to the clues. Only certain crosswords would hold any meaning, and he soon knew which papers to buy in order to find each of these puzzle pieces. This came as quite a relief to his wife, he recalled now with a laugh.

‘I can’t understand your sudden obsession with newspapers,’ she had said when the papers first began filling the house, and her face was wrought with mild despair, as though this were just one of many things about her husband that confused her delicate head.

‘I like to be informed,’ he had told her, but she wouldn’t accept this.

‘At the rate you’re going, I think you’ll be more informed than anyone else in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if you knew more than people on other planets, as well. This is insane.’

‘It isn’t insane,’ he had said, trying not to be offended, for he knew it was hard for her to understand so long as he refused her any valid explanation. ‘It’s simply a hobby of mine, now.’

She lost her temper at that point, pulling at her hair and screaming a little, melodramatically. ‘A hobby?’ she cried. ‘A hobby? How many hobbies do you have? How many obsessions do you develop? How many useless items end up taking refuge in our house as a result of your “hobbies”?’ Donald had taken a moment to consider this, but she decided he didn’t deserve such time. To aid him in his consideration, she had dragged him about the house, pointing out each ‘hobby’ she had ‘endured’. Piles of cardboard lay in what he referred to as his ‘office’, waiting to be used for some reason or other; dozens of photographs of kangaroos were tacked onto one wall, with several of porpoises on another; some hundred pens and pencils lay in a tin box on the floor, next to stacks of books about the history of Greenland; and now boxes of newspapers filled the room as well. What was he to say? How could he explain that all these things were important?

‘Alexandra,’ he had said gently (for that was her name) ‘Alexandra, you have your own interests. Let me have mine.’

‘I do let you,’ she told him. ‘I’m sure many other women would put up with far less than I have, when you give no explanation for any of it. It’s enough to drive a person mad, sometimes, the way you come home in secret with some new piece of junk--I’m sorry, some new piece of….’ She had stopped there, unsure of what to say, for ‘junk’ really was the only word that came to mind (or at least the only polite word that came to mind) and then she had begun in a new vein. ‘When I think of the life I could have had…I was destined for something more…sophisticated. My life should have been more…exotic. I always felt I would end up with an artist of some sort--someone important, or someone who would be very passionate and…and well you….’ She had looked at him sadly then and hugged him suddenly. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I do love you, Donald. You just…confuse me….’

He thought about this as he sat there in his corner of the tram, and he shook his head slightly with that strange attempt at a smile that so characterised him. He knew she loved him. He knew her harsh words really did only spring from her confusion and frustration, and he wished he could make her understand everything so that those harsh words would no longer be spoken. But how was he to explain it all when he hardly understood it himself?

He sighed and looked up quickly, staring out the window to the left of him, then allowing his eyes to dart back and forth between the window and the other people on the tram. A young woman had sat down next to him, at this point. He caught her eye accidentally, and she seemed to give him a questioning look. Nervously he looked away and returned to his crossword, folding the paper to a quarter of its full size and pressing it tightly and frantically, ensuring it would lie flat on his knee. He then proceeded to hurry through it with a pen and filled in any answers he knew. Every now and then, though, he would feel the eyes of the girl on him. He looked up sometimes and she would dart her gaze out the window, as though she were looking past him and not at him. Hm…did she know?

Donald began to feel anxious at this. He reached up and pulled down the edge of the dark brown hat that rested on his pale head with its thinning hair. The hat flipped up uncertainly on one side as though it were slightly crippled. He pulled at the collar of his long off-white trench coat and it hung very loosely on him--for in fact it was two sizes too large for him and almost swallowed him in its mass. In particular, he often found himself nearly tripping, for the flaps of the coat would get caught between legs shrouded in black pinstripe trousers a size too big for him.

Alexandra often reproached him for this outfit of his--he wore it often. It, like the newspapers and the pictures of kangaroos, frustrated her greatly.

‘I don’t understand why you always wear that same outfit,’ she would say.

‘I like it.’

‘It makes you look like you’re trying to be Dick Tracy.’

‘Is that so bad?’

‘Well, if you’re trying to be a private detective, I don’t think you’re very well-disguised,’ she would say dryly. Then, ‘Couldn’t you at least buy clothing your own size? Are you trying to make yourself look like an empty suit or something?’

No, no. However, it was good for his invisibility factor--for that was something very important when your work required such absolute secrecy as his did. Although he did find it rather disturbing that she should think he was badly disguised for detective work. Not that he was a detective, necessarily, but…what was he, anyway? He puzzled over this question for a moment--for he hardly knew, himself--and then noticed the girl next to him was staring at him again.

What did she want? Was she a spy? Or did she simply find him interesting? Or strange, perhaps. If so, he wouldn’t be surprised. She wouldn’t be the first. Sometimes even he thought perhaps he was a bit strange. Here he was, doing the work he did; an ageing man with a round face hidden by glasses that had somehow survived from a dead era, dressed in a habit that stood out like a sore thumb amid the flashy shirts of shiny material so many of the others around him wore; and somehow married to a woman named Alexandra of all names, a lofty woman with high ideals and exotic tastes, dark hair and beautiful eyes--a woman he knew could have ended up with any other man in the world, yet somehow Donald, of all people, had won her affection.

He dressed oddly, he couldn’t smile properly, his work was ambiguous even to himself, yet…somehow he knew he was set out in the world! He was destined for something great--he could feel it!

He was so caught up in these reassuring thoughts that he was quite startled when he realised the doors of the tram had opened at his stop. In a rush, he gathered up his things and ran to the exit--nearly tripping over his observant neighbour in the process, not to mention over his coat--and stepped off the tram just in time. There he paused for a moment and looked about him. It was quite dark, and he wondered what Alexandra would say when he returned. No doubt she would wonder where he had been all day, why he was returning home so late, and all he would have to show for his day would be that single newspaper and an otherwise empty briefcase. She would understand none of it, no matter how hard she tried, and he would be unable to explain any of it to her.

He sighed at this and walked along the footpath connecting with the tram stop until he reached the curb of the street on the other side, where he decided to sit down for a moment. He pulled up his knees, wrapped his arms around them and rested his chin on them with a forlorn expression flickering on his face in the light of the passing cars.

What did others really think of him? he wondered. Perhaps they thought he was an anachronism--some strange messenger from another era: an era when his sort of work was considered more fashionable and was appreciated; when men were allowed to be as mysterious as he was, and their wives didn’t ask so many questions or become frustrated with them when they couldn’t provide all the answers; when others dressed somewhat like he did, and understood the value of those mysteries he was attempting to unravel--and of course this was the tricky part, for he couldn’t place which era he must belong to; he would need to know what mystery he was attempting to solve first before he could know where it belonged. After all, different eras spawn different enigmas.

Perhaps, though, Donald thought to himself on that curb at night, perhaps I’m not so strange for all of my mysteries. After all, the world runs on enigma, doesn’t it? Everyone is busy attempting to solve their little mysteries each day. Isn’t that what life is all about? Aren’t we all waiting to solve the mysteries of the universe, of life? We all search for answers, but we rarely find the ones that satisfy us. So how am I unusual for my own mysteries? Why do we all have to be the same? Why aren’t I allowed my own little eccentricities, just because they don’t match those of other people? Why do I need to be explained? Can’t I simply exist, without any rhyme or reason?

And he realised yes, that was the whole problem: people could not accept him without explanation. Everyone needed to understand him. How was it that they couldn’t see how strange they appeared to him as well, in all their attempts to make him seem the oddity?

‘My name is not simply Donald,’ he said, shaking his head sadly as he stood up again with a kind of melodrama that suggested he was experiencing an epiphany; ‘it’s Donald Quixote.’

He brushed off his coat and set off down the street, then, to meet the wife whom he loved, even though she didn’t understand him, and he pondered the new clues he had found in the crossword puzzle that night, concluding that they were very important, indeed.

‘Back to the Present’

They sit at the airport, silently waiting for the hour of his departure to arrive. She has dreaded the coming moment for months--she dreaded it even before he arrived. She dreads it, and yet in some ways she wishes it would hurry up and come sooner simply so she can relieve herself of the anxiety and move on to the grieving process. She prays there will not be a delay. She couldn’t say goodbye twice. The unexpected prolonging of the separation would only make them both awkward, wondering what to do. Any actions after the planned farewell would feel stupid and superfluous. Afterward it would seem sloppy, or like those final moments never happened at all. It would lack poetry.

She stares at him across the table. His eyes are red from lack of sleep. Hers must be too. Her hair is probably flat and lifeless, her eyeliner smeared just enough to enhance black circles around those red eyes. In short, she must be a mess. And still he looks back at her affectionately through his drowsiness. When he looks at her like this, like he can see right through her body and into whatever lies inside, she thinks he’s the most beautiful creature she has ever seen.

He blinks furiously to stay awake and taps the side of his coffee cup with frantic fingers. He attempts a rhythm—it’s calming to put things in order--but his joints bend at all the wrong moments and the meter sounds more nervous than musical. He gives up and looks down into the empty paper cup. He would like more--he needs more--but things are so expensive in airports and he doesn’t want to spend any more than he already has. He silently curses whoever first decided money was a good idea. It seems to him all money has done is thwart him at every turn. He wouldn’t have to catch this plane and leave if it weren’t for money.

He looks back at her. Her hair falls in wisps around her face, verging on chaotic behaviour. Those hairs rebel against the neat braid she brushed them into this afternoon. No, yesterday afternoon. They have been up so long he no longer knows when it was. He wonders when they even are, now. Time is so relative. For the three others in the café here, it must be ‘tomorrow’ compared to what is still ‘today’ for him. Does that even make sense? He shakes his head in confusion, and she laughs.

‘You look silly,’ she says lightly.

‘I don’t doubt it,’ he replies. ‘If we stay up any longer here, we’re going to lose our minds.’ He’s a little too serious when he says this, and she turns away from him, refocusing her stare on a blank spot of the wall sideways and across from her. She has an honest fear of insanity and finds it hard to talk about such a thing the way he has. She’s not angry with him for it, but she can’t continue the conversation.

He reaches his hand out for hers and she lets him take it. His touch is cold. She thinks this must be from being awake too long. His hands were warmer last night--earlier tonight--whenever. They were warm and comforting then. She shuts her eyes for a moment and remembers it, how they wanted so much to make the most of their last moments together. They put too much pressure on things. It was unnatural. It almost turned into an argument. The only other time that ever happened was the last time they had to say goodbye. Separation causes delusion, she decides. You feel you have to pack a lifetime of emotion into one moment, as though it will make it easier to leave the person. But the truth is: when you love someone, nothing can ever be enough, nothing can ease that separation.

She learned this last time, when she was the one who left. She held him so tightly he thought maybe she was trying to pull him into her, make him a physical part of herself. She thought, if she held him long enough, it would satiate her and make it easier to let him go. But somehow it made things even harder.

She doesn’t want to cry this time. She knows she will, but she wishes she could avoid it. She wants to be strong. She doesn’t want to feel so much of her stability depends on him. But maybe there’s not really so much shame in it as people claim….

‘What am I going to do without you?’ she suddenly says aloud. He looks at her gently.

‘What am I going to do without you?’ he rejoins. She laughs softly, and shakes her head because she does not know.

‘You’ll go back to your own life, I suppose,’ she tells him. ‘You’ll see your friends again’--all those people she does not know-- ‘you’ll go out to all those places you go to’--those places she has never been-- ‘you’ll be okay.’ She’s being unfair, but she can’t help what she feels. Feelings are not always fair and rational. He knows this, he understands, and so he continues to speak as though she has not just said what she has.

‘I wish our lives weren’t so divided,’ he says. It is not the first time one of them has expressed such a wish, yet each time it holds the same poignancy. She nods sadly.

They are like fallen leaves floating down a river. They have lost their roots, lost their way and are drifting along, crossing paths and touching, but never able to redirect their courses and float together. Tragically, too, every time they touch, it bounces them off onto even more divided paths.

She does not want to go about her daily life knowing the most she can share with him is stories. She wants him to see things with her. She wants them to know the same people.

She wonders what he must be like around all those friends she doesn’t know. They must see a person he doesn’t bother to share with her. They see an external form, while she sees what lies at the core. She loves knowing this, but still it gives her a feeling like she does not love the same man those strangers call their friend. Perhaps this should ease her jealousy, but it only excites it more.

‘You don’t have to go,’ she says. ‘You can just stay here. You don’t even have to tell anyone you’re staying. Just let that other person in you go back. Leave the real you with me.’

He smiles at her. ‘I’m already doing that,’ he says, and she understands. His body is returning--his façade is returning--but his heart is staying here. His soul is staying here. But how incredible it is the way the body can become the soul when real feeling takes control! She does not want to lose that. She wants to feel his soul, and she can’t do that if he takes that other half away.

He stands up. He has decided he needs that third coffee too much, and he goes to purchase it. The man at the counter looks at him wearily as he hands him his order. No one wants to be in an airport at this hour. It’s normally so busy here. One would think the current late-night silence would be peaceful, but instead it’s disturbing. This is not how things should be, here. It all feels wrong, like the calm before the storm. He longs for commotion. He wants distraction.

He stares about him, taking in the surroundings. The tiles, the walls, the ceiling--everything is white and dingy. Or maybe they’re not dingy, but the poor lighting makes them look so. Either way, it’s depressing. That dingy white is so overpowering in its mood, the brown tabletops fall into it as though disappearing into quicksand. If he thinks about it too long, it might make him feel lonely before he has even left.

At one of these sinking tables sits another couple. They are silent. He can’t even see the kind of eye contact he has been exchanging with her all night in-between sentences. These two are already divided. The girl looks bored. She’s probably wishing the man would go already, so she can get to bed. With coffee in hand, their observer looks over at his own companion and hopes she’s not so bored herself.

‘I’m sorry you’re having to stay up so long because of me,’ he says as he returns to their table. ‘You should have stayed home, let me come here on my own.’

‘Don’t say such stupid things,’ she says, and her expression is one of severity. ‘How can you even suggest I do such a thing? How could I just let you leave me with….’

‘With only last night as the farewell?’ he supplies. She says nothing, but he knows he has guessed rightly. ‘I don’t know why things always have to end so awkwardly.’

‘We just put too much pressure on things,’ she recites her thoughts.

‘I wish it were different,’ he says unnecessarily. It has almost become their theme song, yet this time it affects her strongly.

‘I do too,’ she agrees, and her voice grows suddenly urgent. She grips his hand tightly now, her nails sinking into the surface of the skin. ‘I wish we could live together--I mean really live together, not just occupy the same space. I wish I could come home every day and know you’ll be there waiting for me, or that I could wait for you--I wish, when I went out walking, I could say things directly to you instead of trying to remember everything so I can tell it all to you later--I wish you could really understand what I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing--I wish we could take our time with things, not feel the need to cram it all in. I’m tired of living with the mindset of someone who’s going to die in a few days. I wish we could talk about something utterly banal and not feel we’re just wasting time, like we should be using the minutes for something more important…I wish we could be normal.’

He nods, silently conscious of the growing pain in his hand. He looks down at her fingers. The nails are painted, deep blue and shining. He realises he will miss them when he’s home again. Home? Wherever. Semantics are starting to make his head swim.

She notices her nails and releases his hand apologetically. She has become overzealous, perhaps melodramatic. She does this more often than she would like. She tries to remind herself that, if you love someone, you set them free, but all she has managed to live up to is: if you love someone, cling like hell.

She wonders again what life will be like when he’s gone. She considers it--lonely nights in cold darkness, wondering what he’s doing wherever he is at the time--and she feels overwhelmed. Normally she would discuss this sort of thing with him, be open with him, but for some reason the words fail her now. Her mind doesn’t want to make it any more real than it already is. She needs to stop thinking about it if she’s going to get through it at all. He notices her strange, morose expression though and gives her a questioning look. She kisses him in response. She knows the few others around them must be watching--perhaps they find this public display irritating--but she’s not really thinking about them. She’s not really thinking of anything at all; she is only feeling.

Somehow an hour has passed. Suddenly the time of his departure has arrived. She becomes desperate. He can’t leave, not now. Why do these abrupt endings always interrupt such perfect moments? Just when they seem to get things right, that’s when it all has to end. How does time manage to pass so quickly? She was agonisingly awaiting his flight simply to end the torture of that waiting, but now she’s even more on-edge due to that moment having come. Now she clings to him more than ever.

I love you, you can’t leave, she thinks, but she remains outwardly silent. She could say a hundred, a thousand things, but they would only make it all harder. It’s not his fault he has to go, after all. Why say things that will only make him feel guilty for something out of his control?

They stand in line. He is only four people away from being out of her reach. Then he will be on the other side of the wall, in the ‘passengers only’ zone. She remembers last time, when she was the one on the other side of one of those walls. She sat motionless, encircled by strangers hurrying off to their holidays, while she waited to be rushed off to her own depression.

She stares at him now, attempting to take in every angle at once, solidifying his image in her mind. She knows when she shuts her eyes she can see those most important features, the ones that make her smile the way they do, but she doesn’t want to lose all the connecting lines; she wants the entire picture. Before she finishes, though--and what would be enough to qualify as finished, anyway? –they’re taking him away from her. He kisses her one last time, and then he’s gone.

She stands frozen, unbelieving what is happening. She watches as the other passengers move along through the door, and it hits her--it has not been fifteen seconds and already that feeling she knew would come has hit her. It’s a feeling like the wall divides not just those who hold a ticket and those who don’t, but also his life from hers--his dimension from hers. He will fly back to his own world filled with all those people and places she doesn’t know--he will journey back into the Present, into ‘Reality’. And she? She will linger here, revelling in what is already becoming the Past, a realm of memories she can’t pull herself away from--an alternate universe filled with nothing but herself, but surrounded by that other strange world filled with even more people she doesn’t know and places that hold no meaning for her anymore except the ones she visited with him.

When will she see him again? Neither of them even knows, and already, as the minutes pass, she starts to wonder if he was ever here at all.

'Limitation' - from 'The System'

[This is a chapter from my unpublished book 'The System', which chronicles the journey of a comet through our solar system, and the many different ways people might perceive it on different worlds]


Saturn (Greek: Cronus). Linked with the signs of Capricorn and Aquarius. Attributes: Ambition, social ideals, limits, challenges, self-reliance, lessons, rigid systems that restrict growth, parents, authorise, rules, strength through discipline and planning, authoritarian society, shy, repressed, desperate for recognition, frustration, striving for honour, status and executive power, controlled feelings, social but alienated, friendly.

They watch, from and through Rings made of some shattered ancient planetoid desperate to reassemble itself, but endlessly shattered again. The waves bounce out, above and below their stations. They reach for the poles and seal their grip around them. It is almost impossible to see this, yet Eleutherios knows it is all there. He watches them in return, from his darkened room, hidden away from the bright eyes of light suspended outside what is mockingly referred to as a home.

‘It isn’t fair,’ his body whispers, looking out above the walls.

‘What?’ Metis spins toward him.

‘We’re not meant to be confined,’ Eleutherios continues. ‘It goes against all laws of reason.’ He sighs in semi-resignation. ‘Remember those days before? We were so free then.’

The light form of Metis sighs in response, yet her sigh is one of patience. ‘We were never that free,’ she says.

‘No?’ A pause. ‘No. No, I suppose not. But at least we were freer than this. Certainly you were.’

Floating upward, Metis eases herself over him, flowing into him in deep swells of air. ‘Perhaps. But life has never been so fortunate. If it were not this, it would only be something else.’

‘Why are you so pessimistic?’ he asks, looking into the wispy shape now merging with his own.

‘I am not being pessimistic,’ she corrects him. ‘I am being very realistic. Life is not the sum of many beautiful parts. Life is made of suffering as well--more, even, than of beauty. It’s just something you have to accept.’

‘I can’t, Metis,’ he says. ‘Not when I know that out there, not so far from us, there exist better lives for people to lead. Jupiter, for instance--they don’t live this way on Jupiter. They don’t even live this way on our own moons.’ A light glimmers through him--a light formed of gases, condensed into a ball against their will--and Eleutherios glows brightly. ‘We’re just like them, aren’t we?’ His voice is plaintive.

‘In what way?’ she asks the illuminated form that is now lighting her up too.

‘We look like them, like the others. We’re not different in form. We would lead similar lives if given the chance. We have just as much a right to freedom and happiness as any of them out there on Titan, for instance. So why are we treated so differently?’

‘Do you ask yourself this same question every day?’ Metis inquires softly.

‘In my mind, yes,’ he admits.

‘Have you ever found an answer?’

‘Not one that satisfies me.’ Drawing away from her, he eases back to his position at the window. ‘It’s absurd,’ he announces as though he were speaking truisms to a crowd. ‘Everything we are, all we’re made of, is intended for motion. Doesn’t that count for something? And somehow we’ve been trapped in these strange structures, held in against our natures. How did you even manage to do this to us?’ He addresses these last words to the sky--to the blinking lights looking down on him ominously from the Rings. Near them, an extra light dances--something foreign. It has not always been there, but one night Eleutherios looked out and noticed it--the extra light, moving almost imperceptibly, slowly across the sky.

‘I’m surprised they haven’t tried to hold you down, too,’ Eleutherios whispers to the comet.

‘You torture yourself,’ Metis observes in her simple manner. ‘How can you ever heal when you won’t stop focusing on the wounds?’

‘I can’t not focus on them!’ Eleutherios shouts angrily. ‘It’s always there, staring at me--no matter how hard I try to ignore it, it’s always there.’ Furiously, he hurls himself forward, crashing into the walls that encircle him with gravitation. Metis remains still, watching patiently and calmly as he continues to heave himself forward. There was a time when he might have frightened her with this outburst, but she is used to it now.

When he finally collapses, she asks, ‘Do you feel better now?’

Eleutherios looks at the walls apologetically, and then at Metis curiously. ‘How can you be so calm about this? Doesn’t any of it frighten you at all?’

‘Of course it does,’ Metis answers. ‘How can you accuse me like that?’

‘You never…react,’ he goes on. ‘Here I am, making a fool of myself, and you just stand there, not reacting.’

‘That’s exactly it, though,’ she argues. ‘You make a fool of yourself--you never accomplish anything through it. I don’t see the point in any of it.’

Breathing hard, the form of Eleutherios sinks inward, then out again, his colour changing with each exhalation. His temper rises. ‘You don’t see the point,’ he says in a voice far too quiet to be normal. ‘May I ask you something?’ Without allowing Metis to reply, he proceeds: ‘Do you remember the day all this began?’

‘I don’t see how talking about this again is going to do us any good,’ Metis says.

‘Do you remember it?’ Eleutherios ignores her. ‘Do you think about it much? Do you think of that day when they all flew up to the surface? When they began that cyclone in the first place?’ And looking inward he sees it once more: the herds of slaves being sent up to the Rings, forced into motion--the way they first spun around the world in ominous unnatural orbit--how their audience down below found themselves swept along as in a whirlpool, flung into one another, forming a terrible tornado of activity. It was not what They had necessarily intended, so They stopped it--how, Eleutherios was never too sure. The damage was already done by that point, though. You can’t stop something so powerful once it has reached the inner core of the soul. Eleutherios recalls how the people became the very essence of Panic itself. He can still see the look of terror in the forms of all he met, that day--how he reached out to them, longing to protect them. That was when he met Metis.

She was lost, strewn across a foreign part of the world. The storm did that to many people. She was the only one he met who was not hysterical. For some reason, she was calm and patient.
‘It would not help anyone if I were to scream and cry like the rest of them,’ was her explanation. She was keeping the peace, by setting an example of quietude. Perhaps this was a result of her background. After all, she had spent much of her life on Jupiter. They were different, there. Eleutherios knew that from his visits to that strange world. He dreamt of its majestic differences. He dreamt of it increasingly now, now that he pined for it even more.

So she was calm and accepting, and this drew him to her more strongly than any of those gravitational storms could.

Then came Their second plan. Eleutherios always wondered where the idea had come from--perhaps They had learned it from one of the terrestrial worlds. (Those foreign planets were always coming up with such strange ideas.) But where They learned the concept did not matter, now that it was in motion--literal motion, as those slaves were sent on their way in orbit once more, this time down below around the others, enclosing them with their reluctant force. Eleutherios thinks this must be the most frightening part of it all: when he looks at the walls that encircle him, they are alive. Sometimes, when he watches them carefully, it is almost as though he can slow them down. Then he can see each slave as an individual, rather than as one piece of a colourful blur. He looks at them--into them--and he sees their apologies. They never asked to be used for such purposes. They do not want to trap him anymore than he wants them to. And, in their own way, they are more trapped than he, for they are unable to stop their endless rotation.
Sometimes, one or two will drop from exhaustion. They fall in heaps of light, and then are swept up once more by the gravitation. The corpses fly along, intermingling with the living, to the latter’s great horror--but there is nothing to be done about it. When one falls, another is sent as a replacement, thus the walls never become any thinner. Eleutherios has a dark wish that, one day, all the slaves will die at once, and then the walls will dissolve. He will be free--Metis will be free--and then he can find some way to free the others. But he knows in his heart that the likelihood of this happening is very small.

They must have suicide-mission soldiers, Eleutherios thinks, forgetting he was ever addressing Metis. They must, because how else could they have made all this happen? They must have flown to one of the moons first, then sent soldiers on a suicide mission to force the slaves into rotation. Then the others set up their watch stations on the Rings. That must be it. And, if that’s the case, they can’t hold out forever. Sooner or later, they will all die….

‘Yes, I think of it,’ Metis suddenly interrupts his thoughts. ‘I think of it all the time--I remember the moment when we all realised something terrible was about to happen without us ever expecting it, I remember how everyone screamed, I still hear the voices in my mind even now--how can I not? But I can’t think of it the way you do--obsessively. I’d lose my mind if I did that--I think you’re losing yours, for it.’

Startled, Eleutherios looks up at her sharply. Then, slowly he cools down. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says gently. ‘I’m sorry for implying that you’re unfeeling, that you don’t care. I’m sorry for expecting you to handle this the same way I do. I don’t want to force you to be something other than what you are--I don’t want to change your ideals, or the way you think, or what you believe is right--I don’t want to be like Them.’

Traces of liquid seem to melt off Metis as she listens to him speak, and she flies over to him, wrapping herself about him. ‘Things could be worse,’ she tells him. ‘A lot worse.’

‘How?’ he asks sincerely.

‘We could be alone. They could have put these…walls…between us, divided us. Then you’d never have anyone to rant to, and I’d never have anyone to scold,’ she laughs. ‘Think how tragic that would be!’

Her tone is infectious, and he laughs with her. ‘Yes,’ he says affectionately, ‘that would be tragic.’ Then, very gravely, ‘I wish we hadn’t met under these circumstances. I wish things could have been different. Sometimes I dream of it, you know. I dream we’re free, and it’s many years ago. I dream the world is bright and airy, heavy with possibility rather than gravity. I dream of running into you on one of those bright, airy, possible days and speaking to you for the first time. I dream of us leading such wonderful lives--so light!’

‘You shouldn’t dream of such things,’ she tells him.

‘Why not? They make me happy.’

‘I’m glad, but all the same you shouldn’t dream of them. They’re illogical. You might not have loved me, had you met me under other circumstances.’

‘I find that hard to believe,’ Eleutherios says seriously, and his voice seems to play melody to the rhythm of his heart.

‘It’s true, though,’ Metis speaks knowingly. ‘Why did you find me so attractive?’

‘You know why,’ he says, smoothing her with his weight. ‘You were so different from all the others, Metis.’

‘I might not have seemed it if we were not in the middle of a crisis. I would have been just like anyone else, if things had been free and calm. I would not have stood out at all, and so you would not have known to love me. Nor would I have felt any real reason to cling to you. We might not have even spoken, Eleutherios.’

‘Why must you ruin my dream?’ he asks like a small child.

‘I’m only trying to put things into perspective. You look around you, and all you see is limitation. Yet I look around and see strength--strength because, through all the hardships, we have found something. We have found each other. We would still be alone if not for all that has happened.’
‘Do you want me to thank Them?’ he asks incredulously.

‘Of course not,’ she sighs. ‘I just wish you would see things are not always as they seem. There is a reason for the things that happen. Tragedy does not occur simply for the sake of it. All of it is a great ocean of Cause and Effect.’

‘Is that something you learned where you came from?’

‘No,’ she says. ‘In fact, it’s only something I learned when I came here. It’s easy to take things for granted in a world where all is peaceful and good. Here, you learn to examine things more closely.’

‘Perhaps,’ Eleutherios concedes.

‘It’s true. You are just reluctant to admit it, and I think that’s all due to ego.’

‘Ego?’ He is surprised at her.

‘Yes: ego. You want to be the one to find a way out of here--you want to be a hero, someone who breaks free and makes a name for himself--you’re striving for recognition. You want all the universe to know the sufferings going on here. You’re consumed by that foolish desire. But I tell you there’s no point, because really you’re not suffering any more than they are.’

‘I doubt that,’ he interjects.

‘You aren’t!’ she refutes him. ‘The others--they are suffering just as much, but in their own ways. And perhaps they are suffering more, because they are not aware they are suffering, not like you are. So, pull something out of that, make something of it. Examine yourself, examine the time we have spent together. Examine all the loneliness and isolation and realise how much worse it could be. After all, how much did you use your supposed freedom when you presumably had it? How often did you exercise your religious rights, before this fascism removed them? When did you want to speak to all the others out there, before the walls divided you from them?’ Moving more closely to him, she says excitedly, ‘We have only learned love through being confined together; we have only achieved appreciation for the world and its people through being hidden from it. And, even if we never see the universe “freely” again, haven’t we learned something great enough to make it all worth it?’

Drawing back from her, Eleutherios looks into her wildly with a kind of wonderment. Her words ring madly, losing themselves in his body, and he falls backward, confused and overwhelmed. Yet Metis has not finished. Gazing up above the walls--toward that gauze of thin gas that taunts them by seeming easy to tear through, yet never reachable due to the gravity--Metis continues:
‘Five years ago, when I was living on Jupiter, I might have looked up at that comet and thought it the most beautiful thing--a glorious messenger in the sky.’

‘And now?’ Eleutherios asks from behind her.

‘Now, I look up, and I understand it. It has no control over its own journey or destination. It’s trapped just as we are--just as these slaves are, in these walls. But, if it’s alive in any way, it must think a lot in its isolation. It must contemplate all those strange mysteries that float about, that we take so much for granted when we’re distracted with comforts.’ She breathes deeply, becoming almost opaque with words. ‘Now I look at that comet,’ she says, ‘and I realise it is one of the luckiest creatures in the universe--because it knows itself.’