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Words by Mandy-Suzanne Wong
I was standing in line with my papers, thinking nothing in particular. Actually, I was probably thinking I had better things to do than stand there with my papers. And, all these other people's papers, with which those other people were standing around too.
There were two lines running in parallel. I don't know how many people. By the time it happened, I could no longer see the tail of the line. I had no reason to suppose I'd ever see the front. And, I'd already given several the slip.
What do I mean, giving the slip?
Let's say you're in a restaurant alone.
Or perhaps I should say I. I'm alone in a restaurant. I'm aware it's still considered odd—it's discomfiting, let's say—to see a woman dining alone in a first-class restaurant. Especially a middle-aged woman. Maybe that's just my opinion, having dined alone and felt discomfortingly noteworthy. But, you don't have to be alone, and it doesn't have to be a restaurant. You might be with an elegant party in a bar, and you'd rather not run into less distinguished acquaintances.
In situations like these—and I'm sure there are many others (airports, for instance, my God!)—you, that is to say, we, do our utmost to maintain an unfocused gaze. We see nothing clearly except what lies between ourselves and the nearest fellow entity. Meaning we see nothing clearly at all. Our gaze passes through everything without meeting anything. We gaze through other gazes without generating any interference (in a way that's quite impossible for sound waves, hues, or even light). So everybody knows that we're not looking at them even in the moment when our gazes pass each other, that is, even when we're looking into each other's eyes.
This ocular exertion is giving the slip. It's easier if you're myopic without correctives. When you're really good, you can watch people without yourself being observed even when you're in plain sight. It can become automatic if you work at it.
Standing in line with my papers, I noticed several people giving each other the slip. Even people with phones that buried them alive peeked out from time to time to see who else was in line, hoping to pass unnoticed there themselves.
Everyone was as if dressed all in gray, gray of machinery and soot.
Which is to say nobody was all in gray, it was just that sort of atmosphere. Few people spoke, and then only in murmurs. Every gaze was anxious, indignant, uncomprehending, or painstakingly unfocused.
When I first joined the line, I was indignant about my papers but refused to be anxious. I engrossed myself in a book, painstakingly indifferent to the incomprehensible line, shuffling minutely forward once in a blue moon.
And then, nobody moved at all. For a very long time.
When I had to turn pages, I felt bitter about it and then guilty for doing it. Turning pages, that is. It was too much, I got nervous. And closed the book.
I scanned the backs of heads. Gave the slip to unknown subdued faces in the parallel line. There was a tingling sensation in the back of my neck.
I brushed it with my fingers, blaming a fly or little draft. But, it returned. Faint tingling.
Pretending to adjust my hobo bag, I turned slightly. The man behind me gave me the slip and went back to his phone. But, the tingling sensation crept into my breast, where it became a sharp chill. I couldn't seem to exhale as I turned again—facing what we were meant to think was forward though the line wasn't moving in any direction. And everything was suddenly like the Martian ice caps.
I don't mean frozen solid. The line made so little progress that if we'd all died and fossilized, standing there just as we were, no one would've been surprised. I should've simply said I clutched my book as though drawing a coat around myself. For I suddenly felt misplaced. A dire feeling. As though everybody really had died and I hadn't or the other way around. Our sense of subtraction is very keen.
A moment slipped by before I understood. In that moment, the other line got a little bit ahead, perhaps because I hesitated. Then, the person beside me wasn't who they'd been all along but someone else.
To my discredit, I'd forgotten who they were. That is to say: whoever until that moment had been moving in parallel with me (inasmuch as anyone moved, thus hardly at all), I'd already forgotten what she or he looked like. I couldn't even tell which of the backs of heads in front and slightly to the left belonged to the erstwhile neighbor. With whom, for an overgrown hour or our whole lives, I'd shared an equidistance from the end of that infernal line. In his or her place was someone who'd been further back.
She—that is, the new neighbor—wore denim Capri pants, red sandals, and a black shirt. The outfit was too tight; the woman was quite round. Except her head, somewhat bejowled, was vaguely rectangular. She had brown skin, dark hair like mine, and was about my age.
It's perfectly feasible to note all this about a person while giving them the slip. But, that's not what happened.
While I was looking for the stray ghost or mosquito who'd sent a chill through the back of my neck into my heart, that woman, shuffling forward...
I don't know what to say except—the slip gave us the slip. As our gazes moved unfocused through the nothing between things, they came upon that singular point in time and space where it was possible for them to pass each other through the slip. And they didn't. They didn't pass. Which is to say--our eyes met.
There is one point which every gaze that gives the slip must avoid, and that's the meeting point.
A spatiotemporal sliver slimmer than a thread, it is so microscopic that the probability of a meeting occurring at a meeting point is very low. You'd think even the inexperienced would barely notice when it passed, registering nothing but dim relief after the fact. And the hardest, most seasoned slippers really don't notice, it seems. As great pianists barely seem to notice double-octave arpeggios.
But, in fact, in the precise struggle of the slip, the entire cognitive, psychological, and ocular exertion is nothing more than resistance against the deadly magnetism of the meeting point: we entities know, often without realizing, when other entities have us in their sights—and knowing this, even when it isn't conscious knowing, makes us desire, without wanting it at all, to exert some defensive counterforce—so before we know what we are doing, we've looked back...
Because I'm good at giving the slip, I was confident I hadn't surrendered to the magnetism. She, in turn, didn't succumb to the embarrassed or annoyed expression that comes over people when they're caught staring. Nor did she look astonished. I was the first to smoothly move my eyes, arriving at the conclusion that we'd met at the meeting point by chance.
The infinitesimal slip of spacetime from which every effort had been made to elide all significance had instead assumed significance because there is chaos amid that which exists.
What's significant about two pairs of dumb animal eyes finding each other in a line of dumb animals who wait on pins and needles for others equally lacking to tell them (based on their papers) what they deserve? First, when the slip gives you the slip, it's disconcerting. One finds oneself nonplussed. Or perhaps I should say I, on such rare occasions, feel nonplussed.
Second, the slipping of the slip upcharges the meeting point's magnetic forces. So the probability of it happening again is inflamed. And then everything changes.
Resolved not to surrender, I was determined not to look at the ceiling or the floor. Neither to open my book nor fiddle with my hobo bag. My gaze glided through the nothing between things, studiously unfocused as if nothing had happened...
...only to collide with hers in midair!
I looked away abruptly, pretending to check my bag for the papers I knew were present there, only to find my gaze stealing upwards and discovering that she too — although she'd shifted her body so both feet were firmly planted, facing what we believed to be the front of the line (on the evidence that there were backs of heads before our eyes) — she, too, was stealing a look in my direction. And again our eyes met.
I fidgeted, opened my book. She fidgeted.
The line was going nowhere. She and I were fixed in place opposite each other like two doorknobs twisting helplessly on the inside and outside of the same jammed door.
Fidgeting, we looked up. Stumbling once more into the improbable meeting point.
Our meeting there enhanced its preposterous likelihood: it happened again and again.
We became like tectonic plates locked together in horrifying frictional spasms until one or the other of us broke away. These convulsions were brief but oh!, how exhausting. My armpits sweated. I'm sure hers did too. Every time we stumbled on the meeting point, she looked more and more bewildered and disturbed. And every time our hold was broken, she fidgeted in a more tormented manner.
I must have done the same. There was no question anymore of giving each other the slip, no question in my mind of probability and chaos. This couldn't be the work of chance.
The tingling sensation I'd felt so long before was suddenly explained—in a flash, as they say—as the beginning of the whole nerve-wracking affair. It was the sense—ancient as the first little animal that ever hid from carnivores—the knowledge of being watched. She, my tormentor, had marked me out for scrutiny before she'd ever seen my face. With nothing to go on but the back of my head, she singled me out, as it were. Just as whoever was in charge summoned all of us and our papers without a scrap of evidence. With nothing to go on but our names and whatever the voices in the screens had to say: from this alone they derived some sort of threat.
But, why should she, in Capri pants, tack on her own suspicions? We were all in the same boat, however many hundreds or hundred-thousands lined up there subdued and as if all in gray like things on a conveyor belt. I had no lipstick on my nose like some madwoman. I was no browner than she, that is, the neighbor. The zipper on my Capri pants was in place, my shirt hadn't ridden up to show my bra (I discreetly investigated every possibility) and wasn't inside-out, my sandals matched—all of which is to say she had no reason. She had no right to accuse me of anything.
I'd never seen her before in my life. Of that I was certain; and the idea that she might try to claim the opposite made me indignant. To make matters worse, my neck, bent over my book and held in place by rigid force of will, engaged in a contest of strength with my eyes, which refused to see the book and revolted, tried to drift. For a while I almost thought I smelled something pungent. Smoke or sulfur, something like that. And everyone around us standing in line with their papers not feeling a thing. My God, I thought, how can they stand it?
Finally, stiff all over, I knew I'd start to tremble any minute. Exhaustion fell on me. I felt like I'd been trudging through a desert. More than anything I wanted to sit down and put my feet up.
But, I couldn't go home until they'd seen my papers, perhaps consulted some machine which would decide, and then, if the constellations smiled on me, permitted...And for them to see my papers I had to find my way to the front of the line (if such miracles were possible), which entailed not sitting down lest I lose my place in it. Nothing but equanimity would see me through this misery. So for equanimity's sake, I decided to end everything between myself and this woman in her too-tight pants.
To dispel the tension once and for all, I surrendered. I looked up.
She was looking too. We looked. But, to my horror, she looked furious and disgusted. Put-upon. As though I'd presumed upon her. I! Presumed on her!
Well, as they say, this was the limit. She was the one. She'd instigated this weightless pugilism. She, with nothing to go on except the back of my head, ruptured the slip, yes, invaded, fairly ripped it apart. And yet she turned on me. She turned with her whole body. Arms akimbo, her eyes shining—her whole face grimacing in agony. As if to say, that is, to beg--
What do you want from me?!
I was shocked, I was appalled. I felt all the blood in my face rush out of it. She took me for the accuser!
Nothing would convince her that she was mistaken; her whole attitude screamed of obstinacy. But, I knew. I knew. As I knew the hands that trembled with the book to be my own. She was the suspicious one. I made up my mind to glare.
But, the middle-aged woman with her little round body and rectangular head was close to tears. What have I done? moaned her tormented silence. Her lips parted, trembling, and in horror I recoiled—she drew breath—about to speak--
A hand touched my elbow, causing me to cry out and go a bit airborne.
The couple in front of me didn't turn to look. They whispered fiercely to each other. One of them seemed about to whirl around, but the other one stopped her, and she started to cry. The one at my elbow was in uniform.
I stared at him, the one in uniform. I hugged my book. He ignored the girl who cried. Didn't see her consort shoot a glare over his shoulder.
He said, Papers.
I fumbled with my bag, dropped the book. Gave the man my precious papers and tried to watch him as I retrieved my book. The man behind me in the line only had eyes for his phone. Very round, very fixed eyes.
The official looked at my papers.
He took so long, and I was shivering.
I stammered: Is there... Am I...
He looked at the papers. Looked at me.
He said: Trying to speed things up. You can go.
He gave me back my papers. Turned to the frightened man behind me with the phone, and I slipped out of the line; back the way I'd come oh long ago, so long ago, inching like a snail then but now practically running, almost sobbing as I shoved the papers in my bag and fled between the two long, long gray lines of human bodies to the small rectangular door where they began and beyond which they lived. The door was framed in light.
When I got out of the building at last, my chest was heaving. I barely knew where I was, quite unintentionally took the long way home. And not until I was in my chair without my sandals, guzzling cold water, did I remember her. I dragged myself to bed, mortified and exhausted.
There's no point in trying to explain. Silence. Equanimity. It's a wonder everybody standing there didn't go crazy and melt into puddles. Which is to say, of course, we did. At least, she and I, without knowing—calling out in silence—to what was hidden and afraid in one another—and on the very edge of reality! That is to say...
Identity doesn't exist but insists. And there we were longing and not knowing; we couldn't bear it. To think we were so little that we longed for strangers to say: Yes, yes you are!—I tell you we couldn't bear it.
So, we turned longing into base suspicion. Really, I should say I. But, there's no point. I never saw her again.
I don't know her name. I don't know what happened to her. That's all.