After we had gone through a revolving door, we stood on the still-lit sidewalk crowded with pedestrians. I like revolving doors because of the silent negotiation with the person on the inside if you are outside, or vice versa, about when we put our bodies in. I suppose there are days when I unthinkingly insert myself inside a revolving door, being aware that there is someone else already halfway in, or walk a little faster to get in, so that both of us do not have to stop, even though I like looking at another person through panes of glass and interpreting their gestures. As I push the door forward, our chambers turn and I check your expression. A rubber ruffle seals me in with a sucking sound, and then too quickly I am released into a new temperature; bodies, their voices disperse.
After we had passed through the revolving door, we stood. We waited for each other to speak, aware that we had started our meeting on time inside the building and finished our meeting on time in that windowless room; we had taken the elevator down and now, on the sidewalk, were released from our roles at the table. He seemed about to say something and I stepped closer, stopping to catch the gesture, the expression that would cross his face against and in sync with his words.
I’m staring out the window into the floor of the next building, where the lights have been turned on after a morning of dark rooms. A gloved hand picks up paint cans and a walking silhouette rips up cardboard boxes. Perched outside that building’s window, a life-sized owl peers back into my window. Its claws, as large as my hands, clench two mounted cakes of cement and next to it a pigeon lands, nicking raindrop spots on the sill. I am not used to seeing owls and I keep having to persuade myself that this is a replica. I am betrayed by the force of its details, the plaster feather tufts on its chest, the matt scales on its legs. My body is the most convinced—I catch it assuming that the owl is about to turn its head and then I step in to inform it of the reality of things. The pigeon looks to me, I think, to the owl and to me.
My father said he spent an afternoon at the library last week, watching a man who looked like his dead brother. They had not parted on good terms. The man’s bent forehead was lit by an antique lamp at the end of a long reading table. My father slowly walked by the man’s back to inspect first his nose, then his left finger for a birthmark, and finally, returning from the opposite direction under the eye of the circulation librarian, the book under the man’s hands. None of these details could he catch in enough precision. He tried to coordinate explanations in the face of what he saw. Why would his brother have faked his own death which my father had in fact not witnessed? Why would he have driven 500 miles to visit the library in the hometown he had hated, his mother dead, one brother remaining, alive but unreconciled? He stood for a half hour, unable to approach.
With a bent foot and black luggage, a blond man approaches me on the platform and asks which subway had just passed. I tell him the N, slanting my head sympathetically, assuming the train was his. He says, “Nothing wrong with that” and we both face the tracks and the west wall’s line-up of Manhattan-bound passengers, the columns silhouetted between us. When the next train’s lights approach he squints at me to explain, “The Q always follows the N,” as if I were a visiting relative. We step forward—or rather I pause—so that he can limp, his full weight on one set of toes, from the yellow platform to the car, but he waits for me when I wait for him. I can’t tell how he feels about that. Some men seem perturbed by my letting them go first through a door. A smaller, older fraction seem confused when I hold a door open for them. I sit down, pull out the story I’ve been assigned and consider how politeness pushed to its extreme becomes rude. He perches on a seat near a pole and turning his head toward me so that his right eye looks up from below his right eyebrow, asks, “What are you reading?” “A story.” “For what?” He asks. I explain that I am a student, and he leans his spine flush against the orange subway seat and says that he is preparing for the bar. “Do you teach?” he asks and continues, “I taught English in Korea.” While listening to this, I am trying to decide which of his eyes to settle on because each pupil looks in a different direction. First I look at the close one, while the further, the left, shyly stays in one corner of the socket, staring at the doors across from us which are opening and closing. This eye—the far eye—he rarely directs at me. Perhaps it can’t be directed. I wonder if my peering at that eye would put him off, whether it is the wrong eye to stare at, but when I switch to the other one, he turns his face toward the jacket on his lap. “Teaching is wonderful, except when they misperceive you,” he is saying. I continue gazing at him and twist my head to indicate he should keep talking. “When they become adversarial,” he says. “When they think you are being dictatorial,” he says collusively, in reference to being a white teacher in a room of Korean students, assuming it seems that I would sympathize with his annoyance at the accusation. We have just passed through Chinatown and the floor is lined with red plastic grocery bags, and I think over his being dictatorial. A woman across, holding a Chinese newspaper, does not look around its edge; in fact no one seems to be listening at all. But I, disliking what he is saying, switch again to the closer eye, the insistent, directed one, all the looking saved up for it.
Climbing the subway stairs, I come up into a mall without meaning to. I am too hungry to know my direction and no windows look to the outside. Then, behind a lit map, I recognize the colorlessness of the sidewalk. I cross traffic toward the Middle Eastern places, because I always move west on this street, toward the old store which closed before I was born. It’s in the picture on my father’s bureau and he’s at its window. In a deli, I decide against the chicken, the falafel, even the baba ghanoush. I am too hungry to pick anything out. Behind the counter a man says, “No lamb!” to another man with darker skin, a twenty taut in his hand. Under the neon, our arms ripple in the chrome casing; I return to the street. Then A-1 Spice World where brandless batteries have fallen against the window, where international calling cards, lottery tickets are taped next to cheese, olives, and grape leaves wait in oil. A man climbs a rolling ladder to put his arms into a shelf near the ceiling. A voice calls out behind me and I step aside for a grocery cart pushed by two men with aprons. Blood has pooled at the hooves, snouts and the crevices of the eyes, and the legs are in the air, straight, stiff. The wheels of the cart clatter and spin against the door’s threshold and I follow them out to the sidewalk, where the man’s head disappears into the back of a blue minivan. He hefts another skinless sheep over his shoulder, a black tongue pushed out of its hairy lips. He rotates this animal in such a wide circumference that its head nearly hits a parking meter, its tongue against the meter head, so as to lick.
From the revolving doors I ask a man for a cigarette and then I stand near a pillar, at my shoes a terra cotta container of bark shards. I spend the cigarette watching them pass and my lungs are not used to it. Halfway, I begin to wonder if I don’t want it anymore but I finish, thinking of you among those who definitively put out cigarettes when they stop wanting them; I suppose I am hopeful. Many passers are alone, decorated with hats and backpacks, a few with briefcases and others coagulate at the pillar next to mine, stubbing the ends on their heels, laughing into and away from the tiny holes in their phones. “You are in front of Walgreens go left,” one says into her receiver. Her eye shadow flashes briefly like the hopeful last section of western light in the sky—if the sky were a skull, the light left is small, rounded, like an ear, a left ear.
When the basketball player pats her shoulder, she tosses him a smile which makes her earrings twist symmetrically. I imagine her neck smells of conditioner. And so she won’t feel intruded upon, I look into the glass of the window, to keep her face which empties when he walks toward the exit sign. Out the window, a dirigible stops mysteriously over midtown. No, it is coming toward us, blithely, motionless in its direct approach.
In reference to the character in the story, they said the thousand yard stare.
My eyes continue insisting: pillar, concrete, steps, sky, carpet, door, dirigible, woman in hat, student, student, dog, cigarette butts. They drag me across surfaces. Bridges are relieving. That commute is hundreds of notations; while I pass, squirrels are snagged in branches, engines snicker at curbs. The slurred approach of cabs, tiny nails on the pavement, a laugh as a leash is untwisted.
I put a tissue into my pocket even though I didn’t need one. I did this right before I left the office, so that it became my final gesture in the room—we had already said goodbye. I walked around with it in my pocket all day, half sticking out. Was I preparing to cry? In the sweater pockets of the elderly, there are often clean tissues. I thought about it there throughout the afternoon. I could feel it, while I drank my wine and pushed my toe in the sunny gravel, in the way that you can feel money in your wallet.
I had forgotten which direction was north. I came into the room and had forgotten where the bathroom was and, by extension, the name of the street outside the open door which was white with light. This is unusual. Even in a room without windows, I know the direction I face. If I were a cat whose humans moved to another state, I would be able to walk back, even if no one knew or fed me.
Having run out of gas, my mother and I had left the car on the side of the freeway and a man was driving us back with a container of gas. He was rushing —racing the sun as it went down—and he ran over a cat. It was black. I didn’t see it, but as we ran over it, my mother cried out, she could feel its bones.
I was eating when a coworker at the next table declared, “When you dream about water, that’s supposed to represent your sexuality.” She turned toward me and I put my fork back into my mouth to clean the metal prongs for the next bite. I said, “What about your feelings in the telling?”
I, myself, am always dreaming of water, often presided by obvious symbols, such as sharks.
Yesterday, a woman who looked familiar shut a door in the library, so that she was enclosed in a small room. Through a window I could see her lift the lid of the Xerox machine and a thin line of light slide across her chest. A moment before, she had smiled at me strangely when she had walked by. While she reproduced her pages, in a rhythm silenced by the wall between us, her arm lifting, it was as if I was inside that room and my room at the same time.
When I lift my arms up, I can feel the blood draining out of them. They grow lighter, as if drawn in pencil.
Outside, an older man in a wheelchair asked me where Sixth Avenue was, pointing ahead, the electric whir of his chair reminding me of the pitched whine of remote controlled cars. I said, “Yes, four blocks more.” I suggested that he take the north side of the street so that he wouldn’t have to cross so many times. He didn’t say anything to this. His stubble was white and his pupils pinched, elided by a bifocal ridge. He surveyed me or the sidewalk to be dealt with between the horizon of his legs and his destination. He was considering something. I was reconsidering my having told him where he should roll his wheelchair. He, of course, knew how to cross streets and was wearing a lavender WWII veteran’s cap. He said, “Thank you, miss”—his voice having risen in the pause—but then he didn’t roll away; he sighed as if he had ordered food from a window and was now waiting for it to arrive. I was in the middle of eating an apple, so I stayed where I was. I was going to stand there until it was a core; I was going to walk to the trash can. I stood next to him and pedestrians streamed around us.
YASMINE ALWAN is the author of Elsewhere and co-editor of Tantalum, a magazine for new prose.