When I was a young boy, my Mom and Dad sat me down in my bedroom and the room became very serious. You know a room has become serious because all the colors become muted, washed in gray. Sounds fall away like leaves onto a pond. Time slows down to the point that you can feel your skin breathing.
They told me they had been talking and they decided that the world was too scary and dangerous a place. They said that because they loved me so much and never wanted me to suffer from the turmoil of the world, they were going to take my heart away from me and put it somewhere safe.
Because I trusted them, I gave it to them. They put it away somewhere safe and then we all forgot about it.
As I grew up, I learned that they were right. I never became attached to people and so I never got hurt by anyone. I love to visit the pet store, but I could never own a pet. A struggling snake plant in my bedroom is my only companion.
Over the years my understanding has intensified. You see, without my heart swelling up all the time and flooding my mind with emotions, I can function as a much more logical creature. It is easy to ignore the wars that are happening on the other side of the world and, instead, focus on my career as an arborist. Tragedies that happen far away like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that not only take people’s lives, but also take everything from the living from their houses and cars and possessions to their memories–they have no effect on me. I continue on my day to day. I eat a hamburger and drink a soda and go to the movies.
Even the sight of suffering people doesn’t bother me so much. I can walk by homeless people all day and never feel a thing. I don’t give them money as I’ve seen my mother do. I don’t offer to help them get on their feet. I don’t volunteer at homeless shelters or soup lines, so I can be even more dedicated to my own work studying trees.
One day on my way to Central Park for work, I saw a crazy old white man on the subway talking to himself. He was dressed normal enough if maybe a little dirty. His clothes were a little big on him as if he hadn’t realized he was shrinking. It was a busy morning so the subway car was fairly full. There was, however, a fair sized halo of space surrounding this pungent and maculated angel.
Everyone was pretending he wasn’t there. For most of us, he was not an appropriate accessory to our idea of our lives. He was a detail of the day that could be put on mute.
The train stopped at Bergen Street and a young woman of color in a smart suit entered and made her way to the halo surrounding the nodding and twitching man–from across the car it just looked like a less-crowded area to stand. When she got to the spot, however, she had no choice but to cross into the invisible barrier and land in the man’s line of sight.
She must have been a native New Yorker because she was still able to pretend he wasn’t there. I was impressed.
As the doors shushed closed and we became a moving diorama of New Yorkers going to work, the man’s garbled mumbling began to coalesce into an intelligible stream of vulgarities.
“Fucking Gerald said to LET HIM IN. But I TOLD HIM I was busy. I TOLD HIM. There are BATS IN THERE. The dust is too thick. I can’t MOVE MY FEET.”
He was looking at her and through her and his eyes were big enough to swallow the whole car. She turned her head and calmly searched the invisible crowd. She read some ads above the seats.
The man’s voice kept rising, “They shouldn’t have done it! Gerald let the MONSTERS IN. HE LET them in and they started eating everything. THATS WHY THE FLOWERS CANT GROW!”
Then she looked at him and all Hell broke loose.
He stood up and his head could have been on fire but no one else moved or looked in his and her direction. He started clapping violently in her face.
“I AM NOT NOT HERE YOU DONE WITH THIS YOU BURNT THE BED AND ALL THE FLOWERS NOW NOW WE CANT EAT YOU STUPID BABY!”
She was frozen in a spell of fear and bewilderment. He was a ragged wizard wrapping her in a furious tempest. Still no one looked in their direction. I watched their reflections in a dark window. The man started flailing his arms sharply as if he were catching pebbles in a wind storm. The woman faltered backward and hit a cold wall of people’s backs.
She attempted to quell the storm by looking away and he spat on her. The walls of bodies did not part. Her eyes grew to match his. He kept clapping.
“What the fuck?!” She screeched.
“FUCK IS RIGHT WE FELL! WE FELL FOR IT AND FELT NOTHING YABIGBABY. STUCK IN TIN AND TARNISHED. YA SCARED WE ALL SCARED IN HERE WE AINT DONE!”H
Then the train doors opened and people flooded out. The episode they weren’t watching hadn’t even ended. I hadn’t even noticed we were slowing down. The woman stumbled off, impotent and the appalled in search of a napkin.
As the car emptied the man continued his ramble, though he lowered his volume and dispensed with the clapping. It was just him and his ghosts now.
I sat far enough away that he couldn’t see me. He looked in my direction and I stared straight ahead. He let me be the nothing I wanted to be.
“Let me CHEW this okay? ITS HARD to chew with no teeth no teeth but I do it anyway. I eat THE DIRT the dirt and you EAT THE ROCKS and well that’s that’s just how it is, Gerald. That’s just how it is.”
I didn’t even consider what might have driven him to eschew conversation with actual human beings in favor of the sprites and phantoms he fervently addressed.
I wondered if his heart was somewhere close to mine.