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by Kleitia Vaso

Chain of fools

The late afternoon train is a different beast from the morning one. It is at once heavier and emptier, heavier with fatigue, emptier of hope. Abandon hope all you who enter here! The morning freshness is long gone if it was ever there. No gleam, glow, spark except a few artificial sparkles which look especially sad in this inglorious moment. Instead, down-turned mouths, vacant and lackluster eyes, at times completely closed, at others looking straight ahead, too drained of life to muster up any interest in the surrounding faces. Their lack of life makes me fully understand Pound’s faces like petals which temporarily save him from the drab human mass at the metro station. If I saw them, I would recognize them and I would be saved too. But, petals are uncommon in this stagnant atmosphere. Most would wither in this air, filled with embittered breath, where one senses that the passengers’ energy has been sucked up by things that they wouldn’t have done had they known what they wanted to do.

The overly crowded wagon does not help the already sad situation. Though tired, one must find the energy to push through the mass of bodies in order to reach, blindly and in survivor mode, a seat. Thankfully, this time, a seat is found. Two, to be exact, across from one another. Yet, this arrangement is apparently too good to be true. The man sitting in the aisle seat implicitly refuses to move his excessively long legs. He simply does not move. Thankfully, the aisle seat across frees up and J. sits there, smartly sidestepping the man’s rudeness.  I look at him accusingly but he conveniently refuses to return the look. He looks straight ahead, a common solution to unpleasantness nowadays. I mutter “loser” in English, hoping that the heat of my emotions will imprint the word onto his face. Indeed, I see his face growing flushed but his comfort and convenience demand that he not acknowledge the open insult. His unresponsive face is more irritating than an unpleasant response. I cannot bear to look at it. Of course, his laziness and lack of reaction are not entirely to blame. My anger goes way beyond him yet he, for that moment, embodies everything that is wrong with the world today.

Thankfully, although anger runs like an electrical charge through the body, perhaps damaging, with its intensity, parts that are entirely unrelated to it, it just as quickly passes through. I nearly forget his ungentlemanly behavior and continue my conversation with J. Yet, faintly and then, more strongly, I feel a pair of eyes traveling on my face. Shyly, at first, but then they rest comfortably there, encouraged by my refusal to establish eye contact. Even the dismissal has worked in my fellow passenger’s favor. He traded nothing and received something in return. Perhaps, I should revise my definition of winner and loser. But, the waves of anger have weakened me - I have spent too much emotion at the wrong place in the battle – and I don’t care about fighting anymore. He can have his flavorless cake and eat it, too.

J. and I continue talking in our incomprehensible language, a true gift in certain situations. The train stops at another station and a fresh supply of bodies with mutilated souls boards the train. Two men and a woman stand in the aisle between J. and I. One of the men, not taking the long legs of my enemy as an obstacle, forces his way onto the empty seat. The immovable man is a little more flexible this time. The other man, a colleague or friend, stands next to us, looking at his phone. The woman stands over my seat, her face desiccated by fatigue. Not just the tiredness of the day but a long and drawn-out process of robbing her of any radiance that she might have once had. Seeing the dissatisfied expression on her face, I feel bad for her. I am almost ready to give up my seat. A seat means nothing in life. The comfort or lack of it will be forgotten with the next moment’s offerings. I know that. I feel that way about everything. Not about any person, but about any thing.

I do not stand up. She looks at me but I feel that she should be looking at those men instead. It’s easier to accusingly stare at me but fairer to direct her anger towards them. I have assumed my role in the jungle. In the middle of this chain of thought, the train stops again. Forgotten but not gone, the tall man whose train ride was enhanced by looking unashamedly at my face, gets up and leaves. Without missing a beat, the man standing up, the one looking at the phone, descends on the newly freed seat with the ferociousness of a hawk. I look at the woman, expecting dismay and rage but no, none of these. Frustration and sadness, but no anger. Sadly, I realize that feminism may have actually benefited men. They have not lost anything but merely gained the freedom of not offering a seat or paying for a drink. On second thought, perhaps, they have lost something too. The woman standing looks at me. Determinedly, she steps forward and places herself between J. and I, putting a halt to our conversation. That brings her some relief, it seems. Her faces relaxes. She has found the shortcut, the easier outlet.

No one is looking at one another. The man look straight on or at each other, avoiding the guilt-inducing face of the tired woman. I look at them with displeasure but they skillfully avert this as well. This is our world, the one we have created, the one we keep remaking, lacking the energy and time to think of a better one. A tired chain of shifted frustrations which will bounce back to wherever we project them and hit us like a boomerang, causing a new furrowed wrinkle every time. Or, an empty stare. Or, a guilty face, stealing looks at other faces like criminals. And, link by link, we create our endless chain of misery. Vampires of one another and, in the end, ourselves. Trapped in a cage of our making, unable to see, like Rilke’s panther, the wondrous world outside the windows of the train.

Paper Empire

I remember crying only a few times this past year. Definitely not as many times as in the years preceding it, during which, in all fairness, I also laughed a little more. This near-drought may sound like a good thing but I am not so sure about that. I remember a dark time in my life when, while witnessing somebody else crying, I sensed with a pang of envy that tears were a luxury, representing a sadness that could be expressed, released. As salty water, to be precise, the healing properties of which amaze me every day. It cures everything, from the most superficial pains to much deeper and invisible ones. Yet, knowing its benefits does not necessarily translate to shedding salutary tears. They would sense, I’m afraid, their unnatural flow and would put a halt to their beneficiary effects. Either way, regardless of what the rarer occurrence of real ones represents – an increased toughness or numbness – what I know is that I have grown able to withhold them in their less comfortable solid form. Sometimes, they nearly emerge, forming a vaguely deforming liquid filter in front of my eyes but full-on crying, unstoppable tears, snot, red face and all is a rarer occurrence. So, when it happens, I indulge in it with the full surrender of an actress presented with her greatest role.

One day, unexpectedly, I cried after a several-month long drought. What triggered the tears is ridiculous. At the time, I had money problems, language problems, acclimatization problems, perhaps a bad tooth but what made me cry was a rude train conductor. I wanted to buy a ticket and unknowingly stepped on the part that was marked for him and not for passengers. There, he released all his fury, a tired man’s fury, a controlled northern fury – no actual screaming but a scream barely kept in control and expressed through tense facial expressions and a superficially calm voice which barely concealed the rage within. I was taken aback as I always am when a man is not polite or helpful which, perhaps, shows a somewhat spoiled, childish side. I reverted to being a little girl, huffing and puffing until I bought my ticket, turned my back to the man, and tears already flowing, blindly found a seat amid a teary haze. I sat and cried and cried. I cried about many things that I hadn’t cried about, for being treated as merely another faceless person in a crowd, for being alone in a foreign train surrounded by strangers, for being homeless for so long, for the never-ending series of separations and many other vague, nameless things. I cried wholeheartedly, with pleasure, pain and a strange relief, like a character from a movie, knowing that I was being observed but unable or unwilling to stop the flow of tears. I was entirely unashamed as I have always been regarding tears. I don’t see them as a sign of weakness or strength.  I was almost grateful to the man as I exited the train. I turned to look at him and I think he saw me.

The other two instances were as dramatic in their display and just as weak in their motivation.  They were triggered by an equally absurd cause: the filling out of application forms and documents. For every insignificant or important job, small or great move, there are mountains of papers to be filled, sent, resent. I take no pleasure in this superficial structuring of one’s life. Its time and thought-consuming nature does not relieve me of more important worries. On the contrary, it always reminds me of the unimaginative formalities that we have invented and keep multiplying to give meaning to our day, to feel an illusory sense of accomplishment at the end of it. Having dealt with my fair share of paperwork, now I take it as a given that a process won’t finish with a simple step. A first one will lead to another and another and another one after that, a chain, train, or trail of paper. So, after receiving the unexciting news of yet another re-submission for the same document, I simply responded by crying. Hot tears of anger. Anger at the world for building insurmountable walls of paper, angry at people who ceaselessly occupy themselves with paperwork, granting it great importance which it doesn’t deserve. I was angry at those who take paperwork seriously, unable and unwilling to find a more meaningful occupation, perversely satisfied, perhaps, in forcing others to submit to their paper God. “Everyone is the same, we all have to fill the paperwork, we are sorry!”

After shedding hot tears on this cold topic, I resigned myself to my fate. I accepted the shackles. I filled yet another wave of documents and paperwork, fished lost and long-forgotten files from virtual folders, overfilled and messy like trash bins, printed them and sent them on their not-so-merry way. Or, who knows, maybe they had a better journey than I had preparing them. I hope so! In that case, the sacrifice may have had some value. Relieved but tired, I dragged myself out of the brightly lit library. My head down, robbed of my will and pride, I started walking home when I noticed the sky’s unbelievable shade of pink which promised to grow more intense towards the sea. I automatically followed it, indeed, the sight that met me did not disappoint. I had never seen a sky this pink before. I was in northern Europe but felt transported by that particular hue to India, a place I have never seen. A few minutes longer inside and I would have missed it. Like a child, instantly forgetting last minute’s unhappiness, I felt reborn, happier than I would have been had I not cried. Staring at the unbelievable but real scenery, I was glad that the sad paper trail unknowingly led me there. I felt revived, recharged, not at all defeated. I even felt pity for the ones still locked in offices, typing and printing their paper. Charged by the day and the fairy-tale scenery, looking at the sky and the sea, I wanted to let out a never-ending, unconstrained scream of joy and pain.

Counterbalance

The best people show up at the weirdest places. Or, perhaps, it is these places which by their very dreariness bring out the best in people, allowing them to shine with a supernatural light which erases the white sterility of their walls and neon lights. For a moment, you can even forget that you are waiting at the dentist, forced to endure a form of torture which has tormented you for decades, since early childhood to be exact. Having walked in, as always pressed to action by an urgent problem rather than a regular check-up which would have prevented the unnecessary pain, I half-hope no one will help me. This time, my not-so-earnest wish comes true. Various women in the same uniform wearing different faces, some kind and others military-like, direct me up and down the stairs to doors nobody ever answers. Eventually, I suspect the doors are either simply drawn on the wall or lead directly outside, helping public employees escape their mediocre fate. I even imagine them giggling while they slip out, understanding them completely despite my best interests.

After the nth knock on the first door to which I eventually return, having completed the downward and upward circles, a man answers. I feel like I have seen his face before. He looks kind. He answers my and J.’s questions in perfect English and informs us that he is the last patient for that day. He tells us to come back and even offers alternate names but, after several trials and failures, these words sound empty to us. We tell him of our unlucky journey and he looks at us with so much empathy and understanding that I feel somehow exposed. His gaze seems to go beyond the actual ache, moment, day. It goes further back, crossing space and time, seeing things, people, places, events that have nothing to do with him and his life. Yet, he cannot do anything, he says, which brings us back to reality. With disillusioned eyes and heads turned low, we turn to leave. I feel his sadness as he looks at us walking away but then I hear his steps retreating and the door shutting. Only a few moments pass before he comes out, calling after us, telling us to come back.

We pass through the magical door and the dentist along with the man’s wife, the patient sitting in the dentist’s chair, greet us. The couple tell us they will wait and help us by translating our conversation with the dentist. They do everything without the slightest trace of impatience. When we finish, they even offer to drive us home. The wife is just as helpful as the man, perhaps even more. She radiates happiness and joie de vivre, an unbelievable amount for someone who has just left the dentist’s chair. I feel like a grumpy grey cloud in comparison. She talks and laughs, entirely unconcerned about anything, the dentist, the rain, the presence of two younger women who just moments ago had looked at her husband with lost-puppy eyes. She is happy that they are together, alone for a little bit, without their children even if that time is spent at the dentist. And, we turn towards her, happy in return, admiring her energy and generosity. She assumes center stage and he fades in the background, eclipsed but not forgotten. They look still in love for a couple who must have married very young, who has spent a long time together. I hadn’t noticed something like that in years, decades perhaps. We wave goodbye at them and as I watch them leave, I am as startled as I would be had I witnessed a wonder of nature, had I seen a mythical creature or a specimen of an extinct species. It was a moment, albeit a magical one. And, although I don’t know them and am aware that their happiness might be illusory or even naïve, for a moment – but a moment suffices to give birth or annihilate – I felt a part of something greater than myself and regained a sense of safety long forgotten.

by Kleitia Vaso