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What if I told him there was a real zoo out there long ago, at the place where the World Wide Wonder is now and where you can have fair-trade coffee and listen to recordings of bird songs. I started imagining what he would say if I opened my mouth and let the conversation make its way out:
“So how many places have you actually been to?” I’d ask.
“Four hundred and thirty-nine,” he would answer.
No he wouldn’t because that’s too much. Not even serious Travelers did that many back in the day.
“Fifty-three different countries,” he’d say.
“And how many serious relationships have you had?”
“Four and a half.”
Because he, like me, would like specificity.
“Do you think we’re more boring than everybody else?”
“No, I love this place. You’re lucky to be from here.”
“I’m not from here. I was born in the wrong country, you know.”
“Really? Me too. That’s why I move around.”
Back when the woman who is my mom met the guy who became my dad people were still proud of Travel. It even took place in airplanes, before they got a grip on the side effects. There’s a picture of her standing next to the Taj Mahal in India and I once asked mom if that’s where I was conceived, because I figured it would mean I technically had been somewhere else. That I had a seed of overseas in me. She said no, I was made on the kitchen floor at her parents’ house.
When were almost at Greenwich he took off his gloves and so did I. It felt good, spreading my fingers out and feeling the warmth between them, reflected through the window. I reached inside my coat with my cold hand to freeze my breathing into normal and I tried thinking of what we would say to each other again to make myself forget what I was doing, that I needed to get off and turn back, and it worked.
“For you,” I would say. “This city isn’t full of drunken teenagers.”
“It’s not a hibernation for the oblivious of seasonal change.”
“Not that either.”
“You’ve never had to deal with London. You’ve never wanted out or longed to get in and you’ve never celebrated Christmases with your cousins who are real estate agents and own pools and poodles. I bet you don’t even have poodles where you come from. Or if you do they don’t even look like dogs, right?”
And then he’d say:
“You are like nothing I have ever seen.”
We were now approaching the final stop and there were only three other people in the carriage: two older men and a boy about my age with two bags from Waitrose which he kept banging into things as he walked out. They all got off at Elverson Road. After that we just sat there and waited for the train to head off again. Through the open window I could hear the lead faces of city sounds and the clapping hands of steady metal against metal. Very soon we were crossing the barrier and I thought it would make itself known, somehow, but it didn’t. The only thing that happened was that we were now alone, and he lifted his shoes up on the seat in front of him.
I did the same and then he tilted his against mine, as if the feet were having a conversation with each other: a whispering feet speech. I could hear him smiling, confirming himself into my language. When the doors opened again we were there, and I waited for the guards to come in and tell us that we weren’t supposed to be there and take us into custody and lock us in. He would take my hand and we would run.
After a second or so a tall, skinny woman dressed in blue with too much eye makeup stopped in the doorway looking around. I could see her above our shoes and it looked a little funny, like we were stepping on her: like an eclipse. Then she saw us and came over.
“Put your feet down,” she said.
“What?” said the new guy.
He had a beautiful voice, I thought, but of course I had to think that because I’d chosen him.
“Put. Your. Feet. Down.”
When we got out on the platform the smell of eggs was a lot stronger, so much that I had to put my hand over my face. If I had a mask this is when I would have taken it off. I wanted the new guy to know it wasn’t me so I said:
“Do you know what this reminds me of?” I said. “That smell.”
He didn’t answer.
“When I was seven, one day I tried sticking my head into the litter bin because I had thrown away a piece of meat loaf I didn’t want to eat and then I got afraid they would notice. For a second I was sort of caught between falling and not falling. I understood how small my hand really was, in the bin.”
And my smallness in that house, in the miniature of that neighborhood, in the eternity of this world.
“Then I ran out into the living room to find people still watching TV.”
That’s the way things whose strangeness are only possible to imagine in milliseconds at a time make their appearance. Things such as stars, or it being five o’clock here and much earlier in Buenos Aires, or my parents as babies. Or epilepsy. Or him. That’s what Travel must be like. The new guy’s leather jacket made a squeaky sound as we headed towards the exit and walked out of the station. Here the smell of eggs was the main praxis instead of an exception, and the warmth more like melted caramel than an exotic breeze. There was a parking lot and after that a street and after that an empty bit of grass. And after that I tied my fingers together and he watched me do it, like he knew how important it was for me to stay awake in the middle of so much sleep.
“I have never seen the sea,” I said to him.
“I am sorry,” he said.
Then he pointed at his knees.
“See? They’re turned inwards. My dad made me go to the doctor because he thought there was something wrong with them. He wanted me to run for the high school team. It was awful, having all the kids laugh at me.”
I said I was sorry too, and it was true, but still, like a bruise — no less jealous.