From Squishy

Excerpt from "Thursday" from Squishy by Arjun Basu
ISBN: 1-89719-036-0 / (DC Books, 2008)


Someone says, “Maybe, but not now.”

Someone else says, “That means he owes you nothing.”

There are men here, deep under the city, but the audible voices are all of women. There’s some kind of message in that, surely, a sociological truth, except that I have yet to eat breakfast and the symbolism is lost on me.

The meaning of life only comes to those with sustenance. Didn’t the Buddha figure this out? Isn’t that why he’s so palatable to the middle class?

Between stations, the subway’s lights flicker and in that split second half of us are thinking Al Qaeda and if that isn’t a victory for them I don’t know what is.

The train pulls into the station and bodies are exchanged. Germs move around. Jump hosts. Different strands of DNA. Constant mitosis.

The fashion changes. A pack of teenagers board, three black kids and a Latino, and you can sense everyone clutching their handbags, moving over, trying desperately to ignore them, the knowledge that their feelings are both unfair and possibly racist, but also a matter of survival. There’s history in the flinch, the hesitation. Lessons learned during a long and systemic education.

The kids are well behaved despite the fact their pants start half way down their asses. I have yet to figure out the physics of these things. Nothing makes me feel older than hip hop jeans. Not even the parade of starlets on the covers of the gossip magazines, or the fact that so many magazines like that exist, or that CNN now quotes those magazines to announce their own breaking news. I once heard a story about a kid running from the cops and tripping over his own pants. There was a lesson in there for everyone but mostly for the arbiters of fashion who I have figured out don’t read the papers. Ever.

The subway smells of fried foods, of a moldy type thing that in any other situation would offend as unhealthy. Body odors. Newsprint. French fries squished underfoot. The science of dirt must have a lot of interesting things to say about subway odors. The science of dirt.

This morning, in my haste to get to the doctor quickly, I neglected the following: my morning coffee; brushing my teeth; reading the sports pages; taking in the days’ forecast. My ignorance of everything I need to know, combined with the fuzzy feeling coating my teeth, has rendered me numb. My ignorance is an odd shame, like your parents walking in on you and your girlfriend, naked on the floor, only because you once gave them the keys to the house, and no one ever discusses it again but it has happened and it becomes that unspoken thing that everyone remembers. Always. That’s what all family conversations are: tip toeing around the unspoken. I picked up a coffee at the corner deli and it burned the roof of my mouth. I didn’t dress warmly enough.

The doctor thing is nothing serious, simply a regular check-up. The joys of employment. Of a good benefits package.

When I was twelve, and still seeing a pediatrician, my mother watched as the doctor examined a stool sample, poking at my crap with a wooden stick. I can’t even shit in my parents’ house now for fear of my mother reliving that experience. And then telling everyone about it. There is nothing more humiliating than a stranger examining your stool. The intimacy is too much.
Another stop and an unequal exchange of bodies means the teenagers find places to sit. Each of them bops their head about to the beat in their earbuds. The train moves forward and then stops suddenly and then starts up again. Heads bob and none of them
are in synch with the teenage heads. Breakfast would feel good right now. A light breakfast. Granola with yogurt. Some juice. An unhurried coffee. My morning won’t really start until I get some acceptable coffee inside of me.

There is no excuse for bad coffee. Anywhere. Not in this century.

A pregnant woman takes the seat next to me. She wears dark glasses, the kind that hides either abuse or some kind of visual impairment. How do you ask someone if they are blind or not? How do you ask a perfect stranger, “what’s wrong?” Or, “how did you get this way?” I mean in the real world and not on the Internet. Would the world be more civil if we could jump-start conversations without dancing our way to the inevitable questions? Civility is just another way of getting in trouble. It’s when we most say what we don’t mean.

Someone says, “I can’t live like this anymore.”

Someone else says, “Where does it say he can be this way?”

And then the train stops. It comes to a slow, gentle stop in the middle of the tunnel. I check my watch and realize something else I forgot to do this morning. I hear variations on expressions of exasperation. Now you can hear the male voices. “What the fuck?” I hear.

“Fucking hell.”

“Oh, fuck.”

Complaints bring out the baritones.

The train stays stopped. Shuffling. The futility of a cellphone inside a subway tunnel. The four teenagers debate the reasons for the stoppage in that loud, indifferent way teenagers have; everyone can hear their conversation. Would that teenagers were halfway eloquent.

The lights go out. And now that Al Qaeda feeling becomes something profound and palpable. As much as we don’t want to admit to this, as much as we want to show the lengths of our courage, we think these things. When the slightest thing goes wrong in a public space, one of the possibilities that races through the mind is a fresh attack, a new atrocity, another unspeakable act that adds something astonishing to our vocabulary. The collective mind. One can feel that everyone else feels it. Possibility as electricity. That thought is now also what makes us New Yorkers. I imagine there are other places in the world where similar thoughts occur, similar glimpses into a very specific kind of denouement. We are not so special in this sense.

And then the lights flicker and then they are on again and then the train lurches forward and everyone loses their balance and then we pick up speed and those lurid thoughts of fires and people falling through the air and the smoke and flesh and computer parts and office stationary vanish and are replaced by smiles of relief to more than one face. Happy thoughts.

We smile when we are embarrassed and when we are frightened and when we are happy. Does that mean there is not much difference between the three? Or does that just note the social taboo against punching?

The train pulls into another station and the teenagers get off and two girls get on, each over six feet tall. They are so thin they hardly occupy the horizontal plane. They’re all vertical these two. And one of them plays with her gum and says, “Can you believe it?” and the other one replies: “Assholes” to which the first one replies, “I hate them” and that’s all they say.

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