No Touching (Story A Day May)

Touching people wasn’t in the job description.

“Baltimore, Maryland! Baltimore, Maryland, next stop, next stop, Baltimore, Maryland, ten minutes, ten minutes to Baltimore, Maryland!” A stooped figure walks through the car, calling out the words that come so naturally that they slur together. “Baw-mor-mar-lan-nexzop-nexzop.”

Clarence’s belly protrudes over his uniform pants, but his shirt buttons don’t strain. They make the uniforms in his size, for which he is grateful. He doesn’t know how he obtained the gut; in the way of men of a certain age who have always been meaty and wide, it is only the stomach that really changed over the years, even as his arms remained strong and his legs carried him the distance of the train and back so many times a day. His wife likes to joke that he’s become pregnant with the weight of the world, and that he won’t give birth until he quits his job and gets off his feet.

He doesn’t think she’s wrong, but he also doesn’t think she’s right about this. He does know that touching people was never supposed to be his lot in life. And here he is, counting down the minutes to the next stop with dread, his palms beginning to dampen no matter how dry the train is kept. It is dry, he often hears complaints of it, and the daily commuters are savvy enough to bring moisturizer with them, even the men, he notices, always surprised at how his own quirks have become acceptable, such as keeping his nails trim and neat, his hands moisturized, his skin clear, using makeup when it isn’t, plucking his eyebrows out of growing into fuzzy caterpillars, these are all normal to other men now, and he remembers hiding his habits in shame when he was younger. But his own hands, so well-moisturized, now begin to sweat as he hollers the nearness of the station, and yet plenty of people are still sleeping, the ones whose tickets indicate that this is their stop.

And so he starts. The first is a lady, not a usual one, with the detachable hood of a coat resting on her head, maybe in place of a hat or because it helped shut out the noise of other passengers. Clarence doesn’t know and he doesn’t ask. He puts his hand on her shoulder and shoves roughly. He used to try to be gentle, but it meant he missed people, that people missed their stops, and the rage or despondence that result when people wake up to find themselves a state over from where they need to be is even more insufferable to him than the touching. So he’s perfected a harsh yet impersonal push that tends to wake people up for the most part. The woman is a starter – one of those who wakes up with a half-snort and an inhale of breath as if rising to the surface after too long submerged in water. “Baltimore, next stop,” Clarence tells her. She nods, and begins to get her things together slowly, sleep still weighing heavily on her.

The next is a man, an old man that Clarence sees often. He needs barely a nudge, he’s used to Clarence. He’s a smooth waker, one who opens his eyes as if he’s never been asleep, as if he was only pretending. He smiles at Clarence with his dentures and asks him how he is. Clarence says fine, fine, and “Baltimore, next stop, five minutes.” The man doesn’t need to gather anything. He always keeps his outerwear on, whether it’s a coat in the winter or a just his suit jacket in the summer, and even if it’s very hot in the train. His briefcase is always tucked between his arm and his body, and his legs are always crossed, one way or the other.

There’s a teenager at the end of the car. A pretty young woman. Clarence notices this precisely because he knows he shouldn’t notice, because she is his twin daughters’ age, and because he worries that men may look at his daughters and notice how they are pretty young women too. No one said he’d be touching anyone when he took the job all those years ago. No one. But here he is. He wishes he had a stick, something he could poke people with so his hand wouldn’t need to come into contact with this girl’s leg – which is the closest part to him and the only one visible. She’s is curled up on her seat with her upper body and head are covered in her coat, and he doesn’t want to reach up into the murky purpleness that is her coat and end up touching the wrong thing. Her knee seems the safest but most awkward place to put his hand, but he does, and he shakes roughly.

The leg jerks away from him and the girl rises and backs away, scooting herself back in the double seat towards the window, her curled hair matted with sleep on one side, her eyes bloodshot, a look of utter terror on her face. “Don’t touch me,” she says. “Baltimore, next stop,” he says, and touches his cap to her in a gesture of respect and detachment, he hopes, and goes on to the next car. Four minutes to go. Another carfull of people he is responsible for and whom he may need to wake up.

Touching was never in the job description.

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Duple (Story A Day May)

Having missed Story-A-Day-May yesterday, I give you a double story today:

1. Crawling through the underbelly of a city was not something I envisioned doing in my lifetime, which amounted to all of thirty-seven years and eleven months. Yet here I was, hands and knees, sparse clothing covering what needed covering, a helmet made of a cut-in-half soccer ball resting on my shaggy once-shaved head. Palms dirty, knees beyond, nose unable to smell anything anymore. It was a new low. Literally.

2. They say that cities have character. That Rome feels different than London feels different than Istanbul different from Tokyo from Paris from Cairo New Delhi Amman Tel Aviv Moscow Bridgetown Cape Town… It’s true. Each of us is different, created from the underbellies of human filth and the topsoil of human kindness, the biblical animals of the sea and sky and beasts of the earth covering us and the scientific spellbinding microscopic germs and plain-to-see beetles spreading themselves widely across us. Years and months and hands and knees don’t mean a thing to us. We’re larger than that and smaller too. We are multitude and each singular.

1. I wish I could say I was looking for an engagement ring, one hidden in a roll or at the bottom of a glass of champagne, but I hadn’t tasted either bread or bubbly for some years. I subsisted mostly on leftover chips at McDonald’s and the soup made of too many things without proper names served in kitchens when I was lucky. I wish I could say I was looking for anything at all down there, in the sewer pipe between two larger tunnels but the truth was I wasn’t looking. I hadn’t gotten to that point yet. When you’re running away from something, you tend to only start looking for a hiding or resting place when you’re sure you’re not being pursued anymore, or at least that you have a decent advantage on the other person. Persons. Beings. Whatever it is that’s chasing you. Or, in this case, me.

2. We spawn. Cities do. We create things imagined by too many people to ignore, things that we listen to intently in nightmares and daydreams, things described and things hidden behind walls of consciousness. We give birth not only to the biologically sound but to the criminally insane visions of murderers and CEOs alike. Sometimes we allow our creations to escape the place where only we can see them – what do you think we create them for if not for our own amusement? We know human patterns, and they become dull after a generation or two. Watching your reactions to visions and impossibilities, to things that go bump in the night or Tinkerbell in the day is almost as amusing as natural disasters on our outskirts. As a general rule, we don’t love those disasters happening inside us. It tends to be painful in all sorts of ways that we couldn’t explain to beings like you with sensory underload. Five senses and you think maybe a sixth and that’s a lot? If only you know how limited you are.

1. I’d always thought of the seventh sense as something that few people had. I’d discovered it when I lost everything. Them’s big words: “lost everything.” An exaggeration, maybe, but when my hands and knees were dirty and disgusting and yet only a little worse than they’d been for the last few years, being dramatic didn’t seem like altogether blowing things out of proportion. Especially when something was pursuing me. It skittled and scuttled and my helmet-soccer-ball made the noise reverberate in my ears even more so I wasn’t sure if I was getting any farther away or what. I was certain, though, that I wouldn’t be able to run forever. When I realized that, I stopped. I was in another tunnel between two hallway-sized areas, on my hands and knees again, but I maneuvered so I was leaning my minimally clad back against the clammy wall. The reason I had so few clothes on was because I’d left most of them in my hiding spot and let myself walk around in the July heat with the sun on my skin, which felt nice, and rare. Until I started being chased. Now, when I turned my head to see the thing with the tick-tick-tick feet that was chasing me, I saw that it had stopped too. It looked at me, cocking its body or head or whatever the glowing bit with the eyes was, and then turned and scampered off in the other direction. My heart pounded and I thought I’d have a heart attack, but I’d survived worse, and I probably would again.

2. When we get tired of entertainment we let them go, our prey, our bait, our playing-with-our-food-toys. We’re all different, cities, but we all agree that if there’s something we share, something vital, it’s a nasty streak a stratosphere wide and a galaxy high. Think we’re bad? Try living in the suburbs.

Endangered Species (Story A Day May)

An Homage to a Book Recently Read 

In a small town in Israel, the kind with endangered flowers and signs picketed carefully near them warning children not to pluck the stems from the ground, there lived a mother and a daughter. The mother was a midwife, and she expected her daughter to follow in her footsteps and help bring children into the world just as she had been doing for years. “I gave birth to you myself,” the mother told the daughter. The daughter usually rolled her eyes at this, but out of the mother’s direct line of sight. She respected her mother’s work, but didn’t want to engage with it herself. There was too much blood involved, she tried to explain to her friends, who expressed concerns that her mother would be very upset when she found out that the daughter had taken to studying plants, which she had been fascinated with ever since learning why she couldn’t pick certain flowers that grew around her town. “It is our duty to God to bring children into the world,” the mother told her daughter. “And with our own two hands.” The daughter refrained from pointing out to her mother that between them they had four hands rather than two, especially as, in a way, her mother was right: there would continue to be only two hands involved in the pulling of babies out of wombs, and those hands would belong to her mother, who gave birth to her, and so in a sense her mother’s hands were her own as well.

When the daughter finally confessed to her mother that she was going to be a floriculturist and that she was moving to a dry city in the Israeli desert where there was a university that was willing to help fund the experiments she was planning involving plants that needed less water than others, the mother was surprisingly understanding. It was only once the daughter had moved out of her small town with the endangered flowers, only after she had begun her studies, only after she had fallen in love and begun to plan a wedding with her new lover that the daughter heard about what her mother had been up to. The two had fallen out of touch, both claiming busyness and different schedules, but the mother had in fact been avoiding the daughter and the daughter had in fact been avoiding the mother. So it was that when the daughter wanted to tell her mother about her upcoming wedding that she found out that her mother was locked up in a prison for the mentally ill due to the activities she started to perpetuate once her daughter had left.

It started slowly, a neighbor told her when the daughter visited her hometown with the endangered flowers. At first, the mother would just talk about her daughter’s decision non-stop at every birth she attended to. Next, though, she began to hold every baby girl that was born and call the girl by her daughter’s name, asking the baby if she would grow up to become a midwife or a floriculturist. If the baby motioned a certain way with her fists, the mother would coo and if the baby motioned another way, the mother would throw the baby at the new mother she had been attending with such force that there was, it was reported, often a squelching sound made between moist skins. Finally, the mother began to steal all the girl babies and put them under heat lamps in a room in her house – her daughter’s old room – where she talked to them as if they were flowers that would grow up to become midwives. When the women whose babies had been stolen found out where the babies had gone, they called the authorities. The mother refused to see a lawyer or to call her daughter, claiming throughout the whole procedure that she didn’t have a daughter, she had a blooming endangered flower that had come out of her womb instead and that no one must bother or snip it.

The daughter was so traumatized by the entire affair that she began to pick all the endangered flowers in the town, and then went to neighboring towns where she did the same, until finally she eradicated the entire population of Coral Peonies. She was finally caught and put on trial as well, but she wasn’t deemed insane, only malicious, and so she was locked up in a regular prison.

The mother and daughter now maintain a regular and cordial correspondence.

Brew (Story A Day May)

In Rome, the brewery was not as full as we expected it to be. The beer-tour fanaticism seemed to not have reached this remote corner of the famed city, or maybe it was the chilly summer rain that was keeping other tourists away. We were glad for the relative quiet, especially after fighting our way through crowds almost everywhere else. It was a bad idea to come during the “on” season, but we also weren’t sure whether Rome ever had an off season. You could say many things about us, and one of them was that we weren’t great at doing our research.

The brewery – makers of Castebebe beers, which ran a wide range of styles, from hoppy IPAs to smooth and dark coffee stouts – was off a main road and really not very hard to find, but we arrived just in time for their final tour of the day, and we were the only ones on it, though people who had been on earlier tours were sitting in the bar area and drinking despondently, maybe because of the weather outside and maybe because they were disappointed. We knew that we were of a rare brand of people who actually enjoyed Castebebe’s product. For the most part, it was enjoyed either only by Italians – or so we’d read – or ironically. Everyone other than us agreed that Castebebe’s label designs were the best part about the beers. They hired artists – or maybe it was only one who did all the different lines – who drew fantastical creatures that were impossible and Escher-like, their wings and tusks and hooves folding in on themselves like Mobius strips. People would sometimes get high instead of drunk and then stare at the designs on the bottles and cans made by Castebebe for hours, mesmerized.

We weren’t like that. We truly enjoyed the flavor of the beer, which we agreed was an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. It was over Castebebe that we’d bonded originally in a beer-lovers thread on Reddit over a year ago, and it was from there that we found one another on various other social media outlets, stalking each other equally, until we finally friended each other on Facebook and almost at the same time, asked each other out, just on different platforms (Twitter DM and Faceboom IM). Our first date was predictable – sharing a pitcher of Castebebe’s 2014 line of StormSoldier Wheat Ale – and our subsequent dates were predictable in a different way, in that we did what all new couples do. Movies, cafes, restaurants, more bars, until we finally were comfortable enough with one another to make it official and also begin to spend more time in bed and on couches, talking less, eating and drinking more.

What brought was to Rome was an attempt – so far a failing one – to rekindle our sex life and save our relationships from going up in flames over who got to come more when neither of us was ever really in the mood to pleasure the other, much less go through the entire messy time-consuming and exhausting act. It had begun as a half-baked scheme, a joke, but once we realized that the Castebebe brewery was in Rome, we decided to make good on the plans. We both asked for cash from relatives who thought we had birthdays coming up and made a concerted effort to save up our tips for a while from our respective tip-making jobs (massage and food service) until we finally had enough for an all-inclusive four day deal during the week, which was the worst tip-making time anyway and so the best for us both to take off work. Things seemed to be working out cosmically, swimmingly, until we got to Rome and found our Airbnb full of air-born bugs that had hatched somewhere and had to ask for a refund – which we wouldn’t get for some weeks – and check into a hostel where we didn’t get a bedroom of our own or a jacuzzi or any of the other things we’d been looking forward to.

But there was still the brewery, and as we followed the tour guide, who spoke a lilting version of broken English that we agreed in whispers sounded more like an American actor putting on an Italian accent than like an actual Italian accent, we decided in a few short sentences that we should probably break up when we got back to the states, but that we should enjoy the rest of the trip and be friends thereafter.

Over our favorite beer, which we got free as part of the tour package, we agreed that you can take the romance out of Rome but that you couldn’t, linguistically, take Rome out of the romance.