He lives outside the city walls. But the suburbs are no refuge now. He does not understand what is happening. His nature was always to fear the worst. But now his complacent view of what is worst has been shaken. He cannot assess the degree of inadequacy of his imagination.
As were his ancestors before him, he is inside a small, dark room, before a screen. But if he confesses, it isn’t to a priest. This is a wholly different rite, but one well-observed, this frequent recourse to a tool whose mechanisms he also does not understand. (For now, they are working.) But as he stares at the screen, a voice speaks, suggesting a camaraderie of confusion. From this he can take some comfort. He likes the notion. Uncharacteristically, he wants to join.
He tells a story:
The park seems deserted save for the two of them. Pigeons wander on the concrete slabs. They approach: him first, then her. Neither pays any attention to the birds. He leans back against the slats of the bench on which they sit. He appreciates the hard feel of the wood pressed against his spine: something familiar, reliable. He wants to stare at her, but doesn’t let himself do so. She is looking at the dry fountain filled with shreds of last fall’s leaves.
“So I’m not here and you are,” he says, looking down.
She nods. Her phone spans two slats of the bench’s wooden seat. “And where are you right now?” she asks.
“Same place I ended up yesterday. Home. On my night-table.”
“Still in bed at this hour? Lazy, aren’t you?”
They’ve been here for more than five minutes, but nothing has yet been decided. He can see no one else, no sign of anyone or anything watching. But you never can tell. It’s time; past time.
She stalls, to his disappointment. “So you’re naked then,” she says. “Just you. Plain old you.”
He thinks about pulling out the lining of his empty left pocket, but decides that would be too silly. “Yes,” he says. “Just the way I’ll come to you. Unconnected. With the brim of my baseball cap pulled down low.” He shows her how. “And they haven’t implanted that chip yet.”
Was that a joke? Must be, she thinks. But it alarms her that she’s not sure. Even so, she grins, and he responds with a slightly amped up version of the smile he’d thrown her yesterday when they saw each other for the first time, crossing paths in this park. They’d talked very briefly before he’d interrupted to explain why he had to take a quick walk back to his apartment, two blocks away. Of course that was always the key step. Would she be there when he got back? She was. Then they’d had a longer conversation. Not too long, he hoped, though he’d never seen any evidence of cameras in this space. Yesterday, they’d wasted no words. But now that it was time for yes or no, they were delaying.
“So tell me again,” she says, stumbling over the phrase. “When was it over?”
“Three weeks ago. Four, probably. I’m fine. I’m safe.”
“Then why would they still track you?”
“Because they can.”
She nods, thinking. Does she trust what he says? And even if it’s true, is four weeks enough? Some experts disagree. Outliers, she hopes and believes. After all, no one is safer than a survivor, the conventional wisdom claims.
“Once I leave my place,” he is saying, “they’ll be no way for you to reach me. I’ll be like destiny, heading right for your door. No way to avoid it. Me, I mean.”
She rolls her eyes.
“How far from here did you say your place is?” he asks.
“I didn’t,” she replies. “Not really. But it’s not far.”
“Then your destiny is already nearly at your doorstep.”
She laughs and decides there’s some droplet of cleverness about him. Better to be thought corny than dangerous.
She, too, looks around for faces or cameras. She makes up her mind.
She tells him her address and asks if he’s sure he can remember it. He nods.
They agree on the day: tomorrow. And the time: Noon.
He has told his story. He feels some satisfaction and much shame. Was there not some better use of his time? But what would that have been? He can imagine responses to these questions. But he finds none of them convincing.
Nice. I like the phone as surrogate for presence in these days of absence.