He’s meant to move. They can see it in his eyes and the way he wanders while he lectures. His feet shuffle like a James Brown bass line and he paces with the intensity of, well, not a tiger, but something. Something close to it.
When he tells them to leave he does it with a big sweep of his arm and a smile on his face, like the whole thing is one big joke that he hasn’t finished the punch line to. But not like that. Close to it.
And he’s down the stairs like he’s falling, a controlled fall, five floors because the elevators don’t move fast enough and they are always crowded and he stands there with his binder and knows they talk about him and so he falls down the stairs instead. He breaks every bone in his body to avoid the stale elevators with their buttons that glow faint in the light that the glass walls let in. He breaks every bone in his body when he falls except he doesn’t, because he isn’t falling, or he is, but not like that.
The binder is deposited, hands are shaken, sentences are passive, eyes dart, clocks are watched, hellos and goodbyes said in the same beginner Spanish that he knows they laugh at and call him gringo for, and probably secretly hate him. Well, not quite hate, more like don’t understand–how could they, they know nothing about him and he knows nothing about them and it might always stay that way. Or, who knows, it might not, if he lets them in or if they let him in but that requires someone to knock, and it doesn’t seem like anyone will. Anyway, he’s already out the door past the guards who nod and past the students smoking and kissing and laughing and standing in circles outside the door and past the women selling cigarettes and candy and water just outside the school and down the road weaving through the groups that seem like, well, not exactly trees because they move with him, but something equally as solid and time-worn and something, maybe more like quicksand or railroad cars, to be avoided at all costs. So his eyes are straight ahead and his face is twisted into the face that he hopes says please don’t talk or look at or mess with me but, really, honesty, just looks passive; the face of someone afraid to show anything because anything can be used against him or force him into something that he can’t handle. And anyway, he’s down the road from the people who are like trees, or, not really like trees at all or even quicksand or railroad cars but more like sheets of ice, and he walks past the little black dog that sits in the same place on the sidewalk every day when he strides past. The little black dog is like a shadow or a symbol, but not quite like a symbol because it is meaningless outside of what it is: a little black dog. And anyway he’s long gone, the dog is still there of course, but he’s not, he’s crossing the street forcing cars to stop because that’s what you do here, it really is, and he’s at the bus stop with the kids in their uniforms.
Skirts and slacks. White collared shirts. Lipstick. Puberty and hormones dripping off them and running into the streets. Cabs slide on in and crash into each other in their attempts to pick up every pedestrian in the world without making a complete stop.
Skirts and slacks and white collared shirts. Lipstick. Laughing too loud at what the boy said and smiling too big at what that girl did. They’re going to burn out shining this brightly. End up teaching in some foreign place.
Skirts and slacks and white collared shirts and lipstick and him and he pushes past them onto the bus in that Chilean way that doesn’t mean fuck you it means he gets it and his card doesn’t have enough money on it so he ducks under the turnstile like everyone else does every other day and he still knows the bus driver is shaking his head muttering under his breath something about Americans and even though the driver most likely didn’t see and certainly doesn’t care and absolutely isn’t shaking his head and without a doubt has never muttered in his entire life and probably applauds the American for understanding such a subtle part of Chilean culture, he can’t help but sit down with shame. Not on the right side of the bus where the sun won’t hit him as he found out through trial and error, but on the left side of the bus where he will sweat and his eyes will crinkle and he will have to hold his hand up to act as shade or else look like Clint Eastwood’s lovechild with Woody Allen but he knows that holding his hand up outs him as weak or not Chilean, even though everything else about him from the way he walks to the way that he sits also outs him as other and he can’t help but feel the spotlight is on him. That might just be because he is on the left side of the bus and heading north and it’s after three in the afternoon and the sun is shining only on him in a xenophobist show of South American inhospitality.
And the man standing in the aisle next to him has set a backpack on his seat and it’s pushing against his leg and the woman on his left is taking up a seat and a fifth so he is pressed on both sides and the bus keeps stopping every hundred feet to add more madness to the circus, although it’s not quite like a circus, that’s wrong, it’s like a carnival. When the man gets on the bus with an amplifier and a microphone attached to his chest with a piece of wire that loops around his torso and holds up a plastic child’s recorder and begins to play fast and high in time with the backing track that pours out of the amp he is tempted to empty his wallet on the condition that the man stops playing, snaps his recorder in half, throws his amplifier into the sea, and vows never to do it again but he doesn’t. He just sits there with a woman too close on the left and the backpack pushing into his leg and the sound of the recorder, the worst instrument ever invented, being amplified through the echo chamber of the bus, though it isn’t quite an echo chamber, that’s wrong, it’s more like a sweat box with echoing acoustics and he is sweating and the sun is frying him and the driver knows it and adds more people every hundred feet so that the air is sucked up before it ever enters the window and he starts to nod off or pass out or black out, it’s unclear which, but his eyes close and his head drops forward and snaps back and the man with the backpack seems startled and the woman pushing against him is asleep and the bus is stopped. Stopped. No, that’s not right, it’s crawling. No, not crawling. Inching.
The bus is inching up the off ramp.
Inching because it moves an inch at a time.
Cars press it on every side, forcing it to forgo any attempt to zipper.
The bus is inching up the ramp in the most literal sense, no question about it.
He looks out the window but soon has to close his eyes again because the sight of cars greedily running up the ride of the bus to edge it out of another inch of progress gives him what feels like anxiety but was probably anger or frustration or at the very least rage. No, not rage, fury. Or consternation. Or perturbation, like Christ. His eyes are closed and he knows that he is less than a quarter mile away from the bus stop and considers smashing the window with the emergency hammer hanging next to it and sprinting up the highway, or rather, walking coolly up the onramp giving the middle finger to every driver he passes but of course he doesn’t do this. He simply closes his eyes tighter and imagines it and smiles and quickly makes the smile disappear because to smile on this bus shows weakness or insanity and he is not weak or insane, or at least he doesn’t want anyone to know he is, or think he is, whichever is worse.
The bus lunges forward and everyone is thrown back in a true display of physics that he doesn’t have time to appreciate because the stop is within sight and he needs to prepare for the dismount that involves more pushing and jockeying and ignoring common human courtesy and he pushes off the woman who has been crowding him and elbows past old women and the disabled and kicks a kitten in the face and spits on his own grandson and every other despicable act he can think of in the course of getting off the bus. He is in the flow on the street and jaywalks across four lanes of traffic because they are all doing it and he’s not going to be left behind.
People stand at the top of the staircase leading into the metro station and he thinks about stopping to tell them just how damn stupid that is but he needs to move, needs to be dynamic or else he will wilt and die and become dust and be swept up by an old woman with a straw broom and added to the garbage. So, he pushes past and falls down the stairs to the train breaking every bone in his body, except there is no way that could happen because there are too many people to fall so he is carried along in the mob through the turnstile and onto the train, legs suspended in air, held up completely by the sheer force of numbers of humanity and when it is his stop he whispers con permiso so quietly that only god could hear it and the seas part and he walks out of the train and up the stairs past the man with the cup that rattles when the man shakes it. Sometimes people throw coins into but he never does, he always goes right up the stairs and shoves his way past the bottleneck that is created by people startled to be back in the world of the living. He is down the street before anyone can hand him anything or sell him something or pick his pocket or stab him or give him a kiss, down the street like a sheet of newspaper on the wind, except nothing like that at all, much more like a man completely exhausted of people and shoving and walking and ready to collapse.
So when he crosses the last street and goes through the lobby of the apartment building and the elevator takes him up to his floor and his key slides into the lock and turns and the heavy door swings in and he sits down on his bed and thinks about crying but there’s nothing worth crying about, he just sits there silently not crying for as long as he thinks he probably would have cried had there been anything worth crying about and then stands up and sees his towel hanging in the hallway like a wraith or, no, like a towel.
He turns the stovetop on and sets a pot of water on it to boil, like Santiago, or, no, not like Santiago at all. Like something close to it.