Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.
In London’s Heathrow Airport, signs say lavatory instead of restroom, and the onrush of travelers bound for points further down the terminal reminds the American of something the monks used to say. Slowly, they told him in ungainly English. Slowly, he thinks now. He refuses to walk on the peoplemover, despite the irritation audible in the Excuse Mes of the passengers who push past him. Instead, he stands to the right and glides patiently through the panes of midday sunlight the skylight admits. The neutral blue carpet reminds him dimly of some other layover in some other life. He tells himself he has learned the meaning of slowly. He often thinks of himself like this, in the third person.
The monks wore long robes in colors of sunlight, orange-pink or golden, that concealed any movement of legs. The overall impression was of stillness. Even traversing a room, even descending to the floor to pray, they seemed to arrive at the end of a motion without having begun it - slowly. Slowly. They said it so often it could have been his name.
To them, the American must have seemed the visual equivalent of noise, a buzzy jumble of movements: spilling grains of rice on the tabletop, brushing them quickly into his hand, embarrassed, closing the hand, returning the rice to his bowl, trying to unstick one persistent grain from his palm, then his finger. Scanning their faces to see if he’d been noticed. The monks spilled rarely and, when they did, never seemed in any hurry to clean up after themselves, though at the end of the meal, when he cleared the dishes, the table beneath was always spotless.
The lama had admonished him not to hurry through his chores. Slowly, he said. It was, after all, a privilege to clear the dishes, to empty the chamber pots; with mindful repetition of these duties, one discovered the dharma in the quotidian. The lama had actually used the word quotidian.
* * *
At London’s biggest airport, people say loo instead of can, and as he enters the corridor, it occurs to him that it’s been six months since he last used a proper toilet. He’s come to appreciate the humbling experience of squatting over a metal pot, of walking barefoot to the stream on mornings so cold he can see his breath, of dumping his pot and others into clear running water that almost instantaneously goes clear again. Even after a fifteen-hour flight, his jeans, worn nearly bare in places, feel foreign against his skin. For four months they sat folded at the bottom of his rucksack. The rough sensation of the monastic linens on his tall white body gradually receded from consciousness. Like the absence of TV. Like Lily. Like the silence at Tengboche, which at first kept him awake at night.
Despite the urgency in his stomach, he moves slowly toward the stalls. He barely registers the men standing at the urinals or hunched over the gleaming vanity that lines the long wall. He barely notices the vast surface of the mirror.
He clicks the shiny bolt into place. The back of the stall’s full-length door has been outfitted with hooks for the convenience of those who do not travel lightly. He sets his rucksack on the floor and sits down, his body remembering how we drop our trousers to our ankles, how we hunch forward, hands clasped between knees, how we stare at the floor if we have nothing to read. He tries to achieve a meditative emptiness, to silence the loose farts echoing in adjacent stalls, the symphony of flushing. He supposes this is symptomatic of his struggles with the teachings.
The lama’s eyes had twinkled when the American kid who had just hiked up the hill from the bus depot explained his intention to become a student of the Way. The lama’s university diploma was prominently displayed on the wall of the office. The first noble truth, he told the boy who faced him across the empty desk, is that all life is suffering. The Buddha teaches that we must become joyful participants in the sorrows of the world. Those who see in the Way a retreat from sorrow, the lama said, grinning, are walking in the wrong direction. The boy informed the lama that his undergraduate thesis had critiqued the American notion of transcendence without experience. That, unlike the celebrities who publicly flirted with Eastern religion, he himself was fully prepared to participate. Joyfully if need be. Now, as he finds himself seeking to blot out the smell of cleaners and waste, the fusillade of faucets, the memories Heathrow summons, he wonders if maybe the monk hadn’t apprehended him perfectly after all.
* * *
Somewhere along the bank of sinks a Briton says, “Excuse me.” There’s something quintessentially British about this tone of embarrassed propriety; the American behind the stall door recognizes it from the dormrooms and classrooms where he spent his semester abroad. Excuse me, the British said, even when they meant Excuse you. Even in the tube stations, even in the pub: Excuse me, mate, can I slip by? Their voices hushed so the natives wouldn’t take offense, he and Lily had taken pleasure in mocking this and other cultural quiddities - excessive frying, wretched club music - in that early-middle phase of their relationship when conversation consisted largely of jokes. He remembers Lily’s reimagining of the Blitz. “Pardon my existence,” she said, with an apologetic flourish of her hands. “But would you mind, em, you know, leaving off bombing, if possible?”
Until they found themselves together in London, he’d suspected that Lily was sort of insubstantial. She reminded him of the loud, cruel girls who had ruled his West County high school. At the university they both attended, they had moved in proximate circles: his friends had been friends with her boyfriend. On those occasions when they happened to be in a room together, she was always at its center. She frequently erupted in a hoarse smoker’s laugh whose volume, from where he hung on the margins, seemed contrived to hide emptiness. But her hands made him question this impression. They were constantly in motion, like birds describing figures on the sky. Sometimes when he caught a glimpse of her at the other end of a long cafeteria table, gesturing elegantly to illustrate a point, he would wonder if she was as shallow as she seemed. They never talked enough for him to be sure one way or the other. They had, in the course of two years of semi-acquaintance, only managed to exchange majors, dorm names, hometowns. Most of what he knew about Lily, he knew from Aaron.
Aaron used the phrase “my girlfriend” more than seemed necessary. It struck him as almost proprietary. Nonetheless, when the boy recognized Lily in the orientation group for the London exchange program, he decided to take the empty seat next to her. Comparing schedules, they discovered that they would be in several of the same classes.
“Fate,” she said with a smile that could have been sarcastic.
“Interdisciplinarity,” he said. Their fields of study, comparative religion and art history, were entangled. “Even a Pollack or whoever has to wrestle with faith and death and that stuff,” he said.
“Pol-lack,” she said, flattening her hands on the surface of her desk. Then, before he could answer, “Bo-ring.”
He stares at the gunmetal gray clouds in the white marbleized floor, unconsciously seeking reflections in the dull surface. It’s an old habit he thinks he’s broken. Self-regard, the obsession with one’s own image, he had concluded, was part of what was wrong with her, and with everything. He’d decided he would simply stop looking at himself, and had sunk his graduation money into a one-way ticket to Nepal.
At the monastery, it was easy to avoid reflections. There wasn’t much glass or electric light to strike it. The only polished objects were the copper pitchers and bowls, the burnished horns blown at prayer, the Mohawked helmets and bald pates of the monks. The bathrooms contained no faucets or mirrors; just pots, low wooden tables, and copper buckets of icy mountain water in which to dunk hands before leaving. The water was the biggest temptation; at first he’d had to resist the urge to examine himself before his hands broke the meniscus. Gradually, though, he had subdued this impulse, along with the others. He had stopped remembering his own face, and had almost succeeded in forgetting Lily’s, in forgetting her disquisitions on Degas, in forgetting the noises she made in her sleep, the laughter and little grunts he found almost unbearably erotic. It had become habit, after awhile, to close his eyes and lie on the hard cold bed and simply be still.
His body remembers how we tear the paper, how we wipe and pull the handle. How we prepare ourselves to sally forth from the stall without meeting the eyes of our neighbors - fly zipped, bag shouldered. He moves toward the vanity almost automatically. Before he has time to think about it, his body remembers what we do when we face a mirror.
After half a year of not looking, he barely recognizes what he sees. The hair that covers his skull is no longer than the stubble on his chin. Around his mouth and eyes, tiny creases make him look older than twenty-two. Subsisting largely on rice and tea, he’s lost maybe fifteen pounds, and his cheekbones and jawbone are now visible just beneath the skin. There is a tiny scar in the shape of Idaho high on his left temple. From beneath it, his eyes stare back at him.
In the time of flirtatious pub conversations, part of what had attracted him about Lily was the way she looked him straight in the eye, as if challenging him to look away, while her hands ranged over the bar, punctuating her points with a stab of her cigarette. She’d seemed to see something there that intrigued her: if not the arrogant glint he saw in her own eyes, perhaps a sympathetic lonesomeness.
One night after a couple of months in London, their talk had spilled over past closing time. Through rain-slicked streets they’d walked back toward the international dorm. She had continued to talk as they passed the blank building faces. He had tried to keep his wet hands warm in his pockets. Though neither mentioned it, both knew they would end up back in her room; a fog of inevitability surrounded them. They went through the motions of sitting on the edge of her bed, of passing back and forth a bottle of bourbon and talking about her dissatisfaction with her classes and her sense that things with Aaron were breaking up over the Atlantic.
“Sometimes I think you’re the only good thing to come out of this whole experience,” she said. Her hand had come somehow to rest on his thigh.
He didn’t feel good about it, morally, at the time. He still doesn’t; a glimmer of accusation lights the eyes in the mirror. But, he reminds himself, they were drunk, it was London, rain was on the windows - what else could have happened?
For two months, hardly anything else did. By the end of the semester, when they decided to travel to France and Spain and Morocco together, he had worked out a rationale, a system of beliefs necessary to explain why he was doing what he was doing; this was how Western religions worked, he would write later, in his thesis. He took it as an article of faith that Lily and Aaron hadn’t been destined for one another. And here she was, giggling in a photo booth at the train station as, behind its blind eye, the camera whirred, documenting the high spirits in which they left London. He looked relatively happy, smiling at a point somewhere to the left of the lens, and she, resting her head on his shoulder, seemed to have forgotten what she had described to him the night they first slept together as the awkward silences on the telephone. She never talked about Aaron anymore, and he never asked.
He let Lily keep the black and white photo strip of the two of them cheek to cheek.
* * *
He can remember when the faucets in public restrooms had knobs you were reluctant to touch. You’d turn them with your sleeve or elbows and submit your hands to the cloying pink soap and the gush of the sink. Now, you wave your hands underneath a motion sensor, hoping to activate a sprinkle of water. You can activate the hot-air blower the same way. You can exit the lavatory leaving nothing of yourself behind.
He looks down at the hands washing each other. Bluewhite suds roll off his palms, collecting like momentary seafoam in the tiny hairs on his wrists before dropping to the shallow porcelain and disappearing down the drain. Even with his conscientious ablutions, tiny veins of dirt remain beneath the nails. Unlike his face, his hands look young: deft and soft and long-fingered, like a violinist’s or surgeon’s. They have only recently been asked to do real work. Between two longer lines - health? fortune? - a truncated wrinkle predicts either a barren love life or an early demise, he can’t remember which. Their backs are small-pored and unblemished and unlike Lily’s.
Eight months after the fact, when he bumped into her in the campus coffeeshop, his wounds from Marrakech had long since healed, leaving only the mark on his forehead. Lily’s hands were still covered in scars. He knew better than to look, but couldn’t keep from glancing down as they stood talking in the entryway. There was something conspicuous about the way she now kept them below her waist.
People moved around them, coming, going. He was glad for the company - he and Lily could only be comfortable in crowds now - but the motion, like the noise of the espresso machine, distracted him from what she was saying. His mind was already running on several paths simultaneously - listening to her, trying to make small gestures toward ending the conversation, remembering Morocco, wondering if the cuts that crisscrossed her hands and wrists like roads on a map still hurt.
They hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of fall semester, six months earlier, when they had sat on a bench in the dappled sunshine and talked warmly. She had worn long sleeves despite the weather. She had told him that she and Aaron were back together. “He’ll never forgive you,” she said. “It’s not the most attractive aspect of his personality.” He said he understood, and wished them both the best, as though she had asked how he felt. After that, he took care to avoid places they might run into each other. He immersed himself in his thesis. He stopped going to his usual bar.
The lavatory tile that grids the wall behind him is colorless, industrial, the blue equivalent of beige. It acts as a backdrop for the travelers who pass into the toilets, then return, stopping off at the vanity to splash their hands through the water. Reflexively, they look in the wall-length mirror, to straighten ties or examine teeth for debris from lunch, or to brush errant hairs back against the sides of their sleek heads. They seem not to see him, and his body remembers how to seem not to see them.
This was the posture he’d been prepared to adopt, when he’d spotted Lily entering the coffeeshop. He noticed that she pretended not to see him either. So his surprise was genuine, hers feigned, when they passed each other and she said, “Oh my God, how are you?”
In the five minutes they stood there, chatting like old friends, she didn’t ask him anything about himself. Nor did she a week later, the night she appeared in his room. He and his roommates had scheduled a St. Patrick’s Day party, and though the weather was damp and cold and he wasn’t in the mood, he felt obliged to go through with it. No quantity of foamy keg beer seemed to enliven him, and sometime after one o’ clock, when the time ceased to matter, he dragged himself upstairs and lay down without closing the door or turning on the light. The sounds of the still-lively party mingled with the hiss of cars on the rain-slicked street below his bedroom window. The trees in the wind threw shadows on the ceiling. He didn’t look up when the doorway darkened.
“Are you in here?” she said.
He didn’t answer. She came in and sat down beside him.
“I didn’t see you downstairs, so I came up.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
“I never liked St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “I forgot to wear green.”
“You poor Protestants,” she said, and rested her hand on his cheek.
They stayed like that for a while. Then she leaned down and kissed him. He did nothing to encourage or discourage her. “You quit smoking,” he said, when it was over.
“I want to stay here tonight,” she said.
“Where’s Aaron?” he said.
“Does it matter?”
“I’m tired, Lily.”
“We could just sleep.”
“I don’t think think we could.”
Her features had grown distinct in the darkness. Behind her, leafshadows swam on the ceiling like a school of small fish. She was immobile, studying his face for awhile. Then she picked up her purse off the floor and left without saying goodbye.
* * *
Fifteen minutes off the plane, and already he feels himself losing his center.
One glance at his water-smooth hands is all it takes to remind him that he has it easy. He returns his gaze to his face in the mirror. It’s become familiar again, almost abstract, like a word repeated until it sounds wrong. He raises his right hand to touch the place beneath his hair where the stitches went in. He can’t even feel them anymore. Only now does it occur to him to wonder whether non-Americans received such outstanding care.
Then, at the hospital, his thoughts had been dull, confused, distantly worried. “That’s shock,” said the doctor, a Moroccan who appeared too young for his moustache. After the initial diagnoses, nurses sewed up the wound on his head and gave Lily seventy-eight stitches on her hands and wrists. The procedures were over before morning, and in the hour prior to sunrise, the ward, teeming when they arrived, seemed as aseptic and fluorescent as the airport bathroom does now. The doctor returned to inform them, with only the slightest trace of an accent, that they were very lucky. After reminding them to visit the cashier before leaving, he withdrew. Echoes of his receding footsteps seeped through the foot-high space beneath the green hanging curtain. Lily was sitting up on the outdated hospital bed, holding her knees with her thickly bandaged hands.
He sat down by her feet and fingered the hem of the polymer gown. He was careful not to meet her eyes.
“Did you ever wonder who chose this color?” he said.
“I’m just hoping it’s been sterilized,” she said, after a pause.
“Things could have been worse, I guess,” he said, looking up.
She didn’t answer him.
“So what now?” he asked.
“Now I go home.”
“Okay. We’ll call and check flights as soon as we get to the hotel.”
“I want to go straight to the airport,” she said. “I’ve got a credit card.”
“This could have been a lot better,” she said thickly, raising her lump of bandage a few inches off the bed.
They took a cab to the hotel to pick up their bags, and she insisted on coming up with him. As she stuffed her underwear and tee-shirts into her bag, she tried not to let him see her face.
They would talk about it for awhile at the terminal, drinking little cups of strong Moroccan coffee while they waited for the next flight to London. And on the plane. She went over what had happened in detail, as though rehearsing it, and he stroked the inside of her elbow because he couldn’t hold her hand. He was shaken up too, he said, even if he didn’t seem like it. They had made the right decision to go home, he said. These things happen, you do what you feel. I’m right here with you, he told her, for anything you need. Always. She didn’t say anything.
That night, laid over, they huddled together on the blue carpet at Heathrow. He rested the uninjured side of his head on his backpack and wrapped his arms around her, careful not to touch her bandages. He had the feeling that people were taking pains not to look at them, this strange pair of wounded animals, though maybe again he was making himself the center of other people’s lives.
He drifted into a dream. He was at the wheel of a giant car whose driver’s side seat was a bed. He strained to see out the windshield. He was careening downhill, freefalling toward a garage whose steel door was shut. He attempted to turn the wheel, but it wouldn’t budge. He pushed the brake pedals, but couldn’t depress them fully. He looked over at Lily, who lay beside him on the bed. “Why don’t you just pay for a cab?” she said, flatly. The last thing he saw before awakening was the terrified face of the slender doctor looming headlit in the windshield, yards away from being mown down.
He peeked over Lily’s shoulder. Her eyes were closed, but she wasn’t making any of her sleeping noises. He lowered his head.
On the transatlantic flight, he found himself unable to talk convincingly about anything other than the incident. He plugged in the headphones for the in-flight movie. “I just need to get my mind on something else,” he said. “You don’t have to apologize,” she said. Her parents were waiting for her at O’Hare. The plane ticket had cleaned him out, but he declined the ride to the bus station her father coolly offered. Lily had loaned him a couple dollars to take the El downtown. His grandparents in Kirkwood would wire the rest. The presence of her mother, a partisan of Aaron, complicated the goodbye. They exchanged a long, chaste hug and assurances that they’d call regularly. By mid-summer, they weren’t talking anymore.
* * *
All life is suffering, he silently reminds his reflection. Lily was just a slow learner. Hadn’t that been part of her charm: the illusion she created that there were no consequences - that the fun would never end? For a brief time, he’d wondered if she wasn’t right; in Paris and Barcelona, he’d entertained the possibility of a world without sorrow and all that. But soon after they reached Morocco, he’d sensed that the world he was used to was about to reassert itself.
Waiting in line at the currency exchange kiosk on a busy street in Marrakech, he tried to avoid contact with the pedestrians streaming by on the sidewalk. He’d heard somewhere that pickpocketing was a Morrocan national pastime, but there was something less pragmatic at work, too. Even on the Continent, where his pidgin French and Spanish had proved utterly useless, the familiar architectural motifs, fast food restaurants, and the accented English spoken by impatient waiters and clerks had provided analogues to home. Here, though, despite the Mercedes in the street, despite his enlightened education, he felt on some deep level uncomfortable. The eyes that stared out at him from thousands of brown or veiled faces didn’t radiate the warm contempt of the French or the comforting condescension of the Italians. Rather, he felt like the object of cold curiosity, like a specimen beneath a magnifying glass. He told himself he was being racist. Still, waiting in line, he swayed back and forth like a subway straphanger to avoid the bodies hurtling by. He rehearsed his guidebook Arabic. He was prepared to ask for 500 dirham, enough, he hoped, for a nice dinner somewhere and a hotel room for the night. Lily had wandered off in search of a Coke. For romance, they should have gone to Casablanca, he realized. But they could always pretend. Hadn’t they become skilled at make-believe? He pretended to reveal himself to her, while she pretended to buy it.
Before he could finish his request, a crowd of street urchins appeared around him, panhandling him in broken English. Until now, he had thought of urchins as a literary type from old novels. But these children swarming around him with their malignant sneers and strangely adult eyes instantly summoned the word “urchin.” Shame hit him not quite instantly after he snarled at them to get away, shoving his hands in his pockets to protect their contents. He felt as though some threatened creature living inside him, a badger or wolverine, had just made itself known. “Jesus,” he said, when she came back, “You should have seen me. Like they were wild dogs or something.”
“How do you feel now?” she said, threading her arm through his.
He took the can from her free hand. The lettering was Arabic, and more beautiful than the English, but white and silver design of the can was familiar. It was diet. “I can’t believe you drink this crap,” he said.
“There’s a store right around the corner there. You can get whatever you want.” He was already feeling less guilty.
The hot-air blower hangs on the wall next to him. All he has to do is turn and wave his hands beneath it, and then walk away, wiping any remaining moisture on the thigh of his jeans. All he has to do is find his gate and wait for the flight back to St. Louis to board. But is there really anything left for him St. Louis? he wonders. Was there ever anything for anyone in St. Louis? He cannot look away from himself, anymore than he can stop the memory from rising once more to the surface of his thoughts.
Although they ate late, the sky was still light when they left the restaurant. That May, as they approached the equator, the days seemed to stretch out forever. Time dilated until the past and the future seemed nonexistent. They walked hand in hand by the water. Slow pink light suffused the sidewalks and palms. She leaned her head into his shoulder.
“Let’s not go back,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. It wasn’t a lie, exactly, or even a joke, though neither of them meant it. On the way back to the hotel, they entered one of the side streets they’d taken to get to the restaurant earlier. A few hours had wrung a remarkable transformation. In the early evening, every inch of space along the walls had been filled with squatting vendors selling spices, fabric, knockoff watches. Now the street was totally deserted, and the arches that had opened onto the cluttered interiors of shops were filled with blankets or roll-down metal doors. He wondered if anyone was behind
The sudden solitude both unsettled and excited him, and when they stopped halfway down the block to kiss, he had to fight to keep his hands within the bounds of propriety. When they resumed their walk to the hotel, their steps were quicker.
A voice from an alley stopped them. “Excuse me, please, the time?” A thinnish teenager in slacks and an open-collared shirt stepped toward them.
He showed his wrist and twisted it slightly, to signify that he didn’t wear a watch.
“I think it’s about ten.”
“Ten. Ten o’clock?” She freed her hands to show ten fingers.
Another youth appeared from the alley, holding a bottle of water. As with urchin before, the word youth surfaced instantly in his mind. It was as if the urchins, prematurely aged, had returned to remind him of his uncharitable past.
“We are late.”
“We are late,” the first youth repeated.
Already seeing where this was going, he began to walk, pulling Lily along by the hand. The youths began to walk, too, joined now by a third and a fourth. They explained that their car’s radiator had broken, and asked if he please had money for a cab.
“Sorry,” he said. With the hand not clutching Lily’s, he patted his pocket. “No money.” He felt the animal awakening again inside him. He ran down a mental checklist: half a block to the next intersection, no exits to the main street before that. The second of the youths was big enough to worry him. The whole party of six was moving rather more briskly than the polite tone of the conversation would seem to warrant.
“We need only a little. You can help?” the first youth, the slender one, said.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “Come on, Lily.”
The slender youth maneuvered in front of him. They were now effectively surrounded. He tried to brush by, but the kid just stepped backward. “It is only money, please.” A sound of shattering glass signaled that the second youth had broken the bottle. He waved its jagged remnants in the direction of Lily.
He was surprised at how quickly everything escalated, how quickly fear gave way to rage. He wound up somehow on the ground on top of the skinny youth, punching him in the face, while nearby grunts and shouts indicated a struggle. He was wrestling with the biggest of the kids when the one he’d beaten bloody pulled himself up and lurched away, toward the end of the street. The big one immediately disengaged himself and sprinted off in the same direction. A third followed. For some purely instinctive reason, he gave chase, almost reaching the intersection before Lily’s voice drew him back. The last of the attackers was straddling her, choking her while a stream of foreign words issued from his mouth.
He pulled the youth off and found himself knocked to the ground when the kid sprinted away.
“Oh my God,” Lily said. “Oh my God, you’re bleeding.” Blood was spilling from her hands over the uneven stones of the street, and without a word, he picked her up and carried her toward the larger street in the distance.
* * *
He spreads his hands on the dark faux-marble flanking the sink and lets them support his weight. The faucet’s sensor, undisturbed, abruptly halts the flow of water. A single day of noisy travel has been enough to make him unaccustomed to silence again.
This is the way he’s always been, uncomfortable with silence. Maybe that’s what had drawn him to Lily. She always had something to say. The last time he saw her was at graduation.
He had left his grandfather on the other side of a crowd of parents and had gone in search of the free frozen custard supplied by the famous local vendor. The noon sun and the crush of people in semiformal clothes made the quadrangle seem hotter than it really was, and getting across it was a struggle. He found himself suddenly uncomfortable, claustrophobic, estranged - that animal feeling from Marrakech - and let the pressure of the crowd divert him to the southern end of the quadrangle. And there she was, standing in the shade of an archway, turning her graduation cap in her hands.
“Hey,” he said. “Great minds.”
“I’m waiting for my parents.” She continued to turn the cap and to search the crowd with her eyes. “And Aaron.”
“You might be waiting awhile.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.”
“Well. Congratulations anyway,” he said, and started to leave.
“These things happen, huh?” she said. “Could have been worse.”
He turned back. “Tell me what you want me to do, Lily.”
She wanted him, she said, to stop pretending that he ever thought seriously about anyone other than himself, she said. When he asked her what she was talking about, she told him to go. He had gotten what he wanted, she said.
The rest is indistinct now, as he stares at himself in the mirror at Heathrow. Except for the part where she accused him of abandoning her. And the part where he told her she needed to talk to someone more qualified than her boyfriend before she pretended to objectivity. Which was also the part when he glimpsed, for an instant, the possibility of truth in what she was trying to tell him. She was right about one thing: he couldn’t imagine how vulnerable she’d felt. Morocco wasn’t his first experience of suffering, or his worst. He is glad now that he didn’t say this out loud. He is glad he never said he loved her. But for a minute there in Morocco he did, he thinks, come close, as his face, drawn in the unflattering light, stripped of its shadows, resolves from the memory of hers, here in the bathroom, in the mirror, in the world, where he finds himself now, as before, alone.
* * *
“Excuse me, mate.”
The hand that rests on my shoulder is surprisingly gentle for its size, and smells faintly of soap. Its weight is not unpleasant, nor is the beer-scented breath on the side of my face. When I open my eyes, the eyes I see in the mirror have something genuinely sad and soft in them, the thing you set aside to get on with the business of life, which is suffering. “Are you alright?” He is old. His white hair stands stiff as a shaving brush. He looks as though he might live here at the airport, but perhaps like me he’s just passing through en route to some place far away - Belgium, the Ukraine, Wyoming. Unable to turn my gaze away someplace from his, I shrug. “Fine. Low blood sugar.”
“Do you need a bite?” he asks, and begins digging in his pocket. I guess I’m looking like I might be a permanent fixture at the airport, too.
“No,” I tell him, embarrassed. “No. But thank you.”
I lift my bag and, without looking again at the mirror, begin the long walk down the hall, into the hurried sunlight, to join a queue of travelers with whom I share, at the very least, a flight number and destination.