How things seem is only how things seem
M was walking along thinking about himself. He walked among streams of people in the crowded lunchtime streets of the city. The people streamed like M’s thoughts, fast and nasty, rushing to get ahead of each other. M sensed too many people, each one a selfish shit, in numbers that made the thought processes of any one of them seem absurdly insignificant. This thought crossed M’s mind, just one of his angry thoughts.
I am useless (M thought). I am pointless, I am uninteresting (M deduced this from his boss’s reaction to his latest proposal). The job I do is horrible, and if nobody did it, the world would probably be a better place (M worked in the marketing department of a packaging manufacturer).
Some old and fat rear end in hideously stretched linen momentarily blocked his way.
I spend too much time with my parents (M had promised to visit them on the weekend), not because I want to, but because I cannot escape them. I do not have the imagination or the nerve to break away (they alone remembered his birthday).
A person offensively tall moved tangentially into M’s path, and stroked its own neck with black fingernails, vacuously nodding to a phone screen.
My friendships are no better (M thought). P, for instance, is only my friend because comparing our lives makes him feel superior. All my friends like this about me — except C, who likes me because he is desperate to have a friend and who I tolerate because he makes me feel superior. P is a toad, yet because he is my only real connection with W and Y I pretend not to notice how vile he is. I pretend to myself, which is a disgusting thing to do. And with C it is worse. I pretend — again, I pretend — that I am bighearted enough to overlook the grotesqueness of his nose, which is red, pimpled and pendulous, because I value his inner qualities and despise the superficialities of his enemies. Which is a pretence so easily seen through that the whole charade only makes me look, as I am, desperately fake. Everything I do with all my friends is ugly and fake. We pretend to find each other interesting, because we dare not admit that we are so dissatisfied.
And at that moment, thinking about his friends, it seemed to M that all of them were like the clothes in a charity opshop.
Why he could not break free, M could not see. The fault lay with him, probably, although this seemed unfair, as if it was not his fault that the fault was his. If his character was dull, achievements paltry and friends uninspiring, he blamed his parents.
And thinking about his parents at that moment, it seemed to M that they were like the bituminous surface of a school playground.
Then, because this image seemed exactly right to him, M was remorseful and he berated himself for his cruelty. And he berated himself as well for the extreme disloyalty of his thoughts about his friends. Who deserves friends who thinks so badly of them?
M had now walked beyond all the cheap food halls where he was in the habit of finding lunch, so he should have turned around. He did stop and begin to turn, only to have someone brush against him as they pressed on down the pavement. Before M could stabilise himself, he was in motion again, heading further away from the office, conscious that he would now overstay his lunch hour. This would not help him improve the difficult relationship with his boss, yet it was inevitable. Only that morning, as he rode in the train to work, he had said to himself that he would improve that relationship. He recalled the confidence with which he had formed that desire, which at the time had seemed as good as a plan, and which now seemed ashen and fatuous.
A laneway opened up on M’s left that promised a respite from the streaming crowd, so he stepped into it. Then, almost in a continuation of that flight, he turned again into the open doorway of a little café. He told himself that he deserved to treat himself to a slightly nicer lunch than usual. He had avoided this place in the past because it seemed a little pretentious, a little comfortable, a little dark, with self-absorbed customers eating slowly at the closely packed tables.
There was very little room. It appeared that he had made another mistake. A waitress was approaching. M looked down, and a woman was smiling at him.
‘Hi,’ she said.
‘Hi,’ M replied, before thinking that he perhaps knew this woman.
‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’ she said as he hung there, staring.
Now he was thoroughly embarrassed, but at least the waitress was standing back.
‘I’m J. I was two years behind you at school. I used to hang out with D and K, remember?’
He did remember. J’s face seemed to leap into focus. He certainly did remember J. He remembered a sweet longing associated with seeing J on her way to the beach. He remembered also that they once had a distinctly flirty conversation while standing in the sun waiting for a school assembly to begin. How could he have forgotten? It was extraordinary. He had forgotten the conversation, the longing, and even J herself. One minute ago, he would have drawn a blank at the mention of her name, but now J was fully present to him. She must have been lost inside him all this time. To forget was like forgetting himself.
M must have said something while he had these thoughts. J seemed pleased.
‘You want to share my table?’
‘That would be lovely.’
He was able to say something appropriate to the waitress. He was happy, despite swimming in an excruciating embarrassment. J’s face was not the same as her face at school eight years ago, but it seemed exactly right, as if it was the face he had hoped she might have developed during their time apart. That was what it was like, although that was impossible and made very little sense. He noticed eventually that her cheeks were red, and he struggled to put her at ease. They both struggled. It made them laugh.
J was in town only to do some unusual shopping.
‘I work near here,’ M explained, ‘but I never come to this café. Just today.’
‘Me too. Just today.’
In honour of this coincidence, M and J had lunch together.
They established that D, K, and indeed the whole school scene, were ancient history to them both. Nonetheless, J was delighted to see M again.
They exchanged phone numbers.
M felt that he could say anything without making a mistake. He said:
‘Maybe we could hang out one night — that’s if your boyfriend wouldn’t mind?’
‘No boyfriend, so, yeah, we could do that. But what about your girlfriend?’
J pretended not to believe there was no girlfriend.
In the end, they agreed to meet that very night at the pub nearest to J’s flat. Only with this settled did they seem able to release each other. M went back to work. He weaved his way through the crowd like a magical thread. Everything had been transformed in a moment. He was going to be late returning to the office, but M foresaw no problem with his boss. All his problems now seemed trivial. He gave them no thought, and they vanished. M found himself grinning at the faces of the people on the street, so blank, so solemn. Their answering frowns were hilarious. M did not know how long this would last, but his happiness now could not be denied.