Her Impossible Question
He is smoking a cigarette.
Still damp from a shower and dressed in nothing but a sea-green bath towel: he has arranged himself on the covered radiator beneath the living room window. He sits here, from time to time: smoking, reading, watching the flow of lackluster drama stretched along the nearest segment of Wrigley Street. He sits here, from time to time, waiting for Nathaniel to get home from late, late nights at the studio. There is little to see now: only shadows and the motion of a breeze through maple leaves, sycamore leaves, and the sick, orange glare of electrocuted sodium vapor from the streetlamp just outside. He has opened the window-screen. A gnat has entered the darkened apartment and rests on the street-lit pallor of his left big toe. It is the faintest of tickles: an idle, unobtrusive presence.
Bats twitter over rooftops across the street, their voices all-but-lost in the eurythmic drone of the city. He listens to them—from time to time—with Nathaniel. He looks for them (from time to time) but he has yet to see one.
A breeze stirs itself through elm leaves and maple leaves: they sigh.
They are a welcome distraction: something to focus on, something to interrupt the tight, obsessive spiral of his unvoiced thoughts.
They are stubborn: echoes of a day gone troubling upon his departure from work.
It happened in an alley just off of Irving Street, in the sun-dappled shadow beneath the elevated commuter-rail line. He’d descended from the platform, intent on nothing in particular. He’d stepped into his normal shortcut beneath the tracks, where restaurants vented wafts of curry, peppery spices, and grease-scent past busboys and line cooks, smoking through their too-short breaks. He recognized a few of them: the Bosnians, the Ethiopians . The ones like him. Foreigners.
Only today, beneath the thunder of a passing train, he paused by one of the ancient, upright I-beams, bulging with rivets like blind-man’s Braille. The beam had been painted in an unctuous shade of municipal beige and the coating was weathered with grime and cracks and a profusion of faded, peeling stickers. They were a common point-mutation of back-alley expression: postal service mailing labels and adhesive name-tags distorted beyond their intended purpose. They were sleek things, prodigious in number: graffiti-spam born in the dynamic tension between street artists, and municipal workers hired to defend the honor of puke-beige paint slathered onto rusting infrastructure.
One sticker (faded, torn, and peeling) stabbed his gaze and froze him in place, toes clawing the insides of his shoes; a knot of tension stiffened his spine and his shoulders. Goosebumps raised themselves along the flanks of his neck as heat—as intimate as a blush—warmed the crests of his ears. His cheeks, he knew, had reddened.
The sticker had been a photograph. Once.
Someone had scanned it and printed it on a 3x5 rectangle of US Postal Service labeling. Someone had used a commercial grade printer, had edited the contrast, levels, and colors of a photograph, applied it to adhesive-backed labeling, and placed it here. Peel-and-stick street art.
He’d never seen it before, but he recognized it immensely. His heart fluttered against his ribs like the wings of a sparrow, caged.
There was movement at his side, a compression of air: the casual stealth of a nosy cat, he thought. He glanced to the right and caught the keen, angular features of an Ethiopian waitress; the acute, elfin set of her features rhymed in quiet sympathy with Nathaniel’s familiar and alluring face, and for a moment, he recalled those quiet moments when he sat (from time to time) with Nathaniel, tracing his eyebrows with the tip of one finger. The woman smiled, peering—for only a instant—directly into his eyes. She nodded toward the near-dead photo, stickered onto rusting, grimy metal. In an instant of troubling telepathy, she touched the faded and peeling sticker with one fingertip, as if tasting the shape of Nathaniel’s eyebrow. “It’s you,” she said after a moment; her voice was soft and exotic: a jazz-singer’s voice of smoke snarled in silk.
He nodded. “I had just arrived,” he said, as if that might have explained everything, and in some way it did, because he recognized that day on a local beach, for the very first time, with Kirby, with Hugh, and with an alluring stranger named Nathaniel. Everything came flooding back: the giddy fear, the assault of sounds, colors, voices all dancing through insane octaves of laughter and chatter in pinched and nasal English…Hugh and Kirby, swimming, Nathaniel beside him, telling him about the strange, non-sound of the city at 3am, as sandpipers patrolled the empty beaches.
Her expression grew contemplative, curious, troubled. “Who were you when this photo was taken?”
“I was a stranger,” he said, a shrug embedded in the texture of his voice.
The woman smiled with a wistful gleam in her tea-dark gaze. “I’m from Addis Ababa,” she said. “But when I came here, I was a stranger too. I can recognize myself in older photographs. I saw one, once…just like this one. Stuck on mailbox. It was dirty, faded and peeling, obviously put there long before I saw it.” She shrugged as if in dismissal of some private thought. “I’d passed that mailbox every day, and never saw it…and then it was there when a stranger stopped me to ask if I was a model. I thought it was a come-on, until that sticker caught my eye. No one could have taken that picture and printed it on a label. No one should have, and yet it was there. Me. A stranger. Just like you.” She met his gaze again. “I think this happens to every foreigner in this city: someone takes our pictures, and then, later…much, much later they show them to us, but only when we’ve changed. We’re always someone else when we see them.”
A train thundered by overhead and pigeons launched themselves from the girders, wing-beats like sparse, mocking applause.
A voice rose in the rearward distance, calling her name, and the woman shrugged, turned, and stepped across the alley and into a narrow, open door. She vanished into the scent of spices and steam and the sound of momentary conversation.
And now, as he sits, smoking, on the grille-covered radiator, the echo of her question fills the inside of his head.
Who were you when this picture was taken?
The cigarette has burned down to the filter and he sucks one final drag of nicotine and smoke into the abyss of his lungs. There is comfort in the sensation, in the faint, narcotic burn of domesticated smoke in the windpipe.
A breeze ripples the curtains.
He stubs the spent filter in the ashtray and hears the sound of a key, turning in the front-door lock.
He shifts, plants his feet firmly into the floor, naked toes splayed to balance his weight. He stands and un-knots the bath-towel and lets it fall from his waist, as Nathaniel opens the front door and steps in.
I hadn’t intended to write an alternate take on “A City Tells You the Things She Remembers” but the idea for such a story, has been lodged in my mind for quite some time. It started, I suppose, when I read Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and saw a series of street art stickers that recalled the structure of that novel. The novel itself is concerned with memory: types of memory, and with identity…how they are composed, how they may be lost, and what price one may pay in regaining them.
When I wrote “A City Tells You the Things She Remembers” I was thinking more about my fictional realm of Agara, as well as The Czech Republic, and other central European places. I thought I was done with the idea of a city remembering until a nameless protagonist stepped forward, sat on a radiator, and smoked a cigarette. You’ve presumably just read the result, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.