I see her; she doesn’t see me. She would have rushed right by if I had not struggled over to her, lunged with my right hand, seized her wrist as she was almost past.
I hear her gasp. The shock, the surprise. Understandable.
Her mind was elsewhere. Of course it was. I could see it in her eyes, fixed as they were on a point only she could see. But it is her, it is. I knew from her stride, if nothing else. That long loping gait, despite the heels, despite the tight fitting woollen skirt, the black tights beneath, despite the heavy gabardine jacket flowing out from her. I am used to seeing such clothing, flaunted by the beautiful ones as they rush past, off to their secret worlds, to their places of ostensible importance. She is like them, far too much like them.
She is harried, that much is true. It is sad to see. I always hoped for better, although I never expected it. Not with the way she had begun to change, even way back then. She made her choice, took her path.
But it is still her, still unmistakeably her.
Her glance tells a story, the usual story. Of horror, repulsion, disgust. Attention rapidly shifting from me back to her own far more significant life. Oh yes, I catch the instant – from repugnance to dismissal, her mind already far ahead. I catch it all in a second. She is busy, too busy for this gauche interruption, eager only to race onward towards some self-imposed goal.
I mean it as a whisper, as a purr. It comes out as a croak. More used to keeping my own council that accosting passersby.
The gasp, the double take. Oh, I understood. Pulled from her reverie, yanked back to the moment. The sudden crush of ugly, unvarnished now, this empty barren moment. It breaks my heart.
“You don’t remember.”
Her blank stare, the shift from the future to the bitter now, the glance onward, wishing she were already there. No, I think, this is not the way it should be. A little reverence for what was, please!
“It’s Raymond.” I nod. “Yes, that Raymond. The only one.” Hubris, perhaps, but this is Julia. Julia!
“Raymond… Right, well look, I’m sorry, I’m late for –”
“1996, 97. Northwestern University. You were different then,” I say, studiously avoiding any tone of judgement. No accusatory look from me, not on your life.
A dawning recognition.
“Yes, you remember. The humanities. Or human-ites, as we used to call them. Humanity, not as in compassion, love, empathy, but as in the human condition, as in society and culture, the general mess generations have made of the human condition, hiding their hatred, their tribalism, their insecurities behind the shield of culture, ensuring a cloak of invisibility for the individual, granted a pass from the need for that other type of humanity. ‘It’s not me,’ they say, ‘it’s just the culture.’”
I chuckle. Like the old university days again. It never leaves. Or at least it never left me. The passion, the academic curiosity, the idealism. It feels good to let it out. Damn it, I needed the release.
And then I look up at her. Mouth hanging open, a look in her eyes. Not the same look, not a look I even recognize in my Julia. Concern? Horror mixed with alarm?
“Humanity indeed,” I say unbidden, flustered now, uncertain. I clear my throat, aware of the torrent of words with which I have flooded her. “My apologies,” I say with a small bow. “Listen to me, eh? I do go on. Always did.”
“We were young…”
“Oh, Julia. That is no defence. Never dismiss the actions of the young; never belittle the youthful mind. That is where worlds are made. It is there that unrivalled potential lies. The young see what’s possible – beyond what’s possible.”
She shuffles, shifts her weight, one high-heeled shoe and then the other. She pulls her hand from my grasp, uses it to pull her jacket more tightly around her. She looks cold, as if she is unused to the elements.
“Well,” she says, looking around me, looking through me, “you can only dream for so long.”
“One year and seven months.”
“The length of your dreaming. Perhaps less. Certainly less. Yes, you had lost the sparkle in those final months, given up the ghost. Philosophy, sociology – you had shut them out. Only languages sustained you. Parles-tu Français?”
A smile. Or a grimace. “I do, Raymond. I work for the UN these days. I spend a lot of time in Brussels.”
“You’ve done well for a drop-out.” It hurts me to say it. Yes, she had dropped out, but I know. I knew the moment I saw her clothes, her long strides, her head held high, her gaze fixed on the horizon. I knew.
“Actually, I went back to –”
“Of course. Sorbonne?”
“Paris Sciences Et Lettres.”
“Oh. And from there?” I don’t want to know, can’t bear to know. But like watching the aftermath of a train wreck, one finds it hard to turn away.
“Private sector. HR mainly. Multinationals. Did some interpreting. Ended up at the UN. I’m here doing some consulting. Look, I really have to get moving. I…”
“But what have you done?” There is an edge to my voice. It betrays me. “I’m sorry,” I add as quickly as I can. “Excuse the tone, Julia. How have you come along?”
“How are you?”
“How are you? It’s been so long…”
“Everything is fine. I’m respected. I have my staff…” She looks at me, weighing it up, considering. Decision made, I see the hardness enter her eyes. I can feel her growing, straightening, getting taller. Head held high, she quickly pushes a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m working with the World Intellectual Property Organization. We promote the protection of intellectual property. That’s what I do – I administer treaties,” she says, starting to run out of steam, “concerning the protection of intellectual property rights. That sort of thing. Not that you care…”
“Oh, Julia. Seek not the favour of the multitude but seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them. Do you remember?”
“It used to be yours. Your motto.”
“Yeah, well I don’t have that luxury anymore, Raymond. International treaties mean consensus building.”
“Do you remember – we used to sit on that bench under the sycamores. Even when it was getting cold.”
“You never used to feel the cold.” She smiles. A fleeting thing, her mind presumably taken back. And then she looks me over, really looks me over, and takes an involuntary half-step back.
“No, I’m pretty much impervious to the cold,” I say. “Would it be melodramatic to say that has kept me alive?”
Her mouth is open, she is shaking her head slightly. I’m losing her, she’s slipping away.
“Back then, we had each other,” I say. “To sustain us. That’s what we said. With each other we had the strength to stay the course, to stay true. We were solid enough to –”
“To stand firm against the changing tide.”
“Yes. Never give up the good fight!”
“And how has that worked out?” Her face is hard. One hand has gone to her hip. It’s not a question; it’s an accusation. I let it go.
“We fight our battles, Raymond,” she says, her voice low and firm. “But you can’t take on the whole world.”
“No. Not unless you’re prepared for the world to beat you up,” she says, eyes scanning me from top to bottom.
I take a step back, almost wish she would leave. I’m hurt by her words, battered by them, momentarily exposed to a feeling I thought I had submerged forever.
“I have stood firm. I have stayed true. My life is lived on my terms and that is enough.”
There’s pity there. It kills me. Anything but that. I weaken, feel something melting, feel myself sinking.
“One does what one has to to survive,” I say, all too aware of the fragility of my words. I take a breath, regain control. “I would think you would be well aware of that, no?” I take a step, spread my legs a little, feeling the toes of my left foot push up against the end of my boot. I stuff a hand deep into my pocket, feel the clammy grime of my leg. None of it matters. The steal has returned. I’m strengthened, rearmed. “I have seen things, Julia, learned things. I have followed a path. It is not for me to say where that should lead.”
“It’s too late now.”
Once again she pushes her long, shiny black hair behind an ear, tilts her head. She is no longer recoiling, no longer mentally pushing past, discarding me. She has stopped, settled, allowing herself to be here, despite it all.
“Raymond, you had the mind. Not me. You saw things, you had principles. The system – you saw how it worked, understood it better than anyone.”
It’s the past tense that kills. Even I use it these days. What I was…
“You know, we were great together back then. We could have done anything. But you always wanted…” I hesitate. “You always wanted to be part of it. The whole corrupt system – you fell for it.”
She opens her mouth, eyes sparkling. Here it comes. The defence. The finger will be pointed, the voice raised. But it doesn’t happen. “I needed a partner. Someone to hold my hand. You couldn’t see that. Raymond, I needed your hand in mine. But you were too busy picking a fight with the world.”
There is sadness in her voice. I hate her for it. I feel it invade me, quickly shut off that valve, close it down, block it off. Used to that now, I shrug, give nothing more away. “I have lived a life.”
That stops her. She looks at me, then looks ahead, checks her watch. She sighs. It’s almost imperceptible, but I catch it, watch her as she decides. Two quick steps past, a hesitation. She turns to her left, hand simultaneously delving into the slim leather bag that hangs from her shoulder. She doesn’t look, simply digs her hand into the bag, takes two more steps across the sidewalk to the boarded up shop front. She bends down. There is a small yellow children’s bucket there (no spade.) Her hand opens, bills flutter down. In a flash she had straightened.
“Please, Raymond. Just…”
She cannot finish. There is nothing to say. The end is written. She knows it just as I do.
I shuffle back to my wall, hand involuntarily going back into the pocket of my trousers, through the pocket, through the pulled-apart stitching. I scratch at my balls. The rash is playing up again. I don’t mind. So I scratch. Gives me something to do. My knee is always stiff and sore these days. I hobble, lurch to the left then straighten, lurch then straighten. I have the devil’s own time getting down onto my piece of cardboard.
Roughly pulling the bucket to me, I peer in. The groan is audible. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter anymore. It never did, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.
Using the wall behind me, I edge myself back up, wobble, steady myself. With hand on the boarded up shop front for balance, I swing my good leg, kick the bucket away. Its contents spill onto the icy pavement. The wind has picked up. The notes are briefly airborne, fluttering, tumbling across the ice.
Looking away, I run a hand over my face, feel the bags under my eyes. My beard is itchy, as it so often is. I scratch at it, hard, dirty fingernails, scrapping against the skin beneath. They tell me the beard is grey now, uncut for years. It hides me. Hides my efforts, my failures. It hides the scars.
There’s an underpass a half mile ahead where the trains hurtle over. Sometimes people loiter there and smoke. Sometimes I find butts, half cigarettes. It’s worth a look.