by Slawomir Rapala
Jay remembered the old man at Heathrow airport. A waiting room filled with smoke. Two hours of idleness. The old man was a fisherman from Newfoundland. He talked of sun rising over the stormy waters of the Atlantic. He talked of shifting tides and broken dreams.
Jay mentioned he had visited the island two summers before, that he remembered the way the ocean looked on a brisk autumn morning. The man smiled and quietly nodded his head. His memories were different.
Jay walked through the airport without seeing the people. As if on a moving lane, he watched the people walk by. He dreamt the trip. A five-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. Sterile waiting areas with hardly anyone there. Twelve hours to Melbourne International. American movies and plastic cutlery.
The air was dry on his first day in Australia. The streets were empty. The chic Swanston Street was deserted. Everyone watched the big footy final. The whole country stood still. Except him. He moved through the empty streets and watched the city sleep.
It was late September and it was windy.
He walked through the city, an alien on a foreign planet. The Yarra River. Murky and dark. The hungry seagulls behind the Queen Victoria Market. The big owner of a chicken shop. The lattés he could never afford.
He took a tram to St. Kilda and had a look at Phillips Bay. First sight of the Pacific. Freedom. A thousand miles to Antarctica. But the wind soon chased him off the beach. He ate chips with tomato sauce at a nearby pub.
Melbourne Uni was just up the road from the hostel where he lived. He registered and watched the campus empty out for a two-week break. A dollar for a slice of pizza.
The hostel was cold. The bathroom doors had a wide gap above the floor and cold air rushed in when he took a shower. He shivered under the thin blanket at night.
He walked down the busy streets and watched the people pass him. He saw himself stop before the great shoppi ng malls of Bourke Street and gape mindlessly at the displays. He saw himself stand in the middle of the Federation Square, the heart of the city, a still figure amidst thousands of people who rushed about their business. Flinders St. Station, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Art Gallery, and the Crown Casino. Pulsing with life. Two million people. Green trams filled with businessmen and students. Each time they neared a dodgy spot, the operator would ring a bell.
Mobiles. Everyone talking to everyone. Everyone except him.
It took Jay some time to understand what was happening. He first noticed it after two weeks. Instances and moments of detachment. He saw himself riding the tram. He watched himself wake up. As if in a movie. Like changing the channels.
His body continued to walk the streets. A mindless machine connected to the world by virtue of simply being there. He only occupied it. He filled the empty space.
As the time passed, he watched himself more often. Talking with strangers. Sitting in on classes. Working on a project. Eating out. Drinking and smoking. Writing mindless letters to his former life. Talking on the phone with people from his former life.
His body did the strangest things and he watched it with increasing bewilderment. Its skin grew bumpy when cold. It processed food and drink and did away with the waste. The body was resourceful. Practical. Ingenious.
It wasn’t pretty, though. It was slightly overweight and not very tall. It was mediocre, he thought as he watched another woman walk by without a second look. The body that housed him was average. Perhaps neglected of late. Short stubble grew on the face. The shirt was almost never tucked in. The shoes it walked in were dirty. He noted some familiarity between his body and the vagabond it shared a six-pack with at the Laundromat one day. They watched the clothes spin in silence. Had a few smokes and talked about fishing. He watched the whole scene with amusement.
His body had strange ideas. He watched it as it climbed the roof of the Old Commerce Building on Parkville Campus. The city had gone to sleep again. It was Memorial Cup Day and the country stood still once more. The people had dressed in their best clothes and had gone to watch the races. Ladies wore extravagant hats.
Jay watched his body as it shrank back from the ledge in fright. But this was a movie, he laughed. The strand connecting him to his body was severed. His body was not him.
He inched closer to the TV screen and watched his body as it danced on the ledge.
It danced in total freedom, its movements fluid and uninterrupted.
The dance was an affirmation of life. Jay watched mesmerized as his body came into being, born out of the savage and lustful dance. Free of its owner and master.
He reached out and touched the glass. He watched as his body studied itself carefully. It was bewildered. An infant in the body of an adult.
For a moment their eyes met. Then Jay’s hand rested flat against the screen and covered the image. When he looked again, his body was gone, swallowed by the city lights. All that was left was an empty TV screen staring back at him.
Copyright © 2005 by Slawomir Rapala