“They’re shooting on the bridge.”
She let her big canvas purse drop in line with the row of shoes, mostly hers, lined tightly against the entrance wall, and went straight for the fridge. She didn’t see his shoulders stiffen, the fingers of his right hand curl. She didn’t see his face.
“What?” One word was all he could manage; even so, it was one word too many.
Her blue silk polka dot shirt was tucked evenly into her chopstick, high-waist pants. As she turned to face him with a carton of coconut milk in her hand, her medley of long, yellow brass necklaces—circles, triangles, squares, tassels—swung together like a bell clapper trapped between her breasts. Her face seemed to have a limited set of expressions, and he had seen them all. At this moment, she had her that is so interesting face on: lips slightly parted, at the edge of a smile, eyes round and shiny. Her mouth widened slightly as she processed his face, and as she arrived at a conclusion, she seemed to find it amusing.
“A video,” she said. “They’re shooting a video.” Then, with a lesser smile, as if she had just upset a sensitive, sheltered child with a run-of-the-mill ghost story, who couldn’t possibly be blamed: “They’re filming. A TV show, I think, or something like that … ”
“Ok, ok,” he nodded, “I got it.” He got up and walked to the living room half of the apartment, pretending to look for his phone charger, just to get away from her eyes.
She had asked him one evening, poking through a reheated take-out dinner, if he wanted to move in, and so he did. They had known each other less than six months, then, and the option had not occurred to him before, but seeing as he was at the end of a lease and in-between roommates, he chose not to question its unnatural convenience. Besides, he was sick of the Downtown. Its initial appeal—the high and narrow tinted glass towers out to replicate generic New York, the 24-hour pizza joints, the abundance, visible and audible, of people who looked like him—had long worn off. The things he once found entertaining increasingly irked him: the rising/falling sirens of fire engines, breaking through closed windows into your room, the taxi drivers yelling down below, at 2:30 a.m., fighting for the fare of two young women about to topple from their high-rise heels. The homeless men (and even women) lying on the sidewalk, in heaps of torn cloth, limbs loose. Every time he walked extra-swiftly by them (the way normal, suitably occupied people did) he wondered if these unsightly shapes were even alive, and how long they could lie there, dead, before anyone noticed. He used to think you could always tell a dead body from a living one. His father told him once it was because of the soul—but then his father died, and once they washed off the floury coating of white plaster dust from his skin, the old man looked surprisingly well. Maybe some souls lingered.
He wondered, sometimes, what his family back home would think of his living arrangements. The question came less and less frequently, during the brief, in-between moments of the day: in the bathroom, as he shaved in front of her mirror, or in bed late at night, as he lay awake on her sheets. He let it prick his conscience for a bit, before finding relief with the same, simple answer: he didn’t have enough family left in this world to care about such things.
He used the nameless footbridge every weekday morning to cross the tracks on his way to the bus station, a brisk fifteen-minute walk. Some mornings, when he was particularly loud in his rushed getaway, she would appear in the bedroom doorway in her seamless nightshirt, rubbing living colour into her face, and offer to give him a ride to the station. He would ignore the offer, giving her a barely felt goodbye kiss if she lingered. He had no words to tell her how much he hated being a passenger in her car.
The footbridge was steel bones fleshed in concrete, subtly arched above two sound walls and several sets of tracks. Commuter trains ran one way in the morning, the other way in the evening; their signature bell-ring spilling over the sound wall and filtering through the treetops, a wind chime tinkling by the time it reached their windows. A steep concrete ramp zig-zagged from the street below to the bridge, and he asked himself how anyone could get a grip on it come winter. The bridge itself was narrow, its width allowing just enough room for two people to pass each other untouched, if not unacknowledged. The guardrails were a little low, a little insecure for his taste. The paint that chipped off of them, giving way to cancerous rust, was a dull turquoise: the colour of old womens’ pebbled jewelry.
Being on the other side of the tracks from the nearest public transit had its advantages. The bus station was centre to a vortex of traffic in the morning and in the evening, wheels and feet moving at various speeds in every direction, carrying loads of worries and aspirations, but this human storm shattered when it hit the sound wall.
They weren’t living on the “wrong side of the tracks”—in his mind, the term made no sense in a city like this, anyway. There was no wrong place to live here, really. There was no malice in the trajectory of the train tracks traced onto the city map, no ill intent to run a dividing line across lives, keeping some in and shutting some out. Cities like this, he observed, seemed governed by pragmatic efficiency: it was only urban planning, meaning it may just as well have been nature itself. If any hands took part in drawing these lines, they were like God’s—vaguely benevolent, invisible and inevitable.
Theirs was a nice enough neighbourhood. Not historically upscale or suburbanly groomed, just nice—a quiet, older neighbourhood, contained unto itself. Small convenience stores that cut keys and sold such necessities as breath mints, tabloid magazines, vegetable shortening, and antifreeze. A dry cleaner with racks full of clothes belonging to a ghostly clientele, where an older Asian woman sat alone over a sewing machine all day. A bike lane, marked haphazardly with white paint that came to resemble chalk along one of the wider roads. A gas station that doubles as a garage, where an old red Chevrolet withered away in the parking lot, waiting for an owner that never returned.
The street they lived on, Cartwright Drive, was an odd S-shaped occurrence, torn in half briefly by a fields of power transformers before resuming its underwhelming run to the nearest railway crossing, after which it assumed a different name. A stretch of Cartwright Drive ran alongside the train tracks, flanked by the tan-coloured sound wall on one side, and a sparse row of maple trees, neither young nor old, on the other.
She liked to go jogging along that stretch in the earliest hours of the morning, usually on the weekend, when she could collapse on the bed upon returning and not bother with an alarm clock. He’d watch her rise over the white horizon of his pillow and change into her fitted black fitness gear, hair tied back, face dull and single-minded. He joined her occasionally, but he didn’t come to this country to run, and did not have her self-inflicted enthusiasm: a drop of rain, or the mere possibility of it, kept him stubbornly horizontal.
When they did run together, though, it felt good. It felt better than almost anything else they did together. She was so much less than her usual self on these morning jogs. Entirely given to the physical effort of propelling her slight body forward, she seemed to shed the self-consciousness and anxiety that were the signature trait of her civilization. Her face pink and puffing as she worked to slow her breathing at the end of the run, she seemed most human, most alive. He would catch her, wrap his arms around her whole, lean his sweaty forehead against her hot neck, and feel their heartbeats steady against each other.
Sometimes they walked back instead of running, and she would hold his hand by the tips of his fingers, and look with dreamy eyes at nothing in particular, lost in her own experience. In one of these contemplative stretches, she said something about the sound wall that stuck with him.
She didn’t like it, she said. She has seen newer ones, nicer ones: shields of clear plastic, screens that let light and space pass through as if unencumbered. The wall along Cartwright Drive, and later along the backyards of old townhouses that withstood the expansion of the tracks, was a thing of the past—a relic, like the footbridge, of the Concrete Era. Rugged and chipped at the edges, it was tagged here and there with black swirls without much contest or dedication.
“Ugly,” she had said plainly at first, and then, “So … oppressive.”
Oppressive: the word got him. The searching in her voice—as if she was searching for a pain that wasn’t really there. The opacity, the roughness, the concrete-ness: which part of it exactly weighed so heavily on her slender, soft, white body? At most, the sound wall threw a thick, solid shadow in the afternoon, and hid the faces of passing trains, so that one only knew them by the clinking of their wheels on the rails and the kinds of hoots and howls they unleashed, like animals in the forest.
When he tells them where he comes from, they nod and frown apprehensively. “Things are pretty messed up there, right?” Messed up: the casual equivalent of complicated, seasoned lightly with empathy. The kind of thing people say when they don’t want to take sides, or don’t know which side you’d rather they take.
It was best not to allow such questions to arise in the first place. Keep others at arm’s length. Keep their minds busy with questions about their own feelings. Keep their mouths busy with talking about themselves.
For years, he studied and worked, worked and studied. Now, at last, he just worked. A measure of certainty, a place to go to every day that he was sure to find standing after the weekend. The fluorescent lights would remain perpetually on, the computer screens would be found idling with screensavers, the grey chairs, the black keys, the light blinking red-to-green with a touch of a key-card that opened doors for him and let him in without further questioning—it would all still be there. Symbols of certainty, all of it: every bit of plastic.
He is not a refugee, not an asylum seeker. There is no point in seeking asylum in a place where no one understands or agrees about the existence of your suffering.
It is 6:42 a.m. and he is walking toward the footbridge, aiming for the 42A bus that leaves the terminal at 7:06 a.m. Bus schedules: another thing he adjusted to quickly, too quickly, to the point he couldn’t remember it being any other way. Bus schedule apps, trip planners, text-message alerts about disruptions in the subway system. Precision and Predictability: a romance with numbers. When he gets to the bus terminal, he will join a queue of people looking at their phones and watches, crossing their arms and maybe even pacing curtly on the platform, rolling their eyes when the 42A pulls in a bare four minutes late.
The experience of standing at a sign-posted curb, waiting for a bus that may or may not come at some given point in the future with maybe enough space to take you on and a fare that may have doubled since yesterday, is entirely alien to them. When they say they need two hours to get to work, they mean two hours of movement, carefully timed connections, occupying a finite niche in their routine. From vehicle to vehicle, they expect to fit simply based on their matching capacity, the space allocated for their mass built into the system the way beds, mattresses, and sheet sets are made to fit together. They have solved the problem of dead time, too. They are uninclined to chat with strangers, or to stare into the white clouds for signs of change. They read their Kobo or play their CandyCrush or scroll through their Facebook as their body moves imperceptibly from the edge of the train platform to the bus platform to the subway platform, an unstoppable, ticking flow.
He is climbing up the concrete ramp, keeping right the way pedestrians do in this country, imitating cars. He is staying close to the inside edge so as to not get in the way of a surprise cyclist guaranteed to ignore the benign white signs that encourage the dismounting and walking of one’s bike. He is rising above the neighbourhood, a little closer to the sun. He has his headphones on, but there is no music in them. He sometimes enjoys silence.
He looks up just on time to see the hand stop him.
It is not something they discuss very much. Immigration situation, legal status—these are dirty words. Envelopes stuffed with appropriately filled forms, timely mailed with the appropriate fees paid keep him in the country, keep him living like one of them, enjoying the simple pleasures that dot their routines, navigating the decaying infrastructure built by their grandfathers. Work is more than livelihood: it keeps him legal, the way Cartwright Drive, the footbridge, or the 42A are more than landscape. They keep him sane.
She doesn’t bring it up, not anymore. She understood something, probably from the way he cut the topic short in their first one-on-ones. It was not her suspicion or insecurity he feared most, but her wholehearted compassion. The desire to assist, to leverage her privilege in his favour.
Not that she is much of an activist herself. Rather, she likes to spend time around activist types: it is important, for her, to be informed, to do her small part, or at least to feel like she does. From the way she let him within her walls, into the circle of her arms, he had no doubt in his mind that, should one further piece of paper be required to keep him around, she’d sign it with equal ease. She would probably think of it as her timid contribution to the fight against the system.
She would make sure they had a nice party, with a photographer friend to stage a beautiful photo shoot of hands held and lips locked for the benefit of dry, lonely bureaucrats scrutinizing such geopolitically unequal relationships for signs of weakness. Everyone will drink to their health and rejoice in the blatant artificiality of it all, as if recognizing the spectacle for what it is frees them from the shackles of ritual and opens the gates to pure, genuine joy.
It was not an option he was going to take. He did not come to this country to become indebted, again, to friends and strangers whose convenient generosity enabled his existence.
A hand held out toward you, palm flat in his face. A universal gesture that requires no explanation, for it always means one thing: STOP.
A cautionary one, sometimes, keeping you back while a bobcat maneuvers by with a mouthful of rubble—that iteration comes with a hard hat, a neon orange-crossed safety vest. In line for a venue, a laid back one, barely a flick of the fingers, delaying you a second or two. At the airport an authoritative one, discretely uniformed, stern but self-aware, power-tripping and apologetic at turns.
This one hangs in the air, still, wordless. He stops, looks at it. It doesn’t speak. He looks past it, but the man is looking somewhere else. He is speaking into thin air, to someone else. For a second, the face half-turns toward him in fleeting acknowledgment, the corner of the mouth inches up in a smile or smirk. The man’s attention is elsewhere.
He waits, obedient. He had been conditioned to obey a stop-hand.
The man is wearing a cargo jacket and a khaki field cap. His mirrored-lens aviator shades are the purple colour of the morning. He must have a headset in that other, invisible ear. His whole profile, from the softly rounded shoulders to the soft groomed beard and the soft potbelly, is relaxed. Just a man doing his job, a job he enjoys without forgetting himself. There is nothing hostile about him except the hand.
He can’t get past the hand.
He hates those mirrored shades, too. The way they hide the eyes, whatever contempt may be in them. He hates how, when they look at him, he is forced to look at his own distorted face, caught in their warped view of the world.
He made the mistake of going back home last summer, after five years of absence. With every day he spent there, he wished he hadn’t. Leaving had not gotten any easier, but staying, too, had become unbearable. Lighthearted joy was tempered by the distance of time and space he carried everywhere with him. Affection was peppered with reproach. Embraces were hardened, just a touch, by jealousy. He was old software: to even function through the simplest transactions, he required constant updates, and in response to his every word, every silence, every hesitation were assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.
The first shots fired during his stay were their own: blanks shot into the air in a spontaneous salvo, at a distant cousin’s wedding. It startled him for a second. He may have actually brought a hand to his head, and they laughed at him. Teased him, mercilessly.
He’d been gone too long.
The hand is still up. It is a cool morning, but he loosens the 76 percent wool scarf she bought him, and when that doesn’t help, he rips it off his neck and squeezes it in his hand. He can’t shake off the feeling of someone standing at his back, too close for comfort—as if he, and not the man with the stop-hand, was the real obstacle. He looks over his shoulder. There is no lineup. He is alone. Yet when he looks forward again, he feels the echo of human chaos stirring behind him. Checkpoint ghosts.
He must live in the now, think of the here. Had there been ten people behind him on the footbridge, he reasons, they would all still have stood there in curious and mildly irritated silence, torn between frustration with this trip-up in their daily progress and the prospect of said trip-up being something unusual and interesting. After all, the people here get stalled all the time: by streetlights and slow traffic, by texting strangers navigating sidewalks erratically like diseased bees.
Seldom do any of them get stopped. They have no fear of it.
He looks past the man, past his healthy, hearty frame, to the centre of the footbridge. No tripods there, no cameras, no oversized spotlights. There should at least be spotlights, he thinks to himself. Something to clarify the purpose of his arrest.
There are two figures at the centre of the footbridge, a man and a woman. Dark fall jackets, her long black hair down, his hands in his coat pockets. They are too far from him, and nothing about them is striking, recognizable, or peculiar. Models from a clothing ad on the side of a bus. Nature supplies the scene with authentic wind. They, too, are waiting.
He pulls out his phone to check the time, sighs conspicuously; the man in front of him pretends not to notice. The 42A will be gone without him. He could still make it if he ran right now, pushing the forbidding hand aside. But he will not run, not in front of these people, even if they let him. He did not come to this country to run.
He ran, once, many years ago. His father didn’t (couldn’t? wouldn’t? after all this time, the truer word eludes him) and when he ran, walked, meandered back, his father was a plaster statue, shattered by three storeys of a home his own hands had built.
He could turn around and walk away, but for the sound wall. He will have to follow it along Cartwright Drive, waiting for that gap, that crossing. This wall, which did nothing to him but shield him from the unpleasant reality of urban railways: will it rub him wrong, too? Will he grow to resent it the way he now resents this footbridge, which, only hours ago, was his bridge to the world?
A commuter train comes and goes with its distinct bell. He can see it slipping under the footbridge and coming out on the other side unchanged, unaware of having crossed a line, the bridge’s concrete shadow.
The stop-hand drops. Whatever they were up to, they are done with it. The man gives a thumbs-up to someone else, someone not on the bridge, out of the frame. Then he steps out of the way with a smiling nod. A thank you that is heavy with the assumption of understanding. You know how it is, says the nod.
He takes to the footbridge, unable to look up at the man or the fake couple stranded in the middle of it. His legs are cramping as he walks, remembering a soreness caused by much longer waits, at much stiffer crossings. His heartbeat itself is both alarmed and stifled, as if crushed by a hand that knows its way into his chest.
The morning no longer has that coolness of autumn come early. In fact, it hardly feels like morning at all. It must be noon, he must have stood at one end of this footbridge for hours, and there is nothing strange about it, nothing strange. It is a sunny day, he can tell by the yellow hue the concrete takes on under his feet—except it is hardly concrete, no, it is a hard, dusty curb, a chasm between dry grass and dry asphalt. His feet raise the dust, but it doesn’t touch the hem of his denim, doesn’t settle on the black leather shoes she bought him. It is real, like the sound of the German Shepherd barking behind him, barely contained by its leather leash, or the horns of cars overtaking him, the speed and sound a belated protest against daily belittlement, but he is only a ghost travelling through a vision. He cannot tell whether he is in it, or it is in him.
He crosses the footbridge not as a pedestrian, but as a trespasser given reprieve, as one who expects a voice to call out at any second, to summon him back.
To put him back in line.
He doesn’t tell her anything about it. He eats and goes to sleep before she even gets home. He feels her plant a quick kiss on the back of his neck as she slides into bed next to him, and it keeps him awake for a while, staring at the corner of the night table.
He wants to wake her and tell her how wrong she is, about everything. How not all walls are created equal, how comforting they can be, no matter how ugly. He wants her to understand what it means to him, to wake up in the morning and see the walls still standing around them, holding the roof above their head, keeping their happiness—whatever it is worth—out of sight and out of range. He wants to tell her that even something as generous and hopeful as a bridge can become a barrier, because it is little more than an extended hand, and hands can be severed from their bodies. He wants her to understand that he’s been forgetting, that she’s been helping him forget, and that she should stop.
The next morning, he slams the dresser drawers a little louder than necessary, and when she sits up in bed and asks him if she can drive him to the bus, he lets her.
Yuliya Barannik spent her childhood in Crimea, came of age in Montreal and now calls Toronto home. She holds a BA in English Literature and Printmaking from Concordia University and an MA in Creative Writing from University of Toronto. Her short story won first prize in the Hart House Literary Contest in 2014. She is currently working on a series of stories about the lives of Canadian Muslim millennials.