2,745 words – approx. 9 minutes
It starts, as so many things do, with a joke. It’s not a good joke; it’s a wizened raisin of a thing, shrivelled and drained of any insight or wit by overuse. It’s not even a joke that’s spoken aloud, but one spotted on the t-shirt of a man with a takeaway coffee as he leaves the Sunshine café on an autumn lunchtime.
Nevertheless, it starts with this, and weeks later another man, who had not in fact seen the joke himself, is in an almost empty carriage of early morning subway in New York.
But back to the café. The man who is eventually on the train is at lunch with two colleagues. This is an unusual occurrence, as he does not like his day being interrupted. He prefers his lunchbreaks to be functional, times for refuelling, pit-stops before the afternoons stretch before him. He has little patience for the luscious near-siestas that others seem to prefer. As a result he cannot help but feel a little anxious as the contractually-stipulated deadline for their return approaches. It is almost physical, an impending concrete slab pressing against his face. This is an uncomfortable situation.
It has been twenty-three minutes since he left his desk. He rarely accepts his colleagues’ sporadic invitations to lunch, but he enjoys being asked, and he believes that if he does not occasionally accompany them they will in time consider him to be a lost cause, and cease asking him altogether. And so it is to safeguard the invitations that his future self might receive, rather than any more immediate pleasure, that he has agreed to endure a lunch away from the safety of the office. It has been twenty-three minutes, yet his colleagues have yet to remove their crusty baguettes from the white paper sleeves they came in. He finished his own (tuna mayonnaise, wholemeal bread) seven minutes ago. The same number of minutes that are now remaining – a satisfying symmetry, but not enough to prevent his growing impatience.
“Is Harry still stressed?” he asks Gloria. This is a coded reference; he means it to be a question about her and Harry’s sex life, to remind her that she recently complained to him of a lack of carnal attention on account of Harry’s inability to switch off after work. Perhaps he also means to reprimand her for the uneaten sandwich on the table, but mostly he just wants some details. He likes hearing about other people’s sex lives. It is a small, harmless pleasure, like the press of a warm towel on a cold day upon leaving the shower.
Her reply, though, is frustratingly straight. Either she hasn’t picked up the subtlety in the question or she’s unwilling to discuss such things in public, even with two friends.
Nelson has, thank God, begun to eat his sandwich.
Gloria and Nelson are the man’s two favourite people of colour (he thinks this term can apply to both of them, although Gloria is in fact Puerto Rican). His friendship with them is a quiet source of pride to him, and the invitation – and his subsequent acceptance – to have lunch with them has given his day a sense of nobility. He settles into an uneasy calm as Nelson tells them about a film he saw last week. There are currents pulling below the surface, but barely a ripple is visible. It’s similar to falling asleep, the same sort of distracted sensation, and soon the tug of the currents has sunk so deep he can’t feel them at all.
A few years ago, following a series of incidents on the line, the transit authority had bought new rolling stock, clean and bright. The reasoning had been a popular type at the time: they would signal a new start, and instil a sense of civic pride. But within a month the authority had given up trying to erase the graffiti that appeared nightly, and now it seemed like no-one would bother any time soon.
The carriage in which the man sits, close to the door, is empty apart from two other people towards the middle: a man and a woman. From here, he can make out that the woman is wearing a red and white polka-dotted dress and is reading a magazine. He assumes the purple case on the floor is hers. The man looks older, and has on a denim jacket and tracksuit bottoms. Every now and again he raises a brown paper bag to his lips.
They are sat opposite each other, but appear to be strangers. Neither acknowledges the other’s presence, until the man stands and takes the seat next to the woman. She turns a stiff shoulder towards him, and is now reading the magazine up against the scratched plastic panel to her right.
From his position at the end of the carriage he watches the man continue to talk to her, although he can’t make out the content of his attempts. The man leans over her, and she is trying to shrug him off, but with little effect.
He should intervene. He should tell the man that she is clearly not interested, that he should leave her alone. But there are wider considerations than the chivalry of rescuing a woman on a train. Of particular note is that this situation seems a little too neat. Why are this pair on this particular train, in this particular carriage, as he travels for this particular purpose? There is nothing inherently suspicious about a man harassing a lone woman, but nevertheless, given the circumstances it is safer not to engage. If his fear is correct they will find some way to involve him, and so his decision to remain in his seat and feign ignorance will only postpone the inevitable, but as a matter of general principle he believes that there is some merit in postponing the inevitable: it is longer until the inevitable occurs. He is not, in any case, clear enough in his thoughts to walk this logical tightrope. Also unclear is what he expects them to do if are indeed a part of all this. Stop him in some way – although one facet of his current tension is an unformed fear that they intend him harm, even though this is at odds with his more articulated theories.
As the train hurtles towards its destination he sits and watches the man’s insistent advances from the corner of his eye, trying not to draw attention to himself, just in case.
It happens with three minutes left to go. He is checking his watchless wrist repeatedly. They need to go. He’s in this taut, sharp state when a man walks past their table, holding a polystyrene coffee cup and wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering printed on. His sunglasses rest just above the horizon of his forehead. It’s only once this man has passed the table, but Nelson, who is facing the counter, has read the t-shirt.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you,” he reads aloud with a growing smile. “I like that.”
They stand to leave, but he finds that he has a trapped nerve in his thoughts. It is constraining the movement of his thinking, setting a new, painful boundary. He excuses himself to the bathroom, telling Gloria and Nelson to go on ahead. He will have to be late. Once he’s there he closes the lid of the toilet and sits. He breathes deeply. It is easier here, alone, but still this idea evades his mental grasp – it is angular and unwieldy, defying his efforts to grip it. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you.
He can’t stay here for long. He has to go back to work, make his way through the thicket of the afternoon. There will not be cameras in the toilet, but surely there is one in the café, for customers’ safety and security (these words are already beginning to take on a sinister, steely, prickly feel). He walks out as quickly as he thinks he can without attracting suspicion, although suspicion of what has not yet fully formed from the stinging miasma that is occupying him. Anyone watching would think he was half-mad as he zigzags a jagged route across the square that separates the office and the Sunshine café, more so if they knew it was give himself the best possible chance of avoiding any cameras that might be trained on this open space. But this is America on a September lunchtime, and no-one pays attention to a man darting among them with a trapped nerve in his thoughts.
The afternoon is hell. His thoughts swing and lurch with their own momentum, in a way that is not at all conducive to the successful management of customer records. He makes any number of mistakes, and is aware of none.
On the way home he looks at no-one, not even the bus driver when he shows his ticket. He stands despite the available seats. It is comforting, soothing not to see people. It allows the myth to persist that they have not seen him. In the space of an afternoon this has become very important to him. There are surely cameras on the bus, but this is unavoidable, and already he is discounting them from his concerns. When he realises he has lowered his guard already he is alarmed, and he blindly gets off the bus, thankfully only two stops from his house. It is a bright, clear day.
At home, he operates from memory, the routine of his life taking over. He boils a pot of coffee and eats three crackers which he has smeared with butter. He lives alone, which often is a source of lonely frustration. Tonight, however, it is a relief: he has to unclutter his thoughts, spread them out in front of him on the thin carpet and organise them. This would not be possible with anyone else around.
Anyone else would say he was crazy.
He closes his eyes and takes long, calming breaths. The tall lamp in the corner and the shadows it casts give the room a meditative feel: it is a place for introspection. He is trying to feel out his thoughts, to learn their contours. When he thinks the man in the black t-shirt with the disposable coffee cup he feels a sudden pressure behind the eyes. It reminds him of being a child, trying to stare at the sun.
He is not prone to episodes such as this, and nor is he stupid. He knows, deeply, that he is not constantly being watched, that his every action is not being recorded and broadcast to a television audience of millions, perhaps billions. But if he is. If he has been watched forever, isn’t this exactly what he would think? The idea refuses to be submerged. It is big. Too big. His head aches with the vastness.
He now sees a smirk on the face of the man with the coffee cup, and hears an irony in Nelson’s voice as he reads the slogan.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you.
He opens a beer and sets the bottle down too quickly, sending the foam rising and spilling over the lip. When he picks up the kitchen roll to wipe down the table he can feel that his shoulders are tense and tight. He drinks more beer.
If his madness is right, he asks himself, why would they risk tipping him off like this? He is trying to engage himself, to be his own voice of reason, as if describing the crazy thoughts might make him see them as so. But he already knows why – his traitorous mind has already found an answer. He imagines falling ratings, a crisis meeting, the suggestion made in desperation to walk closer to the edge, to dangle the opportunity of discovery in front of him, the thrill of near-revelation known to any secret-keeper. Known to the world. So no, this not a final argument. It is not proof. There is no proof. What proof could there be? When he woke up that morning he, without evidence to the contrary, believed that he was not being watched. All that has changed now is the polarity of his belief. His immediate assumption is no longer the blithe certainty of his insignificance, but the paralysing possibility of total surveillance.
He sleeps drunkenly in his chair, and feels faded, although not hungover, when he eventually wakes at 2pm. He had briefly woken to his alarm clock and rung Letitia to tell her he wouldn’t be coming in due to a stomach virus, but he then returned with his next breath to an exhausting sleep.
His feeling of guilt at this uncharacteristic lie is surprisingly weak. He is able to rationalise it: he is a little burnt out, his mania the previous day showed that. He needs some time to himself. Maybe he should book a holiday.
And does feel better, boiling an egg and eating it with a slice of toast in the small kitchen. He feels a drained clarity, as if he had recently finished crying. He doesn’t feel scared, although he stays away from the living room, where the television sits as a reminder of his delusion.
He showers, and by 4 o’clock he is reinforced enough to overcome this final fear. And it is now that he learns that two planes have flown into the World Trade Center.
Flown. Not crashed – that implies something accidental. The news replays the video of the first plane, so serenely slicing through the blue of the sky into somewhere between the 93rd and 99th floors of the North Tower. And then the second, adding weight somehow to a horror that was already unimaginable.
How did the pilots feel at the moment of impact? Were they calm? Did they close their eyes? Were they surprised at their success? Who did they think of? These are the questions that occupy his mind.
Then, treacherously: did it happen at all?
In the coming weeks, he will read hundreds of forum posts and watch hours of videos documenting inconsistencies and impossibilities in the official version of events. His browsing history will become flooded with bulletin boards, forums, and alternative news sites, and he will have to apologise to his manager for this. But despite his new diet, he never quite believes it, even though it would bring a harsh comfort.
They are, he thinks, asking the wrong question – or the right question with the wrong focus. Because this event’s proximity to his frantic questioning yesterday leads him to wonder whether it is part of the same conspiracy – whether this has all been staged, whether there are people watching, analysing, enjoying his response, while the towers stay standing. He, after all, knows no-one who works (worked?) in the Towers. And the theories about the missile? The government forewarning? Decoys, intended to reconcile his developing mistrust with his reality.
He needs a new word, he thinks, for the ‘real’ reality – if indeed that’s what it is.
But that’s later. For the rest of the evening and into the early hours of the next morning he is transfixed by the repetitive horror of the reports. It feels somehow unpatriotic, shameful, to have slept through the moment, to have been at peace when his country took such crushing blows, and so he keeps vigil until he can longer and once again falls asleep in his chair.
For the next few weeks, until he boards the train early on a Saturday morning with no luggage, he devours any mention of the tragedy. What he is waiting for is not clear even to him, but it does not come. He is still not clear in his mind as to whether this terrible attack has actually happened or whether he has found a seam between the world that he has had constructed for him and the world outside, the surrounding world.
This is how he finds himself stood at a cold Canal Street station entrance. It is deep into autumn, and still early in the day, but there is so much life here. Attached to the wall is a defibrillator, with a laminated sheet taped to it explaining that it is currently out of order, and apologising for any inconvenience. He laughs at this, and it sounds foreign as it echoes in the wind, then disappears.
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