Saturday, July 25, 2009


It’s one thing to be near something, and quite another to know it’s there. Every day there are thousands, maybe millions of things that let us pass them by, never bothering to make their presence known. And then, a letter from a cousin: “I have chipped nail polish on my toes. The other day I was taking the pause that refreshes in the ladies room and leaned over to have a closer look at those
chips and bashed my head on the double-decker heavy duty toilet paper dispenser, which made the whole four cubicle interconnected structure shudder and
clang. Chuckling about it later I imagined a concussion report description of incident. I'm fine.”
Even as I chuckled in sympathy, my fingers wandered curiously to the little lump to the left of my nose, just at the tip of the eyebrow. At the risk of worrying various other relatives, I do suspect that this tendency for post-bending-down tragedy syndrome runs in the family. There’s the little lump, right where I last felt it, under my left eyebrow, a lingering reminder of the time when my back got so sore that I took it for a bone scan. I was in the bathroom at the lab, trying to hurry, and I put my purse on the floor. Wouldn’t you know it? Some time in the few seconds between the moment when I sat down and the moment when I reached down to retrieve my purse, somebody sneaked in and installed a grab bar at exactly the correct position to create a resounding crash with my passing eyebrow. It was a perfect hit, a spot-on connect. It had that satisfying smack I’ve occasionally heard while standing near someone who managed to get a golf shot just right. I was fine. I am fine, so I’m always a bit surprised to find that little lump. I truly did expect it to eventually go away.
That little lump took the place of a previous lump, not so big, the mark of another incident just a few years ago, one that taught me how it feels to cross certain boundaries in life. That lump came innocently enough, the product of laziness rather than intention. I had opened the lower cupboard door to retrieve a plant pot. Intent on a planting mission, I did not stop to close it. I would close it later, no need to bother right now. You guessed it! I forgot that I had left it open and so, when I bent to feed the dog, my eyebrow and the top of the door collided. There was a nice bruise by the next day.
It was the bruise, rather than the knock, that taught me what it means to be near to something without really being aware of it. A bruise is more prominent than a little lump. It stands out. People notice.
Our journey to work takes us through the inner city, along the sidewalks frequented by hurrying commuters in business attire, and neighbourhood frequenters with lives we seldom imagine. To say we interact with the inhabitants of this life would be an overstatement. We shout a cheery greeting to regular corner-dwellers, shrug off panhandlers. We smile at people we meet on the sidewalk. We hurry a little when sharp, angry threatening voices shout obscenities at each other across the line of advancing traffic. It’s a rough world. We know that. We know it the way we know there must be a toilet paper dispenser, or a cupboard door open because we opened it. We know it, know it without being aware of it.
I am not specifically aware of my bruised eye on the sunny afternoon when David and I stroll arm in arm--he in a suit, I in a dress—stroll arm in arm on our way home from work. Toward us come three men of indeterminant age, maybe homeless, maybe not; maybe sober, maybe not; three cheery fellows who have noticed us, perhaps for the first time.
“Hey,” says one to my gentle, suited David, “your woman’s got a shiner.”
“Oh,” croon his companions, “did you hit your woman? DID YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU hit your woman?????????”
Time stops. Everything is still. There’s a perfectly good explanation, I want to say. I left the cupboard door open and then, stupidly, bent down and hit my eye on it, is what I want to say. They have asked a question. Really, I ought to answer.
But they are not listening. Without intention we have made their day, brought them to a point of jubilation. They are thrilled, exhilarated to accuse a man in a suit of a shameful crime. There is no interest in conversation. This will be a time when we will not have the last word.
There are many things people fear about the inner city, getting mugged, being robbed, encounters with scary strangers. We are aware of these on our daily commute, a little cautious perhaps, though no more cautious than in other neighbourhoods. Still, we never knew, though it was certainly there, that among the dwellers along those streets flows a current of hopeful waiting, waiting for their turn at superiority—waiting for us to fail.
And we never knew—though certainly it was there—that we had been feeling superior to them.

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