The supermarket is quiet tonight. I stand in the dairy aisle alone, listening to the soft and steady humming noise of the refrigerators. Their deep, baritone-like lullaby calms me down. It fills the empty space in my head, making it impossible to form any kind of thought. Water droplets are dripping down the shiny milk cartons, slowly dragging over the images of happy-looking cows in green and luscious pastures. I stare at them, perfect and beautiful as they are in the fluorescent lighting of the fridge.
Almost automatically, my hand grips the handle and pulls the fridge door open with a soft click. The humming noise is suddenly much louder, almost overwhelming as I grab a carton of milk. It drones in my ears and seems to reverberate through my body. I dump the happy-looking cow into my basket and quickly close the fridge.
I tell myself to move, to go to another aisle, to pick up another item that someone would buy if they were getting breakfast for the next morning. My feet shuffle along. The lullaby of the fridges is replaced by a scratchy song on the radio as I walk towards the brightly coloured wall of cereal cartons. Once again I am met with happy looking faces. Some belong to too perfect-looking humans, others to anthropomorphic bunnies, tigers, and monkeys. I grab a box of Fiber One, the only one without an unconvincingly cheerful face, and let it fall into my basket.
The teenager at the cash register stares at my face while he rings me up. I see his lips move, yet don’t register the actual amount I owe him. I shove a £10,- bill his way and walk off before he can give me my change. He shouts after me, but I am outside in two large strides and his whiny voice disappears. Cold November wind hits my face in an icy slap. Around me roars the deafening city. It almost startles me as noise reaches my ears from every corner. I have lived here for more than three years now, but I am still not used to the constant wailing of ambulances, cars, and people.
I force myself to move along and disappear among the throng of pedestrians. Even at night, there are people everywhere. A forest of anonymous figures infused with mystery and producing a world unmasterable by those who inhabit it. Like an ant I crawl along the side walk. I am surrounded by others, yet feel incredibly alone. The buildings around us reach high into the sky and form an impenetrable-looking wall. I notice cracks and oily stains underneath my feet as they inch over the pavement. I keep walking and walking, unable to step out of this promenade of bodies.
The woman next to me is shouting into her phone, trying to overpower the noise of the city. I stare at the red borders of her mouth as they move to form words that become lost as soon as she utters them. She notices me staring and lifts up one arrogant and sharp eyebrow. I immediately fold in on myself and stumble away from her. Hard shoulders bump into mine as I try to find my new place among the herd.
I didn’t used to be like this. The city has morphed me into a creature; one filled with fear and loss. The person I was before has drifted away and has left behind a husk of something supposedly human that crawls along the bottom of the city. I watch others as I believe I am being watched: with suspicion and cynicism. I keep walking.
My steps take me closer to what I now consider to be home. The arms and hands of those who move faster than me brush against my sides as I stumble along. For a few seconds I savour the feeling of physical touch, but it is an unconcerned, loveless fondling and it does little more than to fill me with longing.
I try to pick up my step and wander towards the edge of the forest of figures. I take this walk two to three times a day, yet every time it feels like a forced activity. I know that my physical journey over the concrete pathways of the city is a necessity in order for me to exist at all. Like an ant in a monstrous colony, I walk because I have to. I follow an invisible line set out by others that have come before me, unable to break away from it. The act of walking in this unending, towering city makes me feel covered up, crushed, and concealed.
As the sign of my apartment building comes into view, I breathe an imperceptible sigh of relief. My footsteps quicken and the calm I had felt while standing in front of the refrigerator doors earlier returns. Home. Yes, in some way this grotesque city harbours a place for me to retrieve to which feels out of reach from its grasping claws. Inside there are no people; inside I am no longer forced to participate in the performance of movement I have come to dread.
Pushing myself past the person in front of me I start to reach for the brass door handles of the apartment building when a voice stops me.
I turn around and see the person I just pushed past morph into Benny. His smile grows when he sees me and I can tell he ignores the look of dread on my face when he approaches to give me a hug. His body feels oddly warm against mine. He steps back and flashes me another big grin.
“I haven’t seen you in forever, how have you been?”
With all the strength I can muster I don’t utter the expected two words that come after my statement, but he doesn’t get the hint.
“Say, we never had that cup of coffee you promised me after we met at Joe’s.”
“No, I’ve been busy, you know how it is.”
He laughs and I try to give him a small smile too. I wish I hadn’t turned around.
“What about now? It’s a Friday evening so there’s no better time to catch up with an old friend.”
The cogs in my head start turning to come up with an excuse. The only thing I can muster is to hold up my bag of groceries as a sign that I have to go inside, but he laughs again.
“Don’t worry, I know this great place where they will let you put that in the fridge.”
Benny steps forward as my mouth tries to form the word that will put a stop to this. Yet, nothing comes out. His long, warm fingers clasp around my wrist and he pulls me towards the road. My heart starts to quicken and I give a slight pull, but he ignores it. He dives into the forest of anonymous figures and I can feel myself being swallowed whole.
Benny turns around one last time and flashes me a sickening grin. I feel our bodies start to morph into that of big, black ants as we crawl along the side walk with the rest of them. Our promenade begins again.
by Veerle de Jong