Equations of State
And somewhere in all these, all these possible variants of the bus-taking crowd, was Karl, who would appear from out of nowhere, and I would be the only one who could see him.
I did not know what to make of Karl the first time he appeared next to where I was sitting inside the moving bus. He looked just like any other middle-aged commuter, except that I was the only one who could see him, and he knew it, the known intuiting the unknown and perhaps vice versa had I been more inclined to seriously think things through. He said a terse hello, looked straight ahead, and that was it. I got off the bus in front of Avenida General Hospital, went about my rote weekday motions in my cubicle office, the size of which mirrored the smallness of the world I inhabited as well as the tenuous degrees of separation I had with other people. The next morning when I rode the bus, not the same bus of course, he materialized again next to me. Then the day after, when I ended up sitting next to another person, he appeared from out of nowhere in the vacant seat before me.
I could not explain exactly how I found out what his name was. It just occurred to me that his name might be Karl. He did look like a Karl to me, could be a David or a Dennis when sunlight through the bus window illuminated his face at a certain angle. But he was definitely not a stereotypical laid-back John, Eric, or Jeff. The Johns, Erics, and Jeffs of this world were easy to spot in any crowd. It was difficult to tell them apart. And if asked about the terrible things they had done, their answers would be so uninteresting that it just wasn’t worth the time wasted to pose the question.
There might have been a rule on how reality was constructed and I totally missed it during the past thirty-six years I had been alive.
Karl had on the same clothes, same everything: white shirt, loose-fitting jacket in a military-green shade, a pair of cargo pants that were so dark blue they were almost black, Adidas running shoes, no ring, no watch, fingernails neatly trimmed, day-old or two-day-old stubble on the chin. He would say hello if he appeared sitting next to me. When he appeared sitting elsewhere, he would simply look me in the eye and nod in acknowledgment. One time, it might have been a Monday, when the bus had all its seats occupied by passengers, he appeared standing behind me along the aisle. As usual, he said hello, met my gaze. I nodded without saying anything.
So a month went by with this weekday-morning bus routine involving a dude named Karl, who came out of nowhere as if his presence made sense. There might have been a rule on how reality was constructed and I totally missed it during the past thirty-six years I had been alive. That might explain Karl, why he existed—if existing meant being physically present—when he shouldn’t. Outside the bus, buildings either loomed or skated away from sight, much like their occupants whose entire lifetimes revolved around an axis that either waxed or waned, much like their occupants who enlisted as citizens in this republic of glass and reinforced concrete, as citizens who took their share of licking from the perpetual heat wave. The drone outside the bus was not necessarily different from the one inside. And no matter which way I looked at it, it was as if there was nothing to this life, nothing in the next, nothing in whatever comes after the next. There was nothing, really, except a repetition of what it was, where things stood, and how things could be. So a month went by with this weekday-morning bus routine involving a dude named Karl, who came out of nowhere as if his presence made sense, and I finally decided to believe that in this particular case, the why was far more important than the how. I finally spoke to him, asked him who he was, whispering throughout. Of course it would appear to the passengers overhearing me that I was talking to myself since they could not see Karl.
Was it possible that the narrow space between me and the other, this man I had been so sure was named Karl, that the narrow space just might someday dissolve?
“I don’t know,” he said in a voice I associated with a Karl. “I just was and then I wasn’t.”
“You mean you don’t remember going anywhere, except when you appear here inside the bus when I’m around?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem right for you to be slinking in and out like a ghost. Are you a ghost?”
“Is it important what I am? I don’t even know who or what I am and what I’ve been doing and can’t remember anything else. Nobody ever talks to me. It’s just you. I probably only exist because you can see me.”
“Wow, that’s messed up.”
I didn’t know what else to ask him. What did it mean when words failed us? Was it possible that the narrow space between me and the other, this man I had been so sure was named Karl, that the narrow space just might someday dissolve? Like there was and then there wasn’t, a void being filled and then drained until pretty soon the distinction between the two would cease to exist. Maybe there was no way to distinguish between the two. Surely, tomorrow and the next day, I’d still see Karl. It could be rush-hour Monday morning once again. And it was rush-hour Monday morning once again. The bus I was in was thankfully not even half full yet. A passenger was using his left sleeve to wipe away snot. Another passenger, a student wearing the uniform of a diploma mill along Gutierrez Avenue, was checking her face in the mirror embedded on the underside cover of a gilded compact powder case. A woman unfurled her abaniko. A fiftysomething man with a cane, although he seemed to be able to walk steadily. A handsome man with acne pits on his face (must have picked on his zits when he was a teenager). And somewhere in all these, all these possible variants of the bus-taking crowd, was Karl, who would appear from out of nowhere, and I would be the only one who could see him. He had on the same white shirt, loose-fitting jacket in a military green shade, a pair of cargo pants that were so dark blue they were almost black, Adidas running shoes, no ring, no watch, fingernails neatly trimmed, day-old or two-day-old stubble on the chin.
Upi, Maguindanao, Philippines