Conjunctions:55 Urban Arias

For You We Are Holding
We are waiting on the streets in front of and beside the office. The number of us can be many but rarely is. The number can be none but it is never that. Whatever the number, that is who we are. Another number of cabs and buses and elevated trains are dispatched to service us, to carry those of us who no longer drive away from the end of our working to some other destination: Here is the shop selling suits that was once a shop selling dresses. Here is the restaurant that takes down our names when we call, then expects that we will arrive together, at one particular future. Here is the bank whose ledger is filled with names, some of which are ours, all of which can be organized according to various metrics of finance and circumstance, of interest and time. 

On the train, we open our cell phones and track our location, watch the blue dot cut through the city’s grid, across its streets and avenues. Once we were able to ride the trains to get lost, to be anonymous, to be somewhere no one knew we were. Now there is always something locating us exactly, by minutes and degrees. The train goes through a tunnel and for a moment the blue dot stops following. We are free for five, ten, fifteen seconds, and then it is with us again, an on-screen representation of we who are traversing a city writ miniature, pocketable. We press a button and the city disappears into a menu of other options, other ways to disperse our time. Our distractions trail us, make waves. We are traveling but we are mostly doing so by standing still, by holding on to the provided railings, lest we be thrown free of this quick-moving space we have chosen to occupy. 

We can be separated by turnstile, by revolving door, by threshold. Outside on the street, we are waiting to feel our phones vibrate in our pockets. We are taking our phones out and looking at the screens even when they do not. These phantom feelings accumulate until we no longer trust our senses, ourselves. To communicate, we type with our thumbs, walk with our heads down. When we look up, our eyes meet from across the avenue. We recognize each other, or else we think we do. We are the people who are in a hurry, who are crowded together block after block after block. We are close to other people but not the people closest to us. We imagine them here too, imagine them filling this entire sidewalk, the block ahead, the block behind. What a different city that city would be, filled with all those missing or else lost. There we might glance upward and see her upon the balcony of her apartment, hung high above us. We might see her, but we might also pretend not to. It is easy enough to pretend when no one is watching. She is far off, tiny above us. She is smoking a cigarette or eating something microwaved into warmth. She looks as alone as we are, which is not to say that she doesn’t have the remainder of her family inside, waiting behind her sliding-glass door. We no longer have any way of knowing for sure what that word means to us. Maybe neither does she, unless she turns around and looks. 

Once, this bench was where we met on lunch breaks, at this location placed an equal distance from each of our offices. We shared different takeout each time, but often someone at another bench had a meal that looked better, or that came in an unrecognizable package, brought from some new restaurant hidden in the blocks around the park. It was hard to be satisfied with what we had when there was so much more we could have had instead, when there was all this city we hadn’t yet found. We tried to meet at our bench every day, but if it rained between eleven and one then we did not see each other. We tried never to forget, but if it rained while we were at the park then sometimes we rushed back without remembering to kiss good-bye. Then to spend the rest of the day dreading car crashes, and what if we should die before we made it home. What happened happened but what is the chance of its happening again, we said. We said, It’s not desperation if it’s love, but maybe we were wrong. 

When the rain starts, we are the number of people standing at this particular corner on this particular day. We open our umbrellas, hide our faces from the rain but not from each other. We clump, then disperse. We are going in more than one direction. We will not remember each other’s faces, only fragments of clothing, posture, speech. Only the size of an umbrella, or the shape of a leg soaring down and out of a skirt. Only the voice of a child saying Hello, saying What is your name, saying Why won’t you talk to me. Saying Mommy why won’t he talk to me. Only this tight sensation held behind our faces, that of our eyes fixed on a lighted traffic signal, on the slim last second between not walking and walking. Even while we are walking away we are already walking with someone else. 

At the store, we shop for fresh vegetables. We shop for cruelty-free meats. We put these things in reusable plastic bags made of recyclable materials. The bags are printed with messages telling us we are saving the earth by what we choose to eat and drink, by what we feed our family and friends. There are so many of us here that sometimes we have to wait in long lines to pay for our purchases. Sometimes the train station is so thick with us that by the time we get home our meat is browning. Our lettuce is wilting, our strawberries are spoiled, and both must be wasted into a trash can or garbage chute. We imagine all that past and pointless sunshine, all that mother’s milk, all those held breaths spilling out upon the slaughterhouse floor. We imagine that floor packed, crowded with those others suddenly aware they have been tricked. 

The salesman at the running-shoe store tells us our shoes are no good for running. He tells us they are outmoded technology, then sells us something else, something better. We will be happier, he says, and healthier too. He says that in these new kind of shoes we must run without socks. We wonder what about the shoes makes this so but we don’t ask. Not everything that seems to have causality actually does. Now look how long our stride is getting. Look how far we can run from where we were. Later, we turn around and head back, hear the difficulty in our breath, the discouragement at how far there still is to go. We stop, bend over, put our hands on our thighs for support. We are breathing hard while around us others are calmly walking. The sun is out, drying the afternoon rain from the sidewalks. The sun is out, but no one expects it to last.


We can be separated by termination, by resignation, by a move to another borough or another city. Sometimes we will think we see an estranged part of us in a department-store window, in a bathroom mirror at a bar where we have been drinking. We see his face, his eyes, his hair, or his smile. He is holding a tie up to his reflection or he is lifting a scotch to his mouth. We call out his name but he does not turn. Probably we did not see him. Probably he does not want to see us, or even look the same as he once did. All around are reminders of the people and places that were once us, images captured in glass and mirror, the shape of names etched into the bricks. In them we do not look unhappy. We are not an unhappy group of people. We have a job or else the prospect of a job. We have an apartment we are pleased with. We are wearing a suit that we have been told is fashionable by the salesman at the suit store so that we might start to meet women wearing dresses like those worn by the girlfriends of our friends, who are the kind of women our friends say we are supposed to be meeting. When our phone finally rings, it is a friend asking if we want to have drinks or a previous date asking if we want another one. We do want another or else we do not. We are willing to continue trying, or else it is too early. Perhaps if we are being honest we will say we only went on the first date because a friend insisted we try to start over. Maybe if we don’t know when to stop talking we will say that we are still hoping to regain what we have lost, to repair what we have ruined. Our parents call every week to ask how we are holding up, how we are adjusting, if we are happy. We tell them what they want to hear. We smile, because we are told people can tell we are smiling even on the phone. We say, Yes, we are happy again. We say, We are trying hard to be as happy as we can be.

In the evening we gather in front of an apartment building, then hail a cab. The cabbie is not one of us, not the us that is we who are sharing the cab together, not the us we will be when we are no longer in the cab. The cabbie is different, but still he speaks our language. He looks at our suits and dresses and asks us where we are going, what we are doing this night. He asks, What is the special occasion. We say we don’t know. We say it is our birthday, it is our anniversary, it is the evening after a funeral. There are dozens of reasons to celebrate or commiserate, enough people packed around with whom to do either. We have chosen these few others to be with. We have slipped our hands into their hands, have involved their fingers with our palms. Later we will break bread, clink glasses against other glasses. From a far enough distance, it will be possible to mistake us equally for celebrants or mourners. 

The waiter brings us food cooked by a man who yells, or else he gets a call from home, a message in his pocket bearing the first vibrations of bad news. We are the customers he is serving when he returns to our table with his red face and his white hands held above and around our plates. He asks, Is everything all right. Is there anything I can do for you. When he goes outside, we wait longer for fresh beverages or extra butter. We have conspired to eat our food in a place where the person who brings it to us is not a person who will eat beside us. When we leave the waiter at the end of the meal, we tip exactly what we would have tipped had he been perfect. 

We stay together until the hour when the trains stop running the way they once ran, and afterward it is harder to get where we are going. Together we stand on the platform, take turns stepping over the line to look down the length of the tunnel, toward the lack of approaching light. Impatient, we stumble backward, shuffle our feet, run our fingers through our messed hair. We are either talking too much or else out of things to talk about. We are surrounded by the people we have been surrounded by all night, plus these others who are us too, if we become now the people waiting for this train. This time of night there are other options too. Her number is stored in our phone but also remembered by our fingertips. We could call that number. We could apologize for the late hour, for sounding drunk because we are trying so hard to sound sober. We know we would not get what we are hoping for, but that does not mean we wouldn’t try, if only there were reception this far under the earth. 

On the way home, some part of the we takes a picture of the rest, promises to post it online after we are no longer together. Later some of us will write beneath it, craft sentences meant to make the photo seem offhand, incidental, the record of a gathering that could happen again anywhere, anytime, even though it never will, not even if we want it to. And how we want. And how we are always wanting. To hold on, to recapture what we have lost, what we are losing. Not what, but whom. On the streets it is raining again, and again we are wet and tired and ready to be home. Beneath our feet the puddles pool and we plunge ahead until the cold water uncouples us into the night. 

Awake alone, then panic again into questions. Where is he. Where did she go. Where am I. To be alone is the worst thing so do not be alone: Open the laptop in the corner of the room and watch it fill with glow. Put your fingers to the keys: Can’t sleep. Who else is awake. What are we all doing up. Watch the screen for responses, then pour a drink while waiting for the coffee to brew. The coffee smells different here, this apartment still unfamiliar after all these months. Check the clock, then take a shower, get dressed. Better to stay awake than to allow the dream to resume its teasing. Just because morning is here again doesn’t mean the nights aren’t getting longer. 

We can be separated by custody hearings, by the back and forth of the court-ordered visitation weekends that follow, or else by a failure of forgiveness, a persistence of penalty, an inability to beg right our pardon. Living elsewhere now is the boy who is harder to call our boy than he once was, harder to call our oldest son when there is no one left to be older than. Again and again he becomes a stranger in the times between our togetherness. We ask him How did you get so big and mean every syllable. We ask What do you want to do today because we fear we no longer know the right answer. We bring him a present, but it is something he already has. He is bored with it before he opens the package. Now you have two, we say. Now you can keep one at your house and one at mine. We say, It’s OK to miss your brother. I miss him too. Over and over we speak these statements, each too much like a question, each clumsied out of our mouth. Always now there are two where once there was one. Always now the one left in this apartment lags behind, stuck in a Sunday evening, while the other rushes ahead, into and out of the coming week. Without us, away from us, the boy is becoming, the boy becomes. He becomes but we don’t know what. We don’t know if we will ever know ever again.


In the end, we can be separated despite our best efforts at staying together. We can be separated by tragedy, then by arguments, by fair and unfair blame, by couples therapy. Then by divorce and new addresses. Now we are too far away and want to get closer. If we still owned a car we would park it up your street. If we owned a bike, we would ride it past your apartment. Instead there is only the bus, the cab, the train. There is only the running, sockless in our new shoes. All day we make the blue dot follow us to the places of our previous habits. They are all diminished now but we go anyway: Here is the park. Here is the restaurant. Here is the shop and the store and the bank. Tourists would need maps to find these places, but these are not the places tourists would think to find. We have lived here too long for their kind of maps. Our maps are stretched tight across our skin. We carry them everywhere with us so that when we are lost they might carry us. 

We ride and ride until the dot loses us, until we are disappeared between buildings or under the ground. It is only temporary, but it is all the chance we need or have ever needed. Unwatched by anyone, we call your number to ask if you are home. We send a message to tell you we are on our way. We press a button that causes a buzzing in your apartment to notify you that we are downstairs, that we want to come in. Maybe this time will be the time you press a different button that gives us access to what you have: your lobby, your elevator, your hall, your door. If so, then maybe we are knocking now. Maybe then the door is opening, then the door is open. Maybe a cab is waiting for us downstairs, and we are waiting for you, for the two of you. We are waiting for you to join us. We are waiting for you to again please say that you will. Look how little we are holding without you, we say. Without you, look how hard we are trying to hold.

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall (all Soho Press). A native of Michigan, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. His contribution to Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity is excerpted from a novel-in-progress.