Yesterday, I met a stranger on the bus. Among many whom my body and life path approached, surrounded, but finally didn’t cross, there was this young man. He was wearing a not very discreet, but strongly elegant mustard shirt, original glasses that adorned his well defined face of sharp traces. Neatly trimmed hair, pleasantly carefree beard, as a contrast.
His main charm, however, was not in itself: he read – absolutely captivated – Madame Bovary. Lurking over his shoulder, I reread with him the last pages: the death of Emma, the contemplation of the corpse, the tragedy, the upcoming ending that tasted like inevitable. I wanted to talk to him.
– Good book, isn’t it?
– Yes. I am almost done, but I can already say that I loved it.
– What did you like the most about it?
– Oh, I do not know… Everything. The language is great; the story is well conducted; the characters are dense and real… You find you judge them terribly but love them, at the same time.
– I felt that too! It’s amazing how we can empathize with them, even though they’re so different from each other and so, so imperfect…
– It is good, right, when we read a book that catches us and whose characters breathe, start to exist inside us …
– Yes! Have you read Anna Karenina, or The Portrait of a Lady? They have the same theme and the same concreteness…
He read, entirely absorbed. How could he, with the many jolts, of the bus journey? But how would he not, with such hypnotic literary material before its eyes? He continued reading, I continued my stubborn silence. Hesitation paralysed my spirit, and on such a beautiful morning!
I talked to him only mentally. I was rehearsing the imaginary sound of his voice, his annoyingly correct insistence on pronnouncing every single syllable of every verb as if he was reading from a novel and not speaking naturally… I saw a warm enthusiasm tinging his face at my unexpected approach, unexpectedly literary, so unlike most of our human interactions on buses….
But can it actually be? Will it be so? He has both ears and eyes busy after all. I forgot to mention this detail… Are headphones a red light to conversation? And the fascination that the book clearly produces in him? Do I have the right to intrude, with my undeniably lesser potential for fascination than Flaubert’s work?
I cleared my throat, moistened my lips. This is ridiculous. I want to do it, and now I have to do it, or I’ll never know what would happen, and I’ll be chased by that thought for days.
Who doesn’t sulk about what didn’t happen, but could have happened? I opened my mouth. I choked and bit my tongue. I was pushed. Our dear collective vehicle spit out people, and those stayed wanted to be a bit less humanly squeezed. Naturally, I was pushed. Gently, it’s true. I was separated from my stranger by many others strangers. My foot tapped on the bus floor, exhaling frustration.
I do not believe it! It took me so long to overcome my civilized hesitation, the conventional and ceremonial threshold of shared loneliness in a public space… and when I was finally going to do it … I was led by the flow of the crowd back to the island of myself. At my normal and, it seems, dreadfully inviolable retreat.
In a little while, a big wave of human islands will come out and I can swim to him again. I’ll find a way to talk to this boy! Now in the window, not in the aisle, he is also pushed by the spectacular island parade. But that will not be an impediment.
People left, once more. I was approached by someone, a colleague I had not seen, who had not seen me before. Our stop is the next. Oh, no, not now! I can leave her with an excuse and postpone my descent a few stops. But the delayed conversation with the boy, confined to a very short time, will not be worth it. Its beginning will already be terminal and I will be savouring in my mouth the bitter avalanche of time, which pays my indecision with its fast escape, charging me the painful tax of the unlived. I will have to suffer in my conscience the force of the social flow, with its accelerated texture, a fortress with which the individual weaknesses – hesitation, fear, shyness – cannot cope.
As a consolation prize? The realization that we are not, I and the Flaubert-reader-wearing-mustard-shirt-lad, the only islands who are strayed by the oceanic thrust of modern, squeezed, tired, hurried people, collectively separated in the same space by the habit of cordial silence, of a respectfully reserved atitude. We are part of a whole which suffers from the same evil of the missed encounter, and rarely achieves or is given the magical gift of the actual encounter. Knowing that you do not suffer alone is always a guilty relief that softens our sufferings.
Another consolation prize? The spell was not broken. The thought that I might have done so, opening my mouth and finding my ears reluctant to hear me, touching his shoulder and meeting a resistant look, barely receptive to my approach… Not having actually made true what my reverie conjured up, I will never really know what reality would have held for me. If the actual conversation was to be more lovely or more awkward than the one I imagined, the boy’s attitude more open or more closed than the one I envisioned, his voice warmer or colder than the one I heard in the morning daydream. And so I can play with the idea of what would have been… And make it as beautiful or as awful, as funny, ridiculous or catastrophic as my imagination wishes.