I was walking down the Upper East Side as evening came on. I turned the corner and saw a familiar face: quirky haircut, aquiline nose. We walked toward each other, and I noticed his slightly-too-large ears. Our eyes locked for about two seconds—“a look of glass,” just too long for it to be a random glance on the street—and then (to keep borrowing from John Ashbery) I walked on shaken: was I the perceived? Did he notice me, this time, as I am, or was it postponed again?
I had never met him, nor he me. I had heard his name in vague contexts: he was the friend of a brother of a guy I’d barely known back home. And he was what, five years older than me? How would I have introduced myself to him? We were just from the same part of the Midwest! Still, I had looked him up on Facebook when I'd moved to the city, whereupon I learned that we didn’t have any mutual friends. So I stopped wondering about him. And then I saw him on the street.
I walked on shaken: was there anything I could have said, really, at 5:20 in the afternoon in the middle of a crowded intersection? That moment could have only happened in the twenty-first century. This is the age of the Internet, and we’re all voyeurs, for better or for worse. I keep thinking about how Facebook’s Mini-Feed legitimizes this: I can just mention something I shouldn’t have known, and claim I saw it on my Mini-Feed. But I had no way that I could say I knew him; there was no Mini-Feed keeping us apprised of each other.
I’m more interested in this moment than in the novel I’m working on. It's more honest. Which is why, after the Canadian author Sheila Heti had gotten tired of imagining characters and stories when her actual friends were more vivid and interesting, she had decided to write How Should a Person Be? The book is a pastiche of conversations, emails, philosophical thoughts, and other mishmash centering on her friends. It’s strangely appealing. Her book is a model of the twenty-first century first-person narrative: not a neatly closed-off story, nor a megalomaniac epic that attempts to swallow the world whole, but a clear and direct record of the world as it is, as it goes on, without the artificial struggle for narrative structure.
Making sense of this encounter is my way of finding a new kind of closure. My friends were puzzled that I never went up to him and asked him if he was from the Midwest, too. I wasn’t so bothered, just surprised. I’ll probably see him again somewhere, at a party or a bar where it makes sense to say hello. And if I never see him again, well, I suppose I never actually knew him.
Image credit: journeyphotographic.com