Katrina M Barnett1,435

1 LMU Drive MSB 6689

Los Angeles, CA 90045

805-415-2159

Twenty

For Jon

I am standing beside a railway, and on the opposite side stands someone else. At first I'm not sure if it's a guy or a lady, but then I realize it doesn't really matter all that much to me. They are only a vague shape, dark, and I am not one to examine strangers. They do not move. I don't either. I'm waiting for a train.
I needed a worthy conflict, something to save me from this burden. I thought maybe that would be her, standing on the pier in a white coat that looked like an Audrey Hepburn hand-me-down, or maybe it would be here, where boys trying to be men fight in the shade with knives and spray paint, where men become boys to murder wal-mart customers in the wee hours. It just made sense that somewhere here there could be something dark, something lurking, something I was meant to take on with heart and soul and willpower, but the more I chase the promising shadows the more I find I'm losing myself rather than making myself known. Yesterday, I followed a bike path into a little tunnel that travels beneath the highway. At one point there was a slight curve in its construction, and for a moment you can't see your hand in front of your face. I stopped right there, believing myself to be on the cusp of whatever it was I was looking for. I breathed, for the first time in a while, into the black, and I heard myself breathing back. Where am I? And there was my answer, my old cold breath blowing over me. Right back where you started, buddy.
I'll take another drag, because it's one of the few things that satisfies me. Maybe I don't know where I'm headed but I know how to take a good drag. I think. It feels good, anyway, though I don't really have a point of reference about what a good drag might be to someone else. Not that I care. I don't think.
Times like these make me think about a homeless man I used to see every day on main street. I assume he's still there. He is an unnaturally tall, presumably vagrant person with a pony-tail. He always dresses in black with a baseball cap to match. He spends all of the earnings he gathers from panhandling to make pens that look like pencils with custom printings, each of them bearing the phrase "Jesus is the Narc" with references to select Bible verses that allegedly back up this claim. He was shot once, five years ago, on the street by someone with deadly intent. This didn't slow him from his mission, however. My grandmother, the busybody about town who always took it upon herself to bring the ill flowers whether they wanted them or not, went in to visit him at the hospital as he was in recovery. When she left the hospital she had a bouquet of freshly sharpened pens with gold lettering. I have watched this guy carefully simply because here, I think, walks a man with purpose. It's not a purpose that anyone else understands, but he knows, and no one will dissuade him. He has no doubts. This is who I want to be.
As I turn about to admire the grey scenery I note from the corners of my eyes that the stranger is still there. I grimace, suddenly finding this waiting game torturous. Aside from my mysterious friend, there is nothing to look at. Everything here looks like it was cut out of the same cardboard box. Except this person on the other side. I hope they stay until the train comes. I think. I don't know. I start to count down- I cannot wait for this train any longer. I count the cracks in the sidewalk, but I get distracted. I count the shapes I see that remind me of cat's faces, bit after conveniently spotting two of those I'm lost. I have nothing interesting to count. Well. That's not true. I furrow my brow, attempting to count the most innumerable of my belongings. Zero, my starting point, is where I start to recollect. I go from there.
In another life, I think, I was a waiter. I carried fifty drinks at a time and charmed old ladies, and my only friend was a homeless girl who lived in a hut made of clothes- her only possessions. I suppose I would survive on my salary and give her my tips in quarters so that she could do her laundry in the local shopping centers. After every work shift I would visit her at the laundromats and we would watch the washing machines move through the see-through doors and for some reason she would cry. When I asked her what for, she'd tell me that everyone deserved someone else's tears, and she was crying for someone lonely, someone old, someone dying, someone who had no tears to claim. When I told her I simply never had been capable of crying, not even a little bit, she took my hand and wept my burdens away for me. It was the only noble thing she could do. We traded quarters for tears for as long as I could remember.
I keep counting.
Another life of mine, maybe my third, saw me as a tree climber. I would scale anything, step from roof to roof, and make myself comfortable with the birds at night. Sometimes I would try flying with them but on every occasion I would simply fall short. One day I fell in love with someone who had an intense fear of heights and we spent many of our days in agony as she would walk the park and I would follow her through the trees and vines. When we found time to rest I could play her songs I had written about the sky and she would sing in her lovely soothing voice about the tunnels she longed to escape through in the dirt, until one day she did. This is my heartbreak.
Another life, and this is the most distant one, made me a shoe. I first ran every race, trounced punks in the schoolyard, squeaked alongside desks in art class, walked cobblestone paths in European places. Eventually I became bloody, worn, exhausted, embarrassed. The music that made me dance grew old and unhip and soon I was held together by mud and guts. When I think of this life all I know is that I'm older than I can explain.
In my most recent life, I am a smoker. I will not allow myself to be obscure, like this person staring at me from across the rails. I really wish they would stop that.
I turn instead to watch the smoke, escaping from between my fingers, slyly leaving my jurisdiction. I am fatalism. I am a bedtime story for Sylvia Plath's children. I am an international traveler with selective amnesia; my memories are not glorious and comprise only a mosaic window of recollection. The wheels are turning but they are ancient and wooden and growing brittle. They are snapping apart.
There it is. At last, I hear the train coming. I toss my cigarette carelessly, halfway hoping that this cardboard city might be put alight. As I do this, so does the man across from me. I look at him, finally, defiant, knowing that soon the train will be here and I can vanish. He looks, defiant, directly at me, and I see that he's not strange after all- he is my reflection.

He doesn't look at all like I feel. He doesn't look like a smoker or someone with countless past lives. He looks so… young. I want to throw a rock at him and shatter his expression, but when the whistle of the train rings louder in my ears I find myself smiling back. There is no loneliness like ours.
As the train pulls between me and me, I lose sight of my stranger and get on board. The wind seems to propel us forward, and I struggle against the urge to say goodbye to myself, hiding around the corner. I guess we both know how this is going to go. I search in my pocket for my pack of cigarettes, remove them at last, smile lovingly, and bid them a fond farewell. As the box falls to pieces and cascades from my hands I silently ask what I will be in my next life.
I am, at least for this moment, happy to wonder.