Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronised bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap.
Once he accompanied me into a lingerie shop because I had to choose a pair of tights to wear under a new skirt. I’d just bought the skirt and I needed the tights for that same evening. Our fingers grazed the textures splayed out on the counter as we sorted through the various colors. The binder of samples was like a book full of flimsy transparent pages. He was totally calm among the bras, the nightgowns, as if he were in a hardware store and not surrounded by intimate apparel. I was torn between the green and the purple. He was the one who convinced me to choose the purple, and the saleslady, putting the tights into the bag, said: Your husband’s got a great eye.
Pleasant encounters like this break up our daily meanderings. We have a chaste, fleeting bond. As a result it can’t advance, it can’t take the upper hand. He’s a good man, he loves my friend and their children. I’m content with a firm embrace even though I don’t share my life with anyone.
Two kisses on the cheeks, a short walk along a stretch of road. Without saying a word to each other we know that, if we chose to, we could venture into something reckless, also pointless. This morning he’s distracted. He doesn’t recognise me until I’m right in front of him. He’s crossing a bridge at one end and I’m arriving from the other. We stop in the middle and look at the wall that flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. The bridge is flat and yet it’s as if the figures – vaporous shapes against the solid wall – are walking uphill, always climbing. They’re like inmates who proceed, silently, toward a dreadful end.
“It would be great, one day, to film this procession,” he says. “You can’t always see it, it depends on the position of the sun. But I’m amazed every time, there’s something hypnotising about it. Even when I’m in a hurry, I stop to watch.”
“So do I.”
He pulls out his cell phone. “Should we try?”
“How does it look?” I ask.
“No good. This contraption can’t capture them.”
We continue to watch the mute spectacle, the dark bodies that advance, never stopping.
“Where are you headed?”
“Should we have a coffee?”
“I don’t have time today.”
“Okay, ciao, see you soon.”
We say goodbye, separate. Then we, too, become two shadows projected onto the wall: a routine spectacle, impossible to capture.
Excerpted with permission from Whereabouts: A Novel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Hamish Hamilton.