By James Joaquin Brewer
Finally back from Beijing, back on the ground in Boston well before midnight, Lee labors to stretch the muscles of his cramped hips and legs. The beneficial effects of the Chinese herbal potion are definitely wearing off, but are still easing his aches and pains compared to what he was certain he would have been enduring during the long flight if he had not followed Mingyu’s instructions. As he makes his moderately painful way toward the Boston Logan baggage claim area before meeting Liv for the ride home, he finds himself reluctantly acknowledging new interpretations of a phrase frequently impinged upon his musings when observing fellow members of the human species: “Don’t be that guy.” Or, as he now corrects himself, looking around at several men and women walking cautiously at various rates of less-than-rapid speed and seeming to reflect various levels of discomfort, “Don’t be that person.”
This is not about admonishing himself to avoid being someone who behaves rudely in public; nor about being someone who can’t let go of some trivial disagreement with a family member, a business colleague, or some other acquaintance; nor is it about . . .
No, this is a simpler but more alarming inner warning. Lee is candidly thinking something like “You don’t want to be one of these people in this airport with you right now struggling forward at an awkward pace, putting one sore foot or ankle or knee or hip in front of the other with carpet-scraping movements accompanied by facial winces or sighing breaths.” But then, in honor of a gradually growing recognition of unspoken emotions from some of those around him, Lee reduces his pace – consciously slowing it below the rate he could maintain with relative comfort. “I am going to shuffle in solidarity,” he whispers, “rather than pretend to be a solitary stroller.” He straightens his posture, urges discipline to his faltering footsteps, and admits that around him are the sorts of aging men and women he had noticed at earlier stages of his life on many occasions in public settings and for whom he had usually felt only momentary touches of sympathy. He confesses that one such aging person had been his own father. Instead, it is now a sense of empathy that suddenly dominates his emotions.
Now it is happening to him, what happens to so many others . . . The sentiment is theatrically re-enforced by a group of young women with backpacks showing the bright logo of a school volleyball team: they hurry past with the speed of Olympic race walkers – though not with the associated herky-jerky motions of arms, hips, heels, and toes – veering gracefully around the fleshly obstacles that threaten to impede their young legs, smiling or nodding “politely” as they continue on their (all-too contrasting) merry ways. (Daughter Julie is still, he thinks, one of them . . .)
Lee and his suddenly acknowledged cohort are all bumbling along toward not only a carrousel of suitcases – where their physical dexterities would likely be challenged as they wrestle with weighty baggages on curving conveyor belts – but they are heading as well toward eventual cemetery plots or urns of ashes.
What bothers him most several minutes later as he drags his finally captured luggage behind his aching ankles and watches batches of men and women younger than himself comfortably cut in front, ignore the escalator up ahead, and leap like gazelles up the middle stairway, is the philosophical perception that they, too, are locomoting (albeit at a less fearful pace) to the same place as he and his fellow “solidarity shufflers” . . . “No longer am I a solitary stroller,” he reminds himself out loud for anyone who wants to eavesdrop. “We shuffle in protest! We demonstrate bodily reality!”
Lee wants to raise this odd notion of recent enlightenment with Liv right away – he is feeling alarmingly anxious about their shared mortality – but she is not at their usual airport meeting spot. He digs out his unfashionable flip phone to see if she has left a message; but the phone, as he has, has lost its charge during the long return from China. He hunts for an outlet and after ten minutes, both he and the battery have enough energy for him to call Liv and learn that due to heavier-than-usual traffic out of Ramsay plus an unpredicted cloudburst, she is running late to Logan.
Lee walks carefully toward a refreshment stand in search of something warm and comforting to hold. The line is long, giving him time to observe the locomotive patterns of fellow passengers on spaceship earth. He notes recurring categories of human movement. The ones that interest him most are characterized by lack of youthful energy and flexibility – those suggesting some degree of discomfort, some limited range-of-motion in the knees, legs, or feet, or (in several cases) reliance on a single-legged cane or a four-legged “walker.” The apparent percentage of such fellow travelers in the airport with him is frightening. He feels a fleeting impulse to hug each one in the immediate vicinity and whisper, “I understand, I relate.” Lee does not do that. Instead, he retrieves “three dollars American” from a wallet still holding a wad of taxi-cab encountered counterfeit yuan and gratefully receives in exchange a small cup of “Boston-Brewed!” coffee. He shuffles (in solidarity) over to a row of padded seats, cautiously lowers himself into a reasonably comfortable sitting position, and ponders his father’s mortality – wonders about the last thing he had been “shuffling” toward.
“I am that guy,” Lee whispers. He sips his coffee, debates his phrasing, alters it: “That guy was I . . .”
He hears her voice behind him: “Happy Birthday, Baby!”
How did she find him?
“I love you, Liv,” he says without turning. When he does turn a moment later, when he sees her standing straight and tall and confident, he realizes that even though after marrying her he had never really been a “solitary stroller,” there had been times when he had exhibited less emotional solidarity than she deserved — and that he was capable of. He stood, took her hand, and as they strode briskly together, his luggage rolling smoothly behind them, told her what a great mood he was in now that he was home.
James Joaquin Brewer was raised in a bowling alley in once rainy (currently fiery) Oregon. He now shelters in central Connecticut, where he works at completing a novel about political protest on college campuses in the ‘sixties, makes good-faith efforts to help his wife with her vintage-fabric and antique-furniture business, and wonders if earth’s guests will develop solutions to the truly frightening effects of climate change. His writing has appeared in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Write Launch, LitBreak, The Hartford Courant, Aethlon, Jeopardy, Rosebud, and The Poetry Society of New York.