I want to ask the man standing in line in front of me where he’s from, but people don’t do that anymore. This was always a big city with no small talk. The fact that we’re waiting in line at the airless post office makes it worse. We have all agreed to stand in this angry silence until it is our turn. Nobody wants to be here, the tired postal workers least of all. They wear an invisible armor that signals to the rest of us to stay on task and be disciplined.
It was always considered provincial and naïve to ask about someone’s accent. On the busy streets, especially in the hot glare, people didn’t really talk to each other. And that was before all the changes that made public discourse unsafe. The way we live now reminds me of the stories I grew up hearing about communist Russia, where people lived behind a mask while in public and saved their true selves for a tiny group of trusted confidants sitting around a kitchen table.
There are cameras everywhere. We hear stories of agents in our midst. You have to be careful at the DMV and government offices.
The fact is, here in this sterile space, this man and I are already connected. He knows it too. I saved his place when he stepped out of line to find a pen. When I offered to let him back in, he touched my arm. My bare skin. His fingertips were warm and I was grateful for the almond-scented lotion I had put on earlier. He thanked me for saving his spot. We were swimming in each other’s eyes for a second there, blue on blue. He broke a rule, don’t you see? Touching a strange woman in public. I get the chills thinking of his bravery. His audacity. There was so much promise in that little touch. He threw open a window by putting flesh to flesh. We transgressed together, right there in front of everybody. He’s one of the rebels, like me.
So. I have to ask him. I’m going to clear my throat and ask before the moment slips away entirely. My heart is speeding up as if I’ve been invited to give a speech, but I have to do it. I know he’s from somewhere across that vast ocean, a place where they touch and sing and laugh. Men and women dance there, under the moonlight, twirling in circles that cover city squares. He probably misses his home. He must want to talk. We’re all starving for human connection but some of us are worse off than others. This man needs me to speak up.
What if we should discover that we are exactly alike? What if we have so much in common that we could become dangerous?
I am going to do it. I’m getting ready. Wish me luck.
“I Have To Ask” first appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine, 2017
IMAGE: René Magritte, The Lovers IV, 1928, private collection
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have recently appeared in Atticus Review, Ligeia Magazine and Fractured Lit. A Pushcart nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best Small Fictions 2018 & 2021. She lives in Southern California with her family.