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A touchy situation by Cheryl Pallant



They were standing on line. Hordes of them. Some stood two abreast, although most stood in groups of three to seven. As a result of impatience and shifts from one foot to the other, the queue of people, disordered and confused, faced every which way, not an agreeable or pleasant sight for those who prefer or expect life to be neatly filed.

The ends of this line were nowhere in sight. From this, one could easily conclude that there were no ends, and who is this author to argue about infinity? In fact, friends tell me that this line not only ran through every town but also stretched between all continents, linked by the latest in telecommunications and by battle ships and cruise liners that I hope were securely anchored. What I can easily attest to, however, having seen it myself despite near-sightedness, is that the length of this line was unendurably long, long enough to turn any reasonably patient person away.

For the sake of this telling, I'll focus on only one block of this line, yet freely assume, based on certain mathematical principles, that what is occurring at this point is likely being duplicated elsewhere, a line being the shortest distance between two points, which is easily reproducible.

On this block, there were approximately two hundred people of various color, shape, and eye slant, most bundled in jackets, although several with higher metabolic rates kept their overcoats opened. Talk flowed freely, seemingly amiable, but of no import whatsoever; a few people were silent, involved with the chatter inside themselves.

What happened is this: A woman in a brown coat standing near a fire hydrant shifted her weight to favor her right leg. In doing so, she somehow managed to lose her balance, and as she tried to stop herself from falling, she knocked into a woman in front of her. The knock was slight, at least according to my way of thinking, yet the woman who lost her balance resumed her previous stance as quickly as possible out of fear of reprisal and pretended as if nothing had happened. In fact, she completed this series of movements so fast that when the knocked-into woman turned to determine the cause of the disturbance, she could find none. With a bit of thought, however, she rightly identified the perpetrator and was about to voice her annoyance when her boyfriend called out her name, seeing that her attention had strayed elsewhere. So that was the end of that.

Almost? Not nearly.

An hour later, the recollection that her personal space had been violated continued to irritate her and she wanted to avenge herself and reclaim what she believed had been hers, that is, her several square inches of sidewalk. As she rummaged through her handbag for lipstick and a mirror, she made a concerted effort to stick her elbow out way beyond where it needed to be. Her intention: to strike the woman behind her. As she picked up the lipstick, she angled her elbow away from her torso until she accomplished what she had set out to do. So that was the end of that, she thought.

Almost? Not nearly.

What this woman had not taken into account was that in the hour since the initial disturbance, the line had shifted and the woman behind had moved, replaced by a couple with their one-year-old son. The victim then of her jab accidentally happened to be a baby who up until now had been peacefully asleep in his mother's arms. The child, not knowing anything about what was going on around him, in fact not knowing much at all in general, that is, not in the way we commonly know things, did, however, realize that he had been jabbed in the ribs and did not like the sensation in the least. Immediately he screamed, which startled his father, who turned so swiftly toward his crying infant that he knocked into the person beside him, an elderly man who, once bumped, himself swayed into the gangly leader of a group of fourteen-year-old boys.

Up until now, these boys had been joking boisterously and mocking everyone around them, but when the leader realized he had been pushed, he yelled out "Hey-hey!" The rest of his pals repeated the refrain several times like pubescent canaries, and some guys further down the line seized the opportunity to echo the same coarse phrase.

The tone of their voices frightened all the children nearby under four years of age and excited those slightly older into hollering and jumping up and down, antics that not only alarmed their parents but also aggravated those who weren't parents. Most of these people had purposefully decided never to become parents because they viewed children as synonymous with constant headaches; and, with all the children now disobedient, the non-parenting folks looked askance at the progenitors, most of whom were busy trying to quiet their progeny.

Essentially, to shorten the story of this lengthy line, let me say that what had been a relatively quiet block of people erupted into an agitated crowd. Talk escalated into arguments and quickly nose-dived into insults like "Hey, horse-brain, isn't it time you go to pasture!" and its abridged counterpart, "Up yours!" Small shifts of body weight expanded into shoves, punches, and the like. Movement restrictions, limited by unstated laws, were transgressed by both young and old. Men and women took advantage of the situation, and not only did the Domino Effect come into play but so did the notion of Eye for an Eye. Having been punched, most felt inclined to punch back. Having been spat at, they returned an identical or more generous supply of spit. Patience has its limits and these people, having withstood all they thought was required and all they believed they deserved, reacted as their grandparents had -- by fighting. This, they rationalized, justified their actions, and no one gave another thought to the matter.

Meanwhile, I must tell you what was going on west along this line, and let me also mention that the circumstances at this point were duplicated nowhere else. There, yet another woman knocked into a woman as unintentionally as the first. This scene we are already familiar with, and you might expect a recurrence of what I just finished describing.

Almost? Not quite.

Once the woman noticed she had been knocked into, she realized also, having spent so very long in line talking, becoming silent, and talking again, that this physical contact actually felt...well, could she admit that she didn't mind the sensation she experienced with this person, a stranger, no less? Sure enough, she did admit this, and after considering its infrequency, she decided to manufacture another "unintentional" brush with this strange woman. She waited about an hour and then, as gently as possible, inched her body closer to this woman's until her arm touched the stranger's in several places. There, in coextension, she let it stay before her conscience deemed she should return it to the usual, safe parameters of her personal space.

This other woman, although involved in conversation with her father, noticed the proximity between herself and the first woman and, having forgotten to wear a heavier sweater, welcomed the warmth that the contact provided. On top of this, once they separated, she noticed the coolness of her body that much more, and she wanted to return to her new-found source of heat. After about fifteen minutes, she did so, which delighted them both.

Establishing a nonverbal agreement, they continued touching, breaking only once to glance and smile at each other. Soon, their brushes got longer, their gesturing more noticeable, and they both wondered how long they could get the exchange to last.

Meanwhile, not too far away, a man was noting how peculiar yet wonderful their gentle little dance looked, and he desired to join the women in their easy, sinuous exchange. Realizing how intrusive, let alone improper this would be, he opted to slowly, very slowly, make his way over. He millimetered his way there, which, when you think about it, reveals not only how long it took him to reach them but also how determined he was to succeed.

Succeed he did. First with the base of his back and then with the rest of his body, he touched them both ever so lightly, hoping neither woman would notice. Immediately, they did, although both welcomed it as an opportunity to continue what they had begun and hoped would not cease.

By now also, the brother and wife of this man saw that he had left their side, and they strode over to realign themselves to him. Now all five were touching and performing this little dance, born of the need for warmth.

But how little is little if within hours, the remainder of the people near these five innovators relinquished their stance on line, opting instead for motility? True, all of them were still far from the door, how far specifically neither they nor I know, but what does distance matter when you discover depth? You see, beneath layers of clothing, from their skin to their marrow, every cell had been affected and invigorated, and they now viewed their situation not with disdain, as had been the case previously, but with pleasure. Rather than focusing impatiently on the front of the line, anxious for the wait to end, and regarding those nearby with hostility, they smiled with the recognition that their position along this procession was unique and meaningful, enhanced not only by whom they came with but also by whom they coincidentally stood beside.

These two waves of behavior, the one welcoming touch, the other repelled by it, eventually met at approximately 4:30 in the afternoon. At the time, I was reading a novel, one of several tangents friends and I get carried away with regularly, which is how we learned that getting completely out of line was a gratifying option, as was moving into any of the vacant apartments never inhabited or hastily abandoned in a misguided rush to join the masses. I put down my book because of a feeling that what was about to happen outside my sanctuary had everything to do with who I was, who I had been, and who I could become. A moment like this doesn't occur often.

First the crowd hooted, then snickered, and as I raced to the balcony for a look, they swelled into a violent and chaotic mob, twisting every which way, knots of people stepping on or tripping over one another in a mad effort to get ahead, their struggle altogether missing sense of direction and coordination. In fact, this little fray -- and I am using this word facetiously because the whole episode was so unnerving -- caused me to ask myself many questions that had nothing to do with what I would be eating for dinner or if winter would arrive early.

You see, what happened next horrified me then and continues to terrify me now: numerous people died, their broken and twisted bodies dragged off to the side, crisscrossed with blood like primitive maps of remote lands. As the minutes and hours passed, more and more corpses were pulled away until they were heaped together like a pile of discarded, irreparable marionettes, their strings strangely missing. Then slowly, one by one at first, those still alive realized the extent of the carnage. One woman untangled herself from the snarl, then a man, then groups of three to seven departed rather stealthily to reintroduce the line and therein stand quietly.

With so many dead, those left standing believed the line was shorter and believed, also, they had taken a few steps forward. But friends tell me the truth is otherwise, this information based on another mathematical principle explained to me right before I went to sleep, which is the worst time to explain such a phenomenon. Anyway, many of these realigned people delighted in the illusion of progress and chatted more spiritedly while others, overcome by guilt because of the blood they helped spill, chose to remain altogether silent. Never did any of the line dwellers discuss this incident, not even in passing, but what happened seven years later is the same as what I have already described.



Cheryl Pallant lives in Richmond, Virginia but has recently been working in Malaysia. When in the U.S., she teaches writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and does Contact Improvisation, a modern improvisational dance.


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