R. B. Pillay graduated from Columbia’s MFA writing program with a fiction concentration and was the recipient of the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. His fiction has appeared in Paper Darts and #NewWriting and is forthcoming in Foxing Quarterly and Johnny America.
The used bookstore reminded me of my life here, and that is why I stopped in on the way back to the bus station. But even it—the store—had changed in the interim. If change is a constant, then we should find it reassuring. Returning to our childhood bedrooms to find the same old posters and nightstands and desks and mattresses covered in cartoon sheets that we had long outgrown even while we still inhabited that space ought to be a harrowing experience, “Why didn’t you turn it into a study?” hanging on our lips, unspoken but palpable in the watery rebuke of our gaze.
I stood on the landing of the new staircase to the new second story and stared out across the ground floor. The view from that height, the unexpected parallax, was pleasantly disorienting. I could see the full radiance of the bare, humming fluorescent tubes just below my eye level, hung by chains from the ceiling of the first floor: a greenhouse dedicated to the cultivation of used books. Even though the store was crowded, the patrons below remained more or less invisible from my lookout, hidden as they were by the wood-and-metal shelves fit to burst and stretching to the ceiling, almost but just not grazing those lights. Delicately layered dust, too naturalistic in composition and texture, as if carefully applied with an artisan’s fine tools, graced the tops of the shelves, though not one mote blemished any of the books. The tops of their pages, compressed between bindings, revealed age-induced colorations varying between goldenrod and jaundice, though I knew that, alone, each single page would hide the color along its micrometric edge. All the yellow pages pulsed with the dull, reflected neon glow, a visual chorus.
I leaned against the banister and closed my eyes. My head dropped forward and snapped back like a toy drinking bird. It couldn’t have been more than a second or two, but in that lacuna, I dreamt the sensation of falling.
My words on the page look jagged and runic. A slight tremor in each letter registers the rumbling road. As I write this line in my battered blue notebook, I see the skyline of the city passing to my right, the avenues slowly lining up as the bus follows the loop of 495-West just across the river, providing me a view clear across the island. That I haven’t slept in days lends a flatness to the image, stock New York footage projected against the sympathetically cold window. The passenger next to me reads Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and, despite the rapidly diminishing sunlight, stolidly refuses to turn on his overhead bulb. When I took this pen, this click pen that I am writing with, out of my pocket, I noticed that the button had been depressed. It must have been pushed by my hipbone when I sat down, scrawling secret, urgent messages in the language of pens on the lining of my pocket ever since we left Port Authority.
The skyline passes by again as we merge onto 95-North, this time slower and farther away, almost as if we are departing in spirals. Was I asleep? This is the way to leave.
No one I knew here knew I was here.
The man sitting next to me turns on his overhead light, and I cannot see anything out the window, save my reflected face staring back at me. Puzzle-shaped shadows punch out my features, and through the shadows, if I strain my eyes, I can just make out the passage of black trees against a black sky.