Corrugated cement rumbled overhead as Charles sat with his back against a cold stone wall. He closed his eyes with a heavy breath and leaned his head back. His brow furrowed as he tried to narrow his thoughts to the quiet babbling of the river flowing past.
Charles jumped to his feet, steadying himself against the wall, and looked toward the voice. His mouth moved wordlessly.
“Whoa. Hey. No, man, no worries. I didn’t mean to startle you. Just saying hi.” A disheveled man with a thick beard was standing in the sunlight beyond the overpass. “You can sit, it’s okay.”
Charles looked around for a moment, deciding, then settled back to the ground.
The stranger stood staring at him blankly from the sunlight. “Why you here?”
“I’m… uh… just sitting.”
“Yeah, right, pragmatist.” The stranger walked toward Charles and slid to the ground a few feet away. He took a quick swig from a brown bag.“I mean, why are you here? Why aren’t you driving in a car up there, or in a boat out there, or sitting at home with a pretty wife, two kids, and a dog? Why are you here? You know?”
They made eye contact for a moment, then Charles shook his head and shrugged. He thought about ignoring the stranger. He’d ignored people like this all his life. Then the pain in his chest flared and he found himself choking back tears. The stranger sat in silence for a moment, then offered the brown bag to Charles. Charles shook his head.
“It’s okay, you know? Don’t worry about it. I just talk. It’s what I do. You don’t have say anything.”
“No.” Charles took a breath. “I… I’m just… raw?” He smiled meekly at the ground.
“I hear you. I hear you.” The stranger rubbed his neck with one hand and raised his bag to his lips with the other.
Charles closed his eyes as words began to fall from his lips. “I was just scrolling through facebook. Just habit. I don’t even think about it. I just take out my phone and the next thing I know I’m scrolling through political bile, meaningless aphorisms, and… baby pictures.”
“Sure, yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like the internet is the scourge of modern life.”
“No. It isn’t.”
“Oh, okay. Sure, sure.”
Charles sat in silence for a moment, reaping thoughts long sown. “There was this one post. I’ve seen it before. A dozen times. One of those… meaningless aphorisms. It, uh, said something about not holding on to poisonous relationships. You know? Get rid of the people in your life that are holding you back, and don’t look back. Something like that. I don’t know why it stuck in my head. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. But I was sitting with my friends one day, guys I’d known my whole life, and I just got up and left. I walked out the door. I cut them out and I didn’t look back. I’d just had enough you know. It was just so… shallow. I don’t think any of them even really knew me or liked a damn thing about me. After all those years, what kind of friendship is that? How do you feel lonely around friends you’ve known your whole life? So I walked away.”
“Good for you.”
“Yeah.” Charles chuckled absently. “Then, a few weeks later I was having dinner with my parents. I was talking about how I want to get my act together, improve myself, make something of my life. My mom looked at me and said ‘about time’. I stood up right then, I looked at her, I said ‘enough, mother’, and I walked out the door. I’ve been dodging emails and phone calls since.”
“Yeah, you know if that’s what you have to do. I feel you on the parent issues, man.”
“My dad beat my mom, my mom took it out on us. You know. Classic story I guess. I thought about running away but I wanted to stick around for my sister. Guess that didn’t come to much though. She died from an overdose.”
Charles paused for a moment, unsure what to say.
“You know, I’ve made peace with it. Don’t worry about it. Tell me your story. I like to listen. Almost as much as I like to talk, right?” He laughed without reservation.
“Not much else to say… I just… I just felt so lonely.”
“Yeah, you don’t feel less lonely by cutting people out of your life. No offense, though, just saying.”
“No. You’re right… I came to the same conclusion. That’s when I realized something. When you start to cut the poison out of your life, and you keep cutting and cutting and cutting, and every relationship you find yourself in feels empty, you start to think that maybe…” Charles swallowed the remnants of his pride. “Well… I set out to cut the poison from my life, and along the way, I realized that the poison was me.” Charles stared at the ripples in the water rolling past. “So, I did it. I cut the poison from my life. I removed myself from every relationship. My friendships. My parents. My… wife and children. They’re all better off without me.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Then the stranger smiled. “Oh, I get it. This is one of those… monologues, right?”
“A monologue, like from a play. You’re rehearsing, right? It’s good!”
“No… I’m telling you my story… I…”
“Really? Are you sure? I only know two types of people in this world who talk to themselves for two minutes straight all self-indulgent like that, and you don’t seem like a crazy person.”
Charles laughed with the stranger. Then they sat in silence for a moment as the stranger took another drink. “I’m sorry for being ‘self-indulgent’, I just, don’t have anyone to talk to.” Charles said.
“Eh, don’t worry about it man. I was just messing with you. I have a twisted sense of humor or something.” The stranger looked at Charles for a moment. “Here.” He offered the brown bag to Charles.
“No, I don’t drink.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should start. It’ll clear your head.”
“Alcohol doesn’t clear your head, it dulls your thoughts.”
“Yeah, exactly. Thoughts are what you have to clear. Thoughts are crazy. It was a thought that made you think you were poison. Fuck that thought.” He offered Charles the bag for the third time.
Charles hesitated. He looked down at his hands. He reached for the bag and paused. Then he nodded and said. “No. Thank you. It’s just… not who I am.”
“Ever thought maybe you should be someone else?”
Charles laughed. “I can’t.” He gave a helpless shrug. “Try as I might, for better or worse, I am who I am. Everything I left behind, that was all me trying to be someone other than myself. Even if I’m the worst person I know, I don’t have any other choice but to be that person.”
“Ah, fatalist. I get that. I wouldn’t be here either if I could be someone other than me. This is me.” The stranger held up the brown bag in salute and took a heavy swallow. They sat in silence for a heavy moment, then the stranger stood. “Anyway, thanks for your story, I should get going, you know. Things to do… I guess.” He laughed.
“Yeah. Things to do.” Charles said, nodding and looking down.
The stranger smiled briefly, then turned and walked back toward the light.
Charles closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the cold stone wall.
After a time he opened his eyes and looked down at his phone. After confirming a transfer of funds he stood, brushed off his pants, and walked toward the bus to work.