The light turned red, so I pulled my bicycle to a stop at the intersection. A woman materialized on the sidewalk corner next to me: her hair in a beautiful head-wrap but the rest of her clothes rumpled and dirty, her face wrinkled in what seemed like a permanent rage. She set her giant plastic bags down on the ground and laser-stared at me, the only person around not encased in a car. “You were in my dream last night,” she yelled. “You tried to be my friend. Why would I be your friend? You murdered my kid. You make me sick.”
“Be well,” I said, rolling on my way through the still-red light. “Uh huh,” she said, her voice thick with disgust as she continued, her screams eventually receding into the city and construction soundscape.
As I rode on my merry way to get an arm-length swab inserted into my nasal cavity, I wondered about the possibility of some reality existing in which I had, in fact, murdered this woman’s child. A vivid image of me throttling a toddler, lurking within the dead and dying dendrites of this woman’s brain. As I rolled onwards down the hill, I thought about the starkly disparate realities she and I inhabit.
I often think about these divergent pathways. The City and the City, one of my all-time favorite novels and probably the one that has had the most impact on my thinking, increasingly feels less like fiction. If you haven’t read this – I definitely recommend that you do, especially if you’re a fan of speculative fiction. The main conceit is the setting: it’s like if East Berlin and West Berlin, instead of being side-by-side and separated by a physical wall, were co-located in the same space. Right on top of each other. Citizens from Ul-Qoma and Beszel can literally physically be standing right next to each other, sharing the same air, but functionally existing in very different worlds.* The distinction between the cities is enforced very strictly, by some vague unseen force referred to as “Breach,” and the mechanism by which Breach functions is left ambiguous.
The actual plot itself – a murder mystery – is pretty boilerplate as far as murder mysteries go (dead girl, grizzled inspector rebelling against authority), but the fractured city and its rules I found endlessly fascinating. How would it even work? Short of magic or forcibly blinding people, enforcing such a boundary seemed frankly ludicrous – how could even the most oppressive government regime stop its citizens from seeing what was directly in front of them?
Kolkata was where I first realized the feasibility of unseeing a whole other segment of society. It was jarring to me with an outsider perspective, but within days, as a mere tourist, I too began to unsee the many street beggars. Then I moved to Baltimore, another fractured city. I could walk out of my apartment in a cut-up Bolton Hill mansion with manicured gardens, cross one street and walk right into a world of vacant boarded up buildings (ghosts from ’68), shattered glass, and thin wiry junkies frozen in mock statuesque stances. I started to keep track of the many cross-hatched areas (places of adjacency or near overlap between cities). The Black Butterfly and the White L are Baltimore’s Beszel and Ul-Qoma.
The city I inhabit is worlds different from where this woman dwells. In some places, the curtain that separates the two cities is paper thin, and light peeks through, in a distorted way. I, the murderer of her child, am hopefully long gone from her mind.
Later, I came home and read this article about people inhabiting a truly different planet than either me or this woman. In this magical realist world, the pandemic is fake and Donald Trump is somehow the savior of trafficked children. Truly, I have no words for this.
But yes – I now no longer think that the concept of people just willfully refusing to see things is fantasy.
* in these pandemic days, I wonder how in the hell a pandemic would play out in a fractured city setting. Crime solving was impossible enough – how people would even begin to approach contact tracing completely blows my mind!