It was a fine, sunny day in Central Park, and I was walking through it, thinking of nothing. A couple hundred yards in from the west side of the park, two large, rather menacing-looking men with a bass and violin were playing the most beautiful classical music I'd ever heard, haunting yet warm, and I paused to stand there for a moment in the sunlight and listen.
A young man nearby was doing the same. Noticing me, he wandered over, smiled, and said, "Beautiful, isn't it?"
"My God, yes..." I replied. "Do you know what it is? Bach? Mozart?"
"I don't know," he said softly, a little distracted, as if there was something more pressing on his mind. Then he turned to me and studied my face — "You look like a smart guy..."
"Thanks," I said.
"Let me ask you something: What do you notice about all these people?" He made a sweeping gesture at everyone around us.
We were at a busy intersection in the park, and I looked around at the bikers, the joggers, the dog-walkers. "I don't know... They're all going somewhere?"
"Yes!" he said, his eyes lighting up. Though he had no accent, he seemed of middle-eastern descent, with curly black hair and a soft face, his eyes large and brown and expressive. "Exactly! They're all going somewhere. But let me ask you this: how are they getting there?"
"Some are walking, some are biking..."
"No, no, no... What direction are they moving?"
"Exactly! Everyone's moving forward! Look around you —" he made another sweeping gesture — "Everyone's going somewhere. Where are they going? Forward! It's where people go. It's what people do. It's all we can do."
"Well, what if you sit still? Look at those people: They're just lying around the lawn, not really moving at all."
"Yes, but later on, when they get up to go somewhere, they'll do it moving forward. Trust me," he said, nodding reassuringly, "there's no other direction we can go."
I took a couple steps backwards to prove him wrong. He laughed and took two quick steps forward to close the distance... "Ah, yes, but your eyes were still looking forward, and you couldn't see what was behind you — we cannot see what is behind us — you were moving into the unknown, and it couldn't have felt very comfortable. I'm a physicist," he said, "I've studied it. But you don't need to be a physicist to see it — you can see it now! Look!" he cried, seizing my arm with one hand and, with the other, pointing out a horse and carriage charging by. "It's moving forward! And look!" he cried, as a bicyclist whizzed by, and then another, and then a jogger. "Look! Look!" And when a man and woman strolled past us with a baby carriage, he whispered it now, nodding towards them secretively and drawing me in close — "Look!"
And, of course, it was true what he was saying — the evidence was indisputable — but I just wasn't quite sure what the hell his point was, and he was getting a little close, his eyes a little wild. As if sensing this, he released my arm, stepped back, and changed the topic, gesturing up at the sky. "Look," he said, gently now, almost sadly. "Look up at the sky. Did you know that when I look up there I can see the atoms, the molecules, swirling about in the air?"
"What, do you mean the little squiggly floaty things?"
"Yes. Not everyone can see them. Only some of us."
I considered not saying the following, but said it anyway: "I think those are just little things floating around in the film of your eye, man."
"Oh, no, no, no," he said. "They're atoms. The stuff of the universe. And you're lucky you can see them. Not many people can."
I nodded, and as we stood there looking up at the blue sky swirling with madness and electricity, the men with the instruments drew to the close of their beautiful song, and there was a moment of silence, which I seized.
"Well, I gotta move forward myself," I said, and shook his hand goodbye.
"We all do," he said, sadly.
÷ ÷ ÷
It is only now, writing this, that I remember the girl on the beach. It was an empty, lonely beach — off-season in the islands — and I was sitting by myself, which is why I noticed her figure in the distance, slender and feminine, coming slowly towards me down the sand. As she drew closer, I could see there was something not quite right about her posture and the way she was moving, something odd, and her long dark hair seemed to hang forward over her face, hiding it. And then I realized what it was. She was walking backwards down the beach, gingerly picking each foot up with great care and purpose and gently placing it behind her in the sand, so that each footprint would be a perfect one, leading off in a trail toward places she'd already been. Every now and then, but only every now and then, she would glance behind her to make sure there were no obstructions on her path, and soon when she turned I could see her face, lovely and young, a little playful smile on her lips — and she looked so beautiful walking backwards, like she knew it didn't really matter which direction she went, forwards, backwards, sideways, it was all the same, all of it absurd, all of us, in the end, just going around and around in wonderful, senseless circles, one way or the next...
Or maybe she simply liked the way her footprints looked, disappearing off into the distances from which she'd come.