Slender frame, stooped shoulders, an old suit and a necktie dangling like an afterthought. Maybe a pair of shoes, frayed by style and age, but I could never see them in the dark. A book in his right hand, never left, a collection of stories or perhaps a short novel. Seize The Day. It could of course be The Heart Of Darkness or anything by Ian McEwan, but in my mind it was last century's most perfect novel. Even if there was no way to be certain.
He got out of the subway station, at some point around midnight, and ever since it first happened, which is ten years ago now, I wanted to put him in my book. This man had to be in my novel, whatever it took. He could be a hero and he could be a villain. Or else he could just be one of those fleeting characters without so much as one full sentence. And yet all I knew about him was that at some point around midnight he got out of the subway station in New York.
I could never do a proper character study as it was too late and I had no intention of disturbing him with my questions that would have been so inappropriate. There was of course a possibility of following him into the tiny alley which he slipped into on his way home, but I despised the indignity of doing so. And imagined myself in the first film by Christopher Nolan, which seemed to be the perfect warning.
We only shared the way for about two hundred meters, and then he turned left and I had to go straight ahead to the room I was renting at the time. I watched the slim silhouette, Beckettian in the extreme, gnawed by the trees growing alongside his way, and I thought of my latest story. He could be the hotel keeper in Rome. He could be the drug dealer in Bogota. Or, come to think of it, he could appear as a forgotten painter dying of consumption in Tanzania. The possibilities were killing me.
I mostly saw him on Wednesday, which was the day I went to Nitecap, and after two cocktails I felt refreshed and a little apprehensive of the sort of ideas that were coming my way. I only thought of the man's existence when I got out at Fulton Street and saw him just ahead of me, darkened by the dimmest of lights of Manhattan, with that small book of his.
Every evening that it happened (and overall there must have been more than a dozen of such evenings), he was inside my head and I could not imagine him being anywhere else. There were times when I was close to breaking the silence and the unspoken arrangement that no doubt existed between the two of us. There were times when my feet almost took me to his tiny apartment on the fifth floor or wherever it was. And there were times, too, when I got home and thought of a poem with him hovering over each line that I wrote.
But none of it ever happened, and it took me ten years to realise that I loved him as he was. He deserved the real life, not fictional. So that one evening I let him be. I will never forget how he turned left for the last time, so that next Wednesday, when I got out at Fulton Street after another outing at Nitecap, he was no more. For all that night and for all eternity, the man was no more.
The man was free.