The Study of Getting Lost by Ilana Masad
She didn’t ask for change. Nor food. There was no point. Magna Carta knew this. She wondered, occasionally, if wearing a sign with her name on it would help, would draw people to her. But remembering her time at the sideshow, where customers paid to see the original and then saw her and either laughed or demanded their money back, she decided that it would be a bad idea. Catastrophic, if one of the stagehands of the sideshows happened across her. And they, she knew, were more likely to still use the streets than anyone else.
Still, when a man walked by one day, she asked him, “Where are you right now?” because he looked preoccupied, as they all did, and the question rattled him enough to stop and listen. To think.
It was the age of merit, of intelligence and grit, an age where being street smart meant nothing to anyone. Streets, avenues, blocks, and alleys didn’t matter. They were for garbage, the kind in plastic bags, the kind in rags, the kind in overcoats pulling shopping carts and duffle bags around. The ivory tower was established as the only worthy dwelling, and it was the aspiration of most to reach it and stay in it, in the perfect confines of their own mind. Bodies grew corporeal or skeletal, muscles atrophied, all but the brain, which grew not in size but in usage. It was an age of confinement and solitude, of piles of dusty books rediscovered and bowed down to as new gods. It was the age of learning, forever learning.
“I am – I am here. In my body, in my mind,” the man said.
“And where are you going? Why?”
Magna Carta learned, all right. She learned who she could hike her skirts up to. She learned who would give her bread and who would throw coins at her cup, coins that would miss their target and that she would have to scramble for. She learned which corners were isolated, where garbage didn’t hover, and she stayed there, a nuisance, moving around when the police told her to, but not far. She had several corners, and she leaned against buildings made so long ago that only the historians knew their origins, but buildings full of learners, of ivory tower people, who occasionally, once in a long while, remembered a former life where they had been garbage, or had known garbage. Some had even learned compassion at a pastor’s knee, if they were old enough. Others, around her age, had even learned it from their parents.
“I am. I am. I am going home. I believe. I can’t remember,” the man said. He seemed not to have noticed that he was outside, in the open air. Perhaps his home was in one of the other old, intelligentsia buildings, and maybe he had wandered out of his own home by accident, pacing and pacing as he thought. Some people paced, even now when there was so little need.
“Are you? Are you really going home? Or is that what you tell yourself whenever you want a whiff of fresh air?”
The man seemed stuck. He was gazing at a tree that had grown lopsided and broken the pavement to the right of Magna Carta. There wasn’t awe in his face but something similar, something that made his eyes well up. He was not a client, she realized. Not someone whose body craved the electric charge of pleasure. He was entirely a man of the mind, but one whose sights had narrowed to a point. Anything, everything else, was new to him.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Magna Carta asked.
She’d had parents. She was one of the few. Her skirt, a long tartan flannel, had been her mother’s, dead long ago when the elders were slaughtered. Her coat, warm and puffy and black, had been her father’s, dead of the same euthanasia.
Her own time wasn’t long for this world. She knew this, and so she hid her face and tried to keep her legs hidden, her old shoes that looked like ancient shtetl wear, dirty enough to be unrecognizable. Many things about her could get her lynched, mobbed, put to sleep forever with a simple syringe. She burrowed inside herself and learned to clear her voice and make it young again, learned to feed herself by sniffing out abandoned underground bunkers where once-survivalists had kept their unperishable food. She was smart, Magna Carta. She was smarter than many. But she had no interest in reaching the ivory tower, in mysticizing her knowledge.
“It is beautiful,” the man said. And, after a beat that was so full of sadness that Magna Carta could feel the question and dreaded the answer, “What is it?”
“Ah. Of course. It is a tree.”
“I don’t know what kind of tree it is, though. Do you?” She ventured this question with the hopes of keeping him engaged long enough to notice her state and offer sustenance or coins or anything she could trade at the market where garbage exchanged goods and services and where coins were measured differently but were still worth something when melted.
“No. Botany is not my specialty. Nor is dendrology.” He turned and saw her properly for the first time, and his face, unlike so many others, didn’t change into a mask of putrid disgust; it stayed the same. Almost awe-full. “Where are you going?” He threw her question back at her without malice. He was young and sincere; he clearly had not been taught yet how to treat garbage.
She didn’t say, Nowhere, not until justice is served and the ivory towers crumble. “I am going nowhere,” she said. “I may switch corners soon, when I get tired of this broken view. But otherwise, there is nowhere for me to go.” She had never been so honest, but this man was different. He was naïve. She could use him.
“Would you like to walk with me? I could help carry your bag. It looks heavy.”
Magna Carta laughed. “It is heavy, but I don’t think you’ll have the muscle for it. You can take these.” She handed him her tote and carrier bag. “But do you know where we’re going?” she asked. “Do you remember now where home is?” She dreamed of a bed, a mattress even, the feeling of hot water in a shower.
“No,” he said. “But I thought I’d at least help you move somewhere else. You know more about the streets than I do.”
“Aren’t you scared of getting lost?”
“No.” He smiled now, his teeth white. “My field of study is χασούρα.”
Magna Carta’s wishes crumpled. He was just like everyone else. “You study the art of getting lost,” she said. He nodded. At least, she thought, she would have some help carrying her bags elsewhere.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in NYC. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Printer’s Row, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Joyland, Split Lip Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder and editor of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and struggling writers. She tweets too much @ilanaslightly.