I’m me, and what the hell can I do about it!
…I, the solemn investigator of useless things…—Fernando Pessoa
by Sanjay Perera
It is no surprise I still remember how I started talking to him. It was the time of the virus and a new strain supposedly developed called Virus 21 which could not be labelled officially ‘V-21’ because when it had reached what was then called V-20 (a few months after V-19), a juice company threatened legal action for their products were named V-10 onward: the complaint being their health food could be inadvertently associated with illness. Nothing dramatic happened because you never actually win in such cases against governments but since some prominent politicians had investments in the firm, they settled it out of court by ensuring governments stopped referring to the virus as ‘V-something or other’ but Virus-something and the other. You may wonder how there was such coordination between governments over being taken to task by a juice corporation, but I did not think about it either until I met Eduardo. He was a dapper gentleman with a broad hat and retro round rimmed glasses which never glinted in the light (when I asked him about it, he said, “It is matte finished” with a grin). The thin moustache made him indeed seem an ‘Eduardo’ (his own comment not mine: these days you must be careful of what you say as almost anything can be policed by officials and the overzealous). When I first saw him, he was in his regular place at a table protected by a parasol outside the Café Bona Lista (unless it rained then he would be inside at a table by the window). That day I was nearer him than usual. Not long after the first sip of my cappuccino, someone sat a table with a face mask on; he ordered a drink (tea since it came with a strainer and pot). He took his phone out and glanced at it. There was only one other person that afternoon outside, and it was at a table behind the masked man. When he wanted to sip, he lowered his mask slurped then pulled it back up. Eduardo smiled as he lit another of his eternal cigarillos. The petite woman behind the masked man was without a mask as it was not required when consuming food or beverages. But the tableau was disarrayed when she sneezed. The man’s eyes widened, he placed his hand into his satchel on the chair beside him and conjured up with trembling hands a plastic visor which he slipped on without any gallantry. Eduardo’s silent laugh transmuted into spurts of bluish smoke through his thin lips. That was when our eyes met and I smiled, he nodded (or I think he did); but as he read me as accurately as I had interpreted his smoke signals: he moved his grey eyes towards the seat opposite which met social distancing requirements. What propelled me to him was the next sneeze by the woman: the visored man abandoned his drink, stood quickly, grabbed his satchel as if it had ill-gotten gains, and trotted past us; it was my movement that stopped me laughing in a manner that would have attracted more attention than I wanted. With a smile Eduardo indicated my table and when I turned, I saw my coffee and went back to get it leaving the saucer with an unfinished biscuit. When I returned, he lit up again and moved folds of paper to the side (they were the café’s napkins which he sometimes scribbled on; he would also write in a notebook or on the back of receipts). With a low voice,
“The lady looked as alarmed as our friend when he dashed away.”
Before I could introduce myself, he uttered his name. When I did mention my name, he said something like: “If I didn’t smoke, I would start, as it’s one way to avoid wearing a mask. You know, if they disallowed a mask-lift for smoking, it would make people think they were discouraging it.”
“And it would be difficult to go around arresting those who broke the law just because they wanted to smoke without a mask.”
He eyed me for a bit, “Imagine that.”
He avoided the cliché of offering me one for he must have noticed I abstained in the past, yet I asked, “Are those strong?”
He shook his head, “I keep stronger stuff at home.”
We drank quietly. A few people walked by faces blanked away by masks looking at their phones as if the path to salvation was on the screens.
“I do take absinthe at times, and I could let you know where to get some if you’re interested.” His mouth twitched either from mirth or a tic I had not noticed.
Till today, I do not know how it happened, but I blurted: “Absinthe thee from felicity a while.”
He arched his eyebrows, “You’re certainly not as solemn as you look.” Then he laughed softly, raised his coffee, “Salut.”
I reciprocated not knowing where those moments came from (as my erstwhile fiancée used to say: “If only you’re more spontaneous. The dining room is as good as the bedroom”).
“Which do you think is worse, this,” he raised the cigarillo upright between fingers and with the other hand revealed a mobile phone which seemed to suddenly materialise. “These phones are addictions. Many have their souls trapped in there.”
The woman behind me constantly looked at her phone; when not observing what happened outside the café, I did the same. Eduardo was either absorbing the environment through his eyes or writing on a piece of paper. I rarely saw him look at his phone, and even when he brought it out, he hardly glanced at it for it seemed as if he was checking what was in his jacket before placing it back. His watch provided the time. The phone vanished into his jacket as he motioned to the waiter who came and bowed promptly; Eduardo asked if he could get me anything, I declined; he ordered another espresso (he normally had a macchiato followed by at least one espresso). He must have guessed what I thought as I had seen waiters show him more deference than to any of us: he said he knew the café owner, Maria; her great grandfather who founded the place knew his great grandfather when they were in the War.
“Since Jimbo became president-for-life things have worsened,” and it was moments before I realised whom he meant. “Renewed conflict in the Middle-East, rising oil prices, inflation will soon hit us. Damaging the health of children by forcing them to wear masks. Barricades around the Capitol. Increased surveillance, violation of the First Amendment, attempts to scuttle the Second Amendment, trying to get everyone vaccinated: vaccine passports next.”
Eduardo had a point. Since Jim Bidet took over the American government nothing had gone well. He pointed his shortening cigarillo at the camera above the walkway leading to the Bona Lista. He asked,
“Are you getting vaccinated?”
“I haven’t decided. All kinds of variants seem to be coming up and even those who got the jab appear to have still gotten the virus. There have been side effects with some people fainting upon taking it, becoming ill, and even dying: the touted prevention seems as bad as the virus. Yet we’re told you’ve to take even more injections and probably keep taking them. There’s a move to get children vaccinated too.”
“They’ll soon distinguish through devices—a kind of electronic tagging—between people who’ve been vaccinated and those who haven’t. Not only will they track your movements and whom you’re with—through an app or some thingamajig you must carry around—they will call those who haven’t been jabbed ‘superspreaders’ and start denying them access to places or services. This also creates distrust and fear among people: between those who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t. You become an outcast if you don’t conform, people will stay away from you.”
He distanced the ashtray from his cups, “That’s when social distancing takes on its real meaning.” He swivelled his drink and sipped,
“This may sound far-fetched but eventually the socially distanced will be confined to certain areas or ghettoes unless they too are constantly vaccinated against endless variants.”
He kept still, “The war on terror has mutated into the war on the virus and it never ends.”
I did not ask if he would get vaccinated, I knew the answer from his eyes: “They’ll make junkies of everyone. Listen, don’t believe everything the media and governments say.”
“But people do get ill, some have died.”
“People have always become ill, and it appears everyone dies.”
He looked at me as he smoked then, “Biological warfare is not new. But that doesn’t mean every time people are supposed to have been hit by the bug, they actually have been infected by that particular bug. Information can be manufactured to fit agendas. Evidence can be falsified. Deaths that occur from many causes can be claimed to be related to one specific bug: you’re told to trust experts unconditionally. Do you believe what someone says as true all the time? Do you have to accept what I say as true when you don’t really know me either?”
He had a point again. “It’s not that I don’t believe you for others have said, well, whispered or sent messages saying some of what you say. But why would the media or governments lie all the time?”
The cigarillo hovered before his lips. He placed it on the ashtray leaned forward and said slowly, “Do you actually know who the people are that write those stories about the virus and try to spread panic? Apart from legacy media, look at sites like Yeeha! They spread news of celebrity gossip, disasters, conflicts, so-called virus deaths, shutdowns, and all things negative. But who are those writing this trash? There are no by-lines in many cases and, even then, are those their actual names and who are they, really? You trust all that appears in the media or on such sites?”
He paused, puffed, then, “Why are people with different views not being heard everywhere like those experts who disagree with claims about the virus and the virtues of vaccination? Why is only a mono-narrative of the virus allowed? Why are people being arrested for not wearing masks when it should be a choice?” He took a last pull and crushed the cigarillo.
I tried to second-guess his next words with: “And why would we trust most politicians…”
“My friend, governments lie all the time: it’s the nature of the beast. They and those who control them are only interested in keeping everyone under their thumbs. But there’s a bigger uglier picture to all this.”
He was about to light up again when he laid the lighter down, “Since when did governments coordinate with international health bodies to lock their people down by issuing quarantines? States fight with one another all the time over any issue and do as they damn please within their borders but now work together to suppress people, prevent travel, ruin small businesses, curtail enterprise, and create a dysfunctional economy? Who’s pulling the strings? They issue threats, wage war, jail dissidents, destroy critics, and show how impotent international organisations are: but now they all tap dance to the same tune from an international body? Qué pasa?”
At this point, I was about to conclude he was another of those theorists, but disappointment stalled when he said, “Fear is used to control people. Without filling the mind and heart with fear how would you get people to do whatever you want?”
That still did not mean he was not another theorist, but he went on, “What makes even those who know the media is filled with deception and that governments cause more harm than good listen and obey what is said about the virus, vaccines, and masks? The media is a tool for subjugation: how would you control people if no one listened to it?”
It was hard to argue against that, but I wanted to, and yet it would only point back to what the media, glorified experts and the government said: and to my own insecurities.
“The reason that even people who are sceptical of so much reluctantly and at times mindlessly follow those they’re usually doubtful of is—fear.”
“Yes, fear of punishment.”
He breathed in deeply, “Indeed. And fear of death. I will laugh at you and scoff at your ideas but when you tell me if I don’t do this and that I’ll catch something that can be the death of me or someone close to me repeatedly and blast that message through the ether…fear takes over and all clear thinking vanishes. It’s psychological warfare.”
He was about to light another cigarillo when he placed it back and pushed his empty cups away. “Fear is the virus, and most have already been infected. Terminally.”
Unhurriedly, he folded the papers he had written on, slid them into his jacket, and placed the unused napkins by his cups. I did not ask what he wrote. He kept his pen and swiped the ashes at the edge of the table onto his palm and dropped them into the ashtray. Then,
“There is a line from Kazantzakis which goes, ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ And the reply that follows: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’”
He stared at me. For a nanosecond I thought sitting there was a mistake and wanted to run like the visored man with his satchel. Eduardo stated,
“I’ve decided to carry on as if I should never die.”
He put on his hat, took out his mask and placed it over his face but below his finely shaped nose. With a wink he stood, bowed slightly, turned and walked into the late afternoon. Then he did something I never asked him about: he pulled off his mask, placed it in his pocket and strolled on. I watched him stretch his arms apart a little and slowly spread his fingers as he walked almost like a dancer.
I could not decide if he was on his way home—or to a kill a man.
[Picture above: Monali; featured picture: circleid.]
This is a work of fiction. The writer is the founding editor of Philosophers for Change.
© 2021 Sanjay Perera. All rights reserved.