UNITED STATES—“Why?” I asked one night at the smoke shop, surprising myself even. It just came out as I paid for three grams of Mellow Demon. “Why did you beat up that guy?”
“That Black fairy?” the Russian said uninflected by any feeling. “What do you care?”
“I’m an empath,” I said and responded to his puzzled look: “That’s somebody who feels somebody else’s pain.”

“You can’t feel that,” said the Russian. “You cannot feel somebody else’s pain. It impossible,” he said in his slightly fractured English, and he went back to wiping down the top of the glass case.

Then my fist sailed for the plexiglass. Before connecting the Russian, a sharp-edge sliced my knuckles and they were bleeding all over the place. Hurting. It would take five stitches, if there was anyplace to go to get stitches. Warm blood, wet and viscous, dripped on the floor.

The Russian passed me some bunched up paper towel under the plexiglass shield.

“No, you cannot feel another’s pain. That is why the young people cannot stand it when the grandparents narrate all their little pains and sicknesses. That is why even some old people turn their back on old people and say, ‘Why do I want to be around people who talk only about age and infirmity?’ The best you can do is look all sad as they tell your about their arthritis and their surgeries in grotesque detail. And we learn to lie and be hypocrites.”

I had never imagined the Russian could talk so much. “A woman asks you, How old do you think I look? you never say the truth.”

“Did the guy steal something?’

“You mind your own business,” he said reaching his hand under the counter, under the cash register where it lingered for a time. When the hand came back it was holding a small heart-shaped box. He lifted the lid. The chocolate turned whitish on the outside as the mist of staleness settled in.

“Have some if you like. . . Take them. I don’t eat chocolate.”

I took one. One stale waxen chocolate was better than no chocolate.

“It was Valentine’s Day, he comes and give me this. “I say thanks and say, ‘I don’t eat chocolate.’ He took it the wrong way. And kissed the plexiglass. It was Valentine’s day, and it was very upsetting.”

“We miss a lot of holidays,” he or I said. I’m not sure which.

“Valentines, the 4th of Halloween. . .”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to celebrate the 4th of July.” I went outside, goodbye. “Everything OK?” he asked.

“Yeah.” It was my last lie.

“You forget your change?” he shouted.

Things were being done that had never been done before. Why now start and tell the truth, as I was choking on all the lies and invective. The whole special period manifest the erasable nature of what we consider permanent and holy. We were being asked to stay home and keep our distance. I could see that this intensified to a dangerous degree this innate canine/feline aversion that human beings have to each other. We have an inborn tendency to bark and repel.

All my old mildewed life, before the special period, was founded an embracing that which was most difficult for me. Connecting with people: I cut short conversations, evaded commitments, was suspicious of gifts. Now that reclusive behavior was being condoned and even rewarded, I was having a good time of it.

Out of the smoke shop I staggered. When are we going to shed the labels and slurs like reptile loses its scales? I thought.

The questions where am I? Who am I? These quasar questions hovering in the void. I was breaking up into little pieces, disconnected, atomized and dismembered. And contact was becoming harder and harder to maintain, as ears strained. Annoyance mounted as to a voice fragmenting on a phone line, going all cubistic on you, and the disgust chokes one’s throat.

There is a root-beer colored, seal hugging the warm brick shadows, as cool night sets in under the love and peace windows. What the heck? What planet were they from, who created that utopic montage from which I had been recently exiled? What I glimpsed wasn’t a sea seal, but a white-bearded barrel bellied man. My hand found a hammer at his side. The phone in my pocket beeped and jingled. I answer it because. I grabbed the hammer and pounded the phone once. Hard. A spiderweb broke out on the screen. Then I pounded it again 1000 times, till it ended in smithereens.

Kill them all, kill them all, the voice said between hammer blows to my phone.

To be continued…