A few weeks ago, I picked up copy of Walker Percy’s 1966 novel The Last Gentleman at a used bookshop here in Baguio, and just now, crashed out on the bed, idly reading, lazily turning the page, I came across a subway transfer receipt for Eglinton Station on the Yonge Subway line in Toronto, a line I used almost every weekend for four years while attending York University, a station I wandered through on probably more winter nights than I’d like to remember. (Is there a more lonely, windy, grimy example of life than a Toronto subway station in frost?) How many Canadians are here in this northern Philippines city? A handful, if that. The thousands of other Filipinos or expats who could have picked up this book would have overlooked this same ticket, crumpled it up straight away. Yet for me it’s a crude talisman, a link between worlds. Taking me out to another.
In secret, we think: All space and its sun revolves around us. Alone. As adults, as semi, sort of grown-ups, we tell ourselves that we are mature, reasonable, empathetic humans; we know that there are others, too, who orgasm and excrete at irregular intervals, but most of us believe that we alone are the world. How can we know what the other is thinking? We sneeze, fart, fondle, sigh. I cannot know how these acts feel for you. So we move through this life, estimating. Tangible touches, those approximate links. If I stroke your hair, tweak your nipple, smell your breath, I forget, for a time, my own beating heart. Yet humans are messy. Just give me some kind of memento to hold in my palm. A subway transfer will do.
I should keep them – all of those boarding passes and bus tickets that I find in old books. I should hoard them – these connections between strangers and countries that litter my tomes. That I throw away with indifference. Where is that person who casually stuck this faded white transfer between this book’s brittle pages? Is she taking a bath, or is he yelling at his hyper twin boys who won’t go on up to bed? Are they happy, miserable, content or confused? Did this book at one point give them what they needed so much? I would like a box of these random placeholders from paperback books. They might fill certain spaces.
Or, and this is reaching, but I’ll stretch nonetheless -- perhaps this paper transfer was mine, long ago, in my youth. It’s possible. I don’t remember reading The Last Gentleman at any point before now, but my university days began seventeen long years ago; I read a lot of books in those years, most now forgotten. Perhaps I clutched this book between frigid fingers on a February night in my just-started twenties. It might have kept me company as I rode out from North York to catch a show right downtown. If I’m not mistaken, Eglinton Station, was, for a time, the last subway stop that led to my school; at this final junction, I would have gone up the escalators, danced on two feet to fight away that fierce cold, and then hopped on a bus, fifteen minutes from there to my school and my dorm up the stairs. Casually, I’d have slipped this paper transfer between the book’s middlepages. After reading it, I might have given it away, to a used bookstore or friend. Forgotten about it. (After all, one has a lot to think about at age twenty-one.) Fifteen years later, and half a world in between, it comes back to me hardly touched, almost pristine. I hold it up to my nose. I smell it. I snort it like coke. It smells bland and indifferent. It could be anything. Belong to anyone. I want to weep. Someone before me, if not me, has used this thin strip to mark their place in some world. I hold it and rub it and wait for a genie. None comes, so I am left with its presence, its light weight in my palm.