In Which Ciphers Wake
The more the earth falls out from under us, the more ætheric their control becomes.
I lost my glasses and my phone yesterday. I got one of those things back, but I don’t think I’ll ever see the other one again.
Taking a bus in a dreary rain, quite distracted by my thoughts of the day before, I’d left them both on the seat as I got off. I didn’t notice until a few minutes later, and by then it was impossible to chase down the driver. So, I walked home through the rain, quite defeated.
I was able to get the phone back three hours, four phone calls, and a ride with my mother-in-law later. I’d called the bus service, and then the bus operator, who called the driver a little too late for her to stop an immigrant woman picking it up off the seat and walking away with it.
I was already quite exhausted from the events the day before, and what was left of my usually abundant patience for humanity had dwindled into nothing. Squinting to make out the completely blurry text on my computer, I’d watched in frustration as the phone’s tracking showed it carried off the bus and into someone’s home.
I never call the police, but I didn’t know what else to do. That’s actually the only thing they’re ever good for, a last resort that doesn’t accomplish anything but at least makes you feel there’s someone out there who knows what should be done. So I called them, and got what I expected — a terse statement that I’d need to make a report at their station, and a paternalistic reminder I should never leave items unattended on public transit.
It’s quite awful, but the surveillance apparatus built into cellphones can sometimes also work in your favor. Despite being an old hand-me-down iPhone several generations removed from whatever is most current, I could set it to “lost” and have a phone number and short message displayed on the screen. So, I composed an ambiguously threatening one, and then set it to make a loud tone.
“This phone has been tracked to your address.
Please call this number to return. There will be no problems.”
A young immigrant girl called the number immediately, which was my husband’s. She’d explained she wanted to return it, and gave him a phone number for me to call her.
I called, and an older woman shouted at me in Portuguese. She then hung up, and no one picked up when I tried to call again.
As I told you, I had already been exhausted from the day before. That’s the day two men aggressively shouted at me to “man up” and fight them, just an hour before I had to force a drunk woman to stop shoving an old lady and shouting racist slurs at an African immigrant.
That day, I’d intended to do something I’ve not done this year, to “have a city day.” I’d gotten my haircut already, and then bought some warm socks, and I was on my way to a cafe to read a book for several hours.
In Seattle, I’d have days like this at least every month, usually on the day I’d been paid. Even if it would mean I’d be a little poorer over the following two weeks for the money I would spend, buying something nice for myself and whiling away time doing nothing made working feel worth it.
I’ve been missing those days where I would just wander, take in the noise and life of the street. Usually, I’d buy myself some incense, a cheap article of clothing, and often a book. I’d then sit somewhere for pho or a kebab, before moving on to a coffee shop with my book or my journal.
In Luxembourg, city days aren’t really the same. There’s no pho to be had, and only one shop sells incense, albeit too low quality for me to ever buy it. The two bookstores with English titles carry mostly what’s current and popular, meaning I rarely find what I’d actually like to read. I have to order what I’m looking for, and that just never feels the same. Still, I need these days, and it had been far too long since I’d made the time for one.
That day, I already had a book and was on my way to the one good coffee shop with comfortable chairs. It’s where I met the man who is now my husband on our first date, and we still go there when we can. It’s an especially rare place, and would be my favorite even if there were other options — but there aren’t. Luxembourg city has become just like every other city, filled with storefronts rented as outposts for international corporations. Very little is local, and anyway few of us, myself included, are actually from here.
I was walking to that cafe, passing the gauntlet of corporate clothing stores, now just near the H&M that’s next to the Levi’s store, deep in the forests of my own thoughts, when the men accosted me.
I heard one of them say “monsieur,” and I looked at his face. He and his companion were trying to sell something, and they were both quite pushy. Others were trying to avoid them, and so was I, but for some reason this man really decided he deserved my attention.
“Monsieur,” he said again, and then “monsieur” a third time, and he was now standing directly in front of me.
“Hey,” I sighed. “Please leave me alone.”
“Oh, I can speak English,” he said, still blocking my path.
“Dude, I said leave me alone.”
“But I need to ask you something,” he said, starting his pitch.
I just wanted to read my book with a gods-damned cup of coffee. “Fuck off,” I said, and tried to walk past him.
The man started shouting at me, louder than I think he initially realized. His companion joined in, and they were both quite close to me, yelling that they’d show me what “fuck off” really means.
I pushed past the first man, and kept walking. This made them even angrier, and they shouted even louder, their voices echoing throughout the street.
“Come back here and fight me,” the first one yelled, adding, “unless your balls are not yet dropped.”
I hated all this, but I laughed darkly to myself. Where we stood was an intersection where buskers, singers, and performance troupes often play. The acoustics are quite astounding there, greatly amplifying every sound to a startling degree. The two men had just realized what I’d already noticed: everyone in the street could hear them and had stopped to watch. I saw two teenagers pointing their phones, likely eager to catch something that might go viral on their TikTok accounts.
I kept walking, and the men finally fell silent.
Unfortunately, I’d lost all interest in the cafe and my book. I just wanted to go back to my village and my home and some tea. I’d had enough of the city, though it hadn’t quite yet finished with me.
There’s a light rail that runs through Luxembourg city, from the corporate-occupied territories of the Kirchberg plateau, over a deep gorge, just along the edge of the old centre-ville, then over another part of that gorge to the train station. It’s free (like all other transit in Luxembourg), and convenient, but it’s also often quite crowded and rarely ever civil. At some stops, you must physically push your way out of the tram: few seem to understand or care that it’s easier to wait for those exiting to leave before entering. During rush hour, those not aggressive enough can find themselves stuck waiting for the next stop in order actually to exit.
I was eager to catch the rural train connection back to my village as soon as possible, to get away from all these people, to get back to the forests and the streams, to make my husband dinner and just be again. But I couldn’t ignore the fight about to occur in front of me. This was the drunk woman, who kept pushing and shouting at a much older woman, stopping only to yell racist stuff at an older black man next to them. He didn’t speak enough Luxembourgish to understand what all she was saying. Nor do I, but he and I at least understood the repeated word, “negger.”
No one was intervening, everyone else looked away. After two stops of it continuing, I pushed myself in-between the drunk woman and her targets.
“Arrête ça,” I said, using the familiar register reserved for friends or for children, never for strangers.
She stopped. The old woman thanked me in German, the black man smiled at me, and then something really odd happened. The drunk woman thanked me too, and put her hand on me to steady herself, like I’d just broken some spell she was under. She started rubbing my back as if I were her lover, and though it felt quite odd I let her continue, lest she focus again on her earlier targets.