Empathy

This text, written by Albert Aribaud <albert.aribaud@free.fr>, proofread in French on the (late) Atelier de Création Littéraire, is published under Creative Commons by-nc-nd (attribution, no commercial usage, no modification) license; for any use incompatible with this license, contact the author. The attribution constraint implies keeping this paragraph just before or just after the text title. The text may be reproduced in any file format as long as it does not contain any digital rights management mechanism.

I am sitting at the terrace of the café, savoring the fact, firstly that there still are some cafés left with a terrace to sit at, and secondly that this one is close enough that I can stop there from time to time on my way to work.

My coffee (decaffeinated, for health reasons) is kindly waiting for me to finish drinking it, while I read my morning paper and wait for a lab colleague whose arrival I check for with a quick glance after each news item.

As I cast one of these glances, I notice the individual stationed on the pavement across the street. Stationed is the word : he is staring at me, unmoving among the passers-by. His gaze crosses mine, and that is, I am sure, what sets him in motion toward me.

While he crosses the street, oblivious to the vehicles which have to stop more or less abruptly in order not to run him over, I survey him. His clothes are obviously of another fashion, and worn out. Only his face and arms are exposed. His skin bears marks, from the inescapable decay of time but also blotches and stains indicative of some sickness. His sunken cheeks, his scant hair reinforce his air of both weakness and sorrow.

The closer he gets, the more detail I discern: his irregular gait, probably caused by a failing hip or leg: his parched lips; his eyes, immensely sad: his eyebrows; his right eyebrow.

I am paralyzed when he stops before me. Without a single word, he puts his hand on my shoulder, his gaze still filled with unfathomable sorrow. He smiles, like one smiles to a terminally ill relative. I cannot tear my gaze from his eyes. Especially one.

It takes a second call to break the spell and make me reluctantly look away. As the hand leaves my shoulder, I see my colleague approaching, half walking, half running, hailing me a third time. I wave at him as an answer, then turn to the stranger again. He is already blending, limping, into the crowd. I could get up and go after him, but I know already that it would be useless. I raise my hand to my face.

Of course, my colleague asks me who that guy was; and I reply with some platitude or other, to avoid the answer which I know yet quite well, given by the double notch which divides my right eyebrow since that nasty fall in my younger time, and which no-one fails to notice. I see it every morning; but that was the first time I had to look at the left side of a face to find it.

The question, therefore, is not who that elusive visitor was. I know who he was, and where he came from, so to speak. No, the first real question I am asking myself is, what must happen, that he will fall sick and disabled. And the second real question I am asking myself is, what more must happen that he should feel the need to come to me and express his compassion.

I suspect my worries are only beginning.

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