Insomniac, part 2
The night was icy. Tariq’s breath was like fog and he regretted not putting on gloves. He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his pajama pants and squeezed his shoulders up to his ears to protect his neck from the cold
“Just walk,” he told himself.
The streets seemed naked without the daytime crowds. Tariq felt exposed. In distant intersections, he could hear taxis murmur and whoosh with a sound like rushing water. High rises loomed like great, sleeping beasts, their curtained windows like so many closed eyes.
Tariq passed the subway entrance he used every day. It was barred with a sign directing the after-midnight crowd to another entrance down the street.
Tariq passed the shop with the all-night deli where he sometimes stopped on weekends en route home from the bars. The cashier would call him “usstaz” and Tariq would play with his phone to avoid small talk. The neon lights seemed garish at 3 AM. Inside, a man Tariq didn’t recognize slept upright behind the counter.
Tariq passed old churches with tiny courtyards and locked gates. He passed new restaurants hidden behind security shutters. He passed traffic lights leaning with the wind.
When Tariq reached the Rubicon Square Plaza with its staggering arch and statues of Roman legionnaires, he stopped. In the glow of the flood lights, it seemed like holy ground and the bronze figures seemed superhuman. It was as if Caesar, enormous atop his chariot, might have bent secret, ancient joints to turn his head and look at Tariq to tell him he was not welcome here, that this was a place for heroes and gods.
Caesar did not do this. The statues did not deign to acknowledge Tariq’s presence and he, cowed, did nothing to draw their attention.
Air whistled through the arch and the flag whipped to and fro on its pole. Tariq’s teeth chattered. His nose stung. He couldn’t feel his fingers. He shook.
“This is far enough,” he thought. “You don’t want frostbite. You don’t want someone to find you passed out on a park bench, frozen solid.”
He didn’t think that was how frostbite worked, but he knew he didn’t want it. Maybe he could go back and read the phonebook. Boring himself to sleep felt superior to suffering exposure. He bowed towards Caesar and turned to leave.
“I have found you, murd’rous beast!” called a voice.
Tariq jumped. He had believed himself alone. He had passed no one. He wasn’t aware of any other insomniacs out for 3 AM strolls. He searched for the source of the sound. He looked at the mouths of the statues. Some were open as if in battle cries. He circled around the arch.
On the far side was a man who wore what Tariq could only imagine was a paper-mache demon mask. On its forehead were enormous horns, curved and pointing toward the sky. The man was very tall, very slender and not dressed for winter. The mask wobbled on his head as he moved around the statue of a legionnaire as if he were dancing with it.
He spun. He leapt. He leaned against the soldier and gripped it by its bronze arms.
Tariq was rapt. He stood very still and said nothing.
The soldier was poised as if to strike. The stranger hugged his body tight to the statue and let his head fall back. Tariq could see the stranger’s eyes in the mask. They were wide and terror-stricken. The man let out a low cry, bestial and anguished.
Tariq wondered if the masked man had hurt himself. Perhaps in the exuberance of his dance he had cut himself on the statue’s bronze spear.
The masked man released the statue and Tariq had the momentary illusion that the statue had pushed the stranger away. The man crashed to the ground with a thump. The mask twisted as if his neck had snapped. His arms twitched and his body went limp.
Tariq sucked in his breath. He looked around the square. Empty but for the effigies and they were hardly about to help. Tariq didn’t dare approach the stranger, but he wanted to check for blood. He wanted to see if the crumpled man was breathing. He couldn’t call 911- his phone was still sitting bedside. The only item in his pockets was his apartment key.
Then, as suddenly as he fell, the stranger bounded to his feet. He dusted himself off and adjusted the mask so it rested squarely on his shoulders. And then he strode away, horns bouncing.
Tariq was stunned.
He didn’t know what he had just witnessed. He felt like his brain was groping in the darkness for some kind of explanation. He looked up at the statue of Caesar. Caesar was stoic.
He considered the buildings that bordered the square. The mall was dark. An office building was closed. There was a high rise, but each of its lights was out.
He looked to the statue that was momentarily the horned man’s bronze dancing partner. The soldier looked silly to Tariq now, waiting for an enemy who would never be there. Tariq walked over and examined it closely. The face was young- teeth gritted fiercely, but with eyes squeezed shut as if it feared what was to come.
Tariq noticed something lying at the legionnaire’s feet. It looked like a sword. He stooped and picked it up, finding it to be two wooden boards nailed together in a cross. The long plank was coated thickly in spray paint to give it the convincing appearance of an edge. He wondered why the stranger would have left the thing lying in the plaza.
Down the street, Tariq could see the horned man as a distant silhouette.
Tariq wondered what time it was.
He sheathed the faux weapon down one of the legs of his pajama pants. He rubbed his hands together.
“Shit, it’s cold,” he thought and he left the square, following the stranger deeper into the night.