How to Be a Bystander

First, you must feel like you’re limbless. And, in limbo. A limbless limbo. A listless, limbless limbo. Even if you’re actually not, you ought to feel like you’re in one. You must make yourself believe that you’re utterly incapable of veering the course of action that is bound to take place or, as you’re thinking of your absolute uselessness in the situation, is already on way. Then, you must be able to be able to strip yourself of all your power, your courage, your sense of justice and fairness; oh, and also, your ability to speak. Add to that, a consistent surprised and slack-jawed facial expression that reflects the vacuum between your initial thought and action.

Which thought? That thought. That most important instinct, the one that you simply must be able to completely ignore, that nagging feeling in your head that beseeches you to step in and do something, anything just to calm things down, even if by just a little bit. That’s the one you ought to watch out for. If you act on that impulse, it’ll get you involved and, God forbid if that ever happens! You’d actually have to do something then, wouldn’t you?

You should be able to be stunned enough to be rooted to the spot, perhaps even amused by the ‘shenanigans’ as you will refer to the whole scene later as you recount it to your friends and family in a crowded, cozy caramel scented coffee and patisserie shop right around Astor Place. You definitely must, must be apathetic enough to casually look at the scene and not interject or interrupt. So, it’s a curious mixture of interest, disinterest, engagement and disengagement that you have to have in order to pull off being a bystander.

Another moot point when being a bystander is to keep in mind that sense of self-loathing you feel in the back of your head, the front of your head and all over your Self. That feeling, register it. Be sure to be aware of that accusatory tone that is the voice in your head – the one that sounds a lot like your mom or dad or, sometimes, both – at the time of the incident and well after that. It is not going to go away anytime soon. The deep self-loathing that carries itself along with you well into the next day and, perhaps even the day after that, even though you joke about the whole incident or tell it as an amusing anecdote over drinks or as an experience that you almost had.

Years and months will pass though, perhaps not in that order. You’ll finally start accepting the now slightly weary face you see in the bathroom mirror and not feel as aghast when you go shop in the previously unchartered territory of the ‘L’ section of the boutique you were introduced to by your fashionista friend about a decade ago. You’ll move to another city, state, hell, maybe even another country. The memory of the incident will fade. Distant, hazy, and perhaps even mildly sentimental, that’s what it’ll reduce to, eventually.

But, then on some days, when you’re idly looking at the fan creaking above, trying to fall asleep as your boyfriend’s snores gently dissuade you to do otherwise, you’ll think about the memory of that event, of how the lady’s face looked, how her eyes screamed wordlessly, silent syllables trying to ask someone to step in and, you’ll feel the same emotions you felt when you decided to be a bystander and you’ll think to yourself, maybe I should’ve gotten involved and the familiar waves of self-loathing will again wash over you and suddenly all the years and days and months and seconds will disappear and the rawness of the incident, the smell of the fear, the prickling sensation that you felt then, will well up within from God knows where.

Then again, on other days, when you read a particularly graphic daylight robbery news report that ends with someone ending up dead or nearly so and as your eyes drift towards the picture accompanying the news piece, a deeply disturbing image where someone’s lying on a flimsy hospital cot, his freshly bandaged wounds wide on display and a woebegone expression that conveys things for which words have not yet been invented, you’ll think back to that incident and thank yourself that you didn’t actually get involved for who knows how that would’ve turned out, maybe you’d have ended up with an actual scar from an actual wound today.

 

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