“Stop,” she said.
He had almost made it. He had been taking side streets to get to his office, carefully walking around Zuccotti Park, so he wouldn’t run into them. Them. The Occupiers. He thought he had found a good street, far away from anyone with a tattoo, anyone with that annoyingly determined and noble expression, but this girl stepped in front of him.
“Don’t go to work,” she said.
He stared at her. She was maybe 22, bright magenta hair, a tattoo of a streak of fire going up her right arm. She was the sort of girl whom he stared at in Lit classes in college, awed by her ability to actually understand the story being discussed, the type of girl whom the teacher called on, who understood those words, subtext, metaphor, that confused him before he went to Econ 101, Statistics, the classes that dealt with the concrete, the finite — the numbers that could actually explain the whirling mess of feelings that resided within him.
He was afraid she’d yell at him, but her voice was actually rather quiet.
“Why?” he asked.
He could take about two minutes, he thought. He was eager for Bloomberg to move them, to get their asses out of the way, so he could just go to Goldman Sachs and stop feeling that feeling. That question that made his mouth dry. What were they doing? Why were they so passionate about this? Why didn’t they appreciate this, this work that he was doing?
“It’s not fair,” she said.
What the hell did this mean? Fair? He had worked hard to get to this job, he spent his entire day there, hell, his whole weekend, doing this thing — making money. And it was good. It was good because he could call his mother in Hartford and tell her, “My bonus is going to be a million dollars this year,” and he could hear her gasp over the phone. It was good because he could tell that jerk, Hanover, down the hall, that his bonus would be more than his and see Hanover’s eyelid twitch. Hanover had said, in a sinister whisper, “You’ll last a week,” to him five years ago, when he started, and now he was making more money than Hanover. A lot more. Hell, there was some justice in the world.
When he woke up in his one-bedroom on Union Square, when he woke up short of breath in the middle of the night, his chest hollow with loneliness, not knowing if he would ever find someone who would call his name softly in the morning -- he knew what to do. He could go buy something. He could go buy a beautiful gold Rolex, or the new Sony 3-D TV, or a pair of Calvin Klein shoes at Barney’s. It made him feel better, walking out of the store, the salesgirls smiling at him, calling him Mr. Smith, thank you, Mr. Smith. They seemed to admire him, hell they seemed to love him a little bit. It was something.
“Why not?” he said.
“We should pay teachers as much as you,” she said. “At least.”
Teachers? Teachers? Was she kidding? He had hated his teachers, all of them, none of them had really gotten to know him, had tried to understand him. He was restless in class, and they kept putting him in the idiot chair, just because he was fucking bored in there, wanted to go outside, to feel the air on his arms, to have someone actually sit and talk to him. Why didn’t they? His teachers, his mother, his father — he mostly remembered them running away from him, a door slamming. He sat alone with the TV. His main memory of his childhood was just sitting in the dim, stale living room, staring at the TV, shivering at all the wonderful things — the cars, the clothes, the adventures -- they promised him on that screen.
“I hated my teachers,” he said.
“We need more teachers per classroom. More creative teaching. Individualized attention. We need more money for the schools!”
She was so sure of herself, standing here, her tattoo brilliant in the sunlight.
“I suffered,” he said. “Other people should, too.”
She gasped and stepped back. Wrong answer. What was he supposed to say?
“Share,” she said. “Give 20 percent of your income to the schools. You don’t need those shoes. You don’t need that jacket. Look around you. Help your neighbor. Come on.”
“No one gave anything to me,” he said.
“No one?” she said. “Really? No one ever held a hand out to you? Right.”
He thought. His parents, his brother said they loved him, when they were around, but he was greedy; he could not explain the greed, but it had resided within him forever, before he had ever held a dollar bill in his hand.
“I guess,” he said. “Every man for himself.”
He was starting to feel that strange dryness in his mouth when he started thinking of these questions. It was time to go. He began to step, slowly around her. She lifted her hand; her fingernails were lavender.
“I want something beyond myself,” she said. “I want to know that everyone is taken care of. I want to know that people are not hungry in my neighborhood, that all children can be educated, I know we can do it! Don’t you want to think about other people? Just for a moment?”
He stopped and stared at her, this peculiar outstretched hand, and the honest response was that he had no idea how to answer her. What he was most used to, what he had prepared for, was to go to work. He had to get to his desk, sit down, turn on the computer, and start answering the dozens of calls from people who wanted him to make money for them. They relied on him. To them, he was necessary.
He cleared his throat. A part of him wanted, alarmingly, to cry. It was difficult to speak. She could not see this. No one could. He stared at her, her Technicolor hair, her cool, sure gaze, and there was a sour taste in his throat and he knew what he felt, suddenly: He envied her.
“Why?” he asked.