We wandered here from Harvard Square. With each step, we moved inward. Contented. Centered. We had shared ice cream from J.P Licks just steps before. Coffee mocha lingering on our tongues. We had eaten it too fast, standing by the doorway, huddling against the wind, trading the spoon and cup back and forth between bites, our hands touching each time. We both eyed the other's hand before looking away when we were sure the cup had been passed safely. The sidewalk was crowded and no one noticed us there, voices and faces lolling, together. When we were done, you pocketed the spoon, licking one side and then the other, holding it up to show that it was clean. Satisfied still.
Only moments before, we had paused at the "question wheel." I walked slowly all the way around, leaning down, the cards flipping in the wind. Some were white. Some were yellow, pink, or blue. I read them. Each one. Working my way from top to bottom. I could feel others leaning in behind me, reading over my shoulder, whispering the questions out loud, as if voicing them might make them come true. And I whispered them, too. Everyone was whispering. I read until I came face to face with the man who curated the wheel. He was standing there, announcing to anyone who stopped to ask, that he answered all the questions, and there had been over 12,000 questions posted so far. There were questions about love and love lost, about death and the death of hope. Some questions were about dreams, how to achieve them when the path to them was overgrown. Some questions were about ambition and whether it was wrong to want others to fail. Some were about pets that had run away and if he thought they might return. Some were about tests in school and of personal strength and sometimes both. Some were about the questions themselves. Some were about his answers, why he thought he had the right to try to answer them all. He was a big man. He had to be because each question was really about him, what we all wanted to know about him, how the pieces of our own lives allowed us to take a piece of his. And I imagined him bigger still, before today. How each day, each question, each answer nicked and chipped away. What we might have thought would be revealed was difficult to say.
Raising my camera, I focused the lens, adjusted the light meter, the aperture. I took a photo of the wheel. I took a photo of him. He was standing in front of the descending sun, the light seeping around his raised arms, his torso, his head, as he beckoned people to come nearer, to ask him anything they wanted. "You can ask me anything. What do you want to know?" his voice was full and deep. It filled our chests when he spoke. Rattling in our rib cages. Beating like hearts. Or, at the very least, the hearts we thought we ought to have instead.
"Ask me anything . . . ask me why the earth is round . . . ask me why all empires fall . . . ask me about the difference between loneliness and being alone . . . ask me anything at all . . ."
People stopped and listened, glancing at each other, at strangers, unsure how they should feel. I listened and glanced, too. He promised to answer all our questions. Every one of them. Even the ones we were forming then. And, we, who were listening, gave in, released from the heavy burden of our lives, if only for a little while and for the first time since we left our families, the wombs of our lives together. It wasn't what he said, though what he said was perfect, but how we heard what only we could hear, nodding, believing.
When he finally lowered his arms, we moved to write our questions down, waiting in line, crowding three or four at a time around a card table filled with empty cards. When we reached the table, I set my camera down, lens open to eye the horizon. I wrote my question quickly, in bold, elongated strokes. I didn't want an answer. Not really. Just asking was enough. I already had the answer. I looked out across the square. The sidewalks were lined with people, rivering beside the streets. Cars drifted beside them, slowly. The subway rattled the earth beneath our feet. Geese cried almost unnoticed.
It was the first cool day of fall. Cool enough for a hat and scarf. Cool enough to capture our breath, to capture the breath of this man, yelling out to anyone who would hear, his words clouding up, as if the words themselves were spirits, lifting slowly into the air above our heads. The sky was graying. The clouds shifting, backlit by the descending sun. It was my first New England fall. It would be my first New England winter, as would be the everything in between.
I dropped my question through the narrow slot. I heard it land atop the countless other cards beneath it in the whitewashed box then turned and waited patiently for you to do the same, though you lingered, pen spreading black ink across robin's egg blue. You wrote deliberately. Carefully. Others finishing their questions around you. And when you were done, you looked up as you stood from leaning down, satisfied, determined, slapping the card against your palm before slipping the card into the box. You paused a second, or maybe two, then turned, okay with letting the question go, looking back just once.
We walked away in silence. Hands jammed into our coat pockets, you clutching the plastic spoon, cameras slung around our necks, our eyes watering in the wind. The crowds thinned. Storefronts reflected the street perfectly, as if we were inside looking out. Until the alleyway, and we stepped in.