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Multitude

Sophie Charalambous/Bridgeman Images
Sophie Charalambous: North London View with Ted, 2014

In my dream there’s a crazy guy I remember from years ago, in New York, who stood on a corner in Bryant Park or at the entrance to Grand Central Station to classify people: tourist, not a tourist, tourist, tourist, not a tourist, he intoned in a voice that was mechanical and at the same time extremely friendly. He was about six feet tall, with long, red, disheveled hair and green eyes that seemed embedded in his face, a face that reflected an extreme, perpetual concentration. The man was truly determined in his ambitious project of classifying all the faces in the crowd, and I got the impression that he really was successful, even if he sometimes vacillated or made mistakes. With me, for example: my immigrant’s face almost always led him to consider me not a tourist, but a few times he put me in the tourist camp.

In the dream, everything happens just as it does in my memories, only we’re not in Bryant Park or at Grand Central but on some equally overcrowded corner in Mexico City or Santiago de Chile. I don’t know if the crazy guy looks at me or classifies me, but his presence makes me happy, I feel like it’s a good omen. On the next corner I run into a friend—she’s someone I don’t know, I’ve never seen her before, but in the dream I know she is my friend—who is doing the same thing as the crazy guy, though she doesn’t seem crazy but rather overwhelmed, or angry, or both. I want to stop and talk to her, but I realize that I can’t interrupt her task. Now I’m sure I’m in Santiago and I’m walking toward the mountains (which I don’t see or try to see, but I know they’re there). I speed up, I want to know if there will be someone else on the next corner carrying out that absurd and horrible job. “They should have a form, they’re going to forget,” I think, and then I look at the crowd and another thought arises suddenly, disruptively, something like “this is a crowd” or “I’m in a crowd,” and then the force of those words mixes with the voice of my son calling for his mother and I wake up.

It’s 5:15 in the morning, but my son has turned on the light. Miraculously, I manage to convince him to desist from waking his mother. I carry him into the living room while I tell him, in the tone of a passing comment or a discovery, that the night is for sleeping and the day for playing, and he looks at me with pity, the way you look at a person who stubbornly insists on a cause that is clearly useless. Until a few weeks ago, when Silvestre woke up before dawn we spent the time looking out the window, and sometimes we played a game of counting red or white or blue cars—he always chose the color—which at that hour were already starting to abound, or we would guess the names of the pedestrians who were running toward the metro with their urgent wet hair. Now there is no one on the sidewalk, and very rarely does a car pass, and I sense that my son is going to ask me again, as he does every day, where everyone is, and I even prepare my automatic reply. But instead of talking, he unexpectedly falls asleep.

We sit in the rocking chair and then I think of my dream, of the multitude that has suddenly turned abstract, undefined, extemporaneous. It’s not strange for me to dream about crowds; on the contrary, my dreams tend to be full of extras who turn into secondary characters, and these secondary characters suddenly take on primary importance, but I wonder if this dream is new, if this crowd is new. Perhaps all the people who appeared in my dream also dreamt last night about teeming streets. I get caught up by the idea, that lyrical fancy. I think about the people who have spent lockdown dreaming of impossible crowds. I think of my friends in Chile, who, two months ago, were occupying the streets and now, momentarily alone, are revisiting our collective dreams. I think about the arguable beauty of the word multitude. About what that word shows and what it hides.

I remember one evening on the metro, when I was twelve. There were a lot of us at that hour, around eight, returning from our schools in downtown Santiago to our houses in Maipú. The buses promised fun, or at least company, but that night I wanted to take the metro to get there faster, and I didn’t want to run into anyone. I was sad, I don’t remember why, but I do remember the moment when, a few seconds before getting out at the Las Rejas stop, I looked at the crowd I was part of and I thought something like: they all have lives, they’re all going home, everyone is missing something or has too much of something else, they are all sad or happy or tired. (Years later, when I learned the concept of an epiphany, I immediately knew what experience to associate with it.)

Silvestre wakes up, we have mangos for breakfast, then we listen to music and sit on the floor to draw with his crayons. It seems as if he’s entertaining himself on his own, so I make another cup of coffee and take up a position at the window. The sun is gaining ground on the horizon, but the day doesn’t seem to have started yet. I count a scant ten cars, a couple of motorcycles, and three masked men, who of course are not tourists but vulnerable, gruff, melancholic workers. More and more people are managing to stay home, and the sight of that absent multitude somehow soothes me. Still, I miss the full, noisy street from just a few weeks ago, or three years ago, when we first came to live here.

Suddenly, I realize I’ve been staring out the window for a long time, and I feel the guilt of having neglected my son and the immediate joy of seeing that he’s still there, intent on his work, concentrated, autonomous. I look at his beautiful, chaotic drawing. A few days ago, he decided that crayons were fruit, and he started using them to draw some passionate scribbles that he calls smoothies. I sit down beside him, help him hold the paper.

“Is it a smoothie?” I ask him.

“No,” he tells me, categorically.

“What is it?”

“It’s you, Dad, looking out the window.”

—translated by Megan McDowell