Benjamin saw himself as fundamentally different from everyone else. That was his curse, he believed. While he saw other people talk, laugh and engage in social occasions with the most profound ease, he felt like he was playing a role when he talked with people. He felt as if he had, at some point, memorized a certain script, and in conversations, his job was to utter lines from this script to the best of his memory. He was rather bad at it as well. Oftentimes, it took him several seconds to come up with anything interesting to say, and if he by chance had said anything loud enough for anybody to hear, and they replied, he would often experience a brain freeze and just stand there, wordless, dumbfounded.
When he was little, he had often pondered the ease and eloquence in which some people uttered what he believed to be scripted lines. Some people, it seemed, were naturals in the grand play of conversation. He believed that conversations were based on scripted responses for a long while, until at the age of eighteen, it started to dawn on him that maybe some people simply enjoyed speaking to each other. They weren’t natural talents at following the script, they were just having a good time. This recognition filled him with astonishment and despair at the same time. Suddenly, his stinging loneliness was not a question of whether he was competent at the grand play of conversation or not. It was much more fundamental. It was a question of whether he was the type of person to feel a bond with his fellow humans or not. And he was not.
Ergo, Benjamin reasoned, he was fundamentally different from everyone else.
He was thirty-four now, and yet, to this day, he had not pinpointed that fundamental quality that made him different. It was a vague, yet agonizing feeling that lingered with him all the time. When he was alone, when he was with others, when he jogged, when he meditated, when he worked, when he was at parties, when he was in love, when he read, when he dreamt. The only time this feeling would leave him for just a few precious moments was when he travelled. He had discovered that the act of being non-stationary helped him escape the feeling. That is why Benjamin, two years ago, had decided to quit his job, buy an Interail EU Grand Train Ticket, and spend the rest of his life travelling around in Europe, from city to city, country to country, and feel the sacred feeling of belonging, even if it was just for a few hours.
Perhaps he felt this way because travelers, one could argue, do not belong anywhere. They are in transition from one place of belonging to the next. Thus, in the company of non-belongers, Benjamin, being a non-belonger himself, could feel a sense of solidarity. He slept on the trains, he never checked in to any hotel. Mostly, when the trains reached their end destinations, he would get off and immediately board a new train. He seldomly knew the train’s destination, and when he sometimes did, he did not really care. Yet, sometimes, when Benjamin disembarked, the hour would be late and there would be no trains leaving before early the next morning. Benjamin then huddled into the city and tried to find himself a bar where he could sit and wait until the first next train left.
In this particular instance, Benjamin had encountered just that issue. As his train had arrived its end destination in the middle of the night, he had had to get off in some shabby old city. The train station had been almost deserted. A pale light flickered, and a homeless person snored loudly at one of the benches. Benjamin buttoned his jacked and scurried off, away from the sorrowful train station, to the closest bar where he quickly ordered their cheapest beer and sat down at a small table in one of the corners.
The bar was a lousy sight. At the bar counter, a man was sleeping in his own drool. In the middle of the room sat a group of bearded old men, playing cards and exchanging loud words. A guy was edging in on a chubby woman by the wall at the other side, his hand far down her pink pantyhose. Benjamin wrinkled his nose and took a sip of his beer. This was just as foreign to him as any other social event, but at least now, he could feel a sense of superiority. He watched the carnival unfold in silence until suddenly, the door to the bar slammed open, and a girl with a high ponytail, dark eyeliner and a pile of papers in her hands, stomped inside. The room feel silent by the noise and all eyes turned on the girl at the entrance.
“Evening, gents!” the she said as she wandered into the room. “I hope you all are having a splendid afternoon. Or night, perhaps. It’s way past midnight, you know. Quite late. But I can see you’re having a good time. And sturdy guys like you don’t need the sunlight to shine, do you? My, is that card playing rummy?”
She traversed into the room with the same eloquence and ease that Benjamin had seen in some other, fortunate individuals. She was born to live in this world, he thought. Born to own it as her own. She circulated the table with the old guys, commented on their card play and laughed at their jokes. Then she started to hand out some papers while she continued the mindful interaction with the old fellows.
Benjamin felt a sour bitterness rise to his throat. He became painfully aware that he was a non-belonger, fundamentally different, and he felt an urge to leave. Quickly, he finished his beer and was ready to take his jacket and head off when the girl suddenly came up to his table and demonstratively placed the pile of papers there.
“Heading off already, sir? Can’t say you look like regular food for this place. Too sophisticated. Are you a writer?”
Benjamin looked at her, shocked, disgusted, flattered, frightened, all at once. She simply smiled back at him.
“If you want, I can buy you another beer, but you’ll have to pay for it yourself,” she said.
Benjamin stuttered that he was just about to leave, but the girl would hear none of it. She sat down by his table, placed her elbows on it and supported her chin in her hands.
“Maybe you’re a spy? Or perhaps you’ve just been through some dreadful divorce? Is that why you’re here at this awful hour? Sorry, I don’t want to impinge, these are all hypotheses. Call them stories. Stories about someone else, maybe. What’s your name anyway? What brings you here?”
“I’m Benjamin,” Benjamin said. His face felt numb. “I’m just here till sunrise. Till the next train leaves.”
“Ahh, a businessman. Where are you going? Genève? Beirut? Or perhaps a politician? I know a few politicians, some of them sit up late at bars just like you. But none of them are alone when they do.”
“I am not a politician, and I’m not a businessman.”
“Leads me straight back to the spy-hypothesis,” the girl beamed. Her teeth were yellowed, her hair messy, yet she looked somewhat pretty. Maybe it was because of her age. In her early twenties, Benjamin estimated. “I’m not one to judge spies. Actually, I believe radical change is a must if we are to survive the incoming apocalypse. Drastic events demand drastic measures, right? Oh, I see you furrow your brows at ‘apocalypse’. I know, it sounds fanatical. You have every right to be skeptic. But if you want, I could tell you a bit about it.” She nodded towards the pile of paper at the table. For the first time, Benjamin took a proper look at them. They were pamphlets. The words “We are more than ones and zeros” were printed in large letters at the top, and below; “Join the anti-trans-humanistic movement”.
“You’re battling robotization?” Benjamin murmured.
“Not robotization per se. But the environment in which this robotization takes place. The view on society as a productive machine. Everything is to be efficient, purely efficient, to the degree that we lose our inherent human value. If we are just productive assets, we are easily replaced by robots. It starts with the work places, people being laid off due to increased automation. But soon, we’ll idealize robots. They’re objective, effective, resourceful, they never complain, they never cry. They’ll get ever more advanced. Heck, we could probably make robots that take over reproductive capacities eventually. Families with robots. Imagine that. Effectively raising children to the best of their code. What do we lose? We lose our humanity. The vulnerability. The solidarity. Robots cannot replace that. We need to acknowledge that the parts of us that we despise the most as humans, are also the most precious. The vulnerability we hold, artwork we create, the love we feel, the commonness in all our hearts.”
Benjamin noted that she was not a very good convincer. It was probably, he guessed, because she was too passionate and too little articulate. He was glad that she was bad at it. It made him feel more self-assure. He adjusted his pose, straightened his back and looked her straight in the eyes.
“In this line of reasoning, you’re assuming, without further premises, that people do share some ‘commonness’, as you call it. I beg to differ. We are all lonely individuals, born into this world without further purpose. We form relationships, friendships, sometimes we marry, but all those are chance happenings. Random people which we aimlessly exchange a few words with, and then we go each to our own. We live alone, just as we die alone, everything else is an illusion.”
The girl’s brows furrowed as she listened to him, but her lips curled into a slight smile. There was a moment of silence, then she spoke up.
“You’re wrong. The very thing that separates life from death is that life is an experience of commonness. Maybe there is a kind of randomness to the people we meet and spend our time with, but that just emphasizes my point. We could spend a lifetime with someone random because we share some general human feelings. Grief, joy, fright, pain. Since everyone feel these things, just like us, we’re able to feel commonness. A tear in someone’s eyes will spur a feeling of compassion because we know what it’s like. It could have been us.”
“You’re talking about empathy. Empathy is a fleeting feeling. It occurs, and then it evaporates. Life is more than just one occurrence. And we cannot feel empathy for a prolonged period of time, because it means stepping out of ourselves and putting ourselves in someone else’s situation. That is impossible because we are, by birth, confined to ourselves. Separated from everyone else.”
“Really? If I gave you the option to spend the rest of your life with a real woman or a human-like robot, which would you choose, huh?”
Benjamin exhaled a brief laugh. “I wouldn’t mind either. It would be perfectly inconsequential to me.”
“A robot,” the girl emphasized. Her smirk had faded, her tone increasingly sharp. “Whenever it responded to you, you would know that it didn’t really feel anything. It would just say and do things as it was programmed to. All pre-decided.”
“I hardly see the difference. People act in highly predictable ways. A script or a programming code – who cares? Perhaps the robot would be less selfish.”
The girl had clenched her fists, her cheeks flushed. She stared angrily at him, and for once, he felt perfectly tranquil. He felt powerful. As she opened her mouth to speak once more, he raised from the table.
“I’m sorry,” he interrupted her. “I need go.”
He left the bar and felt solemn as he wandered up the street, back to the train station. Then he heard footsteps behind him. It was the the girl. She held out a pamphlet as she came jogging after him.
“Alright, I get it,” she said. “You’re a cynic. Life’s pointless, eh? Nobody cares about anything. Wouldn’t have guessed it. It’s worse than being a spy. Worse than being anything, really. Take a pamphlet. I wrote my phone number on the back of it. If you change your mind, give me a call, alright?”
She tucked the paper into his hand and stomped off before he could make a reply. Benjamin watched the ponytail jingle as she walked away, furious, defeated. He took a brief look at the paper. “Joanna” was written in large letters at the back of the pamphlet above a phone number. A smirk spread across his lips as he folded the paper, pocketed it and headed back to the station where he sat on a bench and waited until the next train rolled in.
Benjamin had managed to capture a window seat. He sat by the window and stared out at the forest rushing by outside. The feeling of superiority had lingered for a long time, but as he sat there, he found himself imagining further conversations with the girl. A hundred conversations had rushed through his head before he came aware of this tendency. He frowned and inhaled sharply. No need to imagine speaking to her. They had barely talked, and he had asserted his opinions supremely. Time to move on. But as he sat there, hypothetical conversations kept intruding on his thoughts. Time and time again, he became aware that he was imagining telling her his thoughts, his feelings, his desires. The forest outside transitioned into a new city landscape, and Benjamin fumbled for the pamphlet in his pocket. He unfolded it at peered at the phone number. Had she won after all? Was this he felt, was it a human bond? Benjamin felt thoroughly uneasy. The train rolled into the next station, and at the other end of the station, he spotted a phone booth.