A couple days ago, I found myself on a train to New York City without my phone. It was Saturday morning, and having spent the preceding night bowling, past my usual bedtime, with Austin’s friends, I’d awoke to a 6:15am alarm with a groan. After hitting the snooze button three times, I turned the alarm off and decided to watch the latest installments of Mike Mustard’s “Hanging at Henry’s” vlogs, promising myself that once the two videos ended, I’d force my body out of the bed.
I fulfilled this promise to myself, but alas, in my frenzy to get ready for my day at Poets House–filling my water bottle, eating cereal, preparing a lunch–I forgot all about my phone, which remained on the bed, right where I’d put it down after watching the vlogs (which I loved, by the way, Mustard, if you’re reading this!).
So there I was on the train, about to sit down and conk out for the hour and a half ride from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central Station, frantically sifting through my purse and bag, looking and looking for a phone that was always there, until I realized, with a piercing, stomach-dropping sensation, what had happened. I ran out of the train car and asked the conductor how much time I had before the train took off. The conductor, looking as if he was too tired to make any sort of facial expression, looked down at his watch. “Two and a half minutes,” he said.
I quite literally ran in a circle right there on the platform, trying to decide if I had enough time to run up the stairs to try to find Austin, who’d dropped me off at the station, or if I should just get on the train without my phone. I ran up the stairs. Austin, who’d just a minute ago stood looking out at the train, a few steps from the top of the stairs, was gone. I ran back down the stairs. But what would I do without my phone? I ran back up, and this time I ran all the way into and across the ticket station, flung the doors open, and sprinted to the parking spot where Austin had parked to see me off. No car, no Austin. I sprinted back in and out of the station, raced down the stairs, and flung myself into the train car.
As the train lurched into motion, I sat in my seat, spurts of breath escaping my lips. I didn’t know if I had made the right decision. I was now on my way to the largest city in America, with its terrifyingly confusing train lines and mazes of streets and dizzying throngs of people, without access to Google maps or the internet or my list of contacts. I didn’t know Austin’s phone number by heart–I’d tried to memorize the numbers once, but they’d all but vanished from my mind since then–so even if I asked someone to let me borrow their phone, I couldn’t reach him.
But why was reaching Austin a solution? I asked myself this after a while, the train rumbling forward and still forward, away from the safety of the town I came to call home. If I had reached Austin before he had gone home, what would I have done? And if I could call Austin now, what would I tell him? There was nothing that could be done.
I tried to sleep, but panic kept rushing over me in waves. Oh, I realized, after closing my eyes for a few minutes, Austin could’ve given me his phone. And then he’d have mine, when he got home. Yes, that would have worked. But that hadn’t happened, and there was still nothing I could do to change the reality of my phonelessness. I tried to sleep again.
By the time I reached the city, my stomach had stopped churning, for the most part. A little sleep had cleared my mind, and I kept remembering something my father had written in an essay about the day of my birth, about how in those days, before the invention of the cell phone, people didn’t feel obliged to keep others constantly up-to-date about their coordinates in time and space. I thought of how people have long managed to survive without a smartphone glued to their fingers and eyes, and how strange it was that I felt so unmoored without one on my person.
I thought also of the characters in the book I’d just finished reading, Exit West, who find themselves without landlines or cellphone signals in a city besieged by militants. The electric grid shut off, Saeed and Nadia, who are falling in love with one another as the world around them breaks apart, suddenly cannot reach each other and are confined to their homes. Saeed risks his life to travel to Nadia’s apartment, and luckily, catches her coming back from her bank. Nadia herself risked her life to attempt to cash out as much money as she could before it was too late, and was violently sexually assaulted in the process. In a dark, dangerous city on the brink of collapse, Saeed and Nadia find one another, and together, flee as refugees.
Thinking about Saeed and Nadia gave me relief in my time of (relatively minuscule) crisis. I thought of how much I am shielded from the violence and hunger that wraps around much of the rest of the world, how my luck and privilege of being born in this country, to my parents, in peace and with no lack of food or water or shelter, has protected me from the fury of militants, the drying up of once-rich farmland, the need to run from my home to live.
But I thought too, of how the world of Exit West, which seems somehow to be set in the past, present, and future, all at once, reminded me of what was now happening in our own country. In the book, which is steeped in magical realism, Saeed and Nadia hear of magical doors that can take them to other places in the world. The first door they manage to go through brings them to the Greek island of Mykonos, where they live in a refugee settlement camp. The second takes them to London, and opens to a large room in a beautiful London home, which is quickly overtaken by other migrants from all over the world, who keep entering through that door. The owners of the home are away when Saeed and Nadia arrive, but a couple days into their stay, the housekeeper comes and screams at the sight of all of the migrants. A stand-off with the police follows, but Saeed and Nadia and many of the other new inhabitants of the house refuse to leave, fearing for their safety.
London boils with nativist backlash. I read this passage a couple days after the white supremacist and neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville:
“One day Saeed and Nadia were returning home with no food but modestly full bellies, after a reasonably good evening of foraging, and she was experiencing the peculiar sweet aftertaste and acidity of mustard and ketchup, and Saeed was looking at his phone, when they heard shouting up ahead and saw people running, and they realized that their street was under attack by a nativist mob, Palace Gardens Terrace being roiled in a way that belied its name. The mob looked to Nadia like a strange and violent tribe, intent on their destruction, some armed with iron bars or knives, and she and Saeed turned and ran, but could not escape.” (Exit West, p. 134)
When I watched, horror-stricken, the cult-like procession of white men holding tiki torches and shouting “You will not replace us,” and the beating of a black counterprotester by a group of white men in the aftermath, I felt the fictional world of Exit West and our own reality converging.
Now, as in the book, vast change is in the air. Doors will keep opening, no matter how much those who fear new faces and cultures try to keep them shut. What I found beautiful and true and uplifting about Exit West was that there came a point in the story where there were just too many migrants and refugees flooding every nation that the initial resistance and violence on the part of the nativists subsided. There was no going back, so people just had to get used to the change and live with each other. It wasn’t a happily-ever-after kind of ending, but what I realized through reading this book was that someday, we will reach a breaking point. We are already transforming, and we will continue to transform. And there is something gorgeous and generous about that future.
What struck me, too, about the book was the role the phones Nadia and Saeed owned played in their relationship. In the beginning of their courtship, they use their phones to connect to one another when they are apart, and as a means to set up dates, but once the phone lines go dark they are forced to come together under one roof, to ensure each other’s survival. The tragedy of their situation brings them closer together. As the tale progresses, and as they arrive in Greece, and then to London, Nadia and Saeed have better access to the internet and seem to talk to each other less, and stare at their phones more. There is a kind of barren loneliness that arises out of their connection to the borderless world of the internet, and also out of the overreaching now-borderless world that they live in.
I feel this loneliness too. These days I rarely go on social media, especially Facebook, because I feel like crying and spending days laying in bed after I spend hour after hour checking my notifications and scrolling through posts. There is a kind of powerlessness that comes with the world suddenly at your fingertips. I despise the way I latch onto my phone and cannot resist the urge to check every app for little gifts of notifications, only to want more attention and love. I feel controlled, addicted. I am wasting so much life in cyberspace.
And so, the day I spent without a phone in New York City, I felt free. My mind was bursting with thoughts. I made it all the way to Poets House without getting lost, looking so sure and confident that a young woman, mistaking me for a New Yorker, asked me if she was on the right train. I didn’t hesitate when I told her she was. If I had my phone I am sure that I would have doubted myself and looked it up for her, but being without my phone, my crutch, I noticed more about the train announcements and naturally deduced what was true and not true. Without my phone, I had to peer closely at buildings as I passed them, trying to remember them from my walks in the past. This forced me to look at all of the people around me, really look, and notice the spectrum of skin colors, of languages.
This is the world I live in, I thought. This is the world I want to live in–where every one of us, regardless of where we come from or where we are going, smile and chatter and skip and march in these streets. Where we are all migrants. Because, as Mohsin Hamid writes in Exit West, “We are all migrants through time.”