The man I am following doesn’t suspect a thing. My mask is black and my sunglasses so dark you can’t see my eyes. Wearing a black hoodie on a cool day, I can’t be recognized, although a long-time acquaintance might know me by my gait or orthopaedic shoes, but I don’t think so. Who notices an old man’s shoes? I change my outfit regularly, even the mask, so my attire won’t give me away. I own several pairs of sunglasses, all with dark or coloured or silver lenses. You can see your reflection in them but not my eyes. Sometimes he wears glasses similar to those worn by soldiers in Afghanistan, or darker glasses like mine. I wonder if he was, or is, a soldier. Given the closing of so many stores and businesses during the pandemic, including restaurants and cinemas, outside of work there are only a few places he can go.

In my car, I sit waiting for him to emerge from our 24-unit condo building—four floors, six units per floor, with an elevator, and a short walk to the train station. I try to remember where I have met him before. I know him as well as I know the sound of my breathing, but I still can’t recall when or where. Discovering how we are, or were, connected is now the most important thing in my life: to keep him within sight as much as humanly possible. This has become the focus of my days. My time now belongs to him the way an iron filing belongs to a magnet. When I haven’t seen him for a while, or been able to follow him, I feel deprived, even bereft, as if an essential part of my being has been gouged out.

I must uncover what relationship we enjoyed in a past life. More and more I am inclined to consider the possibility of reincarnation, in which I don’t believe, you understand, but the very notion of reincarnation helps to clarify my thoughts and confirm my feelings. He eludes memory. I can’t place him in my actual life, past or present, so I am persuading myself that he must have played a role in a previous existence. I know he takes the 8:15 train to the Vendôme station in Montreal. With several people between us, the requisite two metres apart, he swipes his pass before walking on to the platform. Last week, I followed him in the morning for five consecutive days. Concentrating on his phone, he doesn’t look up from his seat.

Since my retirement from teaching a few years ago, I am free to spend my days as I choose. There’s not much to do in any case. Well, perhaps not entirely free, because I am now attached to him by invisible, unbreakable chains as strong as the net Vulcan made to ensnare his wife Venus in the throes of passion with her lover Mars, the god of war. There are chains as thick as your wrist, or as thin as your eyelashes, equally strong. Forgive my allusion to Roman deities, but they’re in my blood. Before the educational reforms, I taught Latin. My services deemed irrelevant, I took advantage of the retirement package offered to unnecessary educators.

I don’t often see my neighbours in the hall. Apartments and condo complexes aren’t conducive to neighbourliness unless one makes a great effort and joins things, which I don’t. Surrounded by cavernous box stores, other boutiques and pizza parlours, I am assured of anonymity in the midst of commerce. No one pays attention to me and I have to buy very little these days. Old friends and associates have fallen away as quickly as leaves drop from a gingko tree. I moved here after selling my house in Lower Westmount, and have learned to live with the diminution of my days.

When I first met my neighbour some weeks ago after he moved in next door, he couldn’t see that my heart had stopped in my throat, or know why I had gripped the handle to my door for support. I managed to introduce myself, my voice shaky. A coup de foudre, to use the colourful French term. A sudden blow. Dumbfounded by Jupiter’s thunderbolt. It might have been his black hair, short and wavy with a tendency to curl, which instantly reminded me of the sculpted locks on the statue of the Emperor Augustus in the Vatican, which I have seen on my trips to Italy.

He didn’t reply with his name but nodded. Despite the anti-COVID mask, I instantly recognized in the depths of my being that I had once known him, without being able to place him in time and place. We all experience such moments, but I’ve never ascribed significance to them. Even though he barely acknowledges me, I experience the same shivering thrill each time I see him. In the morning, I stare in the mirror and wonder if there’s another world within, hidden from view. I don’t focus on my face, which is merely sagging and wrinkled, but search for signs of another existence in the reflections, a world where I belong. There must be other worlds where I might have once lived; past, present and future are meaningless concepts in space; we can’t be alone in the universe. The phrases streak through my mind like, well, those fiercely flashing strikes of lightning. Dizziness forces me to sit on the toilet until my breathing returns to normal.

I have tried to befriend him with pointless chitchat while waiting for the elevator, and once invited him in for a drink. He declined and seemed cool to any further overtures. It’s clear that he has little interest in getting acquainted. Yet, the more distant he becomes, despite the good morning nod, the more I want to be with him. His indifference is a great driver of my passion.

The dreams began after that third or fourth meeting in the hall, dreams in which my new neighbour enters a tent pitched in a forest, his breastplate dripping with blood. Swords and spears clash and clatter and the screams of the dying are loud enough to wake me up. In other dreams, I am immobilized in a cave as if fine chains have wound about me, and I can’t move unless he frees me. In one recurring dream, I am panic-stricken because I have unaccountably failed to write the letters to Rome about the progress of the campaign against barbarian tribes howling fully armed out of the dark forest. My negligence will enrage my commander. The consequences of failing to please him are severe. When I wake, my body aches as if it has been whipped. Chained, yes, but also enmeshed, a word I prefer, enmeshed inextricably. Now, when I see my neighbour, the certitude that I have previously known him in another time, despite lingering scepticism about reincarnation, is almost physical like a steel collar around my neck.

Initially, I searched the Internet, going through the websites of schools and colleges, to no avail. I Googled his name after seeing it above his condo number on the mailboxes in the lobby. I found him on Facebook but his account was not open to the general public. It was pointless to send him a friend request. If he disregarded me in real time, why would he welcome my overtures in virtual reality? I then discovered reincarnation blogs and made a list of all the movies about previous lives, including Tibet’s Dalai Lama. I read about Hinduism, Buddhism, Scientology, any religious or other belief system wherein entire scenarios are constructed to nullify the notion of our one and final death. If we die, only to come back, well, we shouldn’t fear death.

I have read about a famous American actress who is quite sincere about her beliefs in previous lives. I scrolled through online chat rooms devoted to people who wanted to share memories of their past lives. I wearied my eyes on YouTube. To say the number of persons who believe themselves reincarnated is legion is an understatement. I also discovered websites of psychotherapists who help clients—or is that patients—recover lost memories. Some of them seem to be involved with alien abductions. As for scientific theories about space and time, they seem bloodless and abstract and I have difficulty understanding the language. I tried a few science fiction novels with plausible stories about characters who living in the present, also lived in previous centuries. My head stuffed with contradictions, complexities and speculations, I decided to go it alone. The truth resides in my obsessive attachment and the silent power he wields over me without so much as speaking a word.

The tug of invisible links and consciousness of things past flicking through my mind like sheet lightning on the horizon compel me to follow him. I need to capture those images roiling in my brain and see if I can form a complete picture to view and analyze. We meet in the nearby gym, which is allowed to remain open provided anti-COVID protocols are observed, and the number of clients restricted at any one time. He lifts weights, and in our first meeting there, he told me in reply to my repeated question that he came three times a week at specific times. And said no more. Hoping to engage him in further conversation and thrilled to be in his presence, I’ve changed my schedule to correspond with his, but he hasn’t spoken to me since then.

In the gym, I attempt various resistance routines to delay decrepitude and to keep my legs more or less fit. He’s in excellent shape, his body hard like a fist. I think he is 30 or so, not more than 40. There’s something indeterminate or ageless about him, and he reminds me of movie posters of square-jawed men in combat. Before running on our respective treadmills separated by the required two-metre rule, I offer a comment about the weather or joke about my aging body, to which he does not respond. I have difficulty keeping up with his vigorous running in the same spot.

My focus is not on my heart rate but on his physical body: the profile, the veins in his neck, his Mediterranean brown skin with minuscule streaks of bronze, his black hair kept short with a pronounced curl, the sweat glistening on his biceps, and a long scar snaking along a muscular thigh. Battle scar, I immediately think. His body is familiar to me, as if I have once tended to his intimate needs like a valet or a batboy, or even a doctor in the ancient past who cleansed his wounds. His black mask covering half his face, held securely by straps over the ears, makes him an alluring figure. On the rare occasion when his eyes look at me, they penetrate my heart’s core and I shiver. I can’t help but feel antiquated, anxious, weak, and in a state of suspension behind my own mask.

In the cloakroom, he changes his boots for gym shoes. Not always the same pair, but he prefers boots as footwear. And I am fixated on them as if they’re a key, a way into the past life, a symbol of who he is, or was, maybe even an inextricable part of myself. Construction boots, military boots, motorcycle boots: he owns a variety, all of them with names, Doc Martens, for example. I can scarcely keep myself from begging for the privilege of caressing his boots after he puts them on. It seems a respectful thing to do. I even attempted to find a site devoted to boots and reincarnation, with no luck.

I don’t remember wearing such boots myself. Instead, I stare at images online of men’s boots, stare at soldiers in their boots, as if mesmerized, and I lose track of time. Which, as I say, is my own. My wife died a few years ago from a wasting disease. It was horrible. My two sons live with their families hundreds of kilometres away, and visiting during the pandemic before vaccinations is out of the question. Occasionally, I volunteer at a food bank, stocking shelves with tinned soup and packages of pasta, but I prefer my own company. At least, I did before my new neighbour captured my attention.

I have fallen into the habit of deference. If we meet in front of the elevator at times when I’m not following him, I greet him with a cheerful good morning, instinctively bow my head, and let him enter the elevator first. He doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he accepts my humility as normal procedure. Downstairs in the lobby, I open the door for him. I can’t tell if he smiles his appreciation behind his mask, but the nod of his head suggests approval.

We met once in front of the meat counter at a nearby market. I was looking for soup bones to make bone marrow soup, part of my regular diet. When he reached for the steaks, my extended arm knocked against his. I apologized for touching him without permission, a provocative act that could only cause displeasure. He glared down at me. His eyes are amber-flecked brown. I quickly lowered my gaze to his Pajar Trooper boots, thinking I should kneel before them and beg forgiveness. Perhaps the moment lasted five or seconds. Without a word, he turned his shopping cart around and pushed it down the aisle. I raised my eyes to his strong back.

He doesn’t wear a suit to work, which I discovered by following him there on the commuter train. He has something to do with the new hospital. The train stops in front of the hospital plaza. Not an administrator, perhaps an orderly or part of hospital maintenance, which explains his preference for casual gear during his workday. I cannot follow him into the hospital because of the COVID-19 protocols. Unless one has a specific appointment, which I didn’t that day, or is a caregiver, which I am not, visitors are forbidden, so I waited two hours in the station for the train back.

In the evenings or weekends when we happen to meet at the gym, he’s curt and vague in his answers to my questions about his personal life. It’s clear that he doesn’t like to be questioned. Having made a living by speaking, I can’t help but use words in his presence, even at the risk of babbling. There’s so much I need to say, to ask, to confirm. I have even fancied speaking a few words of Caesar’s language, if only to get a rise out of him. He doesn’t have to use words, any more than a soldier about to strike at his enemy. His body says everything he needs to say. His vigorous silence commands my attention.


For all installments of “The Commander,” click here.