A Study of Perambulation
by Emily Miller
There is an alarming epidemic of plodding in this world. Every day, I see it in the mobs that shamble like streams beside the streets. Most people move along in such a way that I can scarcely call it walking at all. There is a noticeable disconnect in the joints; the sole hits the ground, the ankle cocks to an angle, the knee compensates. Each event occurs in the proper order, but with no sense of rhythm, like musical notes in tune without tempo. Some of them are understandable; a parent handling a heavy child or a traveller hauling luggage is burdened and their natural movements stunted. Others are curled over, dogged by an invisible weight which drives the soles of their shoes to slam upon the ground as if trying to wreak vengeance.
There’s no good solution to the situation. The slowest person always manages to hog the middle of the sidewalk; the others flow around like ants avoiding a rock. In rare moments, if I’ve had a particularly trying day and they’re frustrating me, I intervene. I get right behind the slow person at a distance that’s too close for comfort but not close enough that they’ll say anything. Then, I match pace. Nervous, they move a little father ahead, I walk faster. I like to call it “herding” them. I don’t do it as much anymore, as according to Samuel, it can be considered disturbing.
You know what’s disturbing? People who move at the same rate as tectonic plates.
When I walk alongside people who are shorter than me, it gets tricky. I have long legs, and if I’m not careful, I’ll out-pace my companion. It’s happened between me and my housemates more times than I like to admit. I hate watching someone purposefully shorten their stride to match a companion’s; it looks like a horse being forced to trot on a treadmill. The movement is stunted and dead, and the short person is constantly hastening to keep at the tall person’s elbow anyway. The key to matching pace with a shorter person is to lengthen the time it takes to make each stride. My solution is to pop up on my heels and add a sort of rollick to the movement; the brief hesitation slows my stride without shortening it, and I don’t end up a football field away from poor Luca.
I once daydreamed an impossible solution to the situation. I was fourteen. I had just finished a book of Greek myths that I’d borrowed for my sister. The book was still open on the coffee table, the corner dangerously close to a puddle of spilt Coca-Cola. On the left page was text describing the fate of Atlas. On the right was art of a muscled man, bent on one knee, forehead nearly touching the ground. Crushing his back was an orb so big that all that could be seen of it was a great curve going off the page. The art was stylized to look like it belonged on a Greek urn; Atlas’ grotesque grimace was in profile. If Atlas held the world, I remember wondering, could he feel the vibration of our feet on the ground? Did he know us like I knew others, by the weight of their step and the pattern of their motion?
How someone moves says a lot to me. It always has.
My three housemates are perfect examples. Luca is the shortest, but he dresses loudly to compensate. Once, when we were going out, he took my bright orange floral blazer straight out of my closet and threw it on. He had to cuff the sleeves twice and it looked like a waistcoat on him. But he got compliments, so I let him keep it. The sleeves were too short for me anyway. He’s from somewhere in Brazil that I can’t pronounce or spell, no matter how many times he explains it. I remember sitting on a bench, people-watching—and admittedly correcting strides in my head—when I saw Luca exit a post office. As he walked away from me, I watched his head dart from side-to-side. The man swaggered left-to-right like an inverted clock pendulum. Delighted as I was—I had never seen that before—I brought it up at dinner. He insisted I was lying. Our housemates, Amelia and Samuel, made him stand up and walk the length of our hallway twice.
“It’s true,” Amelia had said, “I can see it. You swagger.”
“Like this.” Samuel had held up his finger and mimicked the motion. “Tick-tock, tick-tock.”
Luca took it in good stride after that, but then everyone began pestering me about how they walk, what I notice about them. I usually don’t tell people what I notice, because inevitably people want to know what I see, and then I have to admit that a quarter of my brain is always watching them, and that is also usually considered disturbing. Nobody likes to be judged. Besides, it honestly isn’t that fascinating. Amelia, from California, walks like a pair of safety scissors. Her height makes long strides impossible, so she compensates with a smooth, rapid gait and sharp movements. When she walks, I like to watch the top of her head. It glides along a perfect line, never breaking that vertical bar, while the curly blonde puff of her hair tags behind like a cloud sewn to her skull.
Samuel of Senegal walks like it is his mission to destroy the vertical bar. It isn’t hard; the man’s black hair dusts the doorframe every time he enters a room. I adore the way Samuel moves. The Earth doesn’t seem to pull on Samuel like it pulls on the rest of us. It’s like he has a slider bar for the amount of gravity he wants to bother with each day. He bobs on his toes when he’s cooking, always darting from place to place.
Sometimes, I go into the kitchen while he’s working, find a place to stand, and hold position. As he cooks—and talks, the man loves talking—he bobs and weaves around me. He doesn’t spill what he’s stirring, or drop what he’s holding, or second-guess a single dramatic gesture as he speaks. When Sam tells a story, it is a full-body experience. He’s not a dancer like I am, but we still speak the same language.
Not that I always understood him. I know the language of the body, but that doesn’t mean I always understand what it’s trying to say. Sam’s a bit bow-legged—you can see it when he wears tight pants—and the posture of his neck is atrocious. With his height, his neck, and the digitigrade manner of motion, I had wrongly asserted his movement to be like that of a bird.
Amelia, Samuel, Luca and I had gone out on a Friday night for Luca’s birthday. I may have had four drinks. Amelia said it was closer to six. We were walking back to the flat at some ungodly hour of the morning. Samuel doesn’t drink—religious reasons—and so we’d dubbed him our chaperone for the evening. He had clustered us together like baby chickens and began herding us home down the streetlight-studded road.
I remember the drunk man in the puffed red jacket shuffled towards us. I don’t remember his face, but he distinctly shuffled. Amelia said he was trying to buy marijuana from us, which is ridiculous; Samuel would never, Amelia’s asthmatic, Luca doesn’t smoke, and I haven’t touched that since I was sixteen. At any rate, the man and Luca got into an argument which devolved into a shoving match. I don’t remember what they started fighting over, but I do remember what Samuel did next.
As soon as the drunk man rushed Luca, Samuel was between them. He shoved his fists hard against the man’s chest, right in the center, stopping him cold. When the man pulled up his own fists to fight, Samuel stepped back. The drunk swung, and Samuel shifted. The bow in his legs gave Samuel a wider stance, the bob in his step a more fluid motion. While the drunk hammered punches into thin air, Samuel weaved around him. I had been wrong about the way Samuel moved. Because of his digitigrade manner of motion, I had thought bird.
A more accurate animal comparison would have been wolf.
In one smooth strike, Samuel collapsed the drunk’s weight-bearing leg and drove him to the ground. He told the drunk to stop moving, and the drunk stopped. You’d have to hear Samuel’s voice to understand why. When he spoke, his voice broke the air around it. I stepped forwards—I don’t know why; I was two margaritas and some beer beyond helpful at that point—and Samuel stopped me with a look.
“Keep walking,” he said.
I remember being afraid for him; I’d never heard him speak like that. Amelia grabbed my arm and we walked away. Scarcely a moment passed before Samuel caught up with us again, bouncing along, his lips quirked up in that little smile.
“You alright,” Luca asked.
“I gave the guy five pounds and told him to go somewhere else,” Samuel explained.
Later that night, I replayed that scene in my head. The orange streetlight cast blued shadows on his white shirt, caught the flash of the metal beads of the bracelet he wore tied on his wrist. The streetlight refracting off his dark skin had given him the appearance of liquid. Wolf now seemed too brutal; jaguar wasn’t nailing it, either. Finally, I rolled over, half-asleep, half-drunk and sent Samuel a text.
You move like liquid glass, I sent.
Thank you? Go to bed now Ruthie xx, was the reply.
After that, I had a new level of respect for Samuel, as well as a horrible crush. It figures the man I’d fall in love with would be the one who can’t do a step-ball-change to save his life, but I don’t mind that. He’s exactly like Naomi; he dances in everything. Whether or not he can do it to music doesn’t matter much to me.
When I was six, my parents told me I was about to become an older sister. I felt about this news much the same as I imagine a young man feels when he’s been drafted to war; a heady wave of fear and resentment that was ultimately rendered irrelevant by a superior sense of duty. I was already in dance, so I wore my glitter-pink tutu to the hospital to meet my new sibling. My grandmother tried to take it off me, but I was having none of that. I wanted more than good first impression on Naomi. I wanted her to admire me. I have skills and talent. I have pink tutus and people say I look cute in them. You should be grateful I am your sister.
The moment I met Naomi, I loved her instantly. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and if we were not together, I was vocally unhappy about it. I don’t remember when my mother told me that she was sick; I do remember dancing in the hospital room for her. Naomi’s leg muscles never developed properly and she has trouble breathing. This has stopped neither of us from teaching her to dance. She swings her feet around the side rather than bending her knees too much. She walks the way light moves on water; a dance of balance, a rippling motion of swinging and swaying and never falling, not once.
I remember noticing that when Naomi walked, people stared. Not just children, but adults, too. I couldn’t quite tell if they were pitying her or judging her, but I didn’t care. They had two legs that moved just fine, but the way they moved was so much less. If they were going to condescend on her, then I was going to condescend on them. They stared at her; in vengeance, I began staring back. I never stopped.
As I got older, I realized that judging other people probably wasn’t the best way to defend my sister, but the damage was done. I had become a connoisseur. I can’t see a mistake in motion without fixing it, whether mentally or by educating the subject. Even if the movement is technically fine, I find myself wanting to see that extra spark. Luca, Amelia, Samuel, and Naomi bleed who they are into every motion. Watching them do anything is an absolute delight. Moving from one place to another, progressing every second, they dance. Luca twirls pencils so quickly I half-expect his hand to take flight like a helicopter. Amelia brushes her curls out in languid strokes as she stares out the window. Samuel runs his hands over my waist, presses his lips to my neck, locks his fingers with mine, all with unbroken grace. If there is anyone who deserves pity for the way they move, it’s not Naomi. She lives in a body barely made to talk, but she sings with it.
Many people I see have their bodies bent like their soul is lead inside them. What worlds do they carry? What weights can’t I help with? It isn’t like I don’t try. I work at a studio; every evening is spent training new movements into people’s bodies. I’ve tried teaching Luca and Amelia, but as soon as the music plays, Luca’s confidence vanishes, and Amelia starts watching her feet like they’ll run off without her if she doesn’t keep both eyes on them. Samuel can manage as long as it’s slow and simple; anything faster and he over-corrects himself. Self-defense is apparently nothing like the tango.
I love the children that come to class. Children use their bodies to the limit. Unlike their beleaguered parents, they haven’t learned to be ashamed of stumbling. I wish I could pull the parents into a room, hand the floor to the children, and let the adults learn how to really live in their bodies again. We teach children to walk; they ought to teach us to dance. How else can we break our bodies free?
I know this is never going to go away. I spent ten years of my life judging other people for how they move, and the next ten trying to work off my sins by solving the problem. I cannot fix everyone. Some people, I just can’t wake up. If I could, though, I would go to Atlas. I’d help him bear the weight of the world just enough that he might unfurl his spine. I imagine he is like Naomi; with all that weight, parts of him don’t move right anymore. If I could, I would cure the misery. I would teach Atlas to dance.