pages Lines

by HC Hsu

Published in Issue No. 271 ~ December, 2019
She was standing in line.

The line had rounded the corner of the street. She didn’t actually see the beginning of the line, or where it led to exactly. She just ducked in line, right past the corner. It was the middle of the day. There were lines everywhere now in the city, at any given moment. Restaurants, bars, clubs, museums, tourist attractions, banks, shops, post offices, even subway entrances—people always seemed to be lining up for something these days.

In a way, it didn’t matter what they were in line for. She noticed, more and more frequently, a strange phenomenon, in the city: wherever there was a line, random people, off the street, would start joining it. Sometimes she would walk by and ask what the line was for. Often, she would simply get a shrug and a wide-eyed ‘I don’t know.’ Maybe they thought if there was a line, there must be something good at the end of it, something worth waiting for. Something not to miss or lose out on. Or maybe it was just human nature to assemble, to flock together, to fall in line, to do what others were doing. The ‘what’ was of secondary importance.

Or maybe they were like her.

A man in a gray shirt and black slacks got in line behind her. About mid-thirties. He was checking his phone and didn’t look up. The line hadn’t budged.

At first, she was curious about these lines that seemed to have cropped up everywhere. Dropping the kids off at school, coming home from the grocery store, picking up lunch for her mother on the other side of town, running errands, meeting her husband at the subway station—at all hours of the day, she would pass by a line somewhere along the way. Didn’t these people have jobs or better things to do? All kinds of people, too—men, women, young, old, rich, poor—everyone stood in line, even in the same line. Lines were the great uniter.

She, on the other hand, was always on the move. From taking care of something to taking care of something else or someone else. Her schedule was locked in. She didn’t have time to stand in line. To just stand, still. To wait. Especially not knowing what she would even be waiting for, like those shrugging, wide-eyed people. Her days were lined up. Her life demanded she makes use of every second of it. Her husband demanded it. Her aging, frail mother demanded it. Her kids demanded it, and in turn, she demanded it of them. Passing by these lines, her curiosity turned to envy.

Then she realized she was standing in line, just different ones. Behind the other parents’ cars in front of the school. At the grocery checkout. Around the counter in her mother’s favorite deli. In traffic. The traffic actually wasn’t bad that day. She managed to get to the station early. And saw her husband with that woman.

It was still a line; she just wasn’t first in it. Not for her husband, not for her kids, and, as her mother told her pointedly, not for her inheritance, either.

Lines are everywhere. Like self-propagating organisms, they wind their way through every street and building, every nook and cranny. As if by some natural force, the longer they get, the more they draw to themselves and grow.

A group of teenagers, tittering and chattering, walked up and got in line behind the man in the gray shirt.

She looked up. The sun’s rays flared, breaking into blocks, then into points. Even the earth was habitable only because of its place in line. She felt a sense of freedom and relief. It was what she felt when she leapt past others in front of the train.

She looked around. The line still hadn’t moved. But that was ok. She knew it was going to be a long line. She was content.

Finally, she wasn’t in a hurry.

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HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, First Place Winner of the 2013 A Midsummer Tale Contest, and The Best American Essays 2014 Nominee, he has written for Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, Louffa Press, China Daily News, Liberty Times, Epoch Times, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland, where he is completing a commissioned translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo's biography (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).