Inertia

Woodrow was one of the least remarkable people I had ever met. We moved in the same circles for almost all of my teenage years – went to the same parties, drank in the same bars, killed time with the same cliques. It’s entirely possible that I spent more time with him than with anybody else, although it certainly didn’t feel like it. In the grand sum of all those bored, listless days, nothing was as fundamentally bland or devoid of purpose as Woodrow. Save for a slightly unusual name, he was the most fantastically uninteresting person anybody could imagine. Someone who was present at every gathering, but whose presence was utterly intangible. The sort of friend whose defining trait wasn’t wit, vivacity, kindness, bravado, or really any attribute fit to evoke a response. Rather, to know him was to be in the presence of sheer, inoffensive amicability. He would never tell a joke, never express an opinion, never let slip a spark of passion, and so never give any reason to dislike him. He was just there. The living, breathing god of benignity.

We used to make fun of him, as teenagers are wont to do. We’d say (for example), that he was the inventor of the colour grey, or that trigonometry was first devised in a failed attempt to create something more boring than Woodrow. If a tree fell in the woods and only Woodrow was around to hear it, did it make a sound? Cogito, ergo non sum Woodrow (not my own invention). It would be possible to avert any momentous historical event by replacing one of the key actors with Woodrow, since wars, revolutions and breakthroughs were all far too exciting to occur in his vicinity. Likewise, his status as the world’s only known non-entity positioned him as the answer to many of history’s great mysteries. Any unseen hand or forgotten agent could just as well be Woodrow, since to see him was to see the air behind him, and all awareness of his deeds was immediately displaced by something more interesting. The list could go on for ever, but the point is that we were fairly cruel towards poor Woodrow, behind his back. Of course, none of this was done with any malice. That would require even the first ounce of emotional investment, an ounce that was decidedly unavailable in this case.

Anyway, the years strolled on and people drifted apart. Some of us went to work, others to university, others travelling, others to parenthood, and all on divergent paths. Some adolescent friendships endure, and others slough off. Woodrow was universally the first to be shed. There was understandably little compulsion to maintain contact with somebody who communicated nothing. Woodrow was out of mind even when he was firmly within sight, and there was really no way for absence to make the heart grow fonder of something about which it genuinely didn’t care in the first place. I myself fell out of touch with everybody from those days, reminiscing often but never acting on those thoughts. I was in my early forties before I saw a face from my youth again. A bland and inexpressive face, but one that I would recognize anywhere.

I was walking back from the office when I caught a glimpse of him across the street. For whatever reason, in spite of everything he represented, my eye was drawn swiftly and inexorably towards him. Woodrow looked exactly as I remembered him. I ought to make myself clear – that was no figure of speech. He looked exactly as I remembered him. Over two decades later, and Woodrow hadn’t aged a day, an hour. Not a wrinkle, not a hair more or less on his head. The same expression, the same walk, the same clothes (or close enough). I was looking at the person I had known, precisely as I had known him. No hint of a change, no trace of time. I stopped, motionless, and stared for a good couple of seconds as my brain attempted to reconcile this information. Woodrow, clearly sensing a degree of attention to which he was wholly unaccustomed, looked around in discomfort and spotted me. There was a rare flash of emotion across his face (namely panic) before he turned and began to scurry off, his retreat manifesting as a clumsily hastened version of his usual gait.

With my curiosity piqued for the first time in a while, I immediately gave chase. Striding across the road and around the corner in pursuit, I could make out Woodrow’s unassuming frame, clear as day, turning left off the main street. A considerable head start, but entirely wasted on him – he wasn’t particularly fast, and he was even less imaginative. I found him in a side-alley café, sitting in a corner, facing away from the window. It was a rather optimistic attempt at stealth. I entered, waved half-heartedly at the barista, and joined my old, surprisingly youthful friend.

“Oh. You found me.” He muttered, still slightly winded from what, for him, must have been an epic feat of exertion. To this day, I have never seen the man actually run.

“Yeah.” I answered. “You know, I probably wouldn’t have done anything if you had just kept walking.”

“Oh well. I suppose I’ll remember that for next time.”

He looked at me blankly, as though my desired topic of conversation were not blindingly obvious. He had never been much of a talker, of course. To be caught in dialogue with Woodrow was to descend into a world of overly long pauses and overly short responses.

“You’re looking well.” He said. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was mocking me.

“… as are you. Very well. Impossibly well.”

“Oh.” He sighed. “You noticed?”

“I did. It’s quite noticeable.”

“Right.”

He glanced over his shoulder. The barista was far more interested in their machinery than with us. He seemed content with this.

“This is a bit of a predicament for me.” He said, softening his already taciturn diction.

“I can imagine. But try to look at things from my end. I’m sitting across from somebody who hasn’t aged in more than twenty years, and I’ve got no idea why. You’re going to have to give me something here.”

His face contorted with the first motions of a frown, but this stopped as soon as it started. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and tutted. It seemed like he was reprimanding himself.

“Fine.” He said, with renewed calm. “I’ll talk to you. But I have to ask that everything stays between us. I don’t want any attention.”

“I can respect that.” Deflecting attention came naturally to him, after all. I had no desire to upset the natural order of things.

“Well. Erm…” He puzzled around in his own head for a minute or so. I understood that this was not a conversation he had ever planned on having, and so the words did not come easily. “I’m mostly immortal. Have been for some time.”

“I see.” This seemed reasonable enough. “How long?”

“Five hundred and six years.”

“That’s a lot of years.”

“Yes.”

There was an awkward pause. Woodrow shuffled his feet. I exhaled.

“I suppose you’d like to know more?” He asked, with an air of trepid defeat.

“That is correct.”

Another pause. At this point, I realised that I would probably have to take the reins if I wanted to get anywhere.

“Alright, question number one: what’s the secret? Fountain of youth? Witchcraft? Ambrosia?”

He thought for a second.

“I suppose I was just born this way.”

“That’s it? That’s all you can say?”

“No.”

“… then keep going, please.”

“Well, by the time I was about fifty, I knew something unusual was going on. Of course, back then, people were more willing to go along with these things. And they died more quickly. So, I didn’t have to deal with the trouble of hiding my condition nearly as much as I do now. Anyway, I thought that I might as well go and see a mystic about it, maybe find out what was happening, you know? I was a little bit more adventurous back then.”

“And?”

“They were quite perplexed. None of their divinations or other arcana had any effect on me. They said it was as though the universe didn’t even know I was existed.”

“So… you just kept on doing your thing for the next half-millennium?”

“Yup.” He shrugged. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“And you’re immortal because… because what? Death hasn’t noticed you yet?”

“Something like that.”

“And you’re happy with it?”

“It is what it is.”

I was hit by a sudden urge to laugh, which I supressed in the interests of decorum. Woodrow was so boring that the human condition itself couldn’t be bothered with him. He had surpassed (souspassed?) every joke we had ever thought to tell about him.

“Look, I don’t want to talk about this too much.” He said, in an uncharacteristic display of mild preference. “It’s kind of a risk.”

“How so?”

“Well, I’ve gotten this far by just being me. You might not know this about me, but I’m a pretty tepid person. I like things to be the way they are. I don’t like to go out on any limbs. I’m not comfortable being involved in anything too exciting.”

“I’d noticed.”

“Talking about this out loud is a change for me, and I just don’t want to rock the boat. Even getting worried about possible consequences is a danger. Any emotion or activity that’s unusual for me might burst my bubble, for all I know. That’s all. So please, keep this between us.”

“Absolutely. You can rely on me.”

Woodrow glanced back once again. The barista, oblivious to what they were missing, continued to perform their duties.

“One more question, and then you’re free to go.” I said. “I appreciate that you’d rather just be on your way.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”

“Why spend all that time with us? And, presumably, with thousands of other people? If your goal is to live a nice, quiet life, not to mention to keep your secret, why not just keep to yourself?”

Woodrow looked at me with slight curiosity, as though I had just asked something to which the answer was completely obvious.

“Well, that’s it, isn’t it? I’m just being me, and that’s one of the things I do.”

He was right, of course. Woodrow was defined by his overwhelming neutrality, and self-imposed isolation was inherently too extreme for him. True to my word, that was the last question I asked him. My curiosity was far from sated, but it would have been cruel to keep him there. Besides, Woodrow’s rather dim powers of communication would probably have been an insurmountable barrier no matter what. We exchanged mobile numbers, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.  I walked home in a daze, this little interlude having thrown my day entirely off balance.

In the years that followed, it proved surprisingly easy to come to terms with what I learned that day. The fact that this extraordinary state of affairs concerned only Woodrow, the least extraordinary person of all time, made it somehow acceptable in my mind. It seemed perfectly fair that somebody with no desire or capacity to make their mark on the world be granted an eternity in which not to make it. With anybody else, it would have been an affront to the general nature of humanity. Woodrow, however, was physically (and apparently metaphysically) incapable of affront, and so there was no harm done. It was a momentous, cosmic article of knowledge, and I was privileged to have been gifted it. But I also didn’t really care.

In the times that I have seen him since, he has of course been unchanged. Perpetual, youthful vigour for an old soul that has not once exercised it. I am now in my twilight years, and my own waxing mortality makes me wonder about him. I wonder if some great personal upheaval will ever thrust him back into synchronicity with the rest of humanity, or if he will simply spend all of human existence just being Woodrow. Just being there.

Well, I don’t suppose anybody would notice either way.

 

The End

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