Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
When the dark-haired boy jumps into the street, I have the clearest view. The motorcyclist, speeding around a narrow corner in Casablanca, can’t see the dark-haired boy. And the dark-haired boy, stumbling forward at full speed and unable to suppress his laughs, can’t see the motorcyclist. But I have a clear view of the entire scene from across the street—which comes with an instant awareness of the inescapable.
And those calculations simply appear, emerging without any deliberation from somewhere deep in my mind, with the measurement of speed and distance and trajectory as instantaneous as a shiver, every moment sliced with an unbelievable clarity. Perhaps a few million years of evolutionary practice has sharpened my nervous system for these little physics problems. In some cases to hurl a spear. In others to avoid a fist. On this day, unfortunately, to sense the path of an approaching collision, and to also sense the impossibility of intervention. Because being ten or twelve steps away is the equivalent of not being there at all, so that, despite my overwhelming urge, this is a scene that I can only watch.
My perception of motion, once I think for a moment, does seem rather limited—it seems that I’m stuck with what’s most useful just for me, and quite blind to so much that my senses miss. Which means that I can spot the circular flight of a bird above the street, or discern the details of how this small child plods forward, yet nothing at all, I know in my mind, would fit the definition of stationary, even though there’s so much motion that I can’t perceive. Such as the plant growing to my left, the erosion of paint on a nearby wall, or the widening crack in the street. Nothing fits the definition of stationary if the scale is large enough—the spectrum for my senses just happens to be a bit narrow, focused on a particular time scale, forgetful of how absolutely everything is in motion.
By some inconceivable chance, just as the dark-haired boy takes a large step, I watch as he slips, tumbles forward, and lands in the street, right as the motorcyclist jerks the handle, catapulting him off the bike. The fall throws the boy just short of the skidding tire, though there’s no cause, that I can spot at least, for the stumble. The pavement where the boy falls is flat and unmarked and it doesn’t provide any answers for such an incredible change in trajectory.
Bright colors don’t survive the harsh sun in Morocco, so I am surrounded by faded browns and tans, the hues of the desert having been drawn into and absorbed by the Casablanca streets, and that washed palette makes the fiery red dripping from the motorcyclist’s side that much richer. His shirt is torn, part of him is still on the pavement, but he’s standing. The street fills with an impressive speed—a crowd gathers around the boy, another around the motorcyclist. A man consumed by fury appears to be the father. The motorcyclist, after a moment of confusion, matches his fury. From my position, it is easy to comprehend both perspectives, to see how both the father and the motorcyclist have followed perfectly justified trajectories, with both of them sparked toward anger.
About twenty people are now in the street, split without any instruction into two groups, one directing the screaming father and crying boy away, the other directing the disoriented, furious man back onto his bike. Workers from nearby shops have come into the street, and those passing by have joined the crowd. Soon enough, in fact, there are no bystanders, and perhaps I am the only person who is simply observing, standing still, while the two groups jockey and grapple, with each one orbiting the other, the rotation somehow chaotic but coherent, as the objective, for nearly everyone involved, is to get both the father and the motorcyclist to move away. The contrast between this moment and the silence of just a few moments ago couldn’t be greater. Time is parsed, in these charged seconds, with such a fine precision. Eventually, the cries of the dark-haired boy slow, and the father, his attention diverted back to the current moment, takes the boy from the street. The motorcyclist seems to undergo a change too. He is calmer and quieter and taking backward steps. Then the two groups separate just a bit more, and all the voices begin to lower, right as my perception of time begins to expand, because nothing looks portentous now, there’s no impending collision, nor any potential conflict—so I return to that familiar but deceptive feeling of a stationary moment.