When I’m beyond the landscapes I know, I look out the window, trying to pierce the bright reflection of the carriage’s insides, the reflection of my face and the faces of the passengers around me, to get a sense of where I am. Lights flash by. It’s all I see; the rhythm of light in the dark, street lights, headlights, the rectangles and squares of living rooms and kitchens, glimpses into people’s homes. Still lives.
Soon, the train leaves the suburban and for long intervals between stations, the outside is opaque.
In high school I wrote an essay on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. I don’t remember if I chose the subject or if it was assigned (either is likely) or what I wrote, nor does it matter as everything done in high school seems negligible and naive once it’s behind you.
But Grünewald’s crucified Christ has stayed with me. It remains with me in the way that art sometimes remains, eroding and fading in my memory, but immoveable.
There’s something about Grünewald’s Jesus. He doesn’t look dejected – like he’s lost a contest he expected to win – like the Christs of my childhood. No, this Christ, pre-Renaissance style, not quite like you and I but near enough, is in pain. He bleeds, is covered in sores, fingers jagged and cramping, his head sunk low. His skin is flaking or has tiny splinters in it – I’m not sure which. I think Grünewald’s Jesus has stayed with me because of this difference.
When I think of it now, I see that this is the suffering of a man, a human, and I know that the artist was a faithless man. A man who knew earthly pain, but not God. For the nonbeliever, the story of Jesus Christ is a story of suffering, a metaphor for all suffering. Grünewald understood this, and painted it.
I spot, down in the carriage’s belly, fluoro orange. Three train guards, heavy boots and bright jackets on, move towards where I sit, checking tickets. Mine isn’t valid – I don’t come to this part of the city, I have no need. I shouldn’t have a need.
The guards come up the stairs and ask to see our tickets, so I take out what I have and hold it up. The guard looks at it, feigns reading it, nods and they move on to the next carriage.
It takes a moment, then comes the rush of being 17 again, of doing things like this when we were kids for no other reason than to see what would happen. I laugh to myself, amused at dodging fares in business clothes and at my age and on a night like tonight. And on a night like tonight.