Robert Hirschfield finds that “our existential ground zero is always closer than we think.”

NEAR A BUSY traffic circle in Calcutta, a man was sitting naked on the hot ground. His hair was matted, and his eyes were not where he was.

What to make of this man? I am beyond the point where a naked man on a city street in India gets badly translated in my brain as a holy man. No clothes equaling infinity. Man out walking with God. He is not a Naga Baba. He is as distant from their companionable nakedness as I am from him.

On this hot Calcutta afternoon, with my partner asleep in her studio in the wild snow of Connecticut, his desolation seeps into me, connects with my own floating black stone.

He reminds me that our existential ground zero is always closer than we think. He reminds me of my old anxiety dream, a classic: I am on a busy street, clad only in my underpants. I am trying to act natural. Inside me, shame, mystification, the need for a strategy. My clothes have to be somewhere. I am a branch on Kafka’s tree.

By comparison, his nakedness seems so empty. A cave covered over with matted hair, black skin, the long bell of his genitals.

I wish that I, like the Calcuttans, could just walk past him, eyes averted. Calcuttans are practiced averters. Their facial gestures get turned off like cell phones in movie theatres to cope with the mobs on the Metro, at street crossings, almost anywhere. A naked man in public is a solitary mob. A space plunderer. An accidental pirate.

I don’t like what moves inside me because of him. Feelings stripped of their protective leaves. I see myself stranded in this desert with its single dead tree containing parts of me.

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