That’s how you do it: step and step and step and step again until you’re synchronized. First you study the steps in reverse. It isn’t simply walking backwards; it’s pressure points, it’s the way your foot graces the ground and your ankle adjusts and your knees subtly bend. The patterns will come to you in time. You must remember patience. This isn’t a feat to be achieved on the first attempt. No one’s ever gotten it on their first attempt — not me, not any of the others you or I might have glimpsed unforeseen on some morning’s commute, our rush mingling with their relief.
It’s best to start on the late-night lines, when crowds are sparse and there are few bodies with which to collide. It’s hard to find the empty space that fits you, that you find yourself in, that you were always in.
Practice is essential. It’s the motions, first making them seamless, then tricking your body into that backwards flow. It’s the moment when your breath catches: I remember the first time the inhale and exhale became exhale and inhale. And exhale and inhale. And exhale and inhale. And my eyes were closed before they opened, that first blink, of darkness revealing bodies’ arcane motions, as everyday as the subway’s doors opening and closing, as uncanny as a mind in one direction watching motions in another.
Harder still is knowing when to break direction. If you don’t time things first, you’ll be sunk. Worse than sunk. Know how long it is from your entry point to your earlier entry point. It’s a kind of meditation, living in reverse. It can’t be sustained over long trips; at least, I know of no one who could pull it off. Running late from Coney Island to Queensboro Plaza? Ready your apologetic call; take your lumps. Attempt that and you’ll be lost. The reverse is good for three stops, maybe four — the flow and the break and the recognition. No one’s up for more.
You might hear things. Stories of hesitations and seizures and disappearances. Gaps. Absences. Stories that no longer fit; presences that lack names; names that seem familiar yet forgotten. Sometimes you hear talk of mentors who brought them through certain critical steps, who handed off notes or guides, copies of copies of copies. No one knows who the first was to try it. Someone running late, I expect. Someone who absolutely had to be in a certain place at a certain time and fucked it up, and figured out a way to recant themselves through time.
Move yourself in reverse only when it’s absolutely necessary. Do it too much and you’ll start to recognize the sighs: certain tics; a vague look in the eyes as you say before — once you lose track of which before was the first before, you’re nearly done. This isn’t something you can ease out of. I knew someone who swore they saw someone shift out of reverse, then wrench, then render to absence. By which I mean that they saw nothing: something unmade, the afterimage of a paradox.
No mentors here. No trips, no tricks; just transit and learned motion. Whose motion was the origin of this? Couldn’t say. I learned it on my own. I had to. And I’ll keep it. And I’ll share it.
Watch your feet. Watch their feet. Watch the angles, watch the motions. Step backwards; guide yourself towards the doorways. Listen for the chime, and for that chime to come again. I’ll be on the next train, ten minutes from now, ten minutes before.
Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. Which is probably a cliche, but is accurate until he, he doesn’t know, decides to secede and start the Newtown Creek Republic or something. His writing has recently been published by Tin House, The Collagist, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Bookforum, and Joyland. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.