50 stars and 5 points on each star, it’s 55, said Alex with a malicious grin. He was referring to the American flag in the picture we were looking at. He was also compassionately mocking my ongoing, sweetly perverse relationship with the number 55. Everyone has probably had an encounter with a certain number that appears everywhere you set your eyes—an expression of chance, a demonstration of that which is eventual. I may have developed a stupid fixation. I shall never know until I reach some sort of conclusion, of closure, or else become too busy with actual tangible matters to always find magic every other hour in happenings that I most probably invent anyway, to bother looking for the significance of pseudo-poetic encounters, which are born and buried everyday.
Ah yes, 55. I used to live in an apartment at number 55, then I moved out to settle into another. I had two jobs at the time, and the address of both offices were numbered 55. To get to both places from both apartments, I had to take the 55 bus.
I cannot remember how it all started, or how I came to notice. I forgot about the beginning. All I know is that in a period of at least five years, the time was always something-55, my phone, credit card, social security numbers, the job centre and walk-in clinics’ queue numbers, any routes, any stops and so much more besides, all featured these two digits. In trains, airplanes, I was daydreaming at seat number 55. Once I was even relocated from window seat 43, there had been a mistake the agent said, I hope you won’t mind. Driven by a need to find meaning through my creation of a sign, with enthusiasm and ardour I began a process of delusional interpretation. A sign that took the form of a number—when it could have been a word, a sound, an object or a flavour—a number with no intrinsic meaning until I invested it with significance.
About a year ago, I decided to leave 55 and all the rest behind. I arrived in Toronto and found an apartment at number 123 Mutual Street. It sounded like it could be a new beginning, 123. The number felt fresh, it was set against a solid black wooden door, it was safe and cosy. I arrived on the tenth of a cold, dry and deserted January. There wasn’t much for me to do, so I got busy reading manuscripts for a modest living and getting familiar with my surroundings. At this point I didn’t know I was soon to find a job at number 55 Front Street East—I was patiently waiting for something to show up, to happen. I must confess this strong tendency to defer action, to be dilatory. I used to think I was a passive perfectionist, but in fact I’m a procrastinator, thwarted by an uncontrollable fear of making mistakes. It had crossed my mind that 55 was a discreet chaperon, leading me, reassuring me, perhaps even showing me the way; it had crossed my mind, too, that I could simply be a little off in the head.
Searching for my truth, constructing my own semiosis, being the author of my reality, I adopted the simplistic method of defining a sign as something that implies something in some respect, which, for me, stands for something in a way, for what it’s worth. I gave it value, granted it reliability, I was seeing every and anything that could support my intuitive theory, that could fit tightly, nicely into my evolving narrative. I decided to overlook reason, to suppress it in favour of a quest for discovering meaning; ad infinitum. I thought my beliefs were real, I cherished them as a source of truth, sadly aware that truth should be independent of anyone’s beliefs. Facts are what make things real, and I didn’t have any. Was I looking for them only to authenticate the scheme I wished to entertain?
One weekend, I visited my cousin in British Columbia. I had never met him before, so I felt a little anxious, apprehensive, but also surprisingly careless. He picked me up at the airport and we drove to his velvet cottage, cottoned up in a mantel of snow. Fabian turned out to be a nice, amicable and well-rounded individual in his mid-forties, a joyous loner with the occasional boy- or girlfriend. His prominent belly, carefully protected by extra thick wool-knit sweaters, gave him a comforting allure, and his plump lips were inherited for him to hold a pipe. We had a heartening dinner, we introduced ourselves at great length, got tired and went to bed. We left early the next day. With his mind firmly set on making me enjoy the scenery, the beauty and the tranquillity that he had found in this pocket of Canada, he took me to Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens—an odd, domestic choice—or so it seemed. I feared it would be closed at this time of year, he said, but you seem to be in luck: here are 55 acres of wonderful floral displays open for your eyes to see. As we walked towards a Japanese garden, my cousin contemplated my pensive expression, and wondered what was troubling me. Nothing, I said, then briefly explained my insignificant story of 55. Plants illustrate the Fibonacci series in the numbers and arrangements of petals, leaves, sections and seeds, uttered a friendly voice. Is that what you are talking about? The gardener, who was working on the layout and arrangement of some pale smooth stones, was also eavesdropping.
Daisies have 55 petals, for example, and a sunflower seed has 55 clockwise spirals, he continued. Yes, I know, I replied, I read something about it; it’s funny. Yes, funny, he repeated; it deserves a smile. Somehow spooked by this surprising intervention, I grabbed my cousin’s arm and we progressed along the promenade. I felt like a lost body investigating the environment it had wilfully corrupted. Give me a consistent theory of quantum gravity, I thought, arouse me with compelling evidence of the premises of causality, define the nature of time for me, and I’ll stop it all. But if I can perform 27 steps before I reach the blue iron gate and the exit sign, then I’ll continue to search for the unseen factor, I’ll connect all occurrences, I’ll find a worthy link between any two incidents.
Well into the evening, as we were finishing dinner by the rustic fireplace back at the cottage, Fabian mentioned that in the I-Ching the sum total of heavenly numbers and earthly numbers is also 55. It is this which completes the changes and transformations, and sets demons and gods in movement. But I suppose you know that too, he said. Yes, I have done my research, I replied. I was getting a little irritated, perhaps even ashamed, by the affair, by its redundancy, but was careful not to show any sign of impatience. It was warm, it was quiet, all was peaceful and docile, I was calmly getting drunk. We cheered to the truths we originate in order to find some wonder in ordinary existence, we saluted the sense of wonder that loosens the mind’s restraint.
As Fabian got up to fill two more generous glasses of whisky, I noticed a little book on the antique coffee table. It was protected by the creamy shade of the lamp, inundated by the glare of the flames. Naturally, I picked it up. Ah, yes, you’d like that, Fabian said. Well, actually I read it a long time ago, I remarked, but I had never seen this edition before. The thin, light object I was holding was a collection of Paul Auster’s writing. The cover displayed a group of jazz musicians who were celebrating the perfect rhythms of the stories. Well, let’s see what’s on page 55, said Fabian with an almost innocent smile as he bounced back in his upholstered armchair. Like alcohol, he added, coincidences enfold a burst of vitality and spawn a new lust for life. The desire to create them is only natural. I opened the book, soothed my throat with a poignant sip of whisky, and stared at the first sentence on that page. It read:
My first novel was inspired by a wrong number.