The beggar's leg jutted into the path of clambering metro-riders.
The man sat on the landing between the flight of stairs heading upwards into the cold sunlight and the one that went down under the overhang into the damp, tiled metro. He was situated just so on the concrete staircase that ascending or descending with the crowds, one might not notice a head floating at knee-height.
I saw him as I left the shade of the subway, but I could not see his leg, outstretched. Change rattled around in my jacket pockets, more easily reachable than usual, more valuable. I felt the Turkish one-lira coins with my fingertips.
And then I was beside him, looking down at my own feet as I noticed the leg that bent the flow of traffic in a silent arc. A stifled spasm. My upper half jerked forward and pulled the rest of me with it, shuddering.
The beggar's leg was but half a leg; not cut off crosswise, not a stump hanging below the knee, but eroded like a rotten log, eaten away from end to end. Yellow skin tinted green and flecked with the red of broken vessels, burst somethings and disease. I saw his leg crumbling like a nightmare I had never faced and I could not look, I could not turn back.
The part of me that feels fear pulled me away, up out of the stairwell by my own legs, around the corner towards home. Turn around.
Inside I screamed- half for the sad science of his wretchedness, half for finding myself so cruelly skittish. Turn around, goddammit.
I walked alone farther and farther away, joining the countless thousands who had skirted his leg and climbed the staircase. I walked towards a me I didn't like, yet one who recognized his own pitiful shortcomings. To go back was to view something that would live in my mind for days, weeks, I told myself. I had given before. I would give again.
But I had already seen what I would see. I had the chance to redo my actions - a mini experiment with time travel. There was no butterfly effect; there was only the beggar's leg.
I held the coins, maybe four or five, in my fist.
Adam Valen Levinson lives in Abu Dhabi, blogs for The Huffington Post, and authors the travelogue INGULFED.com. Last year, he graduated from Columbia University. He loves orang-utans, but his mother loves them even more.