i’m finally on my way home. i’m sitting on the 1 train basking in the white noise of people in transit: the familiar chord progression of the train pulling into and out of the station, people jabbering and snickering and sneaking long sips of alcoholic beverages barely concealed in moldy brown paper bags. it’s tuesday, but it doesn’t matter. it’s late.
he gets on the train and my heart jumps into my throat. i can feel it from all the way across the train: this man is going to bypass all of the empty seats between us to come sit next to me. my body stiffens but not in a way that i’m used to: i am not in physical danger, ten million miles out of harm’s way. he carefully makes his way to me and, without my permission, i am a rapt audience of the goings-on of his body. he moves in 3/4 time:
his back is curved but his eyes are sharp: bright and blue and
he passes the empty seats slowly. i’m sitting next to an enormous woman who is reading a novel and audibly responding. we’re only at 59th street and she’s already laughed out loud twice and muttered “oh my lawwwd” under her breath more times than i can count. she hides nothing, is herself an open book, and i can’t help but compare these two humans, so peculiar, so deliciously dissimilar.
i am bracing myself for contact, but this man, wearing wool slacks and a dinner jacket despite the heat, lowers himself into the seat next to me and says nothing. i sit. i listen to the train, watch the people come and go. as sweat collects on my seat-mate’s brow, the jet black hair dye he must have applied just before leaving starts to crawl slowly down his forehead, pooling in the folds of his skin. he’s trembling and my heart is starting to break and i’m thinking that THIS is the thing that’s going to crack me. this is the thing that is more than i can take. maybe it’s because i lost my cousin, or because my grandfather just passed, or because of my mom, who after months of being solid and strong in the face of death after death after death in our family, finally reached the end of her rope today when she had to put our cat of ten years to sleep. maybe it’s because i’m best friends with my best friend again, or because when i got out of work there was a momentary break in the heatwave, or because i’m moving to brooklyn with the man i’m certain is the love of my life. for whatever the reason, a bubble rises in my throat and i’m not sure whether i’m going to laugh or cry or
“pardon me miss, do you have the time?”
his head is high, shoulders back, the tic residing in the left corner of his lip controlled and quiet.
“i’m sorry,” i stutter, forced violently back into reality, “i…i didn’t hear you.”
“do you have the time?” he asks again, politely.
“yes, um, yes i do, it’s… ten thirty.” i say, digging through a fourteen hour day’s worth of things to get to my cell phone.
“ah. a pity,” he sighs, pointing to his watch, an ancient and rusty indicator of years gone by that seems somehow permanently attached to his skin, “my watch has stopped.”
and just like that, i’m broken. just like that, i’ve lost my head, and before i wake up, before i come back down to earth and can recognize what i’m doing, my hands are on his skin, wiping the black drips from his forehead like they’re smudges on a four-year-old’s cheek. i return to my body when he gasps, a sharp brief inhale that stops me in my tracks, my thumb still pressed gently against his face. i’m twelve shades of red and trying to yank my arm away while bracing myself for an attack on my behavior, for his inevitable condemnation of my entire generation, but instead he catches my hand in between both of his.
“forgive me,” the words come quietly, “forgive me.”
i’m frozen, mortified.
“it does drip, doesn’t it?” he continues, shaking his head and returning my hand to my lap. “my wife always used to remind me.”
34th street. the train is running on the express line tonight and i have ten blocks to walk. “i thank you,” he says, as i stand up to go, “for illuminating my evening.”
he’s smiling but his eyes are so sad, and i don’t realize i’m crying until i’m standing on the platform and catch my reflection in the closed doors in front of me. “smile!” he mouths through the glass, reining himself in and running his fingers in an exaggerated grin across his own lips.
he winks as the subway jolts forward, heading all the way to brooklyn, my new home. i watch until he turns the corner, stand still as he disappears into the night.