And now for a sneak peek at the drawing that will eventually become the illustrated cover art for Matters of Convenience
Sunday, May 1, 2016
THE GIRL ON THE SUBWAY
Did you ever see someone who made your heart sit still for just a moment, but what a moment? I hope you have, for that’s the most accurate description I can give of the girl on the subway.
She was usually reading a magazine, the kind with plenty of glossy photographs of beautiful celebrities hobnobbing with one another. Perhaps she wished to be one of them. Perhaps she was content to admire them from afar. I could only guess, for I did not have the nerve to ask. This was okay though. For forty minutes a day I was able to take her in, and this served my needs just fine.
When I first saw the girl on the subway, I happened to be halfway through a relationship. Of course I didn’t know yet that Sharon and I had already peaked and would be starting the decline of our relationship within a matter of weeks. I was reasonably content with the way things were going at the time, so the state of my social life went unaffected by the crush I had developed. I must confess, however, that I did consider if I would be willing to leave Sharon for this stranger, provided that such a scenario ever presented itself. It was not a serious thought, just idle contemplation to help make my morning journey pass more quickly.
Perhaps I should have felt guilty about these thoughts, but resistance to them was futile. This girl I saw five mornings a week possessed the sort of beauty that did not boldly pronounce itself, but made its appearance known in a quieter, steadier manner. She was the owner of impossibly high cheekbones and lioness eyes that beheld the world with seeming indifference. Her hair was simply styled, straight and about shoulder length, somewhat on the stringy side. She habitually twirled strands of it on her fingers, sometimes examining the loose ends, other times paying it no mind. Her body was not of the voluptuous type I favored, in fact she was rather thin, but somehow this worked to her advantage in my eyes, for a sense of fragility and vulnerability was exuded that made me want to protect her. The baggy clothing she favored put me in mind of a little girl in hand-me-downs she had not quite grown into. Adornment was kept to a minimum. She wore no jewelry of any kind, putting her in stark contrast with her glittering female counterparts. Her ears were not even pierced. Her fingernails were unpolished, perhaps for health consideration, because sometimes she chewed on them, usually when the train was stalled. Perhaps she was a little claustrophobic. The only make-up I could detect was rust red lipstick that stained the lid of her Starbucks coffee cup.
She struck me as the active type, perhaps a tomboy, for the flesh of her arms compressed sinewy muscle, and based on a succession of bumps and bruises, I concluded that she played rough and tumble games with reckless abandon. No doubt there was a boyfriend somewhere with whom she scaled walls, roller bladed, and partook in other trendy activities intended to procure perspiration and encourage the purchase of designer water. Sharon preferred more intellectual entertainment such as poetry readings and lectures by Pulitzer Prize winners.
One morning I was surprised to find a cast over the forearm and wrist of the subway girl’s left arm. I saw this as an opportunity, for it gave me a feeble excuse to comment on her condition. Perhaps I would come off as charming if I asked to sign her cast. I prepared to speak, but the words remained locked in my throat. She kept her eyes glued to the pages of People magazine for the entire ride, and I kept my own pupils focused on her pretty profile.
Sharon and I went on vacation together to Barbados in August. Petty arguments had been spoiling a substantial share of our time. I thought that tropical breezes, the dazzling water of the Caribbean, and frozen daiquiris might be the proper remedy to our woes. I thought wrong. We were still together when our airplane returned us to New York’s Kennedy airport, but our relationship was hanging on a thread.
On my first day back to work I stepped onto the F train at a quarter past eight in the morning. My eyes welcomed a sight that surprised me by how much it had been missed. She looked up shortly after I had secured a position. Her eyes rested on my face for a beat longer than they ever had before. Then her gaze returned to the magazine in her lap. Her expression remained blank as she looked at me, but I felt certain that my presence was recognized. My absence had been noted, and perhaps my new tan as well. I hoped to catch her eye one more time, and if successful, perhaps I would finally venture a smile. She did in fact pay minimal attention to her reading material on this ride, peeking up frequently to observe the advertisements that bordered the walls of the subway car. With much frustration I tried but failed to intercept her path of vision. I had just about given up when three stops before my destination, she looked at me once again. I sensed that something monumental was about to occur. Instead, she opened up her purse to look for something and the moment was lost.
One week after she stopped sporting a cast on her arm, she appeared with a bandage on her forehead that did not fully conceal the bruise beneath it. It was likely the result of excessive enthusiasm in squash or racquetball. I pictured her running after a ball with total abandon on the court of a New York Health Club, and this image put a smile on my face. But I could spare little time to fantasize about her on this day. My thoughts were occupied by the turmoil of the previous night. The stress Sharon was dealing with at work had overflowed into our love life. Arranging time for us to get together was growing increasingly difficult, and when it was managed, it ended up hardly worth the effort. The night before we had argued passionately. Things had been said that were eventually apologized for, but could not truly be taken back. The end was near. It took no great gift of foresight to recognize this. We would promise to remain friends, but this would be an easily broken vow.
Two weeks later I grasped a strap with one arm while holding up a folded newspaper with the other. I did not usually read the newspaper on my morning commute because of the overcrowded condition of the train. However, Patrick Ewing had returned to the Knicks lineup after a long injury plagued absence and I was anxious to find out how he had done. The sports section engrossed me so deeply that I paid little mind to the object of my infatuation, who was seated just off to my right. An occasional peek at her sufficed. When the train pulled into my station and the herd of midtown white collar workers moved as one towards the open doors, I looked at her for the final time that day. The last thing I expected to see was a single teardrop rolling slowly down her cheek.
Sharon and I broke up that night. It was a mutual decision, although I allowed her the privilege of broaching the subject and simply agreed with all she said. Agreeing with Sharon had always been the best, if not the only way to keep the peace with her. Now it was the best method by which to withdraw our respective troops and call a truce to our affair. In a great many ways, Sharon was perfectly suited for me. My friends and family certainly felt as much. Maybe if our timing had been better. Maybe if we had both shown more willingness to compromise. When things between us were at their best, we had had some amazing times together. As our goodbyes were being said, I realized that I had almost loved Sharon. Too bad “almost” never counts in love, or in much of anything else.
On the morning of Columbus Day I stepped into the third car of the F train. Since it was a paid holiday for many people, the train carried only about a third of its usual load of passengers. For this reason I was able to get a seat. Not just any seat, but one adjacent to you know who.
She did not look up from her magazine for what seemed like forever. My countless glances went either unnoticed or ignored. The jerking of the train caused our knees to occasionally touch, sending tiny shocks of electricity up my leg. I wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, though not necessarily to flatter her and make my interest known. I happened to be in the earliest stage of a new relationship that seemed promising. The words which begged release from my tongue were simply what I felt so strongly, believed so sincerely, that I felt I would burst unless this essential truth was proclaimed. The only motive behind my desire to speak was honesty.
Finally she looked up from her magazine. At first she stared vacantly into the space before her. Then she turned towards me. When she did, I no longer thought of giving testimony to her loveliness. I was startled by an obscene marring of her delicate features, and even more so by the most unmistakable expression of misery I had ever been witness to.
I did not believe that her black eye was sports related. I did not presume this time, as I had often before, that her injury had been suffered accidentally. Instead, I said my first words to her.
“Why don’t you leave him?”
“I’ve tried to.”
We spoke as if old friends with no secrets between us. For almost a full year I had been communicating my affection for her with carefully aimed glances. Now I spoke of my concern plainly, leaving no room for misinterpretation, leaving her no option to deny the painfully obvious truth.
“He doesn’t love you or else he wouldn’t do this to you.”
“It’s complicated,” she said so quietly that I only made the words out by reading her lips, which I imagined to be as tender as the first flakes of winter, and her kisses perhaps as fleeting.
“It seems pretty simple to me. He hurts you, so you have no choice but to get as far away from him as possible.”
“I have walked out on him before,” she told me. “He finds me and tells me how sorry he is, how badly he feels, how it will never happen again. My friends tell me not to go back. They say he’s no good. I know they’re smart and they have my interest at heart, so I try to follow their advice. I pray for the strength to stay away from him, and sometimes it works. Almost.”
Our train pulled into the next station. She stood up and walked out. This was not her usual stop. Ordinarily she would still be on the train when I departed. I considered getting up to follow her, to speak to her, to help her. Instead I watched her recede into the distance growing between us.
I never did see her again. Perhaps she switched cars on the train or the timing of her commute so she would no longer encounter me each morning. If she could not escape her torment, she could at least avoid my questions. On a more hopeful note, maybe she finally listened to her friends and moved someplace far away, free from the violence of deformed love.
I try not to think of the worst case scenario. I prefer to believe that wherever she is, she is safe and she is happy. .
My wedding day is fast approaching. Dana, the woman I began to date after breaking up with Sharon, turned out to be the one. A strong sense of unreality colors my days now. I’m going to be someone’s husband soon. Eventually I will probably become someone’s father. A whole new life is about to get underway. This is a good thing, an incredibly wondrous thing, a somewhat terrifying thing.
I reflect on days past and inevitably recall my rides on the third car of the F train. I remember the girl who stopped my heart for an instant, right on cue five days a week. I think about the last time I saw her and wonder what would have happened, how different my life might be if I had gotten up and followed her out of the train. Perhaps nothing would have taken place other than her pleading with me to leave her alone, and my slightly late arrival at work that day. But just maybe she would have allowed me to continue speaking, and our conversation would have moved from subway platform to a more intimate setting. After that, who knows where the road might have led?
What I do know is that I’ll always remember her. I’ll always remember that I chose to follow her, to save her life, to forever change my own. Almost.
x x x x x
And now for a sneak peek at the drawing that will eventually become the illustrated cover art for Matters of Convenience