by Leslie M. VanExel, Jr.
The first thing that he felt was the cool air rushing across his face. It blew in dancing from the right; quickly refreshing and revitalizing his skin. Pores and hair and the skin in between, the sweat his body had produced evaporated. The wind gave him a sensation of agitated expecting. It preceded the noise and while he was captivated by its power over him, he could feel the advent of something far more powerful. It quivered his flesh and threatened to push him aside. He felt like he was in California again. The familiar shake of a mild earthquake made him feel more at home, more at ease.
First, the light licked its way out of the darkness. It seemed more like a backwards animal; ranging tail first out of a hole in the ground. He thought about it again. Ever since adolescence he loving seeing new things, experiencing new places. He thought he had taken it to heart with his life, but even now that he was an adult, he had still never been on a subway.
He hadn’t considered why he had never bothered, especially living in southern California, where subways didn’t exist. Location wasn’t enough of an excuse for his tardiness. And now that he had stepped onto a metal box full of people, all of which were more intimately close than he could have wanted, he had to admit it was a very new experience for him. The rush of air, the rush of people. It was kind of like being at the DMV while having vertigo. Just that it was so crowded that you couldn’t fall down.
That was the first thing that really caught him off guard. Subways move abruptly and stop abruptly. It’s surprising just how stupid a person becomes when they try to stand without holding any of the rails. You had better pay attention or the speed of time will knock you off your feet.
First stop was Harvard. He thought the city of Boston as a whole to be so chaotic that it was silly to have names for the stops. Harvard was everywhere; it stretched for miles. So did downtown. So did the rest of the colleges, shops, houses, buildings, streets. Everything was a jumble of goatroads and Indian trails that eventually grew larger, some had gotten paved and a few were named. It was odd to have to see several street signs to actually verify you were on a particular street. Walk a hundred yards, turn around, walk back and you may be on a different street, probably at a different school, most likely closer to a different subway exit. He looked at the mass of people contained in the box and figured it was safer topographically to take the subway. At least someone had had some kind of plan when they were built. After all, they went in a straight line. A much better bet than risking hours of aimless walking.
He stood next to an older man with stern cheeks like the angry and sunglasses large enough to shadow his entire face. His Elvis-esque sideburns made him look a little more eclectic, exotic, definitely a local. Elvis was sweating. Not dripping, but enough to be visible, and far too much for how close he was. Anthony stood behind him, being slowly pushed into physical contact with the King. He could feel the damp sticky heat through his shirt. Not a good thing. Elvis had his mouth open in a crooked, vacant manner, allowing more than enough room for flies, maybe even a junebug.
At the Harvard exit the exchange of people allowed him to stand more in the middle of the car and be farther away from Elvis. He figured it would be a safe bet that there would be the least traffic in between doors. He migrated to the middle looking back occasionally to ensure his distance from both the doors and the king. When the train began its rapid advancement, he shifted back and was once again in contact with Elvis. The King sucked him back like a rip tide. Elvis wore a purple T-shirt that was a little too tight and jeans that followed suit. Perhaps he was better able to shake his hips that way. The rose tinted sunglasses were a nice touch. His growing beer gut made him definitely look like the older, “soon to be dead on the can” Elvis. He looked about six months pregnant; and smelled as though it had been about that long since the last shower too. Pungent of sweat and dirt, but also had the sickly strong scent of potpourri.
He couldn’t resist. “When are you due?”
His grunt was more like the sound dogs make when they burp. Saying anything to his type of mind flotsam was probably an invitation to extreme boredom. He regretted making first contact.
The train slowed and beckoned people to move about. They swirled like trout in the rapids, and pooled in the lower parts of the cars next to the doors. As they opened, people seemed to fall or flow out, like snow blown in through the cracks during a Wyoming winter. People coursed through the car while he stood stationary, looking straight ahead. Facing the side of the car for balance and stability, he rooted himself into the rubberized mat. Planted, he could relax his mind; when he saw her, his body relaxed also.
He usually tried fairly successfully to keep low-key about attractive women, he neither needed them, nor neglected them, preferring to have many friends that were girls rather than a girlfriend. Mindless physical attraction was always the first thing that got him in trouble so he had to make a conscious effort not to feel that heat.
This needed to be an exception.
As soon as she stepped that first step through the door he noticed her eyes. Big and round, light brown like caramel, odd for the dim subterranean light. A well defined face with attractive lips, shapely, but not pouty like a temper tantrum. Her cheekbones made her eyes even brighter, and her nose was real; somewhat of a rarity to a Californian. She had a beautiful body, well proportioned and once again, real. He could tell she definitely wasn’t from the United States. She looked rather European, not so much in her, but more along the lines of how she dressed. She wore oddly cut, shaped, and styled clothes that always accompany Europeans. A style difference that couldn’t bridge the ocean’s gap. Always the wrong trend, they were either ahead of us or behind us. Her skin complexion screamed Italian or Spanish, and as soon as her friend spoke to her she was confirmed as Spanish, or at least Spanish speaking.
By the second step he was wondering where they would be married. When they walked toward him he wondered what kind of wedding gown she would wear. When they sat down opposite him he knew their first born’s name.
Both the boy’s name as well as the girl’s.
His mind ran free and clear. It was bright as the sun and soared nearly as high. His ambition let him go too far, and when he fell, amidst the train’s clamor, he fell onto the belly of Elvis. He had no idea how Elvis had gotten next to him, or why. Perhaps everyone migrates to the middle of the car. Less movement, more peaceful. Elvis hopped back half terrified of human contact, scared enough that Anthony actually could see, only for a moment, his eyes behind the enormous sunglasses. He let out a shudder during his jig, then balanced himself as well as Anthony and brushed off his T-shirt.
“Oh, boy! I almost missed this train.”
He could only hope that he may have an opportunity to talk with her, but not this time. His mistake was making him pay. Elvis wanted a discussion. He thought only karma could make something this horrible happen. But what had he done that could warrant such a redemption. He tried to keep his eyes averted. Through the side of his downcast lips he could see Elvis’s face attempting to burrow into him. His mouth contorted, foreshadowing impending conversational doom.
“Um, yeah.” He was trying to look away, hoping that there really was no such concept as object permanence. He attempted to return to infancy, to the world where “If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” He was a little too close to the girl to be able to safety look at her without being obvious. Looking askance, he could see her looking in his direction. He wanted to look so badly it made him flush hot.
“I have an interview today. I’m trying to get a job at the new parking off of Edwards.”
He kept his eyes averted and mouth shut.
“I think I have a pretty good chance. The owner’s name is Dave. He looks kind of like the Carl’s Jr. guy.”
It was too late.
“I told him that and he thought it was pretty funny. I think I just have a way…”
He looked down at the grooves in the rubber mat. He tried to drown out this talk with visual stimulus. Slowly his eyes drifted to her feet. She was wearing sneakers but of some brand that he didn’t recognize, white pants, stretchy, not too tight but incredibly flared bellbottoms that almost ruffled into stupidity. A black T-shirt with white trim; a girl’s cut: shorter sleeves and a v-neck. He intentionally looked past her breasts and accidentally looked straight into her eyes.
She was absorbing him in that moment. They both stared at each other, mouths slightly open, with innocent crystalline faces. He lay open for her examination. He could not move, couldn’t even react, her eyes were too big. They took him in entirely, and he felt surrounded by their warmth, his mind was drunk in it. He didn’t know how he looked, merely that she saw him. He only seemed to begin to exist with her look. It’s innocence made him innocent. He was absolved in her. Free and indentured to her. There was a spark there that—
He was getting nudged on the shoulder and she looked away, tight lipped, trying not to smile.
“Hey, are you okay. I thought you were going to fall over.” He made a motion with his arm like a falling tree. “Boom! Timber you know! Crash like a tree. Wow, you look tired, maybe the heat. I’m pretty used to it. I guess I just don’t sweat or something.” (The O.K. hand sign he made was supposed to be reassuring.) You should really watch the sun, you could get heat stroke just like that.” He snapped his fingers with his triumphant diagnosis.
Anthony looked up at Elvis’s flushed and ruddy cheeks, red from an obvious stint of alcoholism.
“Whew! I wasn’t sure if you was okay there chief. I was talking to you and you seemed to just fade away. I thought maybe the sun and the heat and the people got to you. Sometimes I can’t stand being around people. I just want to scream and shout till they all go away. Heh, that would be pretty funny, don’t you think?”.
Big mistake he thought to himself. He knew that Elvis had probably acted out that exact scenario more than once. Anthony could see him whip his shirt off, tearing at the remaining hair on his gut screaming at the top of his lungs, a rain man too close to the fire alarm. He didn’t want to be around Touret’s Syndrome man when he went off. He was too close to her, his would be creator, to want some monstrous happening, no matter how funny it might be an hour later. He hoped he could find an off switch for this thing, some shiny aluminum foil he could give him to calm him down. Or maybe a good dose of lithium.
Elvis was irritating him and there were far too many people too close together to be able to move. The subway slowed and he braced himself. It was his stop, but he wasn’t about to get off without talking to her. Elvis shifted around and he prayed and whispered, hoping to speak an incantation that would make him leave, vanish. He chanted for instantaneous combustion. He himself couldn’t go anywhere, he was linked to this shining one, she was near enough that he could smell her bath soap. He never knew he could love the smell of apricots and passion fruit so much. She lingered in his nostrils, making his eyes swim in his head. He needed to grab onto the handrail for support, he leaned against it, gratified for its existence; he caressed its almost smooth matte finish.
“I think these things are too crowded. They should have more of them for the amount of people that’s on ’em.” He could tell a faint southern Boston accent out of Elvis man. He grudgingly gave a slight nod of acknowledgement for the sake of civility and noticed again how many people were on the train. Target fixation had captivated his thoughts, but the sticky body heat had finally permeated his brain. He needed to step back, be out of this scenario.
It was packed with so many people that were looking at no one. He found it odd that he couldn’t help looking at all of them, but they had this mysterious power to avoid seeing anyone. There was no eye contact, no movement. They were all like stalks of corn; slowly swaying in unity, they moved breathed, and looked at absolutely no one as one. He marveled at the power of being able to not look at people packed so tightly that they left sweat marks on each other. He wondered if this was the natural evolution of a people who were too close to complete strangers for too short of a time to befriend. That couldn’t be possible, in a very short time he had already learned to hate Elvis. It must be a natural reaction. It always seemed that the more populated a place was, the less willing people are to interact with each other. He scanned over the crowd with aversion. They radiated indifference to the point of callousness. His eyes stopped at hers.
They looked at one another till the next stop. For that forty-seven seconds, no one could exist between them. All of these people, in their open-eyed blindness, radiated misanthropic vibrations that overpowered the clicking upon the tracks; even they couldn’t break into their universe. Her friend chattered aimlessly; the words didn’t fall on her ears. Elvis droned louder than the squeaking brakes. The slowing train jarred a smile from her. It was slight, teasing; he watched it be born from her dormant lips. It grew and flowered on one side, a smirk that slowly evolved into a smile. He watched and his own body followed. He could feel each muscle of his face slowly contract their proper amounts. They all worked in unison, creating a smile that crawled onto his face. It’s roots throbbed in his chest; they wound about his ribs and cradled his heart. He could feel the blood pump in his ears and could smell it in his skin.
They stared past each other’s eyes to the childhood sanctuaries that still rested in their mother’s arms. They saw each other’s lives, being each other’s lives. He knew there must be some divi—
“Well it looks like this is my stop here, boss. I guess I’d better get myself off of here. Hey, good luck to ya, okay sport. Hey man, wish me luck!”
Elvis was slapping him on the shoulder hard enough to induce a slipped disc. Hard enough to break him free of his mental orbit with his celestial mate. On his way to the door Elvis stopped and gave him a thumbs up. He stood there like the wooden Indian in front of the general store. Anthony was sure he would stand there until he was reciprocated. He gave him a feeble thumbs up in return. His gesture released the King, and in a moment the doors closed and he was free.
His penance was served, he was done. Free. This was the opportunity he needed. Even though the car was more packed than ever, and he could feel the sweat droplets cascading down his chest inside his shirt, he felt alone. Alone and solitary, just him and her. They together were alone and in silence. The clacking over tracks coincided with their heartbeats. Her friend had stopped talking and they devoted themselves to each other. They looked so deeply at one another that he felt he would fall inside of her, be swallowed by her eyes and soul, and he would be content. His heart burned in his chest like magnesium. Too hot to be contained, he felt it melt his organs and fall. Gravity pulled the fire down into his stomach, through his liver where it smoldered hot. He hurt from the fire. She could feel his pain. She reacted to what his body felt. He could feel her coolly upon his fire; it succumbed to her, turned white hot and pure and no longer hurt. It existed. He could feel this purification.
She could feel it also. There were no words, no gestures, just the look and the barely pared lips of wonder, the same wonder that overcomes children and makes fairies real.
The time to act had come. He saw in her eyes how she wanted him. Wanted his nearness, wanted his breath, wanted his mind. She pulled on his senses and caressed his throat. Her eyes beckoned his voice. They beckoned him closer. They called to him like the sirens upon the rocks. They called to his flesh, his soul; they begged for him.
He was frozen. As if strapped to the mast, he clung to the rail, but not by choice. It rooted him, chained him, no matter what he desired, his body remained immobile. He clung onto the rail as though drunk. Sick and drunk he leaned on the bar, clamoring for its support. His feet melted into the rubber mats, epoxy bonded his bones. He was the rusted tin man that couldn’t even cry out for that is what froze him initially. As the train came to a stop he could only look at her half pleadingly. Her friend stood and so did she and he could only avert his eyes in shame as she walked past him to the exit.
The doors closed and he looked up out the windows. The subway was above ground and he looked at the sunlight for the first time. It’s brilliance shocked him back to himself. He blinked hard and looked again to see her walking past. She looked ahead, without even glancing in his direction. He felt betrayed and sick.
The train began again and he felt hopeless. He knew amidst the great clamor of people and noise that he needed to get off. He needed to escape the people, the talking, the car he rode in. He felt isolated and small, meager in the current of people that swished and swayed.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. He knew he had to get off the train. He had to get off and go back up the red track. Yes. He needed to take the train back to the Park Street station, then get on the green line south. Get off on Kenmore, go over to…