This night, I am a sardine, riding the stuffed subway. The atmosphere is a mix of hot salami breath, boozy exhalations, overboard perfume, and the intrusiveness of freshly smoked weed. People pressing, gravelly coughs, wonky ringtones, shuffle shuffle shuffle. No place for the anxious or the introverted or the healthy. My brain buddy says to me, by way of consolation, There there. At least you aren’t in India. Or China, or London, or…. Yes, I have seen the photographs. People squished against glass doors, and professional train stuffers that won’t take no for an answer. In this, my lifelong town, we haven’t come to that pass yet.
Hey, if you pass out, at least you won’t fall.
We careen through tunnels of semi dark. On a curve, I am prodded by elbows and my foot is stepped upon by a hard heel. In the jostling, I can’t tell whose, and no one says sorry excuse me or anything of the like.
From my forced vantagepoint, I fix on a pair of female hands but I cannot see their owner. They rest upon her skirted lap, and, oddly, they don’t hold a phone. She moves them in peculiar ways for a young person, cupping one hand within the other and rubbing slowly back and forth as if in arthritic pain. Joining her hands, she then raises and lowers them in seeming prayer or supplication. Finally, she reaches into her pocket or purse, brings out a small circlet of paper, and slips it onto her ring finger. I see that it’s a cigar band and I chuckle to myself, having seen this sort of thing in the movies where the boyfriend asks the girl to marry him but can’t afford a ring.
She plays with it for a few seconds, turning it round and round, then takes it off, as if to put it away. She drops it on the floor, then quickly picks it up. I glimpse a head of long straight tawny hair, and her young face in profile. She sees me and I redden a bit, smiling sheepishly. Apparently conscious of an audience now, she stops fidgeting. One hand rests flat upon her knee, and the other is closed loosely in a fist.
With two more stops to go before I reach mine, I begin to sidle towards the doors, but stop for a moment as I draw close to her. She’s unaware, I think, because she has her head down and is toying with the ring again. Slips it back on once more, then looks straight ahead. She sees me, and gives a Mona Lisa smile. I feel like her decision’s been made, and I smile back.
The doors open and I push my way out onto the platform. I stop for a second, thinking.
Yeah, I knew it. I know it. This girl, who is now a woman, I have seen before. Her life of running away is no more, and I’m so happy. Yeah, I’m happy.