As the glass doors to Trader Joe’s swing away from me I struggle to enter the real word again: the one without cheap organic produce, and shelves of exotic cookie combinations like cashew caramel chip. Water spits down from the darkened sky, frizzing up my hair. All at once I’m balancing three overstuffed shopping bags, closing my parka, and sprouting a defective umbrella with lethal metal spokes in the direction of my left eyelid.
While making my way down the Union Square station steps, I glance at my watch: 4:05. Before I can squish through the turnstile, a faceless body dressed in a black couture trench coat, gives my spine a sharp shove, and it occurs to me: I’m on the cusp of rush hour.
Reaching the platform, I’m thrilled to see the train waiting for me, as if by destiny. Maybe I was wrong and life is really going my way today. Soon I’ll be in the safety of my warm cozy studio apartment, sharing caramel cookie scraps with my red teacup poodle, Maple.
As soon as I step inside the car, there’s a two-seater for me and my bags. It isn’t even a crowded train. Glancing at the lovely rainbow of multicolored rubber boots decorating the subway floor, I realize half the passengers in my car are also carrying soggy Trader Joe’s bags.
My years of urbanite training no doubt qualify me to a teach class for tourists in “The art of ignoring other humans” at the Learning Annex, but for some reason, this Friday afternoon, I’m feeling the safe-Manhattan vibe. Don’t know why out-of-towners think it’s dangerous here. Such tourist naiveté is almost cute. A true native knows when to let her guard down.
A chicly-dressed woman on the far end of the car checks out my bags and gives me a knowing smile. As if we’re all part of the same cool club, where waiting on rock-concert-sized lines for groceries is a rite of passage.
Right before the subway doors close, a thin, wiry, guy wearing a baseball cap gets on and takes a seat across from mine. His black satin bomber jacket is crinkled, and he looks at me while sipping a can of A & W Root Beer. His lips still wet as he says, “Did somebody pay you to sit there like that and—?”
He must be another member of the club, I think, when I respond with an easy smile, “Oh yeah, its like we’re some kind of walking ad for Trader Joe’s.”
“Who? What? I’m confused.” He glances around. “You’re making me paranoid.”
I eye the other end of the car where two round-faced women with matching yellow woolen caps are chatting happily, with their bags at their feet. I say to the guy, “Ya know. The shopping bags.”
Confusion colors his uneven features. I notice a faded scar on his eyebrow, as he speaks, “I was going to say. I thought you were a real live angel sitting there. You startled me.”
I’m beginning to think I never should’ve unzipped my protective Manhattan bubble-shield. “Oh. Um. Thank you.” I say, trying to mentally suck myself back into the void. But it doesn’t work.
The guy goes on like I’m his long lost cousin. “It’s amazing. With your hair and those innocent dark eyes looking at me like that. Do you have any idea what you look like?”
It occurs to me that the subway car hasn’t taken off yet. This is my chance. I can still get off. But maybe the mere action of leaving would trigger his paranoia to such a psychotic degree that he would then chase me, which would be much worse.
“Don’t you recognize me?” He bobbles round in his seat, like a scary doll with bloodshot eyes about to come popping out of his head.
There’s no way I can reinvent the bubble-shield. Eye contact is much like murder: once it has taken place there’s no going back.
Trying my best to play off mellow, I say with a casual hand wave, “Recognize you? No. But I never watch the news or read the paper. So if you were in the new show would I know?”
I feel a grumble beneath my butt as the train takes off. Did I just make a grave mistake? There must be a way to dissolve into something. Escape, without drawing attention to myself. But how?
Digging a novel out of my handbag I attempt looking bookish while leafing through the pages. But as soon as I focus on the first sentence, the guy calls out to me in a serious tone, “I’m famous. I thought you knew. And that’s why you were sitting there.”
Right away my attention is bulleted on him. No choice, I’m trapped in captive conversation. Trying not to reveal my feelings, I shrug, “we’re all famous.”
No matter how hard I try to hide, he draws me back in. Even though the train is filled with New Yorkers, it seems as if he and I are completely alone in a dark tunnel, rocketing though the darkness of life together. I pray for an interruption. Anything. Anyone. Even a smell would be welcome.
His questions turn personal, “What do you do, for a living?”
I refuse to play the game and try turning aloof–after all it’s worked for me on Thursday nights at Bond Street Bar, why should now be any different? “Oh all sorts of things.” I cement my eyes back in the book.
It’s backfired. Now I’ve become even more fascinating.
His brows dart up, “Really—are you an actress?”
I murmur, “No—not at all,” annoyed as if he’s saying I don’t look brainy.
“What do you do?”
Before I can think of a lie, the awful truth comes spitting out, “I’m a writer.”
This excites him, “Of course you are. I can tell.” His feet twitch and I notice a hand in his pocket jiggle.
Resigned to the fact that I’m locked into his line of vision, I rest the book on my lap and begin obsessing about that hand of his. And why does the darn thing look so suspicious? What’s he hiding in there?
He says, “You don’t know how amazing you look. You have no idea. You would make the perfect mother? Do you have any kids?”
Now I’m wishing I was an actress again. “Oh no. I have a boyfriend.” Secretly I’m wondering if this puffy coat makes me look pregnant.
As his hand moves, I’m thinking that staying in this car was one of the dumbest choices I’ve ever made. I envision the small blurb on the back page of the NY Post, “Local Woman Stabbed to Death on Downtown 6.”
I can’t help it; now I’m staring at him, seeing clearly how dangerous he must be. I’m like one of those clueless girls in the movie Scream, who the audience yells out to, “Get out of the house.” except I’m much stupider because I’m riding all the way from 14th street to the Upper East Side with an obvious maniac. How many stops is that anyway? A little voice screams inside my head, “Get out of the train!”
Intensity fills his eyes, “You do. Your boyfriend is real lucky guy.” He presses his other hand to his chin. “Oh my God you just turned into seven people right in front of me. Do you have any idea? I wonder. Do you? About your appeal, how beautiful you are? How old are you? Twenty-eight? Thirty-two?”
No way I’ll tell him my real age. And I try not to be flattered by his assessment, but twenty-eight sounds almost as good as the brick of chocolate in my bag right now. I shrug, “That stuff doesn’t matter. What matters is who we are inside. Once you get to know someone the outside doesn’t matter.”
I don’t know what’s possessed me to start preaching at the guy, when I’m supposed to be running. But I can’t help it. It’s as though against my will, a spring of hopeful feelings have sprung up inside me, and have begun gurgling out my mouth.
I’ve actually become a willing participate in the exchange. That tidbit will no doubt be part of the NY Post Blurb. “Woman Murdered While Flirting with Psychopath on the Downtown 6.”
Somewhere inside my dysfunctional-childhood-memory-banks I’m haunted by the “Don’t talk to stranger’s rule.” But no, I am too cool for rules.
What have I done?
Suddenly a wash of gray covers my vision. A homeless man in muddied plaid pants, comes by begging for money. After apologizing for the inconvenience of interrupting us, he zeros right in on me. Clearly he can see my bubble is broken making me fair game.
But I don’t mind. I’m grateful for the distraction so I toss some quarters in his stained, I love NY, coffee cup.
Homeless tells me, “I had my poems published in the Rolling Stone. They paid me 450 dollars.”
From the conviction in his tone, I have no doubt Homeless is speaking the truth. And I wonder if the universe didn’t plant him on this train at exactly 4:22 pm just so he could knock me off my writer’s high horse. Then I decide I’m not that important, and he gets off at the next stop. But me: I stay on.
Homeless was blocking the guy across from me. And our momentary author’s exchange almost made me feel safe. Almost.
Dangerous-guy-across-from-me goes on, as though he’s flow had never been interrupted. “You just turned into three people right then. It’s amazing.” Then he pauses and digs deep in his pocket.
It’s happening. Now. About to emerge from the recesses of his pocket and get me: the knife. The gun. A body part.
Inside I’m riddled with terror. Outside I’m perfectly still. Not even a blink, or parted lips. Nothing. Just slowed breathing causing my chest to rise and fall.
He pulls out–a small notebook with bent pages. And a Bic pen. Then he begins writing, and looks up at me, “You just made me realize how lucky I am. How I should appreciate my wives.” His hand whizzing words on the pages, as he says, “ it’s easy to be tempted.”
I gasp out all my fear, realizing I’m going to live, at least until the end of this train ride. “Wives? You have more than one?” I say.
He gives me a knowing smile, “I’m famous. I thought you knew. When you go home you’ll realize who I am. But for real—you made me see how lucky I am. And to appreciate what I have.”
Before I can process my thoughts, a tall African American man, with dreadlocks, glides through the train singing, “I Got Sunshine On a Rainy Day.”
His voice is so deep and resonant that it fills the car with echoing vibrations. The train is crowded now. Bodies everywhere. Although I don’t remember any of them getting on.
An older Asian woman with a pink scarf on her head, grappling the pole, as her frail body swings from side to side.
Crazy-Writer-Guy-Across-From-Me continues, “You were sent to me, to make me realize what I have. That’s a beautiful thing.”
I get up and say, “Excuse me” to the woman holding on to the rail. “Would you like my seat? I’m getting off.”
As soon as I rise up, she plummets into the seat: becoming the new face across from Crazy.
While standing I try turning my back to Crazy, but his friendly manner lures me right back, “I’m so lucky to have seen you.” He said. “A real live angel. You just became illuminated right then. Thank you.”
I surrender to his power and can’t help finding him almost sweet, “Bye, have a nice night,” I say.
And as I exit the train, the door shuts and I hear muffled music from the man singing “Sunshine,” and I make my way up the stairs.
Danielle Winston recently finished a novel with a magical twist set against the backdrop of Manhattan’s downtown art world, entitled, Brush Strokes. A native New Yorker, she writes everything from plays to magazine articles, and also teaches, Yoga for Writers.