An overweight middle-aged woman got on the F train somewhere in Midtown, and took the seat facing mine. She was wearing dirty clothes and was carrying two battered plastic bags, a combination that—two weeks in New York had already taught me—was not a good one. She immediately took a pack of Twinkies out of one bag, and instead of opening it she started rubbing it. She rubbed and rubbed and rubbed, making circles with her thumbs on the plastic wrapper, squashing the Twinkies.
When she achieved whatever she’d wanted to achieve, she put the Twinkies in the other bag. She remained motionless for a while. Then, as if she had just remembered something, she opened the first bag again and took out another pack of Twinkies. She rubbed it fervently; then she mumbled something and tossed it in the other bag. She relaxed for a moment, and I relaxed too. Not for long. A third pack of Twinkies was to follow, then a fourth, and after that I stopped counting. When all the Twinkies had been successfully transferred to the second bag, the process was reversed, and it became clear that there was going to be no end to this.
The thought of changing cars did cross my mind, but whenever the train reached the next stop I remained seated. None of the other passengers seemed to mind the rattling cellophane noise. They continued looking straight ahead, at nothing in particular, at anything but the crazy person. So I did the same, following their example, and I was fine with the arrangement until she yelled, “Miss!” and pointed at me.
In those first two weeks in New York I had already come across a surprising number of crazy people, and I’d come to accept them as part of the New York experience—much like the mice in my apartment. They were usually homeless, with the exception of the ones who actually lived in my building. Their madness was of the obvious and not dangerous kind and they mostly kept to themselves, though I couldn’t help but find some of them disturbing—like the old lady who occupied the apartment below mine and would yell profanities at someone in the middle of the night.
I told myself it would just take some getting used to. The places I’d spent time in before—the little town of Princeton, the larger town of Boston, the big cities of London and Athens—did not have that many crazy people, or if they did, they hid them and hid them well. But New York seemed to breed them.
“Miss!” the woman with the Twinkies repeated, and I could feel the discreetly curious eyes of everyone in the car were now on me.
“I think she’s talking to you,” whispered the girl next to me.
“Oh,” I said, and looked at the woman.
“Hold this for me,” she said, lifting one of the two Twinkie bags, in a way that deprived me of the right to refuse her. I looked at the bag but did not move, as if the woman had spoken to me in a language I did not understand. There was something off about what was happening, something extraordinary, so extraordinary in fact, that my mind could not immediately process it.
The mad can coexist with the sane as long as they don’t interact with them. That was the deal. But she had broken that rule and was now asking me to hold the Twinkie bag and I did not know what was right and what was wrong anymore. I was aware of the others around us, watching us, and wondered what they’d think if I did not help her. Would it be rude? Inconsiderate? There was no other obvious reason for not holding the bag for her, other than my prejudice. And then I became aware of the seconds passing, of my not moving, of the bag dangling under the woman’s fingers, waiting for me. So I reached out and grabbed it. Its handles felt greasy under my fingers—Twinkie residue, I told myself.
The train reached a stop and the girl who was sitting next to me jumped out of her seat and out of the car. I thought about doing the same. The Twinkie woman had been trying to reach a plastic bag that was under her seat and contained some thick, liquid substance of questionable nature.
“I’ll just tell her it’s my stop,” I thought, “the moment she rises back up,” but the doors closed and we were on our way again. Her chubby fingers danced only inches away from where the bag lay, but after one last stretch, she gave up.
“You get that bag for me,” she said.
I looked around me and the other passengers immediately looked away.
“Well I can’t get to it!” she said, aggravated. “You have to help me.”
I wanted to cry. By agreeing to hold the bag for her, I had agreed to so much more.
“You have to help me!” she yelled. I panicked. I kneeled before her and I reached between her legs, which she had kindly parted for me.
“Pardon me,” I said.
The air around her had absorbed her smell. It was an old-lady smell but there was something funky about it, something sour. I pinched the bag and raised it to her face.
“Here you go.”
But she didn’t take it. She opened it and looked inside, and as she did, a foul smell rose out of it.
“No, this won’t do,” she said.
She looked lost for a moment; then she took out a pack of Twinkies and started rubbing it.
I left the bag by her feet and returned to my seat. I would get off at the next stop. I’d be home soon.
My apartment in New York was smaller than what I was used to. Both in Boston and in Princeton I had had bigger places. It was still unfurnished, except a cheap red futon and a bulky TV set that rested on one of the empty moving boxes. I’d gotten rid of my queen-size bed when I moved, it was too big for the apartment; the futon was only a temporary solution. I’d sit on it and look at the space around me, imagined what would go where: a coffee table in the middle, maybe a floor lamp, a fat leather armchair by the window where I could read.
At work I spent hours browsing furniture store websites.
I was new at the job and didn’t have much else to do anyway, though I was beginning to suspect that that stagnation would be permanent. I worked as an associate editor at Bloomberg Press, which was a step up from the editorial assistant position I’d left at Princeton University Press, but I now had fewer responsibilities. Bloomberg Press was a very small part of the Bloomberg financial corporation and no one paid attention to our staff of ten. There were no books coming in and no books going out, but when I raised a question about it, I was instructed to keep my mouth shut.
IKEA, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn—their websites were my new best friends. I’d dive into pictures of rugs and cushions, quilts and coverlets, match them to flowery bed skirts. I’d add things to my virtual shopping basket, save them for later, when I’d be settled.
On my way home I’d always stop for roast chicken. Spiced with rosemary and lemon, it was a simple meal, always warm, and I liked its smell—it reminded me of something, what, I wasn’t sure. I’d go home and sit on the red futon, the roast chicken on my lap, and turn on the TV. And so my first few months in New York passed.
From time to time I would receive a “Happy Hour” email from the younger people in the office. I went out with them once or twice for drinks. They asked me where I was from and how I’d ended up in New York and I gave them the short version. They pretended it was interesting though I knew it was not. I did not care to find out anything about them—they seemed nice, a bit boring, and I was not interested to get to know them better. I could not start over just yet. I had left my friends in Princeton, I had left my friends in Boston, I had left my friends in London, my friends in Athens before that. And I was going to leave New York, too, one day. When they invited me to go out with them again, I told them I was busy. After some time I’d open and read their emails but would never respond.
One day, in the ladies room, I heard the woman in the next stall crying. It was Dru, the copyeditor. She was in her mid-fifties, a stage actress turned copyeditor, who lived alone in an apartment in the East Village that was even smaller than mine.
“My shower is in my kitchen and my couch is also my bed,” she had told me. We had adjacent desks—the Bloomberg office was like a trading floor and we all sat next to each other in rows that looked like human row-crops, and, inevitably, we’d learn things about each other; also, Dru could talk.
She was sobbing and I thought about asking what was wrong—she had seen me walk in with her, so she must’ve known that I was there. I decided not to. I did not have the energy for someone else’s problems. I left the bathroom and when Dru returned to her seat, eyes swollen, nose runny, I pretended not to notice.
New Village Nails was a nail salon I went to every Saturday. I found it a few days after I’d moved into the neighborhood, and I soon realized it was one of the cheapest ones in the Village. Its last renovation had been done sometime in the early ‘90s and the turquoise pedicure chairs looked as tired as the women who worked there: Lucy, Fanny, Vivian, Betty, Rachel, Sharon, all from Tibet. After my first few visits they gave me my own supply box; it had my name printed on it—misspelled—and contained tools that they’d use only on my feet and no one else’s. I’d always pick “Package 2”: manicure, pedicure, 10-minute foot massage, 10-minute shoulder massage. Every Saturday afternoon I soaked my feet in hot water for an hour and a half, inhaling the rising steam—a medley of bath salts and cucumber cream.
“Would you like a magazine, Miss?” the Tibetan women would ask and I’d wave “No.” I’d watch them apply thick layers of red polish to my nails and toenails and it soothed me. Then I’d sit by the window under the green New Village Nails neon sign, bring my hands to the drier and watch all the Saturday people walk by in their coats and scarves.
One December night like all other nights, I was resting on my futon when the phone rang.
“Why don’t you come down this weekend?” my friend Lea asked.
I hadn’t been back to Princeton since I’d moved. It was still too soon I’d tell my friends, though it had been months.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Come, we all miss you! It will be so nice, we’ll build a fire, have some wine, it’ll be like you never left.”
“But I did leave.”
“I can’t, I’m busy,” I said louder. I sounded guilty.
“You’re busy doing what?”
“I have to get my nails done.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said and as I said it my eyes filled with tears. I thought of red nail polish, of bath salts and cucumber cream.
“Okay, I guess. Let me know if you change your mind.”
I returned to my red futon and lay on it like a dead fly and waited for something to happen—for someone else to call, for someone to knock at my door, but no one did.
“You have to help me!” the Twinkie-woman’s plea turned inside my head like a shark. It was not crazy people that New York was breeding, after all. It was loneliness.
Sophia Efthimiatou is originally from Athens, Greece, and now lives in New York City. She is currently pursuing an MFA degree in creative nonfiction at Columbia University, and working on a collection of humorous essays on the hidden persistence of loneliness in daily life.