When I took a position at a legal research firm, I became a frequent rider of the subway, sometimes spending more time under than above ground. My new job had me traveling from office to office during the day giving presentations and training attorneys.
I hate to drive, so I've never minded the subway. Usually I hold my book or magazine and pretend to read, but in reality I just be staring into space. My mother, who is from Queens, would always admonish me, “Don’t look at people on the subway! No eye contact,” she always said was the rule.
When I was younger, and New York was new to me, I couldn’t understand how anyone could help herself. People are so interesting here! I would look at old people, young people, people wearing business suits, people carrying bags filled with bags. I'd wonder; how could I not stare?
It was a Thursday afternoon, around 1 P.M., when the man exposed himself to me on the subway platform.
The subway car was oddly empty that day. I was taking the R train from the East Village where I lived to midtown for an appointment at a law firm there. It was a peaceful commute, a non rush-hour ride. I could be assured of an empty seat where I could space out without guilt – pregnant women, elderly people, and the mildly disabled all cause me anxiety on a crowded train. I am always worried about taking someone's deserved seat or causing a person discomfort. When it's crowded, I keep my legs crossed tightly and hold my magazine close to my chest. But when the subway car is empty, it feels luxurious.
The R train was running smoothly and at each stop the doors opened and closed quickly because there were so few people on the platform. At the 34th street stop, normally a busy one, the subway doors opened and that’s when the man dropped his trousers.
I was sitting directly opposite the open door, like I was the sole audience member for some grotesque show. He was wearing a dirty t-shirt and khakis, which were around his knees, as he fondled his penis.
The subway seemed to pause then, waiting interminably in the station. He looked right at me, right into my eyes, and smiled, an awful grim smile. His flaccid penis flopped while he masturbated, and his face leered at me, smug in the knowledge that I was looking at him.
His hand worked a little harder, a little faster. I felt trapped, staring through a weird window into someone’s unpleasant inner life. His penis continued to flop stubbornly. I had the urge to laugh. It wouldn’t rise to the occasion.
The man didn’t move toward me, but he didn’t back away from the edge of the platform. He was standing in the yellow area designated as a no-standing zone. I'm afraid of the edge of the platform myself and avoid it at all costs. Standing too close, the subway tracks feel as though they draw me in. I wondered, should I tell him to back away from the platform edge? ... Should I scream?
He still couldn’t get hard.
The doors mercifully closed, and the train pulled out the station. I hadn’t moved. I don’t even think I had blinked. When I got to my stop, I was having trouble not crying, but I didn’t know why I felt so awful.
“Nothing bad has happened to you,” I told myself sternly. “No one hurt you. No one touched you. It’s nothing, nothing. Just some flasher in the station.”
I could hear my mother telling me, “Keep your head down. Hold onto your purse.” She didn’t want me to be a target.
I could never keep my eyes off of the extraordinary. And now I could still see his eyes looking at me and knowing that I saw him.
Jessica Pishko is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Columbia University and received a JD from Harvard Law School. She used to work in a law firm and is now writing a novel about it. Her short fiction can be found on elimae and Anderbo.com.