Inventing Life Stories



Lexington Avenue, 1981

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

The train lurches out of 33rd Street, and I fall, more than sit, into a seat that has miraculously become available at the height of rush hour. A slight but not unhandsome man beside me helps me catch my balance. “Come here often?” he jokes, and I laugh briefly, and his eye catches mine for a second before he looks back to his book.

Moments later, the train stalls outside the 42nd Street/Grand Central station. I sigh and go to check my watch, forgetting for a moment that this is chain-snatching season and I never wear jewelry on the subway. Instead, I sneak what I hope is a discreet glance at the wrist of the man next to me, and sigh again. I left the publishing office where I’m working for the summer, on 32nd and Fifth, at 5:10. It has taken twenty minutes to get practically nowhere. It’s hot, I’m tired, and I would like to get home.

“I’m convinced,” says the gentleman attached to the watch, “that it would be faster on the back of a turtle.”

I’m sure this is funny but I’m too weary and irritated to laugh, so I flash a smile and go back to staring at the ads, as if I haven’t read them all sixty times already: “Let Georgi Do It,” offers one; “Alive With Pleasure!” promises another. I’m not even reading them, but they are so imprinted in my unconscious that by now I don’t have to.

“Dino,” says my companion as it becomes clear that our subway isn’t moving anytime soon, and extends his hand. I take it and introduce myself, and we begin the standard exchange: You live in the city? I grew up here but I go to college in Ohio, just back for the summer; you? Just moved here from Jersey; where do you go to school? What do you do? What are you studying? Do you enjoy it? Would you like to have dinner sometime?

By now the tracks have cleared and we are inching out of Grand Central, toward 51st Street. I look him over: neat, nicely dressed, about 26 or so, I reckon, a little small for my taste but trim and in good shape; big nose, thinning hair, dark eyes. “Why not?” I think, and he hands me his card. He’s funny, in a Woody Allen sort of way. As the subway clatters and bangs along the tracks, he tells me the invented life stories of the people in the car around us: “See that guy with the jacket and the wrinkled suit? He still lives with his mother. That girl across from him? She met him in a bar once and is trying to get him to notice her. She has one brother in med school and another one in jail.” 86th Street comes before I know it, and we both get out. “So,” says Dino at the exit on the corner of 86th and Lex. “So, I guess, see you.”

“See you,” I say.

I wait a week, and then one night leaving work, notice his business card in my wallet. I phone him when I get home. He remembers me right away. “Should we grab a drink?” he asks. I don’t know where he lives, exactly, but since we’d gotten out of the subway at the same stop, I assume it’s nearby, so I suggest neutral territory: my favorite neighborhood bar, Eric’s, on 89th and 2nd. On the way there, I tuck my engagement ring into my purse.

Dino turns out to be a very likable guy: Greek, bright, well-read, ambitious. He works in plastics – for a company that makes plastic bags, to be exact. His shirt is well-ironed. Nice. He holds the door for me as we go in. Nice. He asks me what I’d like to drink and orders for me. Nice, nice. We exchange bemused pleasantries about the fact that we live so near one another and yet met somewhere else entirely, somewhere far more random and unconnected. I decide he is, like my fiance, just very, very nice, and when I get home, I slip my engagement ring back on my finger.

It’s a nice ring.

I never married the other guy, but I did see Dino twice after that. The first time was when he again invited me to dinner, and, deciding to give it another chance, I accepted. We had what can only be described as a very nice evening, at a candlelit restaurant where we tried very hard not to look like we were on our first date (because, after all, in a way, we weren’t). He phoned after that a few times, wanting to see me again, and each time I’d be happily entertained and promise to call him back, but I never would; and come September I went back silently to Ohio.

A couple of years later I ran into him again, outside a store somewhere on Third Avenue. Did he recognize me, or I him? He was better-looking than I’d remembered (or was I just older?) and still very, very nice – a a quality I’d learned by then was not a bad thing in a man. But it wasn’t everything. We spoke for a few minutes and then parted. Our lives had just as easily moved on.

And yet still, every now and then when I am in New York, I’ll look for him on the Lexington IRT. I imagine he’s a father now, with children not much younger than we had been when we first met. Perhaps he’s even seen me on occasion, and, having certainly by now forgotten, invented my life story for a stranger seated at his side: “That woman there? She’s remembering a man she once met here, on the subway coming home, a long, long time ago.”

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