Storytime: The Man on the Train

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: one wild ride.

At the end of a long dark grey winter my father and I took the train into the city. 

Despite the fact that we keep migrating further from Manhattan every year, the ride is still fairly brisk at this point, less than an hour. Between the soft rumble of the track and long exhausting work week my father manages to fall asleep about two stops in but I stare straight ahead at the slowly filling train car. While I had brought a book to keep myself distracted, I only leafed through it instead watching through the adjacent window as the outside houses and apartments inched closer and closer together. As we flew through endless zip codes so dense their houses compacted themselves – imploding inward and upward. I pulled up my feet from the floor as a man entered from the front of the car and took a seat the row up from us across the isle. Exactly at my diagonal.

He was probably between 20 and 25, a tall thin-faced man with a smudge of brown hair with blond dyed ends and blue eyes that darted quickly left and right. He was thin but not sickly looking but his limbs all seemed impossibly long, as if the rest of his body would catch up to them later. He wore a baggy brown sweatshirt and heaved his luggage onto the seat to next him – a bright red duffel that clinked as we shifted on the track. He looked terrifying to me, I held my book up higher, trying to mask my face so he couldn’t see me starring.

His sweatshirt was ripped near his rib cage and the shirt underneath was also ripped open just enough to glimpse inside. In the glimpse, along his bones breathed a mess of purple and red blotches with small bits of yellowing bruises clustered up at the top. I let out a small gasp and he turned it look at me. I hoisted my book over my face so only my bangs were visible as I tried to will myself to disappear. “Hello there” his strained, like that of someone who had just eaten a pack of cigarettes instead of smoking them. I said nothing in reply and merely lowered my book and bit my lip. “Better off not talking to me anyway,” he huffed, causing him to grab at his side in pain.

I don’t know why he had bruises and the longer I stared, the less I knew. I could guess, I was a good guesser. I started making up stories in my head. Stories of drugs and gangs and street violence. Stories of territory and loud music and idiots who get themselves in too deep. But sitting in the train, his bag clinking at his side, his hands fumbling nervously, he didn’t seem violent. He didn’t seem dumb. He just seemed sad. His eyes cast to the floor, his body pulled in on itself. He looked as lonely as I felt. He looked as lost as I was. Young. Alone.

About 10 minutes later another man entered the train car and sat facing backwards leaning over the chair in front of the sad man with the bag. This man was older, at much larger. A bustling man with a belly that bumped into everything far in front of the rest of his body. A black leather cap with the rim pulled at an angle on the side, radiating confidence with a merciless smirk. He greeted the sad man and they spoke animatedly for a minute before the large man boomed out “It’s all a fucking mess!”. The other man coughed a little and pointed at me. I averted my eyes, starring at the ceiling as if it contained all of life’s secrets.

Curses spilled in nervous apology “Aw shit, fuck man, fuck.” Laughter rolled out of my traitor mouth. It wasn’t at all the case that I had never heard a curse in my life or didn’t use them myself but to these two men I looked like a small, adorable, innocent girl who was probably made of actual fluff and rainbows as far as they knew.

Their conversation continued without hiccup and slanted into politics quickly. They came to talking about systemic poverty and I nodded my head along sagely. The loud man starred right into my eyes when he said “See little girl knows what I’m talk about!”. The loud man smiled so wide and beaming that I wanted nothing more than to jump up and start talking to him but the sad man looked at me sheepishly, his cheeks pulling upwards almost painfully as if a smile was too much to ask of his bones. He tried to cover his cheeks, pulling up his collar which revealed yellowing marks around his neck. Just a handful of stops later the loud man got off the train leaving the sad man and I sitting in stunned silence in the stillness of the open doors.

When the train started to move again he stood up and moved gingerly to stand by the door. The announcement voice blared, the train ground to a halt, and the man turned to me and said “I wouldn’t mind if you it were you. So please just be someone for me, okay?” I didn’t have time to respond or to ask what he meant before he disappeared out the door and into the crowd. I stood up to try and run after but then the train lurched forward again and I knew it was over. I woke my dad up but I didn’t say anything. I just turned the moment over and over in my head and when we got to Penn Station I mumbled something about needing to pee and ran in to the bathroom.

In the privacy of the toilet stall I pulled my feet up on the toilet seat and let myself sob. Thinking of how soft his face was and how marred his body was. How easily that could be me. How easily that was anyone. Young. Lost. And Alone. A woman in the other stall asked if I was okay and my sobs grew worse until she walked away.

Why he affected me so much I couldn’t say. I felt like I absorbed the edge of his pain by mistake. Like I took something from him without asking but eventually I stopped crying, washed my face, and pretended it didn’t hurt. Sometimes I wonder if I can feel his bruises inside me.

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