Fall 2011

Table of Contents - Vol. VII, No. 3


Poetry    Fiction    Reviews   

Adelaide B. Shaw


A Brief Encounter on the No. 1 Uptown Train

As she descended the subway stairs she was immediately aware of the warm, sour air, steamy from wet coats and dripping umbrellas. She positioned herself near a column, far enough from the edge of the platform to be safe, but close enough to rush into the car and get a seat when it arrived. As the rumble of the number 1 uptown train approached, she moved closer, awaiting the surge of the evening rush hour crowd as soon as the train stopped. Someone moved with her. She had been aware of someone on the other side of the column, and as she moved forward, so did he. It was the same young man she had noticed before when she took this later train. On the other nights, however, he had not stood near her.
The doors opened wide, and she and the young man entered the car together, their arms brushing each other. Their steps were synchronized as if they were rehearsing a dance routine. She turned and looked into his face and then immediately dropped her eyes and resumed her forward motion into the car.
She moved to her right, scrambling for a seat. He turned to the left and remained standing. Digging a book from her cavernous leather bag, she pretended to read. It was a daily subterfuge, a defense against unwanted attention, either friendly or sinister, although she could never concentrate on the printed words. The jiggling and swaying made her nauseous. She stared at her book but read nothing, her mind drawn into herself, replaying the day's problems and anticipating the night's emptiness.
Neither beautiful nor plain, she was, in her own words, adequate. Blind dates did not bolt in horror, but neither did they come back for a second date. Short dark hair framed a thin face. Her brown eyes were animated and intelligent when speaking about things which were of interest to her, but, when in repose, as when she rode on the subway, they appeared lifeless and bored. A small pale mouth, usually void of lipstick, having chewed it off ten minutes after applying it, was almost prim. Her most attractive feature was her smile. It was a wide smile, revealing small white perfectly formed teeth. Dimples and crinkly lines flashed on her face, inviting the viewer to smile back in return.
"You actually look pretty when you smile." Her roommate was brutally honest.
"Maybe your nights won’t be so lonely if you smile more." Her co-worker gave free advice daily.
Yes, she should smile more, but never on the subway. That was Survival Rule No. 1. To do so invited trouble.
That young man. She felt his eyes on her. She was certain he was staring.
At the Canal Street stop, she stood up, relinquishing her seat to an old Indian woman in a sari who was juggling two string shopping bags. Pushing and squeezing she moved to the center of the car, aware that the young man had seen her move. Rechecking the zipper on her shoulder bag, she hugged it tightly to her chest and grabbed the pole for support. She kept her eyes on the pole, but knew, without turning, that the shifting of bodies behind her was to make room for the young man.
She turned her head slightly, keeping her eyes lowered. Black trousers, bright blue rain jacket. She returned her eyes to the pole, remembering the rest of him--white shirt, buttoned to his neck, narrow black bow tie. Perhaps, a waiter on his way to work, six to midnight shift, the dinner hour. His long, brown hair tied into a low pony tail indicated, not a four star exclusive restaurant, but someplace casual--trendy and expensive, rather than elegant and expensive. A place where jeans and a mink jacket were chic and everyone flirted and exchanged phone numbers.
Why had he singled her out? Why not the gum chewing bleached blonde by the door, the one with the black leather jacket and nose stud? Too common perhaps. Or the natural blonde, the one with the Burberry coat and Coach bag, her hair done in a French braid with not a strand out of place? Regal, but icy. The subway car slowed and bolted forward, causing them to bounce against each other.
"Sorry," he said, his voice neutral, automatic. She extended her profile in his direction and nodded in acknowledgement.
The car jolted a second time and stopped, bouncing their bodies together again. But he failed to bounce back, to retreat, to provide that inch of space needed to maintain a sense of security. There was no apology now. The earlier one would have to suffice for all the bounces and bumps.
"Hey, Man. What's happening?"
"Quit shoving. We ain't none of us going nowhere."
She leaned her head against the pole and smelled a spicy, woodsy fragrance. Bergamot in his cologne. After his shower, he would have poured some on his hands and splashed it on his face, his chest, running his hands over the muscles on his arms and across his broad shoulders. And they were broad. The blue jacket was full of his shoulders.
"Attention! Attention!"
Through squawks and crackles, the announcement came in spurts, and what was distinguishable was almost drowned out by the increasing grumblings of the riders.
"Typical. At these fares we should..."
"...minutes delay..."
"… last week… stuck an hour."
She hardly heard anything except the young man’s breathing. She matched her breathing to his as she felt him press closer. A hand, his hand, rested on her hip. She stared at her fingers circling the pole, the pale coral polish on her tapered nails. She had graceful fingers, and the weekly manicure was one of her few indulgences.
Rule No. 2. She should stomp on his foot.
His hand slid down, over the curve of her hip, pushing aside her raincoat as it moved lower down her thigh.
Jab an elbow in his ribs.
Didn't anyone see him? Not with that red wall in front of her. "Built like a brick outhouse," her father would have said of the woman in the red coat in front of her. The skirt on her dress rustled as it rose under his hand.
Scream and make a scene.
Didn't anyone hear it, that soft swishing of her skirt, like the first autumn leaves? The passengers had quieted down to their normal going home, end of the day murmurings, except for an old man. "Typical," he said to his inattentive audience. "And they have the nerve to raise the fare.”
Her slip had risen with her dress, and she felt a cool pressure on her thigh. Sweat was forming between her breasts and under her arms. The windows of the car were steamed up. Coats were unbuttoned or removed. The cool hand found its way across her stomach to her waist. It slipped lower. Concentrating on her breathing and his, she leaned into his touch, not thinking, only feeling. There was no one and nothing else except this, this surging pleasure. She gripped the pole tighter, until her fingers were white. She held her breath. Then…it was over. Maintaining her control, she relaxed her grip and tried to breathe normally. At the same instant, he removed his hand, and her skirt fell, settling softly against her thighs.
She had been unaware that someone had told the old man with the squashed rain hat to shut up. She had not felt the train start up again nor hear the applause from a few riders. Afterwards, when she thought about that ride, she remembered these sounds and the movement of the train, but they had entered her memory without her knowledge, and they always remained separate and apart as if she had been told about them from a stranger.
The young man stepped back, reestablishing the distance between them, and she adjusted her coat, buttoning it and tying the belt. She regarded the other passengers. Perhaps someone had reached an important decision or solved a problem during the past 20 minutes. Perhaps others had napped, savoring the sleep without fear of missing their stop. Perhaps someone's life would be different tomorrow because of this delayed ride.
When the train pulled into the Times Square Station, she hurried across the platform to catch the shuttle to Grand Central. She did not turn to observe the young man, but she knew he would take the stairs. She had watched him in the past, but she would not watch him tonight. Nor would she watch him again.
As she stepped into the shuttle, a business man in his forties with dark thick curly hair and heavy eyebrows brushed against her, his hand fanning across her buttocks. Without hesitation, she jabbed an elbow in his ribs and stepped hard on his foot.
"Watch it, Buster," she said and quickly moved away.


© Adelaide B. Shaw



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