I glance at the dull steel of the pole thinking of all the crotch-scratching, snot-rolling, germ-ridden hands that have gripped it before me. The train jolts forward and with a sigh, I grasp the cold metal with just my index finger and my thumb. “Tell me baby,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers ask, “what’s your story.” I pull the headphone out of my ear and wrap it around my iPod. My lungs expand. I have never been able to listen to music while on a crowded train. There were too many bodies, not enough space. I always found it hard to breathe.
My free hand tugs on the floral pull tab of my book bag’s zipper and I drop the mp3 player in. The train shifts beneath me. I steady myself.
I tear my eyes away from the black speckled floor, sticky with late night Bud Light’s and early morning Sunny D’s and realize that the spot in front of the door is empty. I shimmy my way past the businessman with tight lips and a stilted glare and lean against the train doors. I ignore his dirty look.
A sleeping man is slumped in the orange subway seat, his body rolling with the motion of the train. His head is heavy – it lulls and springs back up and rolls again. The construction worker next to him glowers, his grey eyes narrowed to slits. He attempts to shake the man’s head off of his shoulder but his shrug only rouses a nasal-y snore. Resigned, the angry grey eyed man angles his body away, his arms crossed tightly against his well-built chest. I look up, pretending to read an ad with a smirk. I hated when strangers fell asleep on my shoulder, but it’s kind of funny when it happens to somebody else.
A woman loses her footing; I catch it out of the corner of my eye. I keep my head tilted upward as I discreetly peek at the tall figure standing directly across from me. She seems dizzy and her knuckles are white from her tight grip on the rail. Her eyes keep fluttering. Small tremors are traveling up her shoulders.
The teenager with Bose headphones shoots a look of disgust in the direction of the woozy woman. He shoves the thick cable knit of his sweater into his nose. Those around him begin to shift in their seats, their faces reacting to the sudden smell of something hot, sour. The thick odor lingers, descending like a blanket and tucking strangers in under its putrid veil.
She is blinking, more rapidly now. Her long honey-brown lashes are slamming into each other. Dark pupils disappear, rolling up beneath her lids. The whites of her eyes are quivering, exposing thin blood shot lines sprouting from the wet, red mass holding her eye in place. Her large, bare knees are wobbling too. She is unhinging.
I stare at her.
The crowded train suddenly seems very still, very empty. There is no movement except her spasms. There is no sound except that of clattering teeth and the low guttural groan trapped in her throat.
I can’t take my eyes off of her.
My hands are trembling. I wonder, for a moment, how long they have been shaking. In a mechanical motion, I release my grip and my arm drops from the pole. The weight of my fingers is too heavy. My arms hang limp, purposelessly. I tuck my fingers into a fist and try to shift my weight and move closer into the door but my legs refuse to move. Nails dig into my palm and my breath trips out of rhythm – I inhale twice. It’s my tongue. My tongue feels swollen, too large. I want to cut it, rip it out. Where is the air? My lungs grasp at nothingness, my breathing comes in short, silent gasps –
I watch her.
Her tongue flicks out of her mouth and just as quickly gets yanked back by the monster shaking inside of her. The muscles in her neck twitch, shaking her head left, left, right. Her body is saying “no.” It shakes.
Staring is impolite.
Shakes back and forth and back again. The shaking becomes jerky, frenetic. Strands of brown hair escape her bun. The train jolts again and then slows, easing into the station.
Her fingers go limp. Those wobbling knees give and she slumps onto the stained floor, her long body folding and jutting awkwardly. The thud of her back against the door was no louder than a whisper. It pierces the silence of the train cart like a gun shot. I swallow. Her black flat slips off of her foot. It lies on its side for a moment, and then falls, bouncing on its rubbery bottom. It is a pretty shoe: understated, simple. The material is lined with a soft eyelet pattern and there is a tiny bow on it. The soft terry sole of the shoe is white. It is as if the shoe is unworn – I couldn’t see the imprint of her foot anywhere. Her toes were blushing, her heel matching that same deep red. But there was no trace of the fabric’s tint on her foot. My heel always turns black when I wear black flats. I could never stop the dye from seeping into my skin. I hated that.
My gaze travels back to her face, and I find her mouth full of white foamy spit. It reminded me the salty foam that trails at the end of each wave as it crashes viciously into white sand. Spit churned to froth, teeming at the corner of her mouth and dribbling down her chin. An ocean, spilling from her lips. Her head falls backwards.
The conductor says something over the loud speaker and the train doors pull apart. Her body falls into the feet of strangers. Blank faces rupture, eyes widening and mouths exploding with concern. Those in the front of the crowd look down. Those in the back of the crowd look annoyed.
I just look.
I could feel my heart beat in my elbows, could feel it pounding erratically against my spine. It is vibrating – my heart – drilling against my tendons. My jaw clenches, forcing teeth onto each other. I swallow and feel a heavy knot fall from my throat to my stomach. It knocks carelessly into my chest, catches on my ribs on its way down.
Gentle, uncertain hands pull her out onto the platform. There is gesturing, shouting. Some start running. Everything is silent. She is sprawled out on the platform, eyes shut as if in slumber. Her body begins to tire. A few more tremors rock through her body and her neck twitches. It jerks only once, and then she is still. “Next Stop, 34th Street.”
Everyone stands clear of the closing doors.
Air passes in front of me, holding hands with slow dust particles. I watch them float in front of my eyes, useless specks of dust clinging to my eyelashes and lodging themselves into the fabric of my shirt. I hear a muted buzz in my ear. It’s pushing against my skull, getting louder. The walls of the train seemed much narrower. My head is almost touching the ceiling, isn’t it? I pull my shoulders forward, looking down at the floor, trying to breathe. “’Scuse me,” people rush out around me, “Let the people get through please,” others knock into me as they swarm in. Their voices sound shallow, distant and depthless but I can feel their scorching coffee breath on my shoulder, the damp huff of their irritation down my neck. My eyelids close for a moment, then open. I just need one breath. One.
Black splotches in my peripheries bloat, creating foggy blinders. My vision tunnels.
I try to move out of the way, but my knees are still locked, my lips still parted as if about to say something isn’t there something I should say I’m supposed to say something.
I am just a shell. An airless, useless shell. Five trembling fingers wrap around the pole tightly. Eyes move up away from the ground. An exhale fights its way out, bursting from dry lips.
Strangers move around an object on the opposite side of the cart, looking questioningly at it on the floor.
“Somebody lost a shoe!” A woman wobbles into the center of the cart laughing, one of those hearty laughs that rise from deep in your stomach and reach up to lick the whites of your teeth.
A delicate eyelet material comes into view. The tiny bow.
Everything goes black.