I looked 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 jolted forward and with a sigh, I grasped the cold metal with just my index finger and my thumb. “Tell me baby,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers asked, “what’s your story.” I pulled the headphone out of my ear and wrapped it around my iPod. I was never able to listen to music while on the train. It was too crowded, made me feel too enclosed. I always found it hard to breathe.
My free hand tugged on the floral pull tab of my book bag’s zipper and I dropped the mp3 player in. The train shifted again. I steadied myself.
I tore my eyes away from the black speckled floor, sticky with late night booze and early morning coffee and realized that the spot in front of the door was empty. I shimmied my way past the businessman with tight lips and a stilted glare and leaned against the train doors. I ignored his dirty look.
I noticed a sleeping man slumped in the orange subway seat, his body rolling with the motion of the train. His head was heavy – it lulled and sprang up and rolled again. The man next to him glowered, his grey eyes narrowed to slits. He attempted to shake the man’s head off of his shoulder but his intentions were moot; the sleeping man was far away, probably dreaming of getting more sleep (the deep bags under his eyes were almost frightening). Resigned, the angry grey eyed man leaned into the person next to him with his arms crossed tightly against his chest. I looked away with a smirk. I hated when strangers fell asleep on my shoulder, but it’s kind of funny when it happens to somebody else.
I saw someone lose their footing out of the corner of my eye. I turned at looked at the woman standing directly across from me. She looked dizzy and her knuckles were white from her tight grip on the rail. Her eyes kept fluttering, small tremors traveling up her shoulders.
The teenager with Bose headphones shot a look of disgust in the direction of the dizzy woman. He shoved the thick cable knit material of his sweater into his nose. Those around him began to shift in their seats, their faces reacting to the sudden smell of sour milk and steamy sewage.
The woman’s eyes began to roll. The whites of her eyeballs quivered beneath her lids. Her knees were wobbling too. She was unhinging.
I stared at her.
The crowded train suddenly seemed very still, very empty.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
It occurred to me that my hands were trembling and my legs were paralyzed. My lips were parted as if to speak, but it was as though I had never uttered a word in my life. Where was the air? My lungs grasped at nothingness, causing my breath to come in short, silent gasps –
I watched her.
Her tongue flicked out of her mouth and just as quickly got yanked back by the monster shaking inside of her. Her head seemed to be saying “no.” It shook.
Staring is impolite.
Shook back and forth and back again. The shaking of her head became jerky, frenetic.
The hand she used to grip onto the rail went limp. She slipped to the floor. Her black flat came off her foot. It was lined with a soft eyelet pattern and had a tiny bow on it. The inside sole was clean — so was the bottom of her foot. My heel always turned black when I wore black flats. I could never stop the dye from spilling over and seeping into my skin. I hated that.
Her mouth was full of white foamy spit. It reminded me of the same salty foam that trailed at the end of each wave and crashed violently into white sand. An ocean, spilling from her lips. Her head fell backwards.
The conductor said something over the loud speaker. The train doors pulled apart. Her body fell onto the feet of strangers and those blank faces ruptured, exploding with expressions of wide-eyed concern. Those towards the front of the crowd looked down. Those in the back of the crowd looked annoyed.
I just looked.
I could feel my heart beat in my elbows, could feel it pounding crazily against my spine.
Gentle, uncertain hands pulled her out onto the platform. There was gesturing, shouting. Some started running. It was all very silent. The shrill buzzing of my brain was the only sound reverberating in my ears. Her body relaxed – her eyes, though still white began to quiet. A few more tremors rocked her body and then her lids fluttered shut. “Next Stop, 34th Street.”
Everyone stood clear of the closing doors.
Air passed in front of me, holding hands with slow dust particles. I watched them float in front of my eyes, useless specks of dust clinging to my eyelashes and lodging themselves into the fabric of my shirt. There was a muted buzz still playing in my ear – I wish I could pull that out just like I pulled out my headphones. The walls of the train seemed much narrower, were they closing in? My head almost touched the ceiling. I pulled my shoulders forward, looking down at the floor, trying to breathe. People rushed out around me, “Let the people get through please,” others knocked into me as they swarmed in. I just needed one breath. One.
I couldn’t see out of my peripheries anymore.
I tried to move out of the way, but my knees were still locked and I didn’t have the combination my lips still parted as if about to say something isn’t there something I should say? I’m supposed to say something.
I was just a shell. An airless, useless shell. My five trembling fingers wrapped around the pole tightly. I guided my eyes up away from the ground. I exhaled.
Everyone moved around an object across from me, looking questioningly at it on the floor.
“Somebody lost a shoe!” A woman laughed, one of those hearty laughs that rise from deep in your stomach and reach up to lick the whites of your teeth.
I saw the eyelet material, the tiny bow.
Everything went black.