Maya sits like a fruit packed for shipping between a Man With an Unfortunate Goatee and a Youth Who Doesn’t Like You And What You Stand For. The 7:35 and the 8:04 had been too packed for Maya. Whoever is usually sitting in this seat on the 8:14 has long-ago negotiated a détente between Goatee and Youth and has earned, perhaps, an extra centimeter of space along each thigh. As an interloper, though, Maya is crammed between the two men who have spread their legs wide, a silent maneuver in a reignited territorial conflict.
She can smell the Goatee’s aftershave and the undertow of salty stress that it can’t hide beneath sandlewood and smoke. The train lurches and he lurches too so that his hand slides between Maya’s knees and then flees before she can snap the bear trap of her imagined anatomy and sever the hand at the wrist.
From the Youth’s headphones comes a buzz of bees made of scraps of rusty construction equipment and angst. The Youth nods his head to the ebb and flow of the angry swarm. Having been raised by a single mother who was the youngest of 12 children and who learned early the benefits of conciliation, the Youth makes a bit more room for Maya, almost smiling back at her before remembering that his mother is not the boss of him and he Doesn’t Like Maya And What She Stands For. Maya tries hard to put her smile away, but, like a convivial genie, it refuses to go back into its bottle.
Through the seaweed swaying of bodies between them in the aisle, she inadvertently catches the eye of the Man In The Pinstriped Suit across from her. For a moment, she thinks that a spark from her smile has candle-sticked across the space between them and ignited his, but the way the small curve of his lip lingers and his gaze drifts across some invisible-to-her landscape tells her that his smile is not a reaction to the world outside him but the flicker of a secret momentarily visible through the cracks of the day. He’s smiling with his head bowed like someone might protect a match flame from the wind. He hasn’t seen her at all.
She looks hastily down but she can’t help but watch The Man In The Pinstriped Suit askance as he is obscured and then revealed by the somnolent swaying of the people hanging from the safety rail that runs down the centre of the car. As if brushing at a crumb on his cheek, he lifts his fingers, touches his lips, and the remembered kiss is there in the minute flutter of his lashes.
Everything seems to contract around this gesture. She can feel it becoming part of her. It’s a consequence of being small and quiet and weird and invisible. She’s learned from loneliness to open her skin so that the world grows pointillist with detail and these small moments prickle with colour and light. This glancing encounter on the train will settle inside her between the leaves of fugitive moments of contact. Today will be stitched to a year ago, a different place where, in the student union, there was a young woman curled like a fiddlehead on the threadbare sofa by the window, her pencil tap-tap-tapping on the page of the textbook on her lap and suddenly stopping when she sat abruptly up, her spine pulled straight and taut by the line of the argument, the brilliant wire of some formula that sparked when she touched it. She gasped and scrambled in the backpack on the floor beside the sofa, looking for her notebook and repeating a whispered, “yes yes yes” like an orgasm cresting in some alcove of a public space.
She scribbled frantically in her notebook and the textbook slid from her lap and the book under Maya’s own spread hand vibrated with livewire words, and, in the quad outside, a young man in a duffle coat with a missing button stopped to lean a hand on the plate glass window so that he could roll the tip of his half-smoked cigarette on the sole of his boot. He straightened at the moment the young woman was struck by lightning, tucked the butt of the cigarette behind his ear and stood for a moment longer with his hand on the glass right beside her head. He could see only his own reflection, not the way his hand seemed poised to soothe or to conduct the storm inside her skull. The afternoon scintillated through the very last of the autumn’s leaves while the young woman chased the storm across the pages of her notebook and the young man left his handprint on the glass beside her head like benediction.
Time exhales and the drag on the world increases as the train sighs into a station.
The Man In The Pinstriped Suit leans forward a bit to find the handle of his briefcase. The smile he shields with the ducking of his head is fragile and precious. Door chimes chime. Doors open. Most of the passengers get off, including The Man In The Pinstriped Suit. Through the dusty window, Maya can see him on the platform. As the train lets go so that the world can continue its backward unspooling, the man lifts his hand as if to wave, but really he’s only smoothing his hair.
WhereElseWhereElse… WhereElseWhereElse the train wheels say. Outside, the now-toy-sized city is stacked untidily against the horizon and new buttes of shopping malls rise from the suburban plain. A mountain range of reclaimed glass windshields and chrome trim clatters in the sun. The train sways and clings to the tracks as the world is pulled out from under it. Maya goes where the train goes. Time shivers in its cage on her wrist.
Anna Spence is an academic by day and a writer by compulsion. Her work appears in the November issue of An Elephant Never. Twitter @MSSalieri.