Story and Photos by Katherine Doll
We sit on bright colored bucket seats in the subway car, on our way back into Manhattan from an afternoon spent at Coney Island. The yellow and orange cartoon colors are a fitting wind up for a technicolored day. It isn’t quite rush hour, there are a few empty seats and some people stand, looking at their phones or reading newspapers. The train sways, and everyone rocks to the same syncopated beat. My daughter Sophie puts her head on my shoulder and falls asleep.
There is so much to see and do in New York City, I am afraid that we’ll miss something. In the mornings we venture out like commandos, with metro passes, guide books, cameras and credit cards. Armed and ready. Yesterday was the Lower East Side. We’d toured the Tenement museum and had lunch at Katz’s Deli where the echo of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm from ‘When Harry Met Sally’ lingered. Tomorrow we’ll have brunch at Balthazar and shop in Greenwich Village and maybe do a ‘Sex and the City’ tour.
The Coney Island boardwalk was the same as we’d seen on a hundred TV shows and movies. It was the first sunny day after a week of drizzle, and people were out in droves. Strollers were loaded with sand buckets and extra diapers. Guys led chesty pit bulls with spiked collars. Girls in heels ventured onto the sand, and giggled, grabbing each other as they teetered. We ate hot dogs from the original Nathan’s and laughed at the mustard drips on our shirts. Sea lions performed tricks for a handful of dead herring at the aquarium. It had been a perfect day. It seemed that life in New York City was just as I imagined, enough fun and exciting experiences to remember a lifetime. Every day brought us deeper into our fantasy of the Big Apple.
Now, the train is making me sleepy, and I close my eyes as the memory of the crisscross struts of the Cyclone roller-coaster make patterns behind my eyelids.
At a station in Brooklyn, a young woman gets on the train. She’s wide hipped and sturdy, in her early twenties, the same age as my daughter. She’s well dressed and carrying a pink hoodie. Her olive skin and long dark hair signal Italian or Greek descent. I imagine her ancestors from a place where there are lemon trees, and warm sun, and water laps at an ancient rocky shore.
She’s upset. Something awful must have just happened to her. I feel the air change, like a drop on the barometer. Her distress envelops everything, sucking up every molecule of oxygen and for a moment I feel like I’m drowning. She’s not crying, but still her grief and desperation fills the car. She moves around quickly like a frightened wild animal. She sits, then stands, then sits again, as if she can’t stand to be in her own skin. I look around at the other passengers. Do you see this? Do you see this girl? Nobody cares. Newspapers are still being read and cellphones are being peered into. No one gives her a second glance.
The remnants of a confrontation sparkle around her like residual electricity. What the hell happened to her? My imagination takes over. Did she find her lover in bed with someone else? When they sat up shocked and covered their nakedness, was her first stupid thought, ‘What is that waitress from Lucky’s Bar doing here?’ before it dawned on her. Did the pit of her stomach drop as she realized?
Or maybe they arranged a meeting with her. Did they sit her down in a crowded coffee shop and earnestly explain, ‘So sorry we had to tell you this way, but we are in love with each other.’ And before she even had the tiniest inkling, they were now the ‘we’, and that other woman was now part of the ‘we’ that she once was. Suddenly she was alone. That was probably the thing that hurt the most. Did that put her over the edge?
The subway car rocks and squeals, and the girl paces up and down. I sit in my shiny yellow seat, and lean my head against the window and watch from the corner of my eye.
As the train approaches the stop at DeKalb Avenue, just before it crosses the East River on its way into Manhattan, she suddenly gets up and approaches the door. The train slows, and she takes a deep breath and her face becomes resolute. The doors open but she doesn’t move.
When the doors have closed, she purposely bangs her head against the nearest pole. Finally, she slumps down on a seat and drapes the pink hoodie across her face. I feel like I’m watching car crash. It’s a slap of reality that sits in stark contrast to the carefree memories of the make-believe of a tourist’s New York City. It’s so easy to forget that the people who live here have real lives.
Sophie is still sleeping, her head rubbing against my shoulder. I can hear thin music leak from her ear buds. I wish I could do something to help this young woman, but there’s nothing I can do.
At the next stop she takes the hoodie away from her face and rubs the tears away. She takes a deep breath and steps out onto the platform. My heart breaks for her. I desperately hope that she finds comfort and strength somewhere.
As the train pulls away, I watch her walk alongside until she disappears from view. I imagine her standing on the platform as the end of the train slides past, her long hair billowing up around her head from the backdraft wind. It makes her look like an angel. She stays in my thoughts for a very long time.
Katherine Doll writes from the heart whenever there are no other pressing matters to tackle, like doing laundry or cleaning the cat litter box. She still has a day job in the oil and gas business in Calgary, Canada. She travels whenever she can. Her stories have been published online at Alfie Dog Fiction, The Story Shack, and Through the Gaps.