The train was late. The lights by the train doors were blinking. Normally the train would come within seconds, then I’d be on my way home – into the night, another day spent, staying up and alive – but this time minutes passed, the lights betrayed me with changing signals. I looked to my shoes, flats I bought two weeks ago – right away back then they made me feel better; now they feel used, like everything else in my wardrobe.
The train came and its doors opened, that familiar woosh of air; it was packed but I pushed myself in, my body rubbing against a dozen others. The train moved and my nose took in the smells, my skin the heat of strangers, and something from my body dropped — my left ear felt lighter, I felt my left lobe and an earring was missing. I looked down, a sea of disembodied legs, to seek for clues. A glimmer, a crunching sound, an object, a memory. Ma’s earring — I should call her soon. Then, from this twister of limbs, a hand stuck out in front of my face; a fist unfurling, within it one half of a whole, my silly earring. Your one hand — I followed it to its root and the crowd too thick, I couldn’t find your face or chest or toes or mouth.
All the places I was suddenly grateful for, home to this kindness I was now privy to. The fingers looked burnt; I guessed that they belonged to a mechanic or a firefighter, someone who had to use a saw or giant hammer for work — tools people probably don’t use anymore, but tools I remembered Pa using to fix the house. I took the earring and felt the roughness of your palm. How many earrings have you picked? I knew you wouldn’t know, you wouldn’t be the type to count. I was the girl with the earring — lost, clumsy and alone, although you wouldn’t know these things. I was the girl with the earring: one half of something, waiting to be rejoined.
It was near 10 pm and it was raining outside; you were ahead of me in the queue at a Subway I had never been to. The boy behind the counter — a boy indeed, distracted and slow, compensated at least by his striking face and attractively slender frame — took your order for five meatball sandwiches. You chose the vegetables almost arbitrarily, then told the boy to choose the sauces. “Pick something that kids would like”, you said, and the boy stupidly reached out to mayonnaise, sweet onion and chilli sauce. I can’t imagine that the three would make a good combination, but you seemed convinced that this boy — whose age may have mirrored that of your eldest child — knew what kids would like.
You had a tiredness that I’d expect from anyone at that hour, and I imagined the kids at home waiting for dinner – more so, waiting for their father. Your hair was silver only at the fringes, your posture indicative of a spirit broken by age or heartache. You turned my way once and smiled; I smiled back and wanted to know that you were okay.
Mom wouldn’t have made me wait this long for dinner, when she raised me, alone and making it look effortless; she’d pick me up from school and we’d make dinner together. I like to think my childhood, my upbringing, was a task she and I shared — that her burden was halved because of how agreeable and unrebellious I’ve always been, but that’s silly. Things would’ve been easier with a father around. I took my order and walked out the store — it was the end of a huge storm but still rain persisted; you were putting your helmet on, the basket on your motorcycle now neatly packed with a stack of Subway sandwiches. You rode into the rain, not looking back.
Papa, was that you? If it was, I want you to know that mom and I made it okay without you. That I’ve turned out a decent man. Also, BBQ and honey mustard. Kids love that shit.
It was a new bar in the city where we had to take a lift made of glass mirrors, up 50 floors to where the women were slim and the drinks were not inexpensive. I was there with a group of girls — we had found each other somewhere along the road — some of them I knew since childhood, others after I had overcome the awkwardness of youth and puberty, the rest women from work who I rarely see beyond the 9 to 5. We sat and talked and talked and talked; later when I would try to recall what these conversations were about I couldn’t remember. I thought about where I’d rather be: a beach somewhere or in the arms of a man who knew every bit of me, but still loved me somehow — these were all things we had been conditioned to want — but truthfully I only wanted to be in bed at home and with a good book. All I wanted to do at that moment was shower, clean my feet — which are always sore and filthy from wearing heels — tie my hair into a clean ponytail, and read.
I excused myself from the girls to go the balcony; it was completely unlit except for the stray glow from nearby skyscrapers. You stood at the other end, waiting for a cigarette to be lit, arms folded in anticipation, sunk in what seemed to be one pure thought, like a rock or an anchor. You looked like you were collapsing from the inside. A pink dress, lovely shoes, the same age as I was — in superficial ways we were much alike. I read you the way others probably do, caressing only the skin of who you were. You looked like a woman with a career, but feeling exhausted — as if you’d rather be somewhere else, someone else. I wondered if you worked in a bank too, if you hated everything about yourself but never said it to anyone, because you couldn’t, thinking that this perfection had to be earned and therefore kept. Maybe you would rather be a florist, a dancer, a woman who was beyond her body and responsibilities — to be free and alive — maybe you, like I, wondered what that would feel like. You looked my way, looking serene. Did you sense it, our kinship?
A man came towards you with a light. Your body eased into itself, took a few drags and you looked like the most beautiful and saddest thing I had ever seen. I breathed the city air, gathering a new reserve of words and laughter — for the long hours that waited for me inside. I said a little prayer in my head as I left for the table, hoping that one day one of us would be able to break apart from the shells we’ve built for ourselves, that we would slither back into the pond where wild things lived.
Feature image by Safuraa Razak for ISSUE Magazine
Al is a believer, something he’s sure everyone secretly is.