Julian picked up a New York Times from the stack at the newsstand and dropped two-fifty onto the Astroturf mat on the counter. His quarters had the metallic white sheen of old silver coins – where the hell had they come from? he wondered – and he reached into his pocket for two newer quarters to swap for them.
He took the escalator up to the platform to catch his usual train, the 6:46 express from Massapequa to Penn Station, which stopped only at Seaford before it got to New York. He walked east to the end of the platform; at Penn Station, the rear of the train was closer to the Seventh Avenue subway. He usually recognized many of his fellow commuters, and even nodded to a few who had endured the nearly hour-long trip for years. This time, not one of them looked at all familiar.
Julian turned up his collar and fastened the top button of his rain jacket, but started to shiver even though he was also wearing a sweater. While he’d been shaving, he had listened to the weather forecast on WCBS, which called for “seasonal spring weather,” so he was ill-prepared for the icy gusts of northeasterly winds that swept across the platform. He wished that he had worn his parka, but Michelle had already wrapped their winter clothes in plastic and hung them in the storage closet in the attic. Always the efficient one, he thought. He tried to shield himself behind a Jaguar advertisement, and winced when he heard himself pronouncing “JAG-you-warr” under his breath, just like the pretentious radio advertisements that so irritated him.
A crackling, then a tinny announcement from a loudspeaker: The westbound train, scheduled to depart at six-forty-six, has been reported at Babylon, operating eleven minutes late.
Great, Julian thought. Just great. So what else is new? His fingers were already numbing and today, of all days, he had to be on time for the monthly status meeting that was always begun at “8:30 on the dot” by his obsessive-compulsive boss. Eleven minutes late? Yeah right. But it’s sure as hell going to be a lot longer. He knew that delays on the Babylon branch piled up and got worse even if only one train were delayed.
More commuters appeared as he waited. Probably the crowd for the 7:01, he thought. When the train rumbled in, twenty minutes later, even more were waiting to pile in. Julian had made it a science to know exactly where on the platform the door would slide open so he could be first into the car and get a window seat. This time he was out of luck. He was the last to step on, and he realized he would have to stand during the entire ride. At least it was one of the new smoother-running M-7 trains.
Julian stood next to the door so he would have something to lean against. The warning ring, then the door closed, followed by a metallic, almost unintelligible announcement: This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal. The next station is Seaford. But Julian was hardly paying attention. As the train accelerated, he dropped his soft attache case onto the floor and maneuvered it between his legs. He opened his paper to the last page of the news section, and folded the paper vertically to read the editorials. Damn. Another Times tirade about Republican obstructionism. He started reading the editorial but it sounded familiar. He realized that he had read it the day before. What the fuck? At the top of the page he saw that it was yesterday’s paper, that he had dropped two-fifty on a day-old paper. Damn it to hell. What else could go wrong?
The train began to slow. The electronic voice was clearer: This station is Seaford. This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal. The next station is Wantagh.
What the hell? This was an express to Penn Station. Julian looked around. None of the passengers looked at all perplexed or perturbed, except for one young woman, sitting in the last seat on the aisle. Julian watch her take a green time table out of her backpack.
There was something definitely wrong. Julian had studied the branch timetables when he had nothing else to read. He knew most of the morning and evening rush hour schedules by heart and he also knew that only a handful of Babylon branch trains ran directly into Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal. He must have gotten onto the 6:31, which would have arrived fifteen minutes before his usual train. But he had checked that Penn Station was lit up in red LED’s on the side of the train car. At least he thought he had. He was no longer so sure.
The train stopped and the doors slid open. Julian tried to hold his ground at the door, but the surge of bodies forced him to the rearmost part of the car. At least he had the rear door to lean against. The usual ringing sounded, the train’s doors closed and the train sped up. This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal. The next station is Wantagh.
The young woman with the backpack was looking around, puzzled. She had been examining the unfolded timetable. She brushed back a few loose strands of curly red hair and looked up at Julian. “Excuse me, but isn’t this the train to Penn Station?”
“I thought so. But apparently not.” His answer sounded officious, but he hadn’t meant it that way.
“When I got on, I thought this was the express to New York.” She looked up at Julian. “It seems like I’m the only one.”
“You’re not. I thought so, too. I was positive that it was. But ...” his voice trailed off.
The woman shook her head, crumpled up the timetable and stuffed it into her backpack. Disgust and resignation were written all over her face. Despite her sour expression, there was an uncertainty and a vulnerability that appealed to Julian, that struck a chord within him. He felt a stirring and a yearning for her. It quickly became more than that. Where the hell is this coming from? He suddenly wanted her. He suddenly needed her more than anyone else in the world.
Julian had not experienced such an unquenchable desire since that time, eight years earlier, when he had first met Michelle. It was also on a train – the 6:05 express to Bellmore, only three suburban towns away, when he lived by himself in a dingy attic apartment. He had flirted with Michelle on the packed outbound rush-hour train and kept his eye on her until, a month later, he finally got up the courage to ask her out. They were married exactly a year after that first date – friends had asked them if they had planned it that way – and settled down in a tiny rented house to enjoy what both thought they wanted: an easy-going and predictable life together.
But everything – every goddam thing – had gotten so mundane and routine: his unchanging, dulling responsibilities as a loan officer; the every-other-Sunday night movie at the multiplex; the bland, flavorless meals she prepared for them; their take-out orders from Kwong Ming’s; the mindless television shows they watched together and fell asleep to together; their weekly visits to his in-laws every Sunday afternoon with the inevitable hints about when they were going to have children. Not yet … not yet!, he wanted to scream. Even their rutting was in a rut. Their Saturday afternoon matinees were intimate but unimaginative, aside from the grunts and groans and moans of two people in momentary rapture.
The woman was saying something to him. “I can’t believe it. I’m going to be late again.”
Julian’s mind had wandered. “Huh? … sorry. What did you say?”
“I’m going to be late. They’re probably going to fire me.”
“Why don’t you call them? Blame it on the L-I-double-R.”
“I left my phone at home. I ran out of minutes.”
“Then why don’t you use mine?” He reached in his jacket pocket. “Here. My pleasure.”
She took the phone, pressed TALK and started pressing 2-1-2. Then she stopped. “This is really strange. I can’t remember the number.”
By now, the 6:46 would have sped through Wantagh, Bellmore, Merrick and Freeport without stopping. The train was so crowded that no self-respecting conductor would have dared to come through to check tickets but the door jerked open behind him, knocking Julian down towards her. A cold gust of wind blew through.
“Sorry, sir.” muttered the conductor, who seemed not at all apologetic. Then, in a voice loud enough to wake up the comatose, he announced, “Tickets please. All tickets, please.”
He glanced at the peach-colored ticket hanging on a lanyard around Julian’s neck and then looked down at the woman. She fumbled through her backpack, unzipping one pocket, and then another. “I know it’s in here somewhere.”
She had promised herself that she’d buy herself a lanyard one day and wear the ticket around her neck, just like the others, so if she fell asleep, she would not be interrupted. But she had never gotten around to it.
“Ma’am ... ticket please.”
“Just give me a second.”
The conductor looked wearily at Julian and shook his head, as if to say, “Women,” and then he loudly cleared his throat.
“Ma’am, I’ve got to see your ticket.”
The woman’s belongings were strewn over her lap. “I can’t seem to find it.”
“Where’d you get on?”
“Amityville.” There was exasperated surrender in her voice.
Amityville? Julian knew that this would have been – must have been – another train. His express made only three stops after it originated at Babylon, and Amityville wasn’t one of them.
The conductor pulled a rate card from his shirt pocket and then said, “Then that’ll be twenty-one dollars, please.”
“It’s usually fourteen seventy-five for one-way peak, but that’s if you buy your ticket from the machine or at the station. There’s a surcharge if you buy it on the train.”
“Twenty-one dollars? Are you sure?”
“You think I’m making this up?”
Once again, she searched through her backpack. When she found her wallet, she pulled out a five and a single, offered them to him, said, “Here. That’s all I have.”
“This is only six dollars, Ma’am. I need another fifteen.”
Julian heard himself saying, “Let me take care of it.” He reached into his pocket for his wallet, took out a twenty, and handed it to the conductor.
“Wait, I can’t let you...”
“Please ... maybe someday you’ll pay it forward.”
The conductor returned her crumpled five, then slid a ticket blank from his shirt pocket, punched out the chads, tore the ticket apart, and handed one to her. “Here. Hold onto this. Maybe you can get a refund when you find your monthly ticket.” He then wobbled on his way, pressing past the passengers clogging the aisle.
She looked back up at Julian. “That was really nice of you. I don’t know what to say.”
It occurred to him that he had not done anything like this – anything gallant and generous – for a long time. Not since Michelle.
“Uh … how about starting by telling me your name. Mine’s Julian.”
“Sandra. But my friends call me Sandi.”
“My mom used to call me ‘Jule,’ like I was her jewel,” he snickered.
She smiled, and the despondent look on her face disappeared. To Julian, her smile made her glow.
The train slowed. This station is Wantagh. This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal.
The doors slid open; a blast of arctic air accompanied more commuters herding into the car.
This station is Wantagh. This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal. The next station is Bellmore.
The doors remained open, even after the platform had emptied. Several minutes passed. Passengers with puzzled, resigned looks on their faces reached for folded-up coats on the rack above their seats. Others were buttoning and zipping up, huddling into their overcoats and parkas. This station is Wantagh. This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal.
The next station is Bellmore.
“Damn, it’s cold.” Sandi muttered. “And I’m only wearing this thin jacket.” She fingered the embroidered material.
Julian took off his rain jacket and covered her with it, even though he had already been shivering.
“No. I can’t let you.”
“Sandi, please. I want to keep you warm. Uh, I want you to be warm.”
“Thanks, Jule. You’re really kind.” Again, that smile.
A few moments passed. The doors had still not closed. “What’s taking them so damn long?” Julian said, to no one in particular.
Only one commuter turned in response, a scowl on his face, but then looked hurriedly away.
Then, suddenly: “I’m afraid, Julian. There’s something terribly wrong. I can feel it.”
“Nah. It’s probably just an ‘equipment failure,’ as they call it, or some other damn thing.”
“Anyway, could you hold my hands. Please? I’m scared.”
She reached both hands up to him and he took them in his.
Jesus. They’re like ice, he thought, and then looked into her eyes. Cat’s eye green. He saw beseeching eyes, filled with expectation, promising untold pleasures. Eyes that were captivating, capturing him, hooking and reeling him in. Eyes from which he could never look away.
Then, suddenly, those two green eyes darkened, blackened and became eyes filled with fear, then terror, and then unspeakable horror. Death. No, worse: bleakness, nothingness, a void. Like two black holes – the bizarre thought abruptly came to him – two black holes drawing him in, making escape impossible.
And just as quickly, it had passed, whatever it was. Her stunned look, her quivering lips, her dazzling green eyes, around them the almost invisible beginnings of crow’s feet – that’s what he became aware of and …
The ringing. Doors whirring closed. Acceleration. Chatter. A cell phone’s chimes.
This is the express train to Atlantic Terminal.
The next station is Bellmore.
Her hands, now unexpectedly warmer, were being pulled from his. He did not want to let go, but had to when Sandi started to get out of her seat. “Darn, I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Can you save my seat?” She put her hands through the sleeves of his rain jacket and handed him her backpack.
They could not avoid touching as they exchanged places and she opened the rear door. Another gust of freezing air blew into the train. Julian watched as she stepped through the door, and as the fast-closing door shut behind her.
It took him only a few seconds to realize that it was their car of the M-7 pair that had the bathroom, and he immediately got up to tell her. When he looked through the door’s window, she wasn’t there. And the following car was so densely packed she could not have yet possibly opened its door to push her way in.
Could she have fallen? Or jumped? He yanked the door open to get a better look. He shuddered as much from her disappearance as the cold wind jabbing at his face. But she could not have gone anywhere … there was nowhere
to go. The black rubber gasket surrounding the opening between the train cars would have prevented anything like that.
Abruptly, the train jerked and slowed. Julian lost his balance, stumbled and fell as the torsioned door body-slammed him. People already crowding the aisle jammed up against it. He knew without trying that he could never push it back open.
The train squealed to a stop. A sudden, overwhelming fatigue overcame him, and a coldness that was colder than cold. Julian tried to will himself to stand, but his body adamantly refused, as if to mock him. He tried to reach up to pound on the glass but he could not stretch up his arm.
The lights inside both cars flickered and went out, something that Julian, with unexpected clarity, realized should never have happened. He knew that even when these new cars passed through the interlocking switches at Jamaica, the interior lights stayed on. But now, only slivers of grayness, much dimmer than he expected, seeped through from outside.
Then, as he started to succumb to the inevitable, those slivers faded until there was darkness.
Rev 9 / November 10, 2005 .. Rev 11 / August 8, 2007 .. Rev 16 / June 27, 2014
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Number 32, August 2014
November 2005 .. August 2007 .. June 2014 Copyright © 2005, © 2007 © 2014 Lloyd B. Abrams