This happens most days: I am on the first train that enters the station, before the cars smell of urine with floors sticky from spilled soda and coffee, newspapers forming pop tents on seats. We are a solemn, bleary-eyed crew, most of us suited professionals, the others restaurant staff or construction workers. I am mistaken as a student when people are alert and curious enough to ask. It’s the jeans that throw them, the hooded sweatshirt beneath my jacket. They’re envious when I say I work for an advertising and marketing firm, one with a name they recognize. You can see it in their smiles. I am the director of the art department whose dress code is what my staff calls business-super-casual. It’s how I get new hires: “You can wear whatever.”
I stand at the far end of the platform, waiting to board the first car. When the train pulls in, the conductor recognizes me and tips his cap my way. It’s early, but I always smile and wave.
At 5:15 in the morning, everything is particularly cruel: full moon in the dark sky, black ice on streets and sidewalks, and a sharp, cutting wind that seems to save itself for the tunnel of the train station, forcing ear muffs on to even the hulkiest of men, blowing women’s hair into frightful shocks, napkins from hands and flyers from the free daily tabloids. The air we exhale forms thick white clouds, not the misty gray kind, but the type that makes you wonder if gravity will catch up to it, force it down and on to the cement of the platform, covering it in chalky white dust. Waiting with me at this end of the station are the same seven faces, seven bodies wrapped in long coats and ski jackets, leather gloves and fleece scarves, with reddened noses and runny eyes. There is nothing I can do to keep my lips moist, no amount of balm or salve or stick. They are chapped and painful, split at a corner that I can’t seem to keep my tongue off.
The doors open and I can feel the heat. We enter the first car, scatter in every direction. I sit two seats in from the door, place my bag on the third. I wait for the second stop to see if she boards and, if she does, I move it to the floor without looking up. She takes the seat every time, removes her gloves, and repositions her own bag on her lap, pulling from it the book she’s been reading for two months, one I’d seen at the supermarket at checkout. Next to me, she sits relaxed, a cushioned warmth against me when someone takes the seat on the opposite side and pushes her closer. There are no tight muscles, elbow sharp near my ribs. We press together like old friends. But I don’t know her name and am not certain of her eye color.
I am by far in no rush, but feel anxious today in my chest and stomach. I’ve been awake for only an hour but feel like the day should be over. Without a paper or book, I am left alone on the train with only my thoughts, my eyes on the advertisements over the seats across from me for college classes and medical experiments, my eyes away from the older man who watches me, as consistent as my bag ritual, from this stop until the next, then distracts himself with his handkerchief, his cassette walkman, the seam of his yellowed jeans.
Today I don’t want to work, but I still look forward to being the first in, when the office is still only lit by emergency lights and by the few who leave the lights on over their desks. It’s everything you’d imagine it to be: peaceful, relaxing. I can start on my belt buckle even before I get to the door of the women’s room. It’s when I get my best work done.
But yesterday ended shitty with me dropping my gloves into a brown puddle of slush along with a bag of groceries. I went for my keys in my pocket and then there was dinner all over the street. The fruit and vegetables, the pizza crust, all salvageable. The loosely wrapped French bread and rolls of toilet paper not so much.
Oona was over. I forgot about her. She greeted me at the door and took my wet bag and gloves. She rested the gloves on the radiator, went into the kitchen to make pizza.
The day started shitty with an ambulance waking me up too early, its siren shaking my bedroom walls, the lights fighting through the cracks of my blinds. I started with me turning in bed to find Oona still there and wondering when this had happened to us, and when it would stop.
She told me to take her gloves before I left and I did. But they’re only knitted and far too thin, not warm enough for me to have picked up a paper and hold it until the train pulled up. Not warm enough for me to do anything with them except put them on and then jam my hands into my jeans’ pockets, palms flat against my thighs for the extra heat. So I’m here now, watching the man watch me from the corners of my eyes, crossing and uncrossing my legs.
The next stop brings the same faces, but more of them then my stop. There is a gray-haired man who wears a Patriots jacket over his suits, mini-footballs on his black socks. I see him everyday; the socks change, but the jacket does not. He smiles, nods at me. I feel like I should know him—his name, where he’s from. Maybe I went to school with his kid. Maybe he knows my parents from youth soccer or CCD. But I don’t know. Maybe I know him, and him me, from the train we ride together every day.