I thought I was being polite. There was a woman sitting to my left. So I turned my head to the right when I sneezed. For some reason I hadn’t noticed the man sitting to my right. He very calmly wiped my spit and snot from the side of his face. I buried myself back in my book, and sped off the train at the next stop. It wasn’t my stop.
The city is closeness. Unavoidable closeness. Eight million people and not enough cars and roads for them all. Even the broad boulevards of Manhattan seem cramped when they’re full of bumper to bumper cars, and the buildings towering above create the illusion of being on the floor of a canyon. I’ve been on the floor of a canyon, and the comparison is appropriate.
So there’s no room on the street. Not enough to move people around, anyway. And that’s where the closeness of the trains comes in. There aren’t enough trains, either, so in the busy times, the rush hour that begins an hour before sunrise and ends three hours after, you become close with strangers. All are represented. Beautiful, ugly, thin, fat, men, women, children, those that smell like roses, and those that decidedly do not.
I made a mistake. I sat in front of a map. Only two maps per train car, one at either end, positioned right next to a door, which means on the wall right behind a seat. It’s uncomfortable when I crawl into my subway reading, in front of one of those maps, and someone in the car doesn’t know where they’re going. They need a map. There it is, behind my head. So they lean over, to get a good look at it. Lean over me. Not just my hang up. Just watch any poor fellow who’s sitting in front of a map and someone leans over. It really breaks the bubble, the limit of acceptable space that strangers are allowed to invade, even on a subway train. Because this isn’t pressing up against somebody to squeeze in just a few more people. Everyone on a train occupies a column of space, from floor to ceiling. It has no fixed width, only insofar as a person can be crushed, but the height is constant. From the tile below the boots to the tin above the hat. No exceptions. When someone crawls over you to look at that map, they are above you, in that space, in your space, and its damned uncomfortable. People squirm. They try not to look bothered. They look anywhere but up. I really bury myself further in whatever I’m reading, but I can’t concentrate. The same paragraph passes before my eyes over and over again and I comprehend none of it. All I can think about is the person in my space that can’t be ignored. Especially the woman from last Thursday.
I was in, deep in, a hard read, plowing my way through just to get it done. The light dimmed. I was in shadow. I looked up and saw a great big set of tits wrapped in a gaudy black blouse with silver glitter on the trim. There was makeup on them. I could see it wrinkle in the cleavage. My eyes moved further up and there was the face I expected. If there’s makeup on the chest, you can be sure there’s even more on the face. Bleach blond, Raggedy Ann cheeks, lashes to the moon and back, and nostrils right above my eyes. Oh man, and when she breathed I wanted to run. She’d been drinking. Great big gulps of beer breath left those nostrils and covered me. I started to sweat. I should have just gotten up and moved. It was dead time. The train was still far away from Manhattan, so there were plenty of seats. But I stayed. It couldn’t go on much longer. It was impossible. No one looks at a subway map longer than a few seconds. Maybe twenty. At the most.
One stop. Two. Her swaying back and forth, her bags keeping a strange rhythm that kept her balance. All the while there was that nauseating breath, blowing down over me and billowing out from the pages of my book. I read the same paragraph eight times. I was in that mode, praying for her to just find her way and sit down, away from me. She finally did, plopping down drunkenly right next to me. We rode into the city like that. I never trusted her, though. I’d steal glances at her, watching for her to pass out, lean her head on my shoulder. Why the hell not? We were already closer than I preferred. I didn’t put it past her. She got off at my stop and stumbled and immediately looked lost. I walked up the stairs and she got back on the same train, sat down and one of her shoes went flying, a wooden wedge that smacked off the window glass.