Stranger on the Train


She looked right through me as I sat on the cold plastic seat of the subway. Her elbows, encased in a carpetbagger cardigan with thick cuffs and a pointed raggedy corduroy collar, rested on the knees of her black pants. The pants looked new and a little like what you might see in an industrial kitchen. Dickies pants I think they call them. They had crisp creases in them that looked machine made as though they’d been put on directly from the store. 

Her eyes were brown with flecks of gold but they were tired rheumy eyes with thick yellow whites, wet and streaked with lines of red. Her makeup had left smudged smoky circles beneath each eye. Her face was haggard but surprisingly unlined, brown from the sun or maybe from birth. 

Her hair, what I could see of it was thick, coarse and mostly grey. She had it pulled tightly from her face into a bun that was mostly hidden under a voluminous black wool looking scarf that wrapped around her head and neck and still nearly dragged on the snow-dirty floor beneath her feet. 

Shifting in my seat I glanced at the station we were passing through to make sure I hadn’t missed my stop. The woman was mesmerizing but I didn’t know why. She looked like any of thousands of other people using public transit in this huge city. 

I didn’t want to stare but I couldn’t seem to help it and she seemed blissfully unaware of her surroundings, including or maybe especially me. 

She never moved and her eyes barely flickered as we traveled through the city’s tunnels on our way to our destinations. Was she heading home? From the tiredness that permeated from her every cell I certainly hoped that was the case. The lights from outside flickered across her face making her skin look amber. 

Looking down I smiled to myself as I did a classic double take. On the woman’s feet were the shiniest red snow boots and they were pristine which, in and of itself was a miracle in this city where snow turns black and sludgy even before it hits the pavement. 

The conductor announced something over the loudspeaker in a thick New York accent but despite living here for fifteen years I still couldn’t understand a word that came through them. I marveled at my friends who would come to visit and seemed to hear every syllable. They teased me about my abysmal hearing when it was simply more likely that my brain moved so slowly by the time it recognized there were words in the garbled crackly speaker noises it was too late. 

I’m a writer and as a result most of the time my mind is otherwise occupied. I’m the worst road trip partner because I can’t keep track of the conversation when my mind keeps drifting to the story in the tumble weeds- literal or literary -that I see out the passenger window. 

I felt drawn to this woman in this city full of cautious and suspicious strangers and I desperately wanted her to acknowledge me so I could talk to her. What did her voice sound like? Gravelly? Mellifluous? Was she a poet on a sojourn or a short order cook at a diner in Hell’s Kitchen?

I looked at her hands, gloveless when it was way too cold for that. They were folded together loosely and casually dipping slightly between her widespread knees. I’d noticed more and more women – mostly younger and more combative types – using the “man spreading” technique men and boys had been using on the subway to give themselves space. Subconsciously I slouched in my seat and spread my knees apart in a gesture of self protection. If she, a woman of indeterminate age, is man spreading then no self respecting nearly forty year old man should be sitting cross legged with his hat folded neatly in his lap. God when did I become that guy?

Her hands were brown like her face and appeared work worn but her nails were painted bright red with a shiny enamel. They didn’t look like salon nails for what I know of that mysterious world. My wife’s nails are from a salon and they have a perfect sexy curve and a squared top. The woman’s nails were rounded and flat and different lengths. 

Everything about her held secrets. I wanted to go through her pockets and ask her for her story. I wanted to touch her hands to see if they were warm or cold and if I had imagined the callouses based upon my own assumptions of her life?

In her serenity and poise I saw beauty. Not the typical glamour magazine beauty but an earthy beauty like Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame. She was someone I’d want to be seated next to at a dinner party should she happen to run in my circles. It was a beauty borne of hardship and strength and salt of the earth upbringing. 

I imagined her as a hard working woman with teenage children, living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes struggling to put food on the table but managing as best she could. I looked for a ring on her finger and saw none, nor was there a mark where one might have been for a long time and thusly removed. 

I wanted to know her. I wanted to give her an “It has been so nice to meet you, do you mind if I give you a hug?” embrace and feel the nubs of her cardigan on my cheek. I imagined under that cardigan were more warming layers and beneath that even, a substantial woman with a strong back and wide shoulders to better carry her burden. 

Was I being classist in my assumptions? Maybe. Probably. But did it matter that I wanted it so badly and that – not for one moment – did I look upon her as anything less than magnificent? I didn’t see her as an object of pity but instead as a source of inspiration, a muse if you will. Were I a painter I would want to use her as a subject in my next great art exhibit. 

As the train pulled into my station I hesitated for just a moment. I should stay there and see where she lands. I should ride this out and maybe she will talk to me and tell me her story. Only for a moment though. I had things to do. My wife was waiting dinner and I had the wine and bread. 

I stood and moved quickly through the car to the door. As I stepped onto the platform I glanced back and watched as she and the car disappeared. Did she smile at me in that last moment? Did she give me a nod? I don’t really know for certain and I may never know but I prefer to believe that she did. I want to put my head on my pillow tonight after kissing my wife good night knowing that I made a connection today with a beautiful stranger on the train. 

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