[img_assist|nid=896|title=Morgan, Charles Hosier © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=302] The theory that my life thus far has been a compilation of bad decisions occurs to me as I am darting down 10th Street, in pursuit of my boyfriend who is not actually my boyfriend but in fact a complete stranger who, like me, takes the 7:19 train into Philadelphia every morning. He looks to be all of nineteen years old and I am twenty-eight and therefore far too old to be trailing this boy through the streets of Chinatown , skulking half a block behind him and wondering if that is his girlfriend he is talking to on his cell phone.
I began stalking him three days ago, out of a combination of boredom and intrigue.
Day One: The most attractive male specimen ever to ride SEPTA boards the train with me at Woodbourne Station. Being at that tender age of not quite having grown into his looks, he cannot yet be classified as “hot.” He is on the cusp of hotness, a future hottie in possession of hotness not yet realized, and all that pent-up potential is so much sexier than actual hotness. He’s got that dark hair/blue eyes combination that I fell in love with when I was five and watched Christopher Reeve play Superman. Every expression that crosses his face passes for penetrating even though chances are he’s either pondering tits and ass or money or how to use money to get tits and ass.
I decide on Day One that I want to have his babies.
Day Two: Upon seeing him two days in a row, I realize this kid is a train-riding regular and therefore worth looking into. There is no sense in stalking a one-time-train-taker because where does that get you except late for work? So on Day Two I time it so that I can exit the train directly behind him, which allows me to be directly behind him on the escalator to street level at Market East, eye level with his perfect about-to-be-hot ass and wishing I had not skipped breakfast so that perhaps the desire to take a mammoth bite out of it would be less overwhelming. Despite my deepest carnal urge to grab him, gag him, and drag him to the nearest bathroom to play Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, I maintain composure and avert my eyes from the appetizing ass. Which leads me to spot the ID badge on his belt and notice how very baby-faced he looks in his picture, and that is when it crosses my mind that I am probably stalking an intern. I cannot make out his name on the badge, but I am glad of that because I might find out that his name is Seymour and who wants to stalk a guy named Seymour?
On that day, rather than walk towards the exit to 12th Street , which would put me closer to my destination, I follow him to the 10th Street exit. Halfway up the stairs, it occurs to me that this is adolescent and ludicrous behavior; however, it could be argued that when stalking an adolescent, one must resort to said behavior, so I continue my ascent. And then he holds the door to the street and smiles at me with lips so full you could pop them with a pin and I think that I just might actually swoon as he heads right towards 10th Street and I head left to my original destination.
“Good morning, folks, this is the R3 to Center City Philadelphia . We will be making all local stops. Please have all tickets and passes ready. Next stop Langhorne. T-G-I-F. Langhorne next.”
Day Three: The air conditioner in the train is broken and he is sitting in front of me, wiping sweat from his brow. I wish I lived back in the days when women carried handkerchiefs so that I could offer him mine and he would return it to me all full of his sweet, young, not-yet-hot-but-damn-sexy college intern sweat. But I live in the 21 st century, where all I can offer him is a stiff pocket pack dollar store tissue, and what is sexy about that? So he sweats and I pine and at Market East I follow him again and he holds the door again and I am pushing thirty and therefore view any act of chivalry as a potential sign that I will not have to spend my life eating alone while watching “Jeopardy” and phrasing my answers in the form of a question even though no one is there to hear them and I make the right towards 10th Street behind him thinking I don’t know what – that he will smile at me again? That he will turn around and offer me his umbrella because it looks like rain and I don’t have one? That he will ask me if I’d like to have a couple of kids with him? Of course he does none of these things, and when he turns right on Arch Street I am forced to go left because I am already two blocks out of my way and it is 8:15 and I am supposed to be seven blocks away preparing for a meeting by 8:30 and it is hot and humid and the sickening stench of uncooked fish permeates Chinatown and I am sweating and regretting cutting short layers into my wavy hair without considering the implications of early August in Philly. I am sure to arrive at work looking like an ungroomed Chia Pet and not only that, but now, following this kid seems like a poor decision and thus my theory is born.
There is a note from my boss on my chair stating that the meeting has been pushed back to lunchtime. This should be good news, as I really have not prepared for it, but the truth is that I will spend the next three and a half hours not preparing for it while I shop online for a digital camera to take pictures of my cat and become aware that I have become a cliché—the sad, single girl with the cat. I start up my computer. An instant message pops up on my screen almost immediately:
EdB28: you’re late
Ed sits in the next cubicle. He chooses to point out the obvious over the instant messenger rather than walk the half a step to my desk because two months ago we got drunk at a happy hour and slept together and two weeks ago after I left a toothbrush at his apartment. He called me to tell me things were getting too serious, which I later found out meant that he could not bring the young intern in advertising back to his apartment with my toothbrush there and that Ed B. had become another bad decision, so we now restrict our correspondence to electronic media whenever possible in the interest of office civility.
MauraK2605: no shit
I sometimes have difficulty with civility.
EdB28: jeanne was looking for you…
MauraK2605: again, no shit. she left a note on my chair
EdB28: did you finish the manual for the EZWorks stuff?
I glance at the pile of pulverized trees on my desk with the title page reading, EZWorks User Manual. As a technical writer, I kill forests so that someone can purchase a digital camera online.
MauraK2605: it’s done
EdB28: any bugs i should know about?
As an engineer, Ed fixes glitches that may occur when people try to purchase digital cameras online.
MauraK2605: no. any interns i should know about?
EdB28: what happened to office courtesy?
MauraK2605: i don’t have time for this. gotta grab a smoke before jeanne finds me and asks me to make eighty changes to this manual before lunch
EdB28: you really should quit…
MauraK2605: and miss the joy of getting to come here everyday?
EdB28: i meant smoking
MauraK2605: i know what you meant. i was being ironic.
EdB28: did i leave my morrissey cd at your apartment?
MauraK2605 has signed off.
His CD is on my the speaker in my living room, but I have no intention of returning it. Relationships are only as good as the stuff left behind in your apartment.
“All right, folks, we’re goin’ home. All tickets and passes. We gonna speed this thing up. I feel like I’m in the movie Terminal.”
I am the only one on the train who laughs at this. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is ever paying attention. I start a gratitude journal to pass the time. Oprah swears by this, and I am fairly certain she does not spend her evenings with Alex Trebek, so I figure what the hell? Write down three things every day for which you are thankful. How difficult can it be?
8/5: 1. The Train Hottie
2. Casual Fridays
Home is an apartment in Newtown Borough with a quaint exterior and an interior of eggshell white walls, unpaid bills, and an unblinking answering machine.
My mother is saying, over linguine and steamed clams, that I should seriously consider repainting.
I am saying, over lemon meringue pie and tea, that I received the invitation to my father’s wedding in the mail yesterday.
My mother is saying, as the tea grows cold at her elbow, that I should seriously consider repotting my African violet.
I am saying that I will take care of the dishes.
My mother is saying, as she hurries out the door, that no, I don’t need to take off from work to take her to chemo next week. The hospital will send a cab for her. I am thinking, and not saying, that I should add this dinner to the ever-growing list of bad decisions.
I leave the dishes in the sink.
I start a new journal:
Things That Piss Me Off
1. Advertising interns
2. Eggshell white walls
3. Talking and saying nothing
I go to bed with a glass of wine and dream of the boy on the train. In the dream, he calls me on the phone and sings Jack Johnson songs.
Weeks pass. Our relationship is at a standstill of stalking and door-holding. In my head, we meet for lunch in Love Park .
I begin to wear heels every day to make my legs look better, firmer, or something, despite the negative repercussions this has on my feet. I wear lipstick. I begin to grow my hair out. I wear my glasses to look intellectual. He looks intellectual. He probably reads the same books as I do, probably would go with me to see independent films at the Ritz or the County. I wear my contacts to look more attractive. He is probably shallow. Probably wears brand names and has a girlfriend who is six feet tall and weighs ninety-eight pounds. He is tall. He is broad-shouldered. He could hold me at night and make me disappear. He could stroke my hair with his large, lovely, white- collar hands and I could sleep so soundly that to awaken would be like emerging from a coma and I could learn how to live life all over again.
One morning, the week before Labor Day, he is not on the train. Or the morning after that. Or the morning after that. I decide he has gone back to college. I go back to wearing flat sandals that resemble flip-flops. I stop wearing lipstick. I put my hair in a wet ponytail every morning after my shower. I begin to wear earphones on the train to drown out the sound of middle-aged women with outdated haircuts swapping Cool Whip recipes. I listen to Tori Amos. I still dream of him.
“Maura, could you have those revised pages on my desk right quick ? I need them before you leave tonight .”
My boss is from Missouri and uses expressions like “right quick.” I pretend this does not turn my stomach and make a mental note to add it to my journal of things that piss me off. I pretend not to notice that it is already after 5:00 and I have worked overtime every night this week, despite the fact that I am salaried and receive no compensation aside from arriving home too late to catch “Jeopardy.”
Subject: happy hour
you up for it tonight? a bunch of us are going… you need to get out of this funk you’ve been in since Ed.
Kathleen works two rows over in the art department. She is a graphic artist who has been doing this job “just temporarily” for the past two years.
Subject: Re: happy hour
why the fuck not? i’m gonna be stuck here for another half an hour anyway thanks to Ms. Right Quick herself… a drink will definitely be in order.
p.s. don’t give ed that much credit. and it’s not a funk — it’s the new me… i’m trying righteous indignation on for size.
Over three dollar drafts, I confess to Kathleen that I miss Train Guy. She was the only one who knew about my obsession, partly because she is the only one at work with whom I actually converse beyond the obligatory “how was your weekend,” and partly because she is the least judgmental person I know.
“He gave you something to look forward to,” she says.
I nod. I order another beer. I light another cigarette.
“Maybe you’ll see him again. He takes the same train. You might see him in the grocery store, or at the gym.”
I shake my head.
One hour and one more beer later, my fingertips are feeling tingly while I fumble for cash in my wallet and tell Kathleen to go ahead home and I’ll pick up the tab. I feel like walking to Market East alone.
I have successfully located the money when I feel an arm slip around my waist as someone leans in and whispers, “I like your hair.” Ed. Ed is behind me. Ed is saying, “Come on, Maura, my place is only a few blocks away.” He is trying to be smooth. He is saying I can bring my toothbrush back. He is insisting on walking me to the train station. False chivalry thinly masking the desire to get laid. But I am feeling too tired and inarticulate to find a clever way to tell him to fuck off.
Outside, the traffic lights blur before my eyes as though I am looking through a camera lens that has gone out of focus. Ed is insisting on waiting for the train with me. I wish he wouldn’t. Market East is practically empty and I want to listen to the quiet. Instead, I am listening to Ed saying, “Come on baby, this thing with you and me, it’s all very When Harry Met Sally, and aren’t we better than that?”
I hear my train coming. I say exactly what I am thinking. I say I have no idea what the fuck he is talking about, and I get on the train.
The train is surprisingly crowded for 7 p.m. on a Thursday. All of the bars must have had good drink specials. I manage to find an empty seat where I can lean my head against the window and close my eyes, waiting for the rocking of the train to lull me into an alcohol-induced sleep. I feel someone sit next to me and glance over, praying it is not the man who sat next to me last night and informed me that he was wearing his Phillies underwear to bring them luck against the Marlins.
Instead, I come face to face with my non-boyfriend, in all his dark-haired, blue- eyed, white-collar glory. I blink as if trying to clear away an apparition that cannot be real, and he smiles. I realize he is real. I realize I am staring. I fumble in my purse for a piece of gum, a mint, anything to cover the traces of beer and cigarettes. I mentally add starting smoking again after my mom was diagnosed to my list of bad decisions.
[img_assist|nid=897|title=Self Portrait , Summer K. Edward © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=150]My Marlboro Lights fall out of my purse and onto the seat between us. Before I can grab them, he says, “Those things’ll kill ya.” A cliché. I momentarily hate him. He’s trying to be smooth. As I start to mentally un-have his babies, he asks, “Mind if I bum one?”
Irony. I love him again. I think we’ll have two boys and a girl, in that order.
“You smoke?” I can’t imagine it can be true. He has the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen. He could be a toothpaste commercial.
“Only after a day like today. The trouble with going on vacation is coming back.”
Vacation. Not back to college. On vacation. My mind is digesting this when he asks if I’m okay. I stammer that I’m fine and start to hand him a cigarette. I ask him, “Should I card you to make sure you’re old enough to smoke this?”
He laughs. “Yeah, I get that a lot. But I’m old enough to pollute my lungs without legal backlash.”
I must look incredulous because he shifts his weight towards me and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket. The scent of him hangs between us in the heavy, stagnant air of the train – a mixture of some cologne splashed on hours ago and that musky smell of summer in the city that clings to everything in its path.
He hands me his driver’s license. He is, in fact, twenty-five. He lives six blocks from me. I say his name out loud. “Benjamin.”
“Ben,” he says, extending his hand.
“Maura,” I say, shaking it, acutely aware that my palms are sweating and surprised to find that his are too.
“That’s different. It’s pretty.” He is smiling again. I feel uncomfortable. I avert my eyes, look at him, avert my eyes. He is still smiling. I am wishing I had fixed my hair. I self-consciously tuck the strands of it that have fallen out of the ponytail behind my ears. His hair looks different than in the morning, when it is wet from the shower and slicked back. Now it is unkempt, dark curls clinging to the top of his faintly lined forehead. He is not an intern. He is not nineteen. My hair is dark, too. Our kids would have dark hair . . .
He is talking about work. About working late. He is putting the cigarette I have given him into his shirt pocket. I ask him what he does.
“I’m an actuary.”
“My mom wanted me to be an actuary. For the job security. But I thought it would be too boring.” I realize too late how insulting this sounds, but he doesn’t react. He is studying me, his eyes dancing over me like someone looking at a strange piece of art, curious and undecided, looking for some meaning hiding below the surface.
“I’m sorry,” I start —
“No, it’s okay. It is boring.” His smile is easy; he is not just being polite. “What do you do?”
“I’m a technical writer. I write computer software manuals.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s boring.” He nods. There is a slow silence. I half smile and start to turn back towards the window, unsure what to say to him, unsure why he is talking to me.
“What do you really want to do?”
I think about this for a few moments. I hear the conductor say that Elkins Park will be the next stop. I start to laugh, thinking of the conductor a few weeks ago who made the joke about being trapped in the movie Terminal.
Ben asks me what I’m laughing about and now I’m thinking this is it. This is one of those moments that proves that life is not a cheesy Meg Ryan movie, because it is impossible to tell a virtual stranger whose children you imagine you’d like to have why you just started laughing for no reason without sounding like an imbecile, and this will surely be the end of our conversation. But I am trapped in it now. I am not fast enough on my feet to think of something he will actually find funny. So I tell him the story. And he laughs. He throws his head back and laughs and I feel his hand on my knee.
“That’s so random,” he says.
I nod. I don’t know what else to do. I feel his hand still on my knee. I feel the blood pounding in my ears. I feel like I am going to wake up any second and find that I have overslept again.
“So, Maura. You never answered my question. What is it you really want to do?”
I want to tell him that what I really want to do is take him back to my empty apartment and explore every inch of him, melt into him and feel alive, feel exhilarated, feel anything, for the first time in longer than I can remember. Instead I tell him about college.
“I majored in creative writing. I fancied myself a poet, I guess. But poetry doesn’t pay the bills, so here I am.”
He has moved his hand away from my knee. I want to tell him to put it back.
“Do you still write?”
“Aside from what I scribble in the margins of notepads to avoid falling asleep in meetings with software engineers, not really, no.”
I think of all the lies I tell people when they ask me this question. The distractions. The excuses. Work. Family. Friends. Life. I don’t know why I don’t want to lie to him.
The lump in my throat takes me by surprise. I quickly turn away from him and stare out the window at the buildings creeping by the train. I can feel that he is still looking at me, his neck craning to see my face. A tear escapes my eye and I feel his thumb on my cheek.
I turn to look at him, my face hot with embarrassment and emotion.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why – it’s so stupid –"
But he is smiling and he leans towards me and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“I was glad when the seat next to you was empty.”
“Because otherwise, I would have had to sit next to that guy up there who once told me that he was wearing Phillies underwear.”
I laugh so hard that I start to cry again. He is saying nothing and letting me cry and I am not sure how it happens but I am vaguely aware that his arm is around me and I am exhausted and falling asleep on his shoulder.
“Ladies and gentleman next station stop will be Woodbourne. Woodbourne next.”
Startled awake and sober, I am horrified. There is a black smudge from my mascara on his white-collar shirt. He has fallen asleep as well. He rubs his eyes. He smiles at me. He brushes a piece of hair from my face. He stretches. I gather my things, not knowing what to say, and follow him off the train when it stops.
We are the only two people on the platform. It is nearly 8:00 . Twilight in the summer. There is a moist chill in the air—that tangle between summer and fall. We walk the length of the platform in silence and reach Woodbourne Road . He puts his hand up to stop the oncoming traffic so that we can cross to the parking lot. So easy. So confident.
He follows me to my car. I throw my bag in the backseat and close the door, turning to face him, trying to find words to explain, trying to think of some clever joke about being off my medication. I am waiting for him to say he has to get home to his girlfriend.
[img_assist|nid=898|title=In Your Eyes, Joe Blake © 2006|desc=To see more, please visit: josephblake.com|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=262]I can think of nothing clever, so I say, “I’m sorry. This day has just been so strange. I don’t know what—it’s not like me to…”
But he shakes his head and interrupts me. “It’s okay. Nice to meet you, Maura. Maybe I ’ll see you around?”
I want to ask him if he makes a habit of letting strange women on trains cry on his shoulder. I want to thank him. I want to tell him not to walk away, to just stay here with me in this surreal microcosm that we seem to have created for ourselves. I want to kiss him .
But I am looking up into his face in the glow of the street lamps , and I am dumbstruck. I am wondering if this is just another bad decision that I didn’t really even consciously make, if now the cosmos is making my bad decisions for me . I am wondering if he can sense my hesitation, if he can sense that at every intersection, I cringe and await impact, and I am staring at him as he is brushing the hair from my eyes again and then he is walking towards his car and I am standing, watching him pull away and wondering if this is a beginning or an end.
Colleen Baranich grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and currently resides in Riverton, NJ. She holds a B.A. in English Writing from Rider University and an M.A. in Speech-Language Pathology from The College of New Jersey. She works as a speech therapist with children throughout Camden County.