Wellesley Station Platform.
I hear the train approaching and I press my body forward into nothingness, the tips of my toes extending defiantly over the painted yellow line. The subway screams as it flies past me, the steel of it just millimetres from the flesh of my face. A blast of tepid air hits me as the cars pass; black curls flutter behind me like paper streamers in a hurricane. I breathe in deeply. I love the smell: grease and dirt and cheap whiskey and stale piss and a million other things, entwined in a filthy, delicious bouquet. Metal scrapes metal and the great gray behemoth grinds to a stop.
The others on the platform push past me, jockeying for a better position by the doors. I let them; I don’t need to be first. A woman with a stroller edges in front of me, driving the rear wheel of the carriage over my ankle. I stumble and nearly hit the platform floor; the woman offers no apology and continues forward, pushing onward to the doors. Her place in the queue is far more important than the well being of a stranger, or even than the safety of the child in her stroller, who is bumped and jostled pitilessly as the woman shoves her way to the front of the line. I just smile. It’s all part of the experience. It’s all part of what makes the subway the subway.
Moments later, the doors open. The small crowd funnels in while I patiently wait for my turn to enter. An unintelligible message sounds from the loudspeaker: words garbled by a static crackle. It sounds like steel wool on a Teflon pan. I know the warning by heart, even if I can’t always make out the words. “Stand clear of the doors, please. Doors are closing.”
I slip into the car; the doors hiss, sliding shut behind me. There are plenty of available seats, but I choose to stand. The ride is better this way. This is the only way I can really feel the subway: standing, feet on the floor, arms wrapped around a metal pole. The train shutters, then roars to life.
The woman with the stroller takes a seat near the door. She is utterly absorbed in the glow of her phone, paying little mind to the baby. As the train speeds up, I watch the stroller begin to roll away, down the car, towards the rear doors. The woman notices at the last second and deftly grabs the handle before the stroller slips away completely, as though she’s done it a thousand times before. She puts the stroller back in place by her seat and returns to her phone. In seconds, the stroller begins to roll again.
The doors open, but no new passengers enter. Instead, a lonely plastic bag blows in through the rear doors. I imagine it is trying to get home, but too tired to get there sailing on the wind. Instead it has to ride the subway like the rest of us.
The bag blows through the car and into the face of the mother. She coughs and sputters, peeling the bag off her face and throwing it to the floor. She is so thoroughly disgusted with the bag, the bag that the audacity to molest her, that she completely ignores the stroller, now rolling away for what is, I believe, the fourth time.
I let the stroller roll past me, not lifting a finger to stop it. I don’t owe the woman anything. The stroller is halfway down the subway car before she realizes it has left her hands. She cries out, but doesn’t stand up right away. She takes a moment to place her phone carefully back in her purse. The stroller rolls past two other riders before it hits a pole and falls over onto its side. There is a delay of exactly one second before the infant strapped within begins to cry.
Finally out of her seat, the woman admonishes me with a dark stare as she walks by. She stands the stroller upright and tells her baby to shush. The train starts again before she can get back to her seat; the car lurches forward as it begins to move, almost causing her to fall backwards. She spits on the floor as she retakes her seat. I don’t know if she’s disgusted with the train, me or if she’s still upset at the plastic bag. In the stroller, the baby continues to cry.
A group of men enter. Three of them. Their eyes turn immediately to me, as though they can sense my abnormality with their beer-
Like me, the men choose not to sit, holding onto the metal poles that line the subway car. Their t-
One of the men notices me looking in their direction. He responds with an obscene gesture, which prompts more laughter from his friends. It’s a common response, their utter contempt. I tend to elicit only two reactions from the other passengers: apathy and disdain. In a way, I prefer the disdain. At least it’s a real and genuine response. The apathy is simply an absence of interest, as though I don’t even warrant their scorn. I like to think I matter enough to be hated at least. And no matter how anyone acts towards me, I know this is where I belong. Even though I may not live here, the subway is my home. Everyone else is just visiting.
A woman gets on. She is tall and slender and beautiful. But she is drunk (or high) and stumbling. The men whistle and laugh and say rude things to her, because that’s what men do, except not to me. She falls into them, and they are eager to assist. I see them casually groping her body as they generously help her keep from toppling over. She eventually manages to escape their enthusiastic hands and make it to the wall where there are empty chairs. She collapses, face up, splayed over two seats. Her legs dangle over the edge, her dress hiked up almost around her waist.
Her smeared lipstick is a near perfect match to the red plush of the seats, or a least it seems that way in the dim, flickery lights of the car. Her makeup is a mess, but I can see how beautiful she is. I am gripped with bitter envy that borders on hatred. She is everything I want to be, everything I’ve ever wanted to be. She has creamy, pale skin where mine is brown and freckled, pockmarked with acne scars. She has long, straight hair, silky-
The men continue to laugh and leer at her; I imagine them daring one another to go over to her and abuse her in some fashion. I can’t hear what they are saying, but it is probably worse than anything I can come up with in my head. I almost wish they would do something to her, such is my envy. She is as perfect as I am flawed and I want her to be punished for it. I know this is wrong, that she is not to blame for my being born the way I was, but she has everything I want and I have nothing but the subway.
The baby in the stroller continues to cry.
The men are crowded around the beautiful woman now. They are angling themselves to see up her dress, but thus far they haven’t touched her. It’s only a matter of time, though. They can’t resist a defenceless target. The mother wheels her stroller out through the sliding doors. She shakes her head as she leaves and I honestly don’t know if she is shaking it at the men, or at the passed out woman. Or maybe she’s still mad about the bag.
The doors shut and the men are now lightly kicking at the woman’s legs, seeing if she is will make any sort of response. She does not.
There are five riders left on the car, not including me, the men or the beautiful woman they are clustered closely around. A middle-
The train starts off again. I can feel my heart beating faster than it ever has in my life. If this happens, I will be a part of it. And it will be a part of me, for the rest of my life. It seems unconscionable that I would let this happen, but can I really do anything to stop it? Should I endanger myself to save this woman? This woman whom I hate, so very, very much. I know she doesn’t deserve this, but what does that really have to do with anything? Did I deserve my life? Did my parents deserve a son they would always be ashamed of? Or a daughter they could never bring themselves to acknowledge? Maybe this woman doesn’t deserve what is about to happen to her, but if it makes me feel a little better, maybe I deserve that. After everything I’ve been forced to live through and live with, don’t I deserve to finally have something over on a girl like this? Isn’t that fair?
The teenage boy in the back of the car licks his lips.
One of the men slides a hand up the woman’s thigh.
A second later that man has a knife pressed up to his throat. I don’t even remember taking it out of my purse. Or taking the three long, impossible steps between us. I wonder if they even remembered I was here.
It’s not a big knife, but it’s big enough. A three inch folding blade with a serrated edge. Big enough to scare off a pack of cowardly hyenas who think they can do what they like in my subway. I don’t say a word; I just hold the knife there. My intent is clear.
The other two take a few steps back and, when I allow it, the third one follows. They make for the door to the next car and clamber over each other to get out. They’ll probably go a few more cars down, just to be safe. The teenage boy slips out the back door into another car as well. He’ll still have a story to tell his friends tomorrow.
I sit down on the floor at the feet of the beautiful woman. I cross my arms over my knees and keep the knife out. I’ll stay here all night if I have to. I’ll stay here until she wakes up. I’ll be here as long as she needs me. I still hate her, in a way. I hate her for being so perfect. I hate her to for being so stupid. But it’s not her fault that she’s her and I’m me. We’re both under siege from the world around us, in our own ways. We’re better off fighting our wars together than apart, fighting amongst ourselves. She may be everything I ever wanted to be, but tonight, she needs me. She’s come to my home and she will be my guest. She will be protected for as long as she is here. Because this is my subway.
This is my home.