Might Have Happened

If she had stopped, earlier, instead of listening to the drum of her feet and the hiss of her breath, then things might have been different. Tina would have stopped to talk to the old woman for more than half a moment, would have sat beside her on the sidewalk and kept talking. The old woman’s lined face might have lit up then, settling into a well-worn but forgotten smile.

Tina would have asked her what she was doing, why she ended up there, what she wanted with her life before anything had happened to it. The old woman would have introduced herself as Rebecca, and shaken her hand. Then the old woman talked, for a long time it seemed, letting the pent-up shut-tight held-in words all pour out in a bewildered rush. Tina liked to listen, and listening to this one woman would have been the same. She sat and nodded, her eyes intent, her ears drinking in the rusty voice.

The old woman’s story was a long and convoluted one. Rebecca told Tina about the husband who’d left her, the sister who took a plane and never came back, the child who ran away at fourteen and never came back. It would have been very sad, and Rebecca might have said, “Everybody leaves in my life. I never see anyone again, and I don’t even know if my baby is dead or alive.” Her voice was quavering. Tina hugged her impetuously, hiding her tears in Rebecca’s shoulder.

When Tina finally got up to go, she creaked to standing and held the side of the building. She teetered there on the sidewalk for a moment, and then she pulled up Rebecca with her. It took some coaxing, but she got Rebecca walking and into the nearest café, where she bought the older woman a sandwich and fiddled with her phone for a moment. She felt guilty about using an expensive electronic in front of Rebecca, but she kept her head bent low, only peeping up to ask Rebecca’s last name.

After lunch, she copied down a few numbers and gave the scribbled napkin to the old woman, and explained, “I got you a room at this motel, and here’s your confirmation number. You can stay there as long as you need until you get back on your feet.” Rebecca, her eyes welling, would hug Tina and hold her close, and they would part with kisses on the cheek and promises to stay in touch.

Tina didn’t know what would have happened after that, eventually. Perhaps Rebecca would have left the motel and refused to keep taking her help. Perhaps she would have gotten a job and a home of her own. That was where the story always seemed to get murky, in the aftermath once other people’s actions could go in any direction.

The train was groaning to a stop, and Tina stepped out. She shook her head, flinging the daydreams away. The old woman on the sidewalk had given her a piercing blue look as she’d walked by, and she’d stooped to drop a dollar into the paper cup. Time to let her thoughts wander on something else now.

More Underground

This place was bigger than she had ever imagined. Karen had pictured a cave, narrow and dripping. There would probably be stalagmites. Or stalactites, she was never sure about which was which. This was an enormous cavern, with a ceiling so arched and high that she couldn’t see the angles of stone amongst the shadows. The left side of the area – the wide expanse of concrete, surrounded by walls that leaned over them all – dropped abruptly. That must be where they’d come from, along the dead track.

 

Abandoned subway station

Abandoned subway station (Photo credit: Geir Halvorsen)

 

She walked further, timidly, pulling Andrew by the hand. He followed more slowly, his steps lagging behind her. He was gaping at the ceiling, and the walls, and the group of people sitting before them. They were all lounged about what seemed to be a very old television, clustered in front of it. There was a reporter on the screen, interrupted by flickers and static as she told them earnestly of the newest political developments – “There has, however, been some controversy over the recent reelection of the Senator, especially given the scandals he faced at the end of his last term. Over to you, Ron.” The people were beginning to get up now, to mumble to one another, and one person leaned to shut the television off. It shuddered to a black screen as though relieved to give up the burden of CNN.

 

Karen was a bit surprised. A group of people who lived beneath the surface of the city was hanging on the words of the world above; she had assumed they would shun news of the world. It was a much more attractive prospect, and seeing the reporter made it feel like everything up there was inescapable. That wasn’t why they had come. She yanked on Andrew’s hand, and he squeezed hers.

 

She stopped to smile at him. He was looking at her, his face solemn in the low light of the station. She looked back for a long moment, and for a bit they stood there together, silent, in the cavern underneath the world.

 

Subterranean (and Silly)

The subway platform was full and busy. Eddie hated that feeling of standing only a few feet from the edge. He always felt as if he might just drift over and onto the rails, that being too close to the edge might make him teeter over it. It was like the rails were pulling at him, humming with an electricity that he couldn’t hear. He just had to wait for the train to come, and the screen said it would be another three minutes. It wasn’t as if he were going to get on the train, anyway.

While he waited, he fiddled with his coat. The hem on the bottom was fraying, and the threads splayed like frail wire under his fidgety fingers. The train was in the distance now. The light was a bright suggestion in the distance of the tunnel. As he watched, it grew more definite. They could all hear the rush of its movement as it sped toward them and slowed down. Eddie watched as women in long coats and couples holding hands stepped toward the edge of the platform, and as a few men with business suits hurriedly pulled their tickets from the machines and thrust through the turnstiles. The crowd was clamoring at the doors, going through the usual dance of stepping and wriggling around one another to get on the train. The people in the train always had to fight their way through, ducking and weaving to get off while everyone else tried to get on. It was that sort of busy time of day.

Subway train in tunnel

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eddie turned from the train as people crammed into its doors. He walked along the platform, toward the tunnel from which the train had just appeared. The crowd was still buzzing and squirming when he glanced back to check, so he slipped into the tunnel unseen. There was a ledge clinging to the wall in the darkness, and he leaned against the concrete and placed each foot carefully. One after the other, and he knew the fork came soon. His hands found the wall on either side of him, and he closed his eyes to the graze of palms on the jagged surface. When the fork came, he remembered the wall just ending. He wanted to feel the corner before he took another step off of the ledge and into the train tracks.

It was hard to call the image into his mind of the place where he was going. He remembered it being warm, and lit with gold. The people were quiet but friendly, and Sasha was there. Eddie had never meant to do anything with his life that would bring him someplace like the community living in the abandoned subway. Nevertheless, when she had led him there it had seemed obvious. Of course he was there. She was taking him.

Sasha had always been the crazy one. When they were kids, she was the one daring him to eat a grasshopper and climbing to the very tallest boulder that jutted from the hill in the woods. Eddie had always followed her.

When he first found her on the subway platform, he hadn’t seen her for two years. She had smiled as if she were expecting him, and taken his hand. The surprise welling in his breath was cut off by her whisper. “Follow me,” she hissed at him, and pulled him away from his train and into the darkness.

He hadn’t made this trip alone until now. Sasha had taken him a few times by now, introducing him to the leader of their group and showing him where they stole through forgotten stairwells to go grocery shopping. It had seemed like another world there, a little town secreted in the concrete underground of the city. There were platforms and tunnels that hadn’t been used for decades, except that now they held little lean-tos and an old picnic table. It was a whole community hiding where nobody could see, and everyone in it only wanted to be seen when they were there.

Eddie wondered a couple times, after going there, if there were people escaping their aboveground lives. He supposed there were. Probably that was mostly his romanticizing it, but there was something fairytale-like about the little village huddled under the streets and skyscrapers. Even if it was childish, he already wanted to stay here. He mulled on this as he inched upon the ledge. That might be the end of the wall just ahead, and he could almost see it.

When his fingers reached the corner he smiled to the black, and pressed himself around the finger of concrete until he was on the other side, gasping a little and grinning. He was almost there, almost to Sasha. If he stayed with her, he would be alright. Perhaps he was building some glorious romantic daydream of life under the city, but it already felt as though he’d left that real world and this was his new place. Here there would be new people, new ways. He would learn that instead, and everything about this strange and lovely way to live would fill in for the empty hard life above.

Besides, in the darkness he might find dragons.

Beauty

I take the subway to work every morning, and back home every evening. Yesterday on the subway ride home, there was a girl sitting down a couple steps from where I clung to the silver pole, swaying.

She wasn’t anything much. Her face was round, eyes lidded and downcast, with a long straight nose and thin lips. Hair swept in wispy strands around her face, escaping from a ponytail. She was sitting next to an old woman in a bright orange hat, who’d fallen asleep and was gently collapsed on the hard plastic seat. The darkness of each tunnel flushed over the car, until it emerged again into the stolid bustling light of a station. I wasn’t getting off until 28th.

The girl was reading something. It was buried in the coat she held in her lap – hardly necessary in the sudden burst of heat that had overtaken us – and the purse clutched close to it. I couldn’t tell what it was, among the folds and edges. Perhaps a book, or a pamphlet, or a magazine. Whatever it was, she was reading it intently, her eyes steady and fixed and her mouth tight with concentration.

I was looking at her idly, and as she bent over the words in her lap she struck me suddenly. She was not pretty, and nothing about her was extraordinary. Still, as she read so carefully, she inclined her head toward what she was reading. It was simply that which was striking. The angle and shadow of her collarbones, and the little hollow made by her tension, and the graceful sloping curve of her neck until it disappeared into that feathery hair.

My stop came up quickly, as it wasn’t a very long subway ride. I got off and walked home, marveling. Even now I cannot forget that ordinary girl, and the very beautiful way she bent so still and quiet. The loveliness, the stark beauty, hasn’t faded. The line of her neck sinking into her shoulder still traces through my mind, and I am awed.