Elizabeth could no longer ignore the man across the aisle on the train. His legs sprawled across two seats and his belly nestled like a basketball between his thighs. A white lip of flesh bulged between his pants and his shirt. He had been watching Elizabeth since she got on at Chambers and Elizabeth had been studiously not watching him.
Fiction by Nikki Ervice
Elizabeth could no longer ignore the man across the aisle on the train. His legs sprawled across two seats and his belly nestled like a basketball between his thighs. A white lip of flesh bulged between his pants and his shirt. He had been watching Elizabeth since she got on at Chambers and Elizabeth had been studiously not watching him. The man was rubbing his belly as if he were gestating something other than Philly Cheesesteaks—satisfied, proud. A bead of sweat tricked down his thigh and onto the bench. Elizabeth wanted to scream at the reverent way he fondled himself. She wondered what it would feel like to punch him in the gut, the sharp exhalation he would make, the way her fist would squeeze out some of the unkindness that must be inside him to make him so grotesque.
The train slowed to a crawl and the standing riders swayed, hung by their fists. An automated voice came over the intercom: “We are experiencing delays due to an incident at 59th St, Columbus Circle. Please be patient while we work to fix the delay. As always, remember to follow the rules and guidelines of the Metro Transit Authority. This year over 500 people were killed or injured for not following the rules. These incidents were avoidable. Don’t be a statistic.”
Elizabeth watched the man stand up as they neared the platform at Union Square. He turned back to give her one last leer and the doors closed around his heel and he stumbled. His gasp was swallowed by the train’s departure. Elizabeth couldn’t escape her smile.
The beauty and horror of the city was that everyone was actively trying not to see things, except for her—the way people jammed themselves between doors, walked on the wrong side of the platform, oozed into more seats than they needed. Lawless bodies mashed past each other like teeming insects, all sweatier than they deserved to be. One everyday atrocity replaced the next. You could be trying to get downtown to see a movie and be the victim of up to five mundane crimes. She made a point to mete out a little justice now and then.
Two years ago, after a night of heavy drinking, she brought Crazy Glue and a sheave of razor blades onto this very train at 3:45 am. She thought she might glue them to the rubber seal on the door, teach people who tried to delay the train a lesson. She had shuffled from car to car holding her black deli bag but none of them were empty. A homeless woman with rheumy eyes watched her orbit, then fell asleep. Elizabeth began to lose momentum. She thought better of it. She hadn’t thought about it at all, really. It was just a joke. She needed the razor blades to strip old paint off the chair in her room. She needed the glue to repair the handle on her favorite mug. She went home and threw both items in the junk drawer, stripped off her clothes and laid on the kitchen floor. She lived alone.
This morning Elizabeth had been walking to the pharmacy to pick up eczema cream and hip-checked a cruel looking little schoolgirl who had carelessly trespassed on her side of the sidewalk. Elizabeth had kept her gaze straight ahead the whole time. At the pharmacy she had let a distracted man on his phone run into her so forcefully that he dropped it. The snick of broken glass as the phone hit the tile was her reward. And here, now, to her left, a man with greasy hair and holes in his jeans had taken the seat of the fat man and was reading the same page in his book over and over, rocking back and forth so much that the gesture became pathological. He mouthed words to himself. A passage had wormed into his brain, grooved out an irrevocable canal. Elizabeth tried to hold her breath so as not to breathe the same air as him, catch the wrongness he was emitting. It was revolting to think she might have the same wet molecules in her lungs that he had just had in his, the same bits of mucus. She had to restrain herself from getting up and pressing his shoulders against the seat back, looking him dead in the eye and saying “Stop.” Instead, she tried to conjure a wall of cool air with her mind. Her eyes fluttered back a little, her heartbeat slowed, she pressed the air toward the man to affix him to his seat, freeze his erraticism. He kept rocking and looked at Elizabeth, her arms partially extended like chicken wings and head lolling back, with a slight frown of concern.
Her concentration was broken at 42nd Street when a young man with a black mullet entered her car. He must have clocked the empty seat between the elderly woman with the shopping bag and the college professor because he was moving too fast for such a small space, too selfishly. Elizabeth extended her leg a little further into the aisle, an exaggeration of how she was sitting before, a slight adjustment to the space she had been holding. The man caught her ankle with his foot. The connection of bone to bone was thrilling. The physics of it all worked perfectly. He went flying. Her heart convulsed. Electricity sprouted in her armpits. It’s alright, she thought. Running is against the rules but above all, it is rude.
He crashed into the floor face first, arms extended in front of him as if in supplication. Everyone says these things happen in slow motion, but in Elizabeth’s experience accidents always seemed to happen faster than expected. One moment he was a two-legged asshole and the next he was a carpet. It was enough to crack the willful disregard of a whole row of riders who made the universal sign for “I’m trying to help without helping,” their arms outstretched limply, their little mouths puckered into os, an expectant “ahhhh” sighing out from them. The man scrabbled his arms on the floor. A gum wrapper was stuck to one of the buttons on his wrist. He lifted his upper body like a seal and looked right at Elizabeth.
“Agh. God! Why would you do that?” Blood tricked from his nose and into his mouth. His teeth were red and his words were thick and muddied. He must have bit his tongue on the way down. “Why did you do that?” Elizabeth was certain he could not be crying.
“I didn’t do anything. You fell.” He wasn’t supposed to talk to her. Her work was invisible. He was ruining it. The edge of her field of vision was coming unglued and the atmosphere inside the train collapsed a little around her. Her face was pricked by invisible pins. Everyone was looking at her. Elizabeth lowered her head and pretended to be engrossed in her phone. The train lurched and the boy lurched to his feet. His blood had caught his collar and was flowing generously from his nose. It made fat, wet drops on his shoes. His shoes were the shiny kind of dress shoes that men wear when they want to look richer than they are. The blood would wipe off easily. His collar was ruined, though. There was nothing she could do about that.
“Jesus! You fucking tripped me!” He wouldn’t let it go. He was definitely crying now. Blood and tears were mixing, running around his delicate chin, two tributaries of red. Some dammed up where his scrappy goatee sprouted.
“You saw that. He just fell.”
The woman beside Elizabeth pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows at the command, looked up and to the right.
“I didn’t trip you. My leg was just there. You were running. What did you think would happen?” She was growing hotter by the second. “Here.” Elizabeth scrambled in her bag and held out a long-sleeved shirt. “Put this on your nose.” She liked that shirt, but she had nothing else and everyone was still watching. She wasn’t a monster.
“I wasn’t running. I was walking fast.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
The man wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and stared at the smear of blood and mucus, swayed gently, closed his eyes, began to pitch sideways. He was much younger than he had been when he entered the train.
“I’m pulling the E-brake!” A shrill voice from the back of the car.
“No!” Elizabeth’s voice cracked a little. “What’re they going to do in the middle of the damn tunnel? He’s fine.” She stood up, guided the bleeding man to her seat. The pruney woman who had been sitting beside her scooted as far away as she could, leaning from the waist. Elizabeth knelt in front of him and held her shirt to his nose, pinching the bridge to stop the flow like she learned in elementary school. Her hands shook a little. “Are you dizzy?”
“Guh.” He said. It meant yes.
Elizabeth thought of the day she had been riding her bike under a low branch, back and forth and heard a dog bark and forgot to duck. Her helmet had flown off under the assault. She was flat on her back and everything was quiet, almost peaceful before the pain started. There’s a privilege and a loneliness to falling when nobody is around. She had mustered some tears and was wandering around her house, trailing blood, for five minutes before she realized her mother had gone out without telling her. She swallowed her tears. It was pointless to cry alone. Somebody should have been watching.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Elizabeth asked.
“I want to go hobe.”
“I want to go home.”
Elizabeth asked the boy where he lived. He would have to transfer at 75th to get all the way to Fort Washington and 175th. The boy was sobbing now, his shoulders hunched up by his ears. Great gasps wracked his esophagus. Elizabeth guided him across the platform by his elbow. They waited for the uptown Express side by side. No trains came for a long time and the platform began to fill with strangers.
“Can I tell you a secret?” He spoke quietly through her shirt. He had stopped crying.
“Sure. I guess.”
“My grandmother died today.”
“That doesn’t really sound like a secret.”
“Well, I haven’t really told anybody yet. I went to check on her this morning and she was just dead, all tucked up under her pink blanket.”
“Oh god. That’s horrible.”
“It’s okay. She was really old. I have to get home and tell my mom, I guess.”
“You didn’t call an ambulance?”
“What’s an ambulance going to do but cost money?”
Elizabeth considered this. She considered it under the fluorescents on the number 2 Train while the boy idled beside her, his eyes half-lidded. She considered it as she walked him up the four flights of stairs to the apartment he shared with his mother, who was still at work. She made him macaroni and cheese in a silver pot on the spotted range, her arms compelled by some unfathomable responsibility beyond her control. The boy let it happen. He changed into a Metallica T-shirt in his room and said very little. Elizabeth glimpsed the white sliver of his spine through the cracked door and then sat on the nubby little couch beside the broken bookshelf as he ate the macaroni. Orange water pooled on his plate.
Elizabeth pulled off her shoes and crossed her legs beneath her. Her feet were sore and hot and needed to breathe. There were big black beetles tattooed on their undersides. She had had them done when she was 18 and they were beginning to fade because the sole of the foot isn’t meant to hold onto anything. When anyone asked her about them—a nosy, ferret-faced woman in her gym dressing room, her podiatrist—she told them that beetles were her favorite creature, or the most important creature on earth, or that she liked to know that she was crushing them underfoot, day in, day out.
“What are those?” The boy asked, gesturing toward her feet.
“I’ll tell you a secret.” Elizabeth said. “When I was seven, I was the first to find my mom after she died.”
“Yeah. There was this big tree beetle infestation in my hometown. They ate into the wood and killed all the oak trees. My mom didn’t want to hire someone to come cut down the big one in our yard before it fell on the house and so she decided to do it herself. She got the angle wrong and it fell on her. I found her after school.” Elizabeth leaned forward as she spoke, her forearms on her thighs, hands dangling like two knots between her knees.
“Are you serious?”
The boy’s dark, guileless eyes were so open they looked almost bovine, dense lashes clumped together with dried tears. His lips were slack, parted slightly to inhale her words. Elizabeth licked her finger and wiped a smudge of red from his cheek. His skin was softer and warmer than she expected. She could feel the ridge under his eye where the bone was, beneath which a labyrinth of vessels dilated and pulsed, pushing blood and salt and sadness through him. She wondered if he looked like his grandmother.
“Yeah. I’m serious.” She said. It was as good a story as any.
Nikki Ervice is a writer and professional dancer from Homer, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Allegory Ridge and 805 Lit, among others. She holds a BFA from the University of Minnesota and lives in Brooklyn, NY.