~This story was previously published in Indy Men’s Magazine (2003).
Sanders liked Tuesday on the subway, its sunken-in comfort, the lawyers happily moored in their battle suits. The papers thinned down and the tourists thinned out and the sleepy heads rolled behind their newspaper sails as the tracks dipped and swelled. Above the ground an August rain was falling, and at each station Sanders smelled it, warm and silty in the brushed cold of his mouth.
At Van Ness the man boarded the train, with a shaved head, a small paper bag held in at his belly like a dagger. Sanders was annotating the morning's news from the war, circling who was saying what about whom. But he sensed the man there, standing still, winnowing, gazing up the car. The doors slid shut and the man came up the aisle, glancing side to side, not looking for empty seats, but at the faces. Sanders reached down to touch his wife's thigh—she hated to be disturbed at reading—and he dipped his paper so she could see.
Her body stiffened on the padded bench.
She whispered, “Is this one?”
She lowered her paper, too.
Directly in front of Sanders sat a young Asian woman, perhaps Korean, hair so black and shiny it looked blue. The man in the aisle swallowed his breath when he saw her, and for an instant he froze, as if he'd forgotten something. Then his body carried him forward and he drew the paper bag away from what it concealed, and Sanders knew what he was.
She didn't see yet. She had something in her lap—an open purse, a magazine. She didn't look until it was too late. Perhaps that's why he chose her, thought Sanders.
“Ahem.” The man said it wrong, with a nasal crunch, like something in Hebrew. The woman looked, but he was already going to one knee beside her, lanky and hard, just a stippling of hair on his head. He wore black dress slacks and an azure shirt, a beautiful shirt a size too large, a borrowed shirt. The faded crescent of a black eye haunted the long sky of his face.
He was the type. That was why Sanders had noticed him. Across the aisle a black man in a London Fog as big as a house had put his newspaper down. He'd figured it out too.
Now the woman noticed the bouquet of flowers the man had brought out from inside his wrinkled paper bag. “Oh, no,” she said. Now she knew, and a thrill went through Sanders to hear her.
The man let go his breath—he was not that old, Sanders judged—and held the flowers forward until they bloomed before her. “My name is Evan Bell,” he began.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Not me.”
“I'm 24,” said the man. “We've never met, but you must have known I was coming.”
Now people were listening, and Evan Bell winced at how he'd begun, but he didn't avert his brown eyes. “I work for a photographer and sell bikes on the weekend,” he said. “I don't drink. Don't smoke. Haven't had a lover in four years.”
The woman's voice broke, but her English was good. She brought one hand up as if to ward off the sun. “Don't do this,” she said.
Evan Bell laid his bouquet across the woman's lap. He reached into his pocket, and for another moment his eyes caught Sanders' across the woman's left shoulder. In that glimpse Sanders caught the vibrato of the man's panic. Go on, he wanted to say. Then the man's face was smooth again, impenetrable. He'd found the next movement.
“This belonged to my great-grandmother,” he said. Sanders caught a flash of the ring before Evan Bell thrust it at the woman. “She was born in Syracuse and married a soldier. He gave her this the day he shipped to Europe before the war. The first one, 1917. He took mustard gas and blistered his lungs, but he made it back. It's an opal,” he said. “It's what a soldier could afford.”
Next to the Asian woman, an older woman with a face like the moon watched intently, her fingers holding back the shade of her hair.
“Marry me. I will love you,” the man in the aisle said, and as he raised his head and gazed at the woman, Sanders imagined he could smell the strange adrenaline that was pushing him, making his nostrils flare and his shoulders twitch inside the azure shirt. Helene strained forward on her seat. She was studying the woman: her hair, the curve of her brow, the back of her ear, the shiny blind back of her head.
The train slowed and people turned to check the station. Quickly, the nameless woman stood: her hair fell from her shoulders, and the roses dropped from her lap to the carpet like a ruined toy. Sanders couldn't see her features, but he glimpsed the red in her face. Evan Bell leaned back to let her pass, waited for a forlorn second, then stood and followed. They joined the queue by the door, everybody in the middle section of the train car turned around and watching them; again Sanders met Evan Bell's eyes, and the young man seemed younger now, lighter, a package delivered, as if until that moment the air in the world had not been qualifiably real. Sanders remembered being that young, the glowing in the chest, that knot of arrogance and aggression, of wanting. Then the doors squeaked open on their rubbery gears, and as the woman dove through them and away, she reached back and grasped Evan Bell's hand.
“This one didn't have much to say,” Sanders remarked. There had been cheering, then a round of congratulations among people on the train for simply having been there to witness.
“Others did?” Helene was recomposing herself, folding her pages.
These proposals, or incidents, or whatever-you'd-call-them—some said assaults—had been the local craze of this summer, a sort of mini-epidemic. Sanders had seen two previous to this one. They thrilled him each time, the young men, heads shaven, and their sudden, all-abandoning approach, offering themselves like love kamikazes. It was shocking. But summer was old, and people were used to them now. Just as they got used to jumping off bridges tied to giant rubber bands.
“Not that they talked more,” Sanders explained. “Just that the others seemed to have it planned. They had props and presents. Not just flowers.”
Helene clucked noiselessly. This had been her first, yet she'd gone quickly back to the want ads, for which she enjoyed a lofty disregard. He'd known she'd disapprove, no matter how romantic or daring it might seem. Few knew, or were saying, how it started, among the twenty-something men of a certain grave fringe: the serious and gaunt skateboarder and punk-rock types Sanders had seen around Washington for years, liberal and tolerant and scraping by fine. They were an established tribe. And this summer, rather than passing out in each other's apartments from too much of movement and music and coffee and the sexless D.C. humidity, a number of them went out pledging their lives to women they'd never met. Almost every morning another one appeared, somewhere in the underground, clear-eyed with his secret bundle, watching the women along the aisles of the trains.
In having seen three now, Sanders was lucky. The first he'd watched was in June, soon after it began—the young woman, a lawyer or something with a butter-cream suit and busy mouthful of gum, accepted the proposal straightaway. “Why not?” she said, making like the insouciant blonde in a musical, taking her gum out and sticking it on the seat back defiantly. Surely, Sanders had believed at the moment, she was toying with this individual, waiting till she got aboveground, to a policeman, a security checkpoint, somewhere she could scrape him away. But two days later he'd seen the item in the Post: yes, indeed, she was a lawyer, she worked on the Hill, down the block from his office. “I feel lucky,” she told the paper. They'd set the wedding for the following July. “And if he turns out to be a psycho, I have a year to find out.”
The second one, however, had failed, and badly. The woman was older, perhaps 30, 35; she'd been reading about hospice before the boy had arrived, and Sanders wondered, if he had only seen that book in her hands, whether he'd have chosen her. He importuned her with cut sunflowers that were somehow sewn together into a fan, and he recited a poem of Neruda, not so very badly. (Why her, Sanders wondered, why this poem? Why today?) Then he opened a letter he claimed was written by his late mother to the woman he would someday wed. To the nameless beauty, it began; at this the woman screamed. “Please,” the boy said, alarmed, perceiving his mistake, but bound by some code or promise not to turn and run. “Please. Please. Please.” He tried to comfort her, but her wailing rose in pitch. She turned to the passenger beside her, and he took her head on his shoulder and hid it from the boy—oh, that gesture; it tore Sanders' heart.
“Why don't you just go away?” said the passenger. “Can't you see this isn't right? This isn't love.”
“I see,” said the boy, now crying too. He looked this way and that, but the train car was a sealed capsule falling through the tunnel, the safety lights zipping by. He stumbled away, leaving his flowers and his mother's letter, and something else too, carved of wood -- Sanders studied it but he could not imagine what it was. He remembered the boy's name: Jason Langhetti. They all announced themselves. They all had exquisite manners.
Helene had bored deep into the classifieds, but the moon-faced woman in front of them swiveled around, considered Sanders briefly, and then addressed Helene. “So that was a good one, eh? He totaled her.”
Slang, of course, had followed the phenomenon, ridden its coattails, translated it as a series of automotive disasters. Those episodes in which the men proposed but were rebuffed were called breakdowns or spinouts; the ones who proposed but then disappeared into the random world, skittish or cruel thrill-seekers, were called hit-and-runs. (There had been a handful of them, the jilted girls instant local celebrities, basking in exquisite sympathy. Public sentiment favored the notion that the hit-and-runners were operators out of Philadelphia.) And if someone picked you out and you accepted them, you'd been totaled. Invariably the discussions made Sanders think of claims adjusters.
Helene curled her lip.
“That's the second I've seen,” said the moon-faced woman.
“Third for me,” Sanders put in.
“It's wanton,” said Helene. “You Americans use the word for everything, even soup. But it's wanton. It's truly immoral. It is a form of public rape.”
“My wife is French,” Sanders offered.
“I used to be. Generations ago,” said the woman, who seemed more at rest turning around than sitting still. “I was sitting right next to her! I thought my heart was going to bust. I heard there was one last Friday where he'd learned a whole song in opera in Italian and sang—sang it to her. And there was the one with the flute.”
“It was a clarinet.”
“Worth ten thousand dollars,” sighed the woman.
“One brought a cake he'd made,” said a woman from the opposite side. “But she was allergic to cake!”
“One brought a bad credit rating,” grumbled Helene. “One brought a case of crabs. A Marylander, they say.”
Sanders grinned at the moon-faced woman. “You could have been the lucky one today. You were that close.”
“Oh, no,” pshawed the woman. “Me? No. I take miserable care of myself. Why shouldn't I? I'm forty-nine. No one is picking me.” She was fervent in her certainty. “I like to hear about them, though, and I like to wait for the next. It makes me think about happiness. It isn't so far away. It's nice to know it can happen in an instant. That it's as easy as your plane falling from the sky.”
“Or as horrible,” said Helene.
The man across the aisle, swimming behind the thick lenses of his spectacles, cleared his throat. He said, “I can't understand why these girls say yes. Is it that rare, someone who wants you? Is it that hard to find?”
“I sat right here next to her,” insisted the woman. “I didn't think she was falling for it.”
“She did say no. Five or six times,” said Helene, her eyes steely on the paper.
“Before she walked him out,” objected the woman.
“My wife is French,” Sanders explained again.
That phrase seemed to explain a lot. He was forever kidding her with it, her Frenchness, if she did something inexplicable, such as inexplicably throwing out half her wardrobe, new and old, if it seemed a trifle off. Or giving away her cats to her sister, though now her sister had come to live with them for a year with her infant daughter, and the cats prowled Sanders' study again as if their dispossession had never occurred. My wife is French. Or singing hymns in the subway. She was singing on the subway platform when he first saw her, three years ago, where they used to board at Grosvenor station. He saw her two or three times a week, as he boarded at 6, getting the jump on the morning papers—he'd worked on the Hill 15 years, a mercenary, and reading the papers was in essence what he did. He got paid $98,000 a year to read the paper. Once the senator he worked for said to the vice president in an elevator, “Nobody reads the papers better than Sanders.” In Washington, it was the sort of appraisal that gripped you and didn't let go.
As for the young hymn-singing woman at his Metro stop, scanning the weedy embankment as if watching for hedgehogs, he assumed that she was quite literally crazy. Their first conversation, after he had shyly noticed her for several months, into winter—she had a high, milky forehead, and lips turned out as softly as notes—the first conversation confirmed it. A short, noisy Indian man had asked her to change a dollar. “Change dollar,” he said. “Change dollar. Change? Dollar? Four quarter coins?” In her eyes she looked frightened, but she kept singing the tiny steps of her song.
“You don't understand what I'm saying?” he demanded at last.
“Ask him,” she said, breaking her tune, pointing at Sanders where he stood, feigning invisibility, watching her sing.
After Sanders changed the Indian man's dollar and put it clumsily away in his billfold, he felt licensed to say something to her. “Do I look like someone who has change?” He said it very slowly, like someone afraid that he is speaking with an idiot, and it was a relief when she looked right at him and spoke up.
“Like someone who has changed?” she said.
“My name is Sanders,” he apologized. And not long after that, it was wedding bells for them.
It wouldn't last, Sanders thought. Fall was already blowing up along the George Washington Parkway, and football, a Redskins team drunk on the idea that it would win. Sanders liked football himself, but he saw the disappointment coming there, and already he'd distanced himself from the Redskins fans, so as to avoid being among their ranks at the heartbreak. Disappointment coming was like a hurricane: You unmoored yourself early and took it out to open sea.
Not so for these young men. Something about their public courting—courting a stranger, and humiliation; throwing off bachelorhood like a disagreeable pair of shoes—thrilled Sanders, at the same time that it impressed him as ineffably sad. Would the thrill of the beginning outshine the rest, even if man and woman lived together for all of their days? Did they pass an irretrievable crest, as the TV crews sniffed around behind them, then dropped away? Sanders expected the vogue to be brief, even in Washington, where it was said single straight women outnumbered single straight men by three or five or ten to one, where willing, single, straight young men were at a premium. Come autumn it would be over. Something else would follow. Love would return to its mostly aboveground ways.
The train slowed for the Dupont station, where Helene worked for an artists' agency. She folded her classifieds and handed them back to Sanders. Checking the snap on her faux-leather purse, she patted him twice on the thigh.
“If it happened to me, I would hit him,” she said.
He stood to let her out. “I'd hit him too,” he agreed jauntily.
“It would never happen to me,” said Helene.
She kissed him quickly and did not wait for him to contradict. When the door slid shut, Sanders sat down on the bench and slid to the window where she had been. Already his mind was gone, lost in the newspaper. Had he thought of his wife again, it would have been with some faint satisfaction, for truly he had made a good match in time. Together they knew what love was. It was something that as a young man, he would have aimed for, like an archer; now, where he was, he had only to have waited long enough in one place to see it fall, and catch it.
The late arrivals, those who'd just squeezed in at the last second, scanned the seats for a place, someone to travel with. The moon-faced woman watched them with interest. Sanders turned the page, and as the train plunged into the tunnel, he did think of his wife: Perhaps he would steal away at lunchtime and surprise her, he decided. Take her to lunch. Sit out of the rain. She would stay angry for only so long.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I began writing this story in 2000. My wife and I had moved into a little wage-drone apartment in Rockville, Maryland. A ride on the Red Line from Twinbrook to Farragut North bracketed my every work day: eleven stops.
In those days, the Metro was a reassuring place, especially on the Red Line. The ridership in its gray wool suits was a comfortable one – there was enough room then to open your Post and read. There was still enough money afloat in the local governments that the system could burn its usual yard of graft and still come close to breaking even. The years of deferred maintenance were not so many then, and the leaks were fewer in the ceilings of the Red Line – the most well-heeled of the system’s lines, but ironically, the most decrepit, since it had been built first, without the waterproofing sheaths that later lines were given.
There was much for me to learn about the gray wool suits. I’d opted to teach; I didn’t wear those clothes. Neither was I one of the younger locals, DC punk-rockers who’d been my wife’s peers as she grew up. Committed to their bands, their projects, their pleasures and abstinence, apparently uninterested in preening, driven, serious. They rode the Red Line along with the suits, and in the summer evenings at Fort Reno or along 14th Avenue, their uniform was just as standard: T-shirt, shorts as late in the year as the weather permitted, head starkly shaven. Not unlike convicts, but they too acted like they owned the train. It was not hard for me to romanticize them, to imagine something irreconciliable in the generational gap between them and the suits, to conceive a gesture around that.
When September 11 happened and another group of grave-faced young men were plastered across the front page of the Post – I remember seeing them for the first time in a newspaper box at the corner of 17th and I Streets, the 19 faces – it was possible to imagine a different reaction on the train to these characters’ offering themselves up to an apparently random beloved/target/victim. (The first working title for the story had been “Kamikaze.”) I tried to ignore that electrical charge as I revised, but I knew that the reader might absorb it.
My wife points out that the line about If he turns out to be a psycho is a line I have stolen from her.
ABOUT BILL BEVERLY
Bill Beverly lives now in Hyattsville, Maryland. He teaches in DC at Trinity Washington University. He is a coeditor of Old Flame: From the First 10 Years of 32 Poems Magazine, forthcoming in late 2012 from WordFarm, and author of On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America, now available in paperback from University Press of Mississippi at http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/541. His fiction appears in Mississippi Review, Big Lucks, and elsewhere, including the fall 2012 issue of Conte Online.