“What were you thinking about?” She clicked her phone off, placed it in her purse which she rested on the floor.
“About how disgusting that floor is.” There was a paper bag laying a few feet away spilling out a used condom and an assortment of wadded paper towels.
“It’s a knock off. I don’t bring nice things into the city.” She kicked the purse with her toe. “These are real though, a gift so I don’t mind as much.” They were nude high heels, lighter than her skin though. I never understood the point of nude clothing, let alone shoes that were supposed to match a girl’s skin color. If you want to look naked, don’t wear clothes. “What were you thinking about?” She repeated.
“Before I met you.”
“We never actually…”
“Lily.” She extended her hand.
“Justin.” I grabbed her hand, she was firm but smiled. “I was thinking about how everyone is alone.” Honestly, I’d forgotten to plug my phone in the night before so I had been twiddling my thumbs trying to get through the next hour and half of awkward shoulder bumping and body odor.
“I was wondering how I would die.” She smiled wider and brushed her hair from her face, placing it behind her ear. I wondered if her pearl earrings were real.
“Most people say the weather.” I hesitated to ask why of all things she was pondering death, let alone her own. I debated asking why she was wet, but I was too. The district heat was awful this year, the humidity unbearable as the Potomac was like a wall holding the tight air in.
“I don’t want to die.” She cut me short. “I just wanted to know what it would be. What if it was today, and why?”
“Why.” I had been wondering the same. Recently my father passed from Melanoma, now my mother was fighting a brain tumor. Why these people? What could they have done to deserve suffering like this?
“But that’s not it.” She readjusted herself, smoothed her long skirt deeper underneath her thighs, the sweat darkening the magenta polyester into a deep purple. “That’s what’s so beautiful about it. You can’t help it, death is like the rain. It washes over you suddenly, overwhelmingly penetrating despite everything you do. We can try to predict it with radar feeds and tribal dancing, but it’s–” The train halted to a stop. Her eyes began to fade, unblinking she moved her face away from me, looking over the seat in front of us. It was empty now and people were exiting the train. Maybe she would move.
“But what about an umbrella?” I asked.
“We can fight it. Like cancer, fight it with medicine, dieting, faith…”
“No we can’t. If it’s going to take us it will.” She faced me again, smiling.
“You have an odd sense of morbid curiosity.”
“So why are you running away? This time of day most people are going into the city.” We were on the west bound line towards suburbia in that slow gap between the morning commute and lunchtime. Still underground, this was the point where commuters began to lose battery life and actually start looking out the windows. Utterly useless, occasionally you’d see a safety light, one of those dim fluorescent beams to remind you that in case the train broke down you’d have a light to lead you back to safety. Suffocated beneath the river, it would be a long way out.
“I got sick of the bar scene.” I was telling half the truth. I had dated a bartender recently and it ended with her cheating on me with a coworker, then telling half the town that I was too distant and unreliable. Last thing I needed was a familiar face who wanted to know why I ruined “the best thing that had ever happened to me.”
“I don’t mind it. You can meet some interesting people.” I couldn’t help but laugh. How many other strangers had she interrogated over an overpriced cocktail?
“Do you talk to strangers often?”
“On the metro? No. You looked like–” Her head tilted to the right, the hair she had tucked earlier fell across her nose. “you look like you don’t want to talk. More than most people. You’re not on your phone or reading. I don’t know, actually.”
“What do you normally do on the train?”
“I watch people. Try to write their stories. Normally they become integrated in this sick fantasy I have that everyone is somehow connected. Lines crossed over and over, they see each other almost daily but will never meet. Never want to meet, actually.” She sighed. “I draw them closer and closer, blurring the seats between until they almost touch.”
“Do they ever?”
“They can’t. At least not in reality. I try to reconcile the space, make these entwined futures but” the train halted again and my knees slammed into the bench in front of us. “Are you bored?”
“Right now, with you? Of course not.” I think I stuttered. I don’t think I was bored. A small child flew up the aisle, bursting between the seats into the small open area in front of the door.
“What color are we?”
“Orange.” Replied her father. They pored over the map for a few moments, tracing a small finger across a monument, a bar I would never go to again, my home.
“I’m bored.” Lily’s hand was on my leg. Her fingers were small in comparison to my thick legs. I wanted to know what my hand would look like on top of hers. Were her palms as sweaty as mine? She leaned into my shoulder, chin resting in the space between my collarbone and neck. “Propose to me,” she whispered.
“You’re kidding. No one is that bored.”
“I need this.” Her mouth was still less than an inch from my ear. “How about you?”
“I wouldn’t even know what to say.” I tried to read her wide eyes, closed lipped smile, she had a single dimple on her left cheek.
“I’m going to get up at this next stop, it’s up to you. I think it’d just be fun.” My shoulder was cold, her eyes were on the paper bag, the condom, the floor. Her hand fell down between my legs and scooped her purse from the brown carpet.
“It’s not real, right?”
“None of this is real. We’re just waiting for the end of the line.” She stood up, fists grappling the overhead bar. The train slowed, but it never decelerates gracefully. My knees hit the seat again with a thud.
“Meredith.” I whispered, I had meant to speak normally but I was nervous. I’m an actor, I’m playing a role. “Meredith?” Lily turned her head slightly. “Meredith,” I repeated, confidently. I rose to my feet and stood before her. The train lurched to the stop and she stumbled into my chest. I steadied her, grasping her wrists and guiding them towards the overhead bars. Her nose nearly grazed my chin.
The doors opened and more people entered the cabin. I bent down and eased myself onto the floor, one knee pressed into a Starbucks cup. “What are you doing?” The oncoming passengers had stopped in the doorway, all heads had painstakingly turned to face us.
“Meredith Annabelle Alexander, I–” my voice cracked and I fought back a chuckle. “You are the one person I know will care about me at the end of the day…” My throat was hot and I felt like I was about to throw up my heart, salt and bile slipped over my tongue. I couldn’t help but wince, maybe they would think I was choking back tears. “You’re the one I want holding my hand when the rain finally comes.” She was crying, actual tears. “Will you marry me?”
I was actually nervous, she was still crying, choking on her answer. Something about the crowd that was gathering, the dozens of eyes stabbing through the space between us…
“Yes! Of course, yes!” She was nearly screaming, arms flying through the air as the passengers clapped. I jumped to my feet and couldn’t help but wrap my arms around her waist and hold her. “Do you feel it?” She hollered into my ears, fighting the roar of the crowd and rumbling train.