I MET HER on the 5:38 from Grand Central. Met is too strong a word. I had taken a window seat. I was carrying a large Brooks Brothers shopping bag containing a trench coat I had bought and an overnight bag the salesman had thrown in as a promotional gift. I put the travel bag on the floor between my shoes, but there was no room for the shopping bag, so I put it on the empty seat next to me.
The train was filling up with commuters.
“May I sit here?” She had light brown hair and shining eyes. I lifted the shopping bag from the seat and placed it on my lap. She sat down and put a knapsack on her lap.
From the corner of my eye I saw her remove from the knapsack a paperback size electronic ‘book’ and begin reading.
In profile she had a nose that wasn’t necessarily large but could not be described as small, and a fragile jaw line. Her light brown hair and radiant eyes were her best features, so far as I could tell. I figured she was in her mid-twenties.
The train plunged into darkness under Park Avenue. I took from the top of the shopping bag an ‘actual’ paperback book I had bought in the station just before boarding the train. It was by Georges Simenon, of Inspector Maigret fame, but this was one of his roman durs, a ‘hard novel’ sans Maigret, a ‘thriller’ called ‘Red Lights,’ set, uncharacteristically, in New York.
The train emerged into the late afternoon light of billboards and brown tenements. I glanced at my seat mate. She was immersed in her electronic book. Not for me, I thought. I loved the feel of the smooth cover of my paperback and the smell of the paper — the cozy companionship of the whole experience.
I wanted to talk to her, to hear her voice, to have those eyes directed at me (such was the need of a fifty-two-year-old widower), but I didn’t know what to say, other than some phony, lonely-old-man question about the thing she was reading. So I didn’t say anything, just went between reading my book and looking out the window.
The journey continued along the eastern shore of the Hudson River. The pale autumn sun was falling behind the Palisades on the west side of the river. I was going home to an empty house. Half an hour slipped by.
“Tarrytown next stop,” came the announcement over the train’s PA. People gathered up their belongings. I decided to tarry no longer. “Are you getting off in Tarrytown?” I asked the girl, a reasonable question since I was on the inside seat and would have to ask to get by her if she wasn’t leaving the train.
“Yes,” she said, offering a smile as joyful as her eyes.
At last a chance to talk to her. I nodded toward her electronic book. “Here I am reading the old-fashioned way and you’ve got one of those.”
She looked at me and told me earnestly, “I read a lot and this way I can download as many books as I want at any time of the day or night.”
A passionate reader, I thought, perhaps with little or no love life.
“It’s either slip one of those in your knapsack,” I said, cursing myself for not starting this conversation sooner, “or lug around a book bag.”
“Is that what that is?” she asked, looking down at the travel bag on the floor between my shoes.
“No,” I said, engaging her eyes. “A gift from Brooks Brothers for buying an expensive trench coat.” The word ‘expensive’ was unnecessary, I told myself, a transparent way to impress her with apparent wealth — unless, of course, she was in the market for a sugar daddy. You sleazy jerk, went my inner voice.
The train slowed for the Tarrytown station. She turned off her electronic book and began to put it in her knapsack. I was running out of time. “What brand is it, may I ask?”
“Is it good?”
“I’m very happy with it. I like the fact that it doesn’t have a bright background.” She pulled it back out, turned it back on and showed me. “You see how easy it is on the eyes. A brighter background would hurt my eyes.”
I must say I do love your eyes. I thought this rather than said it. There was no way to say it without getting into that pathetic lonely-old-man thing. Instead I said, “And is it true you can read it in bright sunlight?”
“That is true,” she said, turning it off and stuffing it back in her knapsack.
The train lurched to a stop. She rose from her seat. I picked up the travel bag from the floor and grabbed my Brooks Brothers shopping bag and clambered out of the seat. I stood behind her in the aisle. I had to get in another word, if I could. “Where would I buy such a device?” I asked the back of her head.
She turned around and said, “My boyfriend bought this for me on-line.”
Ah-hah, there you have it. The boyfriend. Did she mention her boyfriend to keep me in line or was it merely an innocent statement? She was still looking at me when I said, “Perhaps I’ll look into getting one.”
“I think you’ll be happy with it.” She turned to face the front and walked down the aisle toward the exit. I followed. On the way to the door two passengers got out of their seats in front of me. The girl was now two people away. My movement down the aisle was cumbersome. Another person stepped out in front of me, increasing my separation from the girl to three people.
Before she went out the door, she turned around to look at me and seemed surprised I had fallen behind. She gave me a smile that could only be described as sad. My return smile was probably hopelessly desolate. She seemed to linger on the brink of leaving. She held that smile on me for another moment. An extra moment. A gift of an extra moment. Ever so slightly longer than necessary.
By continuing to look at me she wasn’t moving forward with the crowd and actually, for that same moment, holding up the line of people behind her. Why? Was that lingering look a subtle sign of reluctance to leave me? Was she flirting with the idea of encouraging a craggy, graying father figure? Was the boyfriend a dud, a disappointment, a dead loss and downright replaceable?
Finally, jostled by the crowd, she turned and merged with the exiting stream. I stepped off the train and fell back a few more paces, mainly because of my encumbrance. I glanced down to adjust my grip on the two bags. I looked up and rapidly scanned the departing heads. I looked all around for her. I checked the time on my wristwatch: 6:15.
This is what I would do:
Take the bus to an empty house and walk in with a breezy, Hi honey I’m home, adding with dour irony, Oh I forgot I don’t have a honey, and dump my bags on the sofa and cast off my jacket and make myself a double gin and tonic and throw (literally) a frozen dinner into the oven and snap on the TV and settle in for a night of gin and a French white burgundy (to civilize the TV dinner), and afterwards, half a dozen beers and a couple of shots of Jack Daniel’s to help me sleep and the next morning I’d take the 7:51 to Grand Central and put in my eight hours at the U.N. and get back on the 5:38 to Tarrytown and try to get the same window seat and take out my book and wait for a voice to say, Hello, remember me.