Silently crying on the morning train she was, all arms and legs and despair half-heaped and sliding like a pile of melting Dalí clocks over the blue vinyl seat-back beside her and I thought she might finally pour off onto the floor in a puddle of person if not for that crooked arm all crooked for cupping her buried face, crooked and hooked and holding her in place, I saw, snagged as if on a broken branch like the one that cut the inside of my thigh when I was seven, it seemed, and I wondered if I should do the thing and go unhook her.
It was just us we two, me and she perched up above on high on inward-facing foldouts on the car’s second level, windows at our backs, the always-empty aluminum luggage rack overhanging the first-level aisle in front like some kind of gang plank running from the front end of the car to the back, complete and perfect strangers separated by unknown degrees and about four empty seats.
I watched her without watching; lingering peripheral scans and a few quick eye darts enough to catch piecemeal sights of her face once it had risen from its hiding hanging place upon hearing the conductor rapping, gently rapping, rapping on the metal bar by her feet with his shiny silver hole-puncher from the floor below, requesting her ticket.
Miss, ticket. Tap tap. Ticket miss. Miss. Ticket please.
She looked at him with liquid eyes from deep underwater and I peered into the pool as best I clandestinely could from my angle and saw hair matted to moist cheeks streaked with eyeliner like two river deltas viewed from airborne heights before she broke the surface and leaned forward to extend a mechanical hand at the end of a mechanical arm to pass the kindly mr. blue-capped conductor fella her paper rectangle ticket just like mine and I thought he should’ve just left her alone this time, should’ve just let her be.
Maybe he thought so too once he saw, because his expression changed slightly just barely for a split of a split second as he reached up to receive the offering. Just for a split, I saw it seemed, before his sedately aloof workdayman-like placidity washed it away and without a word or gesture he resumed his business of minding his own, punching her ticket with three rapid clicks like they were a single motion and handing the maimed marker of mostly guaranteed safe passage back without his eyes landing anywhere near that teary face of hers again, handing it back with the subtle, arm’s length cordiality we learn to show to strangers with the sads, and I wondered where we get it.
She cried quietly, quietly draped, hooked, and sliding, from the moment I noticed her till we got off. Yes, we. Seven stops, and the last the same as mine. Then off the train and half-hurriedly with obstinate resignation into the small crowd of bobbing mannequin heads she went with my eyes a few degrees shy of squarely watching, off into an undulating stream of hair and coats and bags so thick I could hardly tell her from the rest. But I caught glimpses, and down the platform she went till around the back of the train and across the tracks at the crossing and gone and I walked myself along to work like nothing happened but inside my insides were stumbling back and forth between relief and apprehension and I can only imagine what my face said about all that.
It wasn’t the first sighting, or the last, just the end of that one. I’d spot her often, almost every day twice and both ways in quiet reverence for the benefits of solitude, from and to the city, morning out and evening back, as a matter of fact. She wasn’t unpretty, as far as people go, but I don’t remember what she looked like, only how she seemed, and how she seemed was not unpretty if I had to put a silly watcher’s word on.
But details… those are another story, one I’m in no position to tell. I surely couldn’t pick her out of a lineup of tall, skinny, crying girls of indeterminate age with light brown hair and colorless coats and bags, and long, almost cartoonish limbs like she’d been pulled and stretched to fit almost any situation and eyes of some other shade of brown or maybe blue or hazel, the kind of girl with a nose and mouth and ears and all that, a being of unreal, deceptively shifting proportions and implicit indistinction whose movements conveyed a middling grace that suggested she could be some things and not others and I often wondered all the things anyone would, like why does she feel familiar. And she was so something that day that it hurt to look at her, and hurt more to look away.
Then I lost her, and here’s the beginning of the twist. Because one day, not long after that tearful morn when I wanted so badly to go sit beside her and quietly absorb the pain my own often in those days un-dry eyes were already soaking up, kind silent dumb companion of the moment, she wasn’t on the train, not in the morning, not in the evening, not at all, as far as my perception could concede. And I didn’t even notice she was gone till that one day became a bushel or a slew or a jumble or whatever a bunch of days become—the day after and the one after that and after that and that and that and after, absences adding up to an almost perfect almost nonexistence held together in frayed scraps of recollection and splintering cross-sections of feeling and I began to wonder what kind of real she’d been in the first place, if that whole crying melting mechanical arm thing had even happened. Or if I had.
And after a while I even forgot to look for her, the alluring mystery of objectified miseries fading into a distant-seeming moment and that moment into a span and that span into just time, plain old time, sights and senses diminished from the hopeless, ditch-dug perpetuity it seemed to be when I finally climbed up the slippery, muddy banks and out, my coiled insides finally unwound and on to bluer skies and greener stretched out open pastures, gleefully naïve in ceasing to think about how we feel and think and act in cycles.
But I never forgot that day of the tears and quiet agony and matted hair and spiritless reach. In thinking about it now, I wonder how much more beguiling she became when she was suffering and I was looking on like watching my very own self suffering too, that true and honest and irrepressible disclosure of person in the midst of a traincar full of regular empty day-blank faces that so utterly seemed not to see, not even to be. And how much clearer, stronger—how emblematic, say—this little big memory came to be once its object was no longer around in the rough-regular outline flesh to impede my ever so impressionable impressions.
I think about it now, today, on the same train, gliding west, and thought runs like this, speeding, slowing, stopping, opening up: An essence not so much hers as ours, hers and mine, very much mine, it seems, I saw, in fact, I think, now, thinking—a still-life living composition of sadness on the morning train, that’s what she was, unbound by time, disentangled and abstracted from me and my own sad days, for once unhidden and picture-perfectly present, not photographed, though, not captured on film or pixel but painted, painted in the thick, soft-textured strokes of another being, being. Bodily-departed and there, comely, delicate she—per the grandiosest corners of my imagination—sitting just out of reach, crumpled in quiet tears, and doused in the merciful gray light of an immemorially cloudy autumn morning blur diffused through big, green-tinted heavy scratched-plastic train windows. Just sadness, another -ness, shining back at me.
And I think about never forgetting how for a while, looking at her there beyond me as the towns rushed by and the stops came and went, I didn’t feel so misplaced, and I loved my sadness like a woman who couldn’t possibly love me back, vaguely distinct and sort of beautiful—for a moment, that is, one drawn out and elevated to beauty by rumination and incomplete forgetfulness, by misplacement and self deep-diving for a long, slow resurface.
That’s what I think, sitting here without thinking, gazing out the window, detached and present, and as I do so the train stops, pauses, opens, people on, people off, closes, starts again, picks up speed, slows, stops, opens, people off, people on, and I look outside and there she is. There she is, standing on the platform alone, same coat, same bag, far as I know, same hair and limbs and expression, same eyes staring straight ahead, apart, straight through the car. She makes no move to board, just stands, waiting for the next train, maybe just waiting. I don’t wonder, though, I only shift my vision to my own faint reflection in the plastic window, the face I see there encircling the figure on the platform and how fitting, mind says, how fitting, all in my head, passing by.