It was the weekend before Christmas, 2010. I was sitting on the 4 or 5 train, one of those on the green line, making the trip from Cornell Weill Hospital on the Upper East Side back to my Crown Heights apartment. I’d spent the previous two nights sleeping at my dad and stepmom’s apartment on the Upper West Side, too tired to make the long trip home, too fragile to be far from my family.
My dad was dying. Cancer. No one had said it aloud yet, but I knew. The leaden feeling I carried in my gut was proof enough, too reminiscent of the way I felt just three years previously when my mom’s oncologist had suggested she give chemo a rest, give her body a break. It was as gentle an urging to let one’s body give out as I can imagine, though at the time it ripped me straight up the middle. It was a similar sense of dread—dread on the brink of searing pain—that I carried around that afternoon as the train rumbled south. I had decided, after two days trying to carve out a sacred space in the sterility and hustle of a hospital room by reading to my dad, rubbing his cracked feet, cracking jokes that weren’t funny, that it was time to go home. Take a shower. Get some fresh clothes.
It was warm on the train, but I was too weary to pull off my red winter coat. I unzipped it and unbuttoned the cardigan below. I felt completely at odds with the bustle and cheer of the colorful shopping bags and flushed cheeks accompanying me on the train. I felt pieced-together, picked apart. Disgusting.
I took out a book, tried to fit in. I was reading The Life of Pi, gobbling down anything with a spiritual bent to it those days. Somewhere around Bowling Green, the train started to halt and lurch. Across from me sat a startling young man. A knit cap, somewhat pointed, sat just above his ears, revealing the bald sides of his head. The skin there was a deep milk chocolate, coffee with a splash of cream. His face was smooth and clean, his forehead and cheekbones strong. He wore a navy blue woolen jacket with a stiff collar turned up, gold stars emblazoned near the lapels. His coat was unfastened like mine, and a matching navy sweater with a luxurious rolled neck underneath.
He, too, was trying to read. A hardcover book without a jacket. We kept glancing up at one another as the train’s fits and starts toyed with our anticipation. After a while, though, he set his eyes on his book, focused. Maybe he knew I was watching, maybe he was just that intent on his subject. I tried hard to concentrate on my own, but could only think of catching his eye again. I wondered where he was going to get off, assuming Lower Manhattan. He seemed like a City boy. But when the train crawled under the river to Borough Hall, he was still in his seat. He remained as we passed through the bustling Atlantic/Pacific hub and began up the slope toward my neighborhood. At Franklin Avenue, we both stood up abruptly, I gathering my frayed backpack onto my shoulder. He tucked his book under one arm and raised his eyebrow at me as we moved toward the open door and nearly bumped into one another. I smiled.
It could have ended that way. Just day-to-day, life brushing up alongside millions of other souls, walking that tightrope between anonymity and desperation for connection. Communion. But it didn’t.
On the platform, I stopped him. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but wonder what you’re reading,” I weakly offered.
He asked if I really wanted to know. I didn’t, but I nodded, and he launched into a long description, something about Eastern spiritual philosophy. We talked for a few minutes. I don’t remember much, only that he mentioned graduate school. He had studied math, had a keen interest in finance. At some point, he asked my name and we shook hands. I heard him introduce himself, a name beginning with a D, but couldn’t catch the exact word, even after he repeated it for me.
“Are you getting back on the train?” he asked. I chuckled. Of course not. Even for a beautiful man, I wouldn’t have gotten off at the wrong stop, not in my state. Together, we climbed the filthy steps to the turnstiles. He asked if he could walk with me, and I complied, trusting him implicitly, though I didn’t know why. Maybe I just needed to practice faith in something.
We walked the two and a half blocks down Franklin Avenue, barren in late December, save the garish mural on the corner of Eastern Parkway. He chatted on, pointed out a building a block from my place where he had lived until recently. When we reached my door, I told him I needed to go up, that I had things to do. The short conversation had exhausted me. I was so withdrawn from everything by then, having retreated into a world of sitting and waiting. We stood there at my door in the raw cold. He asked if there was a way to reach me. I gave him my number. He had been gentle, and I was craving softness.
One sticky afternoon the following July, we were lying in bed together, naked and languid. One of us brought up that day, our first meeting. The cold that had shrugged our shoulders up to our ears seemed an impossible memory in that heat. We argued over which of us had initiated the conversation, who started making eyes at whom. We wondered about the nature of our books that day, both of us seeking to make some sense of the senselessness of life. Two months after our subway meeting, we didn’t have a living parent between us. We talked lazily, using words like serendipity and coincidence, not caring much to parse their meanings. It was a gift of the city, we agreed, a product of the strange alchemy of the underground. Where we’re all moving through it together, really.