Dear Readers:

I took a little break from humor this week.  Here’s a story that is a little edgier.  Let me know what you think.  Thanks.

AN ENCOUNTER, PERHAPS

      I find myself waiting for the C train to arrive in the dusky mid-town subway station.  Thinking of the meeting I just attended and what a waste of time it was, my attention is arrested when I glance across the tracks and see a strikingly familiar woman.  At least, she is as familiar as one can be after an interval of nearly thirty years.  Is that R?

I met R back in the ‘80’s, when, fittingly enough, we sat next to each other on the train from Washington after the fall semester of law school.  I was traveling home to Philadelphia, and she was continuing on to her home in New Jersey.

The woman across the way does not appear to notice me.  She has the same posture R used to have.  Her face is defined by prominent bone structure.   She is not pretty, not delicate.  One might describe her as a “handsome woman,” as one would have described R, thirty years earlier; R was attractive, but not beautiful.  Her hair flowed in rivulets to her shoulders in homage to her Hispanic roots.  This woman’s hair has specks of gray.

R was a serious law student.  She loved the classes at Georgetown.  She thrived in the jousting of mock trial, the challenges of verbal sparring, the parsing of dry texts.  My approach to law school at George Washington was less enthusiastic.  I counted the days until it was over.  I was amused by my career-chasing classmates, but not charmed by them.  I found the readings tedious and largely meaningless.

An unclear loudspeaker announces a ten-minute delay.

I used to speak to R about once a year, around the time of our late-fall birthdays.  One of us remembered to call over a period of ten or fifteen years.  It was a ritual that gradually faded away and then disappeared about ten years ago.  I suppose it is hard to maintain a long-term friendship without ever seeing the other person.  She would ask: “How are the kids?” betraying her inability to remember if there are two or three and whether they are boys or girls.  I’d respond by asking after her son.  I could never commit to memory if his name is Linus or Lionel.  Each year I was afraid to guess wrong.  And is her husband Warren or Norman?  It’s one of those sorts of names.

Should I wave?  No, she won’t notice.  What if she does notice and thinks I’m crazy?  It probably isn’t R, after all.  Should I call out?  It is so noisy down here, so dingy.  Such a small chance it is R.  And if, by some miracle, it really is R, then what will we do from opposite sides of the tracks?  Will we engage in a public shout out?

“How’s it going?”

“What?”

“Why are you here?”

“Had an appointment!  And you?”

“What did you say?”

“I can’t quite hear you?”

We had a few dates after our train ride.  We both enjoyed the same types of movies and agreed on politics.  We had similar families with two living, happily married parents and several siblings. We would try, mostly in vain, to understand each other’s viewpoints on law school.  “How can you enjoy it so much?” I would ask.  “How can you not?” she would reply.  I appreciated R’s looks but was not physically attracted to her.  I think she found me similarly respectable, but certainly not the man of her dreams.  Because it was so comfortable, it was like having another sister, but we did not share the deep, familial understanding one might expect of a true sibling.

The woman looks up and scans my side of the tracks.  She looks in my direction.  Does she seem to pause when she sees me?  Is she pondering if she knows me?  She looks down again, shifting her weight from one side to the other.  She looks up again and might be looking at me.  Is she wondering?  She certainly looks like R, or how I would imagine R looks, after so many years.

I raise my arm a little and make a sort of waving motion.  But it isn’t really a wave.  I am too inhibited to get the woman to notice me.  I don’t know why.  I’ve always been this way, afraid to make a public display.  If she thinks it is me, she will acknowledge my gesture, perhaps.  She does not appear to notice.

R and I went out to the movies one night, perhaps two months into our sporadic, tentative relationship.  It was hard to find an evening when she did not feel the need to read law books or attend a study group.  I occupied my evenings attending hockey games or watching sports on television.

The movie was “Fitzcarraldo,” the strange story of a man who built an opera house in the Amazonian jungle.  But that is not the reason I remember the evening.  The reason is that we went back to my apartment afterwards and made love four times.  Yes, it seems hard to believe.  We came back for a cup of coffee and ended up in a night of copulation.  Or should I just call it fucking?  Whatever it was, it was completely unexpected.

When we awoke the next morning, I did not know what to say.  Two friends, previously chaste and totally sober, had engaged in an every-two-hours, night-long expression of physical passion.  Or was it a catharsis?  Or was it a banishment of loneliness?   Or was it a rejection of frustration?  Or was it a cry of hope?  What the hell had happened?

A couple of transit police walk along the platform.  They appear to be looking for someone.  I always take comfort in their presence.  You never know who is around you in the New York City subway system.  Here it is, even when I think I might know someone, I’m not sure.  I am doubtful.  I am hesitant.

Were we now boyfriend and girlfriend, I wondered?  R seemed more mature than I.  She did not act like anything extraordinary had occurred.  She did smile a little when I noted that four times was a personal record.  In fact, I admitted to myself, though not to her, that once would have tied my personal record up to that point.

I offered to ride with her on the bus back to her apartment.  R demurred but then said: “Okay, if you want.”  Were we to hold hands at the bus stop?  She didn’t seem inclined.  What were we to talk about?  The nature of our friendship had changed.  It was awkward.  When we sat down in the bus, I stared out the window.  I stole a glance back at R and tried to determine if I now found her beautiful.  No.  She still struck me as a decent-looking girl, with distinctive features.  Nice hair, though a little unkempt (not surprising, considering the night).  Good skin.  But there was no pounding in my heart.  No adrenaline rush.  No sweaty palms.  We parted politely, with me offering, and R accepting, a quick peck on the cheek.

A few people pause in front of the woman across the way, blocking my view.  She moves a few steps down the platform where I can see her again.  A large man in a grey sweatshirt approaches and appears to speak to her.  She shakes her head vigorously.  He spits near her feet and walks away, speaking to her unpleasantly back over his shoulder.  She glares after him but does not appear to be particularly upset.  She walks a few steps farther into the clear.  Does she want me to see her?  Does she just want space?  Does she want to be away from the other people on the platform?

“This is silly,” I tell myself.  “Just call her name and see if she answers.”

I can’t do it.  Although I am in one of the most impersonal environments in the world, a New York City subway station, I am unable to call attention to myself.  I look around and tell myself that I will never see any of these people again.  I sigh.  I’m just not good at certain things, even while I tell my children to try to rise above inhibitions, to speak up when they have a chance.  Easier said than done.

I called R on the phone a few times after our “night.”  However, we did not see each other again in Washington.  Several years later, we were both practicing law in New Jersey.  R had taken a job helping poor clients in Newark with their immigration needs.   I was at a firm in Summit that represented banks.  Once again, she was energized and excited by her profession.  I was suffering with the minutiae of financial regulations.  A mutual friend, who did not know we were already acquainted, introduced us at a Bar Association picnic.

Is that a rat scurrying around the tracks?  I’ve seen them before.  Certainly could be.  Take a deep breath.  It’s not a big deal, just part of life in the city.  Did anyone else notice?  The woman who resembles R seems to be staring straight ahead at something off to my side.  It can’t be R.  But she sure looks like her.  I’ll move a little and see if her eyes follow me.  Nope.  She looks down at her side.  She flicks a hair off her sleeve.  That reminds me of R again.  I’ve seen that movement before.  Of course, everybody does that.  It doesn’t mean it’s R just because she notices a hair on her sleeve and removes it.  Don’t be silly.

We talked at the picnic and learned about each of our young, professional lives. I was not surprised to learn that R had helped to organize the gathering, whereas I was urged forcefully by my boss to attend.  We were not romantically involved with anyone at the time, and we resumed our comfortable, occasional, dinner-and-a-movie friendship.  Once, on a Saturday, we drove to see the cherry trees in the park in Newark and played tennis together.  She was terrible.  It was so bad, it was good.  We laughed hard and knew the memory would remain with us forever.  It seemed to me that we could talk about anything except the nature of our “relationship,” or the events of our “night.”  I was deeply curious to know what R thought, but I could never find a way to bring it up; R certainly did not.  The mystery remained in my mind over the years.

The police pass by again, looking furtively.  Are they looking for anyone in particular?  Their thick, leather jackets denote toughness.  Their scowls are designed to intimidate.  One is black and one is white, but they strike me as completely the same.  They clearly have a mission; I don’t know what it is, but they seem intent on finding someone.

R and I signed up for a handyman’s course together at a local adult school.  It was a good way to cement a weekly dinner routine while, at the same time, theoretically learning something new.  We both learned, however, that our aptitude for wiring lamps was equal to R’s aptitude for tennis.  Once in a while, we engaged in activity that would these days make us “friends with benefits.”  But that ended before the ten-week course was over when R began to date a judge.  I was a sympathetic listener.  My complete lack of jealousy confirmed for me that our friendship was pure, albeit occasionally physical.

The platform around the woman is becoming crowded as the train approaches.  People jostle for position.  It is now or never for me to speak out, to see if she is my old friend.  I almost shout once, but swallow the words in embarrassment.  An announcement over the loudspeaker would have drowned them out, in any event.  The woman I think might be R moves her sleeve to look at her watch.  She then looks up and seems to lock her attention on me.  Or is it on the younger man next to me?  She opens her eyes wider, it seems to me, from my vantage point thirty feet away, across a dim set of tracks, in uneven, fluorescent lighting.

In one of our last dinners, before she became engaged to Norman/Warren, the judge, we agreed that if we were both single when we were thirty-five, we would marry each other.  It was a secure agreement, offering a sort of insurance against the prospect of a life spent alone.  We were not the first people to make such a pact, but we might have been among the most sincere.

In tacit acknowledgement of our past activities, I was not invited to R’s wedding.  I understood.  Our only contact after that was through our nearly annual telephone calls.   R’s marriage turned out to be strong.  As the years went by, she would tell me about their great vacations and how much she enjoyed her husband’s family.  I would tell her about my happy life, my wife and children.  We each found niches in our careers.  She approached the law willingly, me reluctantly, but we both were successful.

I resolve, finally, to make myself known to the woman across the tracks who resembles my friend, no matter what, when a man dashes down the steps behind her.  He is pursued frantically by the two policemen who had previously been on my side of the tracks.  He appears like Rocky in the movies, a dark-haired man in a grey sweat suit and high-top sneakers. I realize he is the same man who had earlier confronted the woman.  The police shout at him to stop.  People turn towards the commotion, though it is not particularly unusual in New York City.  The rumble of the train approaching the station builds to a crescendo.  I scream, finally, in horror, as the man, with a maniacal look on his face, grabs the woman I think might be R, and shoves her in front of the oncoming train.

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