Of course, she sat next to me. The woman started with little hisses, meek sips of air as her breathing quickened. In the window’s reflections, I could see her sulking face fight to remain still, but her lips were giving way. As the metro hurtled into a tunnel, her disintegration began: the slippery tears falling, the blubber of mucus emitting from her nose, a pink, mottled rash blooming around her eyes. A rapid, mawkish collapse.
It had to happen on my train, in my car, in the seat coupled with mine. Amid the human zoo. Things like this were inevitable. During rush hour, on a packed train, she barricaded us with her drama and drivel. There was nowhere else to move. Those immediately around us started to notice and shifted uncomfortably. A woman three rows up and across the aisle, with thick black headphones on, turned her head. It must be a female thing, that sonar for sorrow. But no one spoke or moved to console her. She tried to ply us passengers with her maudlin display, but we focused our efforts on staring at carpet corners, shoelaces, and the fluorescent tunnel lights streaking past the windows.
She was a mess and didn’t bother to clean up. Her brown-gold curls were haphazard, caught in whatever wind she’d generated while running to catch the train. Snot skated down her cheek, dangled off the jut of her chin, and plopped onto her sweater. Even a schoolboy would have wiped at it with the back of his sleeve. But she, defiant in her grief and trolling for sympathy, acted too tortured to account for hygiene or privacy.
Her body shook, and mine froze. I didn’t want her reaching out for me—I didn’t want even our coats to touch—and I moved, imperceptibly, an inch away, then two, pretending to dig for something in my briefcase. I didn’t want my shoulder to look sturdy; I didn’t want her burdens on my back. This was no bar, we’d had no drinks, and I wasn’t taking her home. Her public breakdown was base. Didn’t she have the decency to crumple onto her living room couch like most people, or build a fort in a ladies room stall and wear out a roll of toilet paper? Why subject innocent bystanders to her slobber? Finally, a man with two kids in tow lifted us from responsibility. He pulled a few tissues from his baby bag and passed it along. She took them and nodded her head, though the steady stream didn’t abate.
For nine long stops, I waited to exit, legs ready to spring. When the train reached Tenleytown, I burst from my seat, but the weeping willow, of course, tailed me. She took my escalator and my exit, all the while crying at my heels. For five blocks she sobbed behind me, her shoes clacking, her tissues used now, folded and compacted into tight paper balls. She followed me home. When I closed the door behind me, she opened it with her key. When I took my coat off, so did she. Her bony hands abandoned their clench, releasing her tissues on my hardwood floor.
The puffy down jacket had disguised her tiny figure. But her tenacity made up for her size. She was committed to this extravagant emotion, selfish with need. Before I could turn to fortify myself upstairs, she spoke, her words stuttering, hiccuping, stretched out wails to complement those extravagant tears.
“Please talk to me. Say something. Anything.” She paused to bite her knuckles, trying to pull more words out of her mouth. “I’m sorry, alright? It was never planned. It was basically innocent, at first, and then . . . ” She kept nodding, a bobblehead doll saying, These things are bound to happen, sometime. “You know I would never try to hurt you, don’t you? You have to know that.”
She threw those stock phrases at me, those made-for-TV movie words, this woman I didn’t recognize. I shook my head, climbed the stairs, and walked into the bedroom. Of course, she followed. And when I dropped my clothes and got into bed, she burrowed in beside me and touched my back. As if she belonged. As if she had been there for sixteen and a half years, and I had memorized the snake of her torso, thrust of her hip, arc of her neck. The small, spider-legged scar on her elbow and the twin freckles dotting the arch of her left foot. As if I waited patiently, every night, to receive her.