She is sitting on a bench at Alewife. Alewife Station, end of the line: where you could spend all day watching trains pull in, pull out, each car releasing its load of passengers, merely to accept another moments later. Between forward and backward, between old passenger and new, the train experiences only the briefest respite, the shortest pause, for reversal, for rebirth. Once the last passenger has stepped off, the train goes dark and its doors close for one, two, three beats, before it opens and lights up again: a single deep breath before its exertion starts once more. Watching the darkened trains, she thinks of night-time, from twelve thirty until five, when the trains must actually sleep, scattered apart along the lines perhaps, or else in great secret lots, huddled together, undisturbed by humans and the noise and commotion they bring.
At last she steps onto a newly lit up train. Seated, she closes her eyes and breathes and imagines herself to be, like the train was, an empty vessel. When she opens her eyes again, the train has left the station, and across from her sits an old homeless man. At least he appears homeless, for he seems to have all of his worldly possessions with him in about a dozen different plastic bags on the seats and floor around him, some big, some small, some clear, some opaque, some full, some almost empty. By far the largest are two big black trash bags, each about two thirds full, resting at his feet. The bags are such a spectacle that the girl spends a long time contemplating them and pondering what is in each before she really notices the man himself.
She sees him as the sum of about a hundred different textures: the kinky tangles of gray and black in his hair, more a nest than dreadlocks, at some places densely knotted, at others sparsely frizzed; the papery wrinkles of his deep brown skin that hang loose in some places (beneath his eyes, all over his neck) belying the taut smoothness of his skin elsewhere (his forehead, his palms); the muddy scuffedness of his shoes which are planted firmly on the floor; the cotton tatters of his many layers of flannels; the glassy sheen of his eyes which stare at some fixed point in distant space; the peeling chappedness of his lips which move quickly but silently in some discussion he is havine with himself.
Most of all, her eyes are drawn to his hands. They are incredibly large and seem powerful but rest motionless in his lap. She thinks of large farm instruments left out in the elements for several seasons, grown rusted, weary, still. The outsides of his hands are a dark dark brown black, each knuckle deeply wrinkled and chapped, each nail pink at the base but ragged and dirty at the tip. His palms are several shades lighter and pinker. They are mostly taut and smooth like his forehead, except for the fortune lines which are worn deep and definite (love line, life line, money line? she tries to remember their names), for certainly, after sixty five years of opening, closing, grasping, holding, touching, losing, the shape of the hands - and thus the destiny of their owner - is pretty well realized and (unlike those tireless trains at Alewife) pretty much irreversible.
She is startled when the hands, previously so placid and monumental, jump into frenetic action, grabbing all the different plastic bags as the train pulls into Central Square. He steps off the train and on a whim, she follows him, out of the station and into Central Square: neon lights, car lights, moonlight, and everywhere a snow that has not thawed in months, covering roof tops and alleyways, rising up to form nearly impassible banks between street and sidewalk. The homeless man is tall, his gait is long and she has a hard time keeping up with him. He moves erratically, crossing the street often, looping back, going down alleys, always going to trashcans and digging about for soda cans which, she has realized, are what fill the large black bags. After half an hour he walks down streets she has never seen, to a can deposit place, where the massive volume of cans is transformed into a painfully thin handful of worn dollar bills. Returning to Central Square, he gets some food and coffee at 7-11 and then sits down on the pavement outside, back against the wall, big hands clasping the cup of coffee. Another empty cup rests in front of him for begged change. She steps close to him, to give him money, to kiss those cold sad hands, but as she leans down, she opens her eyes, and realizes that she is on the T.
Surprised, the girl catches her breath and gets her bearings back. Where the homeless man sat is now an Asian businesswoman who has the most incredibly perfect sleek black hair. With a heavy expensive wool coat and a lush burgundy scarf, she is so groomed, so refined, even her skin seems breathlessly smooth. The T itself seems too grimy, too jerky, too ordinary for her. She crosses and recrosses her legs, checks the time, straightens her already flawless hair, each action crisp and precise. Across from her, the girl squirms awkwardly in her seat, feeling bulky and ungraceful in her big down jacket, in her hat and scarf that don't match, conscious of her skin that is far from perfect. At South Station, the lady steps pertly off the train and the girl, drawn in by her beauty, follows. South Station bustles, animated by many swirls of activity, of motion. Everyone moves quickly, purposefully, and the businesswoman is like a dart through all the interweaving paths. Her steps are efficient and exact as she makes her way toward the Acela speed rail to New York. The speed rail is much better suited to the lady, with soft plush seats and large windows that look out on colorful fall foliage. The train accelerates continuously, attaining higher and higher speeds, its path relentlessly smooth and straight, only the slightest humming vibration betraying the incredible velocity. The girl floats outside the train and watches the autumn leaves, red, brown and yellow, each meandering gently to earth, with paths uncertain and shifting, laughably slow, combining to form a delicate dance around the pure vector of velocity that is the train. The girl imagines the woman will next be taking a high speed jet to Paris, then perhaps a space shuttle to the moon: each mode of transport faster, smoother, more perfect until the lady attains an ultimate peace, a transcendent stillness as she rushes through space at infinite speeds.
But instead the lady gets up, goes into the tiny train bathroom, and through the sliding plastic door, the girl hears the most horrible sobs, the saddest wails. The woman comes back to her seat calm and composed once more, looking much as she did before, except her eyes are red and puffy. She closes them and the girl, unseen, wants to kiss those eyes, wants to take away whatever hidden pain lies within, but as she leans forward she feels a sudden jerk and realizes she is still on the T.
The girl looks around, and tries to bring herself fully to the T, the white and yellow plastic seats, the cardboard advertisements, the sundry trash on the floor. She watches as a young mother gets on with three, four, five! kids in tow - two babies in strollers and three other youngsters of varying heights. Along with the group is an elderly lady, probably the grandmother. As the train pulls out of the station, one child topples over, another laughs at him, a third stands up in her seat and claps her hands on the window, one baby coos and drops her bottle on the floor while the other sleeps placidly with an open mouth and a wet pacifer balanced precariously on one shoulder. But the mother just smiles, hefts the fallen child onto her hip, picks up the bottle, wipes it off on her pants and gives it back to the baby, tells the other kid to sit down, all the while talking energetically to the grandma and taking sips from a Dunkin Donuts coffee. The girl smiles at the baby, cupping her hands over her eyes to play peekaboo, a game that the baby seems to love: she grins, claps and, oops, drops her bottle again. The mom nabs it, cleans it and returns it. Two kids dash between the metal poles playing tag and the kid in the mom's arms digs about in her hair and the girl plays more peekaboo with the baby. The mother's big cheeks are rosy and soft-looking, and when one kid trips over a passengers foot and the other runs into a pole and the held child starts yanking the mother hair and complaining of hunger and the sleeping baby wakes up and starts to cry and the other baby tosses down her bottle, this time purposefully, it appears, well, when all this happens all at once, the mother's brow furrows in two deep wrinkles, but then instantly smoothes again, leaving no trace, and she goes to make order of the situation.
All the action and reaction of the mom and grandma and kids makes the girl think of a pack of snakes: writhing and weaving, tangling and disentangling, linking connecting touching pulsing pushing giving; each distinct and separate but somehow forming a larger living breathing whole. The whole crew gets off at Savin Hill, the baby twisting back in her seat to say goodbye to the girl, and out of curiosity and baby-delight, the girl follows them. Their home is a long way away. Mom and grandma each push a stroller, the kids linger behind then dash far ahead, the mom puts down one child only to pick up another, and everyone sweats in the heat of the midday summer sun.
When they finally reach home, an eighth entity is waiting there: the father. He is watching the TV with the volume too loud. He has a solid, heavy presence that, along with the TV, fills the hot cramped apartment. Everything about him - eyes, body, remote, recliner - is directed towards the TV as if they share some invisible bond. As soon as the family enters, a palpable tension fills the air. He tightens the knots, messes up the flow of the snakes. This time, when one kid opens the fridge and another climbs up on a table and another hits the kid by the fridge and one baby drops a bottle and the other starts to wail, well when this all happens the father raises his voice and two deep furrows form deep on the mother's brow and she flounders, unable to cope with family and father both, unable to solve and resolve it all. Unseen, the girl returns the bottle to one baby and lifts up the other crying one, rocking it, shushing it, lifting it up to kiss its furrowed red little forehead.
Only to find herself back on the subway, powerless once again. She is chiding herself for all this drifting and daydreaming when on steps a boy who takes her breath away - blond hair, blue eyes, glasses, maybe nineteen, the kind of guy who makes you think of boys, not their fathers. He sits down across from her, their eyes meet for a moment, he smiles, she looks away. When she looks back again, his eyes are closed, giving her a chance to look at him unwatched. He wears a blue and yellow ringer tee-shirt, has a silver stud earring in one ear and the smoothest, softest baby cheeks that look like they could never grow a beard. Eyes still closed, he shifts in his seat, rolling his shoulders up, plunging his hands into his pockets. His uncrossed legs fall apart and its as if he's closed his eyes because he wants her to look at him. She quickly closes her eyes, for he might open his and read her thoughts, but behind closed lids her thoughts race. She's certain that he's opened his eyes now, that he's looking at her as she looked at him. She feels his gaze and her cheeks color as (she imagines) he watches the rise and fall of her chest, looks at the brown curls framing her face, at her lips parted ever so slightly
The sudden stop of the train and the announcement, JFK/Umass, breaks her out of these reveries. Her eyes flash open to see him leaving the T car. This time certainly she will do it, this time certainly she will follow in body as well as spirit, and follow she does, energetically at first, and then all of a sudden self-conscious, unsure, slipping against the wall, pausing. She continues to follow him though, up the escalator, out in to the square. It is spring - of course - spring, spring, with the grass an impossibly vivid green and the first tender buds showing up on the trees that line the street. She follows him further, down the street, round a corner, down a little alley. She is unseen, unheard or so she thinks, until all of a sudden he stops, turns around and looks her directly in the eye. He steps toward her, larger than she thought, taller, heavier and definitely older. Strong, rough, he pushes her against the alley wall. She gasps in surprise as he braces his hands against her hips. He rubs his cheek against her open neck and his baby smooth face is actually covered with a dense fine stubble. She closes her eyes, not knowing if she wants this or not, and before he even kisses her she can feel already the pressure of his lips on hers, his probing tongue in her yielding mouth.
She takes a breath and opens her eyes and - of course, of course - she is back on the T and the seat across from her empty. Not only that, but she realizes that, as usual, she has traveled too far. At the next stop she gets off and catches the T in the opposite direction. The ride this way is quicker, flatter. It's almost five now and the train car is getting crowded: people have to stand too close to each other and everyone is looking down, aside or away. As the T crosses the bridge she look out at the twilight sky, and down to the river half frozen, half liquid, strange white floes mingling with the dark water. Beside the river, cars stand in motionless swirls in rush hour traffic.
When she gets up at last, it is hesitantly, slowly, as if after all this time she is unsure if this is the right stop after all. She lingers in the doorway, reluctant to leave, longing that someone might notice her, might want to follow. She steps off at last, moving deliberately - platform, turnstile, stairs - all the while resolutely looking forward, although some piece of her pauses, looks back, searching for the eyes of another.
Outside the thinnest layer of snow lays upon the sidewalk and every footprint leaves only an imprecise impression. The flakes are large now, falling quickly, and soon her traces will be erased, her path impossible to follow at all. She pulls her coat tighter. Snowflakes fall on her warm neck, disappearing as they kiss it.