Art by Sendra Uebele

Seeking Salvation

A short story about a young woman on the subway.

He looked at me on the subway and I smiled and I thought maybe I should say something. My aunt said she met a man on the subway once. They didn’t fall in love or anything, but they had a lot of fun and sometimes that’s just as good. At least, that’s what she said. I’m not sold yet, that fun is as good as love; or love is as good as fun. I’m boring my eyes into this man. He has light green eyes and a square jaw. He’s not so tall, but he’s definitely strong. His bicep peeks out from his black t-shirt as he holds the rail above him. In his other hand is a book. It takes everything in me not to look at the title. It could be a book I hate, or a self-help book, or Atlas Shrugged, and all of those possibilities would make this man uglier. I like the way he looks holding a book, any book. He could be anyone. 

I’m staring at him and I start to laugh to myself. 

Last week, I went to Nowadays with my friend’s friends. The disaffected staffer is required to give us, the crowd of club-goers, a speech before we can get into the club. The speech is about policy, consent, and cell phones. The line that sticks out to me is that Nowadays does not tolerate leering. Once we walk through the vestibule-slash-oration center, I make a joke saying I may get kicked out because I’m always leering at everyone I see. The friends of friends look at me like I just made a bomb joke in the TSA line. No one laughs and I follow them into the bar area.

I’m not leering now on this train at this man. I’m inventing this man. 

It’s 2pm and it’s my day off from my job in a café in Bushwick. The subway platform is hotter than the air outside. I use process of elimination – he’s not a commuter. He doesn’t have a 9 to 5. I see what it would look like to have this man be a teacher of some sorts and I can’t bring myself to it. If he were a teacher he wouldn’t want to call me a dirty slut when he fucks me. Teachers don’t like to do that to strangers. Teachers only want to do that to women they love and women they feel safe with. Women who have to build up the courage after days, weeks, months of making love. It’s satisfying, yes, but these women have to ask to get fucked. These men, these teachers, they feel like being asked isn’t enough. They need more permission. They can’t believe the woman in front of them wants to be called a cunt when she cums. The teachers can’t slap women during coitus, they love their moms! They’re feminists! They would have voted for Hillary in 2016 if Bernie wasn’t in the picture! They have to overcome something to call the woman they’re sleeping with a slut. So he can’t be a teacher. He couldn’t fuck me if he was. 

It’s trendy now, to want to be degraded during sex. Maybe it’s because of the internet and fan-fiction and Fifty Shades of Grey. But for the college-educated Brooklyn crowd, it’s this sort of Sally Rooney prototype of sex. It’s a genre of sex and a genre of novel, ‘I’m anorexic and I like to get hit during sex.’ It’s these women – who call themselves queer, but dare to ask, what if I enjoyed having sex with a man? This man on the train, he knows he likes to have sex with women. He wants to have sex with a woman who knows she wants to be with him. His intimacy is devoid of exploration. He desires simple pleasures. 

Or he could be like me, he could work in the service industry. He could definitely fuck, no, probably fuck, if he was a waiter or a bartender of some sorts. But it wouldn’t be erotic, it would be dirty and his three roommates would hear through the thin walls. It would almost certainly be quick, but in a way that is perfunctory and nice. Sometimes it’s abundantly nice to have sex for a short period of time. When I would get up to pee after, I would see the dishes in the sink need carbon dating to determine their origin and I’d probably have to see a roommate who may be cuter than the man I just slept with and that would make me feel terrible for having chosen the less cute roommate. 

I’m still staring at him and I wince at the thought that maybe he’s some indie musician in a band I’ve heard of once or twice. Musicians are an alluring type of man. They exist in a binary between the smartest and the dimmest people I’ve ever met. Even if he were smart, if he were a musician there’s a high probability he would be unbearable. Musicians know they are capable of doing something most people can’t, that they can evoke feelings and memories for people as a result of their talent. This is dangerous, it makes them confident, like they’re living in a different reality than the rest of us. And then, you get into bed with them, and you realize you don’t really care if they can sing or not if they can’t get you off or text you back. 

Art by Sendra Uebele

I will myself to look at the book he’s reading. I know it may lead to destroying the whole illusion of who he is instead of bolstering it. I remind myself that disappointment is a part of life. I squint my eyes to see what the spine of the old paperback says. I make out The Talented Mr. Ripley. Patricia Highsmith. A woman! A gay woman! He’s reading a book written by a gay woman! Suddenly the floodgates are open and I have more questions than I have answers. Is he reading this because he likes the occasional thriller? That’s ok, we all do. Is he reading this because it’s his favorite movie? If it’s his favorite movie that’s a red flag. Is he reading this because he just saw the movie? Probably a red flag, but I can’t tell. Is he going to read all of the Ripley books? How did he get this book? Did he go to a used bookstore? Did he find it on a stoop? Wait. Did a girl give it to him? How could I have forgotten the possibility that he has a partner. Are we going to have to have a threesome? 

Before I can even begin to fathom this idea, the woman sitting next to me stands to depart the train. This man, the anti-teacher, the bartender, the musician, holds his finger between the pages he’s been reading and crosses the aisle to take the now open seat next to me. I move quickly, saying a brief thank you to whatever forces made me misplace my headphones before this particular train ride. No headphones means I can start a conversation, naturally. I need to say something fast, before he’s drawn back into the book. I open my mouth, willing to lie and say that I love that book. The woman on the other side of him taps him on the shoulder and says something I should have said. 

I look forward in shock. I catch my reflection in the moving train car’s window. I see the anti-teacher talking to this dumb slut and I feel sick to my stomach. I want to cry. Did she beat me to it or did he pick her? 

I get off at Bedford and something is not right. The air is too hot, too thick. New Yorkers are not beautiful and filled with stories. On a good day, everyone I pass is in their own episode of High Maintenance. I can find a full and exciting range of human emotion in the face of every stranger I pass. It’s humbling, magical. But that’s on a good day. Today, everyone around me is a vessel for sadness and hurt and heartbreak. I join their ranks as I make my way to Whole Foods. On the escalator down, I am in a line of others who lack a part of themselves inside. Here, we silently gather in our own basement fluorescent temple where we pray for some sort of change. Our salvation can only come in the form of a seven dollar head of butter lettuce. We are good congregants. We stock up on fourteen dollar bars of soap with rose hips, natural kombucha, and sprouted tofu. Things will be different, we tell ourselves. This is the only salvation we seek. 

Once I take the escalator back up to the check out, I am faced with a decision: self check-out or the cashier. If I go to self check-out I can slip a few items into my bag for free. It’s petty theft, and besides, Jeff Bezos doesn’t need the money. Nearly all of my peers have stolen from Whole Foods. I assume it’s all of society, but it could just be the people I spend time with. I heard once that all these self check-out machines from these big box stores know if you’re stealing or not. They are reading my face, maybe even my eyeballs, and actually know how much money’s worth of merchandise I’ve stolen. They’re waiting until I hit 10,000 dollars worth of stolen merchandise and then they can charge me with a federal crime. It’s exciting to think of myself working up to a federal crime. Even though I hope it will never happen, it offers some sort of respite from the bleakness of my day-to-day. I choose the self check-out because of this, but also sometimes I get shy going to the cashiers in Whole Foods. I know I’m just a drop in the bucket to them, but I fear they know all the produce I can’t afford will go bad in my fridge. That they’re judging me for my vacuous consumption. I wonder if they have opinions on working for Amazon. Then again, I have no opinions on working as a server, so who cares if they work for Amazon or not? We’re all working jobs we hate, better to hate the capitalist billionaire than the hourly worker. 

I leave Whole Foods with my bag half-filled with stolen goods, half-filled with items I actually paid for, and I want to be in love. I get angry, upset that my haul hasn’t even given me enough of a high to last until I made it back to the subway. I scramble, trying to think of some sort of respite for the feeling of lack that has entered my body. If I had talked to that man on the train, maybe I wouldn’t even be here right now. Maybe I would be at his apartment, or a bar, maybe I would be having sex. I’d never had spontaneous and random sex before, but I hear whispers of it, that it’s possible and I wonder if my life will ever lead me there. My arm starts to ache from the paper bag filled with what was supposed to be my deliverance from the rejection and banality of the earlier part of my day off. I shift the bag and hold it with both my arms underneath to support it, like a parent would hold a small child. The sidewalks in this part of Williamsburg are filled with what I can only see, at this moment, as people I would hate. What happened? Why can’t I look at these people and see anything other than my own malaise? Where was the next man I could invent into a perfect form to solve all my problems? I decide before I can get back on the train I need a sweet, one last final attempt to get my life back in order. 

There’s a bakery near the entrance to the subway that runs daily deals for only okay desserts. Their biggest benefit is convenience. I shift the Whole Foods bag onto my hip and pull open the door to the bakery. Every time I enter and see the size of the place, I question how they make enough money to pay their rent. There are confections lit in deli cases and on stands on the counter. There’s a barrier like the kinds they have in airports to keep people in line. I’ve never seen a line at the bakery, but there is always the illusion that there could be a line. I stare at every sweet, incapable of making a decision. Or not incapable of making a decision, but lacking any desire for this treat I told myself I needed. I stand in the empty queue while the bored teenager behind the counter waits for me to make a decision. The full bag still pulling on my arms, I weigh the options. Is it worth it to pay for a dessert I don’t want? Would it feel worse to walk in here and then leave with nothing? 

The girl behind the counter is getting mad at me. I watched her put her phone down when I walked in. She now stands idly behind the deli cases, switching between staring at me and looking at the ceiling, waiting for me to make a choice. I want her to trust me. I want her to keep texting her friend or her mom or her lover. I want her to continue her routine as if I’m not here, even though her routine is her job which is dependent on my presence. I wonder who she lives with, if they appreciate the day-old sweets she brings home. Sometimes an excess of food from work can make me bored of it. Does she see me and know that sometimes I take food home from work too? I open my mouth to speak and instead a small sound exits, somewhere between a wounded animal and a throat clearing. My eyes dart away from embarrassment and I choose just to walk out, empty-handed, except for the Whole Foods bag, which seems to be getting heavier with each passing moment.

I descend the steps into the station, no longer looking at all the people around me. I wait, silently, for the train. I get on and still, I do not look around, instead looking at my phone, waiting for a notification to enter the screen. The car is filled with empty people, myself one of them, trudging back toward where I came.