You’re going to choke. You know it.
You’ve been seeing this girl around everywhere you go. You seem like a fucking stalker. But you aren’t. Your paths just overlap—all the time.
You notice her every time they do. You notice how her hair always looks perfect. Even when she’s in the library, or coming in from the cold, it’s always falling over her shoulders and catching the light just right. You know she likes it quiet when she studies, because you share the same random secluded study spot. You notice that she always gets sushi whenever it’s available. Must be her favorite food. You’ve never liked it, you can’t shake the feeling of eating something slimy, but you tried it once just to see. Just to prepare for if—and when—you ask her if she wants to get sushi with you.
You’re not sure if she notices you too—but she must, right? You see her fucking everywhere. So this time, you’re going to do it. You’re not going to choke; you’re going to talk to her. You’re going to ask her how her break was, and did she enjoy going to the beach? The Facebook photos sure made it look fun. Fuck, no. You’re not going to say that.
You’ll say something smooth, and casual, and to the point. Leave the ball in her court so that she talks to you next time.
You’re walking into your secluded study spot, and she’s there at the end of the table. There is no one else in the room but you two. This is your big chance. Your big moment.
It’s a long wooden table with green banker’s lamps scattered every few feet. She’s in the corner, typing away on her computer. The screen obscures her face. You sit across from her. She doesn’t look up. You begin unpacking your stuff, setting up your own computer. You say something quietly about the weather. She doesn’t look up. You don’t blame her. The fucking weather, man? Really?
You get up to go to the bathroom and regroup and, okay, maybe rehearse a conversation in your head. Maybe. You saw her out at that concert a few weeks ago; you could talk about that band. Ask her what she thought. Yes. That’s what you’ll do. You square your shoulders and go back into the room. Wait—that concert was weeks ago. It might be weird as fuck to bring it up. Fuck it, you will anyway.
You reach your table, words already forming in your mouth. She looks up, and you stop.
It’s not even her. It’s a different girl. You’d just assumed it was her because she’s in this study spot and has similar hair.
You are in a hurry, feet crunching dried leaves scattered on the sidewalk as a sound effect to your rush. You get to the crosswalk—come on, come on,
why does the light take forever to change? —and your hurry is momentarily halted by modern traffic.
As you stand on the street corner, scanning impatiently, you notice him on the opposite corner. Your not-quite-ex, and he’s standing thirty feet away from you, waiting to cross in your direction. And he’s with a girl. A friend? Not that it matters. Not that you care.
You wish you hadn’t worn that stupid orange dress today. Could you stand out any more? Maybe you can escape and walk in a different direction. Or maybe he won’t notice you. Maybe bright orange blends in more than you thought. But it’s too late. He’s seen you. And besides, you need to cross the street and walk in that direction anyway. You’re not going to alter your path just to avoid him.
The light finally changes, and the cluster of people on your corner surges towards the cluster of people on his, like children playing red rover on the playground, or sharks and minnows in the swimming pool. You remember summers of doing that at the local pool as a kid, under the not-so-watchful eyes of the bored teenage lifeguards. No matter what you did or how well you swam, you always ended up getting water up your nose.
You’re feeling like a minnow right now, swimming towards the sharks in your stupid orange dress.
The girl with him is laughing at something he’s saying. You know her vaguely, and you’re wondering if you’re going to have give the forced smile of acknowledgement to both of them. They get closer and closer, and the girl is still laughing, head tossed back, eyes crinkled, as if he’s the wittiest guy in the world, and he’s nodding at her but looking distracted. Your stupid orange dress is beckoning him.
He looks up and catches your eye, and holds it for one, two, three seconds. You’re almost reduced to being a kid again, feeling that water-up-the nose sensation. A combination of hopeless inevitability and anticipation; of knowing it will happen no matter how hard you try to keep your head above the water, yet not being able to predict it.
The girl is still laughing, oblivious, and the crowd is surging around you to their destinations and the cars are stopped, waiting impatiently to go again, and neither of you can look away.
In another universe, there is a version of you that stops walking. Turns around. Maybe talks to him, or maybe just waits for him to say something. In an alternate universe, there is a you that is doing that.
But for now, you pass each other and the light turns and you scurry to your side of the street before the cars surge again and behind you, you know he is still walking and the girl is still laughing but you don’t look back.
It’s the end of the day and you’re on the subway, packed like rats in a cage with the other passengers. You’re bleary eyed and soggy-brained from a long day at work and having to answer to “sir” because the intern can’t be bothered to remember your name, and you just want to be home and watch something mindless on TV.
You’re against the wall of the subway, near the window, watching the murky black walls of the tunnels speed by, too fast and indistinct to make out anything. Not that there’s anything to see, anyway.
Your train reaches a fork in the tunnel and suddenly another subway train is there. It’s on tracks slightly below your train, but it’s running parallel. Finally, there is something to look at besides darkness: the light on the inside of that car illuminates everyone inside it. The rats in that cage are in the spotlight for your perusal.
Against the window is an old woman in a purple church-lady hat. You bet she has grandchildren, and they are vaguely scared of her. She probably leaves lipstick smears on their cheeks every time she sees them, and they hate it, but they don’t dare wipe it off until she’s turned her back.
Next to her is a model-looking woman. Tall and slim. Even-featured and blond. You don’t know much about clothes but you can tell she’s very put-together. You can’t see her face that clearly, so you can’t tell exactly how attractive she is, but there’s no question that she is. She carries herself like somebody who is used to being admired by others. She’s probably on her way to see her boyfriend. His name is Chad and he’s secretly cheating on her with another model. You bet he wears those trendy glasses. Just like the smug Ivy League intern in your office. You’re not even sure if Chad The Boyfriend exists, but you hate him already.
Finally, staring back out the window, looking at your train is another businessman type. He could be your twin. Not so much in his appearance—his hair color and skin tone and features are different—but in his demeanor and expression. You see something in his face you know is reflected in your own. Resignation from being beaten down by life—no grand tragedies, but simple boredom and routine and petty disappointments. And yet there’s still some fight left, still a spark of spirit.
You wonder if he hates his job, or if he doesn’t mind it. You wonder if he’s got a girlfriend, or maybe a boyfriend, and whether he likes them or is just waiting for the right moment to break it off. Or maybe he hasn’t been laid in awhile. Maybe he’s got a weird fetish and it’s hard for him to find someone who shares it. Poor guy.
You wonder if he’s going to go home and watch TV too—and if so, what? The news? Mindless reality shows? Or maybe he’s following a program; an edgy comedy or one of those dramas you keep meaning to get into. That pseudo-middle earth one that everybody keeps talking about looks good. The one with all the beheadings and nudity.
Your eyes meet with his for an endless instant. Housed in your separate cages, hurtling along in the underground darkness, you make a fleeting connection. You realize you haven’t really made eye contact with anyone all day. At work you’re glued to your computer screen, and on the sidewalks and subways you hurry past everyone, lost in your own world. As your eyes hold, you imagine you two are sharing a perfect understanding of each other. You wonder if he is imagining the life you might lead. You can even begin to see the You that he is imagining. For a brief instant you want that life. You’d trade your own world for the fictional one he’s projecting for you.
And then the tunnel forks and swallows his train and he disappears and you move on to separate destinations and you resume staring at blank black walls rather than risk eye contact with anyone in your train.