“Creatures of Habit”
Laura rides the L train to Taraval every weekday. I know her name because her keychain says “Laura.” The “a” curls tenuously around the “u” in a wistful, evasive way.
There are three keys on her keychain; one silver, two gold, one tarnished. Today I am sitting next to her, in a red two-seater braced against the windows. Her thumb and forefinger knead her purse strap.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see into her bag. She carries it high on her shoulder, like a boxcar runaway— the barefoot ones with all their possessions trapped in a handkerchief at the end of a stick.
On a second key ring hang a bottle opener for a rape crisis center and a miniature pen with a broken nub. The pen still works. I have seen her use it to write in a leather notepad. But sometimes the pen bleeds. Whenever she sees the blue mottling the lining of her bag, she curses as if she’d forgotten it was wounded.
To my memory, the pen has only bled four times in the three months since I started seeing her. Seeing her, as in, viewing her. Like the way shoppers see cubed steak through a butcher’s glass. Not seeing her with bouquets of gerbera daisies or horse carriage rides in Golden Gate Park.
Many times I close my eyes and play pretend. The MUNI breaks down, the electricity expires, and in the dark tunnel, just for a moment, I rest my palm on her thigh. No sensations of skin-on-skin, none needed.
She would never know that the tentative weight on her thigh was not her bag. And I would finally feel guiltless, justified in being so close to anyone since Marion’s death. Since I left Marion before she died eight years ago, more like.
Memory draws my mouth into a grimace. Everyone sits stoically or stands with knees bent to catch the waves of the subway car. Some clickety-clack their fingers on their laptops. Others bounce their heads to music that only they can hear.
A few chairs behind us, a homeless man rants to no one in particular. “Fucking police wake a man up at four o’clock in the fucking morning. Four o’clock, can you fucking believe that? Motherfuckers got the balls to drag a man out of his motherfucking sleep. Ain’t no decency anymore.”
I can feel Laura’s ears turning red, and I want to shield her. Once, a greasy young Chicano stood in front of her seat, shook his crotch in her face and licked his lips. She turned away, pretended he wasn’t there. She does that often.
A suited man with a mole on his nose sidles close to his female partner. “Listen, I’m telling you, there’s no way Mitch will go ahead with that merger. It’s just bad business sense—no sense at all, really…” Even the blonde hairs on his partner’s neck tense.
Laura has only spoken to me once: to say, “Please excuse me, miss,” when she stepped on my toe on her way out. I have never spoken to her; not to correct her for calling me “miss” when I am middle-aged, pockmarked, and unlovable, not even to tell her she was excused. I am not a person people see.
The train stops and a fat old woman with her leg in a cast and a stain on her breast boards. “Would you get up?” she demands of a teenager. “I need to put my leg on the seat.” The girl pulls her earphones out of her head and gets up, but the woman repeats herself twice. “Don’t you get it?” she asks.
“Free entertainment,” quips a thin, tattooed boy with a lonely grin to his girlfriend. “Most days, I couldn’t ask for more.”
The crippled woman crashes into the chair in front of Laura. Laura remains unfazed, sipping her coffee and staring out the black window. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, she reads a novel. Every other day, she bites her lip and stares. Coffee is a daily mercy; today, I think I smell vanilla.
Laura does not look kind. She has harsh cheekbones that arch like sickles. Her skin is pale, her cheeks almost consumptive. She has eager eyes that scan her purse for chapstick when the stale underground air has sheared her lips pink.
And she always sits in the conductor’s car, towards the back left corner, even though this route is busy. I know it is cruel to crawl so shamelessly after the young. The gold on Laura’s eyelids makes her green irises glow. It contradicts everything she wears in a way that moves my blood to the tips of my toes.
“Your attention, please,” announces the conductor over the intercom. “This L train is about to become a J train to Church. It is in need of repair and will be stopping at the nearest garage momentarily. Please exit at the next stop if you must continue to Taraval; a two-car L train will follow. Thank you.”
“No fucking place to sleep.” The homeless man has begun to growl. “No fucking place in this whole fucking city, as if the ground I was on was fucking good enough for somebody else.” He scuffs the heel of his hand repetitively against his right temple, an itch that won’t give.
The announcement has shaken Laura. Her lips thin and her long fingers lock around her coffee cup. Normally I prefer sitting behind her so that I can see her better. I have to work hard to get this close without touching.
My eyes are closed, carefully counting the seconds of my fantasy, when the train actually does begin to throttle. Our car shrieks on the rails. The last thing I see before the power blows is the tattooed boy arching his eyebrows at the fragile light above.
“Nobody ever dies when the train derails, but…” He trails off to his girlfriend.
Laura inhales as the train halts in the dark. The inertia bounces us from our seats, and her hand thumps on my knuckles. But instead of yanking it back, she clenches them so tightly I wince. It takes a few seconds for me to realize what the pressure is, to be surprised that her hands are very cold.
“Are you there? You?” There is panic in her gravelly voice. “I recognize you, I think. You seem safe. I’m sorry, but I’m terrified of closed spaces, especially in the dark. Caves, tunnels, that sort of thing. I might have an attack if I can’t hold onto something. My mother used to hold my hand. Would you mind it if I hold yours?”
She is saying strange things, and I don’t know what to say. Off in the corner, I can hear the homeless man pounding his fist three times against the retractable door. “NO FUCKING SLEEP.” The rest of the room is only a buzz to me.
Embarrassed, Laura jerks her hand, but I hold it still. “No, dear, it’s fine. It won’t be long.”
She squeezes my palm. “What is your name?” She asks, and I tell her.