The E train is Jonah’s favorite, with its bright lights’ industrial glow, the rush hour shove of body into body, the curve of a backpack pressing into sloped hips and elbow crooks. He loves the smell, in the early morning, of humid skin mingling with coffee breath. It feels alive somehow, so much more alive than the smoky nothingness of the air above ground.
Jonah tries to hide a smile as the car jolts and, collectively, the bodies shift. Like one, a school of fish darting together to escape the shark’s jaw. Smiling would be inappropriate, he knows. Nobody smiles on the E train, not this early in the morning, and certainly not when no one is speaking to them. He looks into the faces. Mostly, they keep their eyes shut, savoring the quiet before their workday begins. Some wear headphones, basking in their total disconnect. The rest stare, blank gazes resting on the advertisements for Dr. Zizmor, certified dermatologist, without ever reading a single letter.
They feel him looking. He sees wrinkles of recognition creep across their faces. He watches their eyes dart in a few different directions before settling once again on Dr. Zizmor. The train jolts again, coming to a stop. People shuffle toward the sliding door, but Jonah is not getting off. He moves just far enough from their path to avoid seeming rude, but not so far that he misses the delicious brush of their shoulders against his own. His heart races, a bead of sweat trickling down the small of his back. A woman—small, Spanish, no older than thirty—enters the train, grabs hold of the silver pole beside him. Jonah reaches for the pole too, as the car doors snap shut, and he feels his pulse begin to slow.
His fingers wrap around the metal, just an inch from the woman’s manicured hand. She looks soft, the thin skin of her knuckles taut and pale over her bones. Her grip tightens when the train jerks forward and Jonah lets his hand slide upward with the movement. Organically, like this is the most natural motion in the world. Like it’s nothing even worth thinking about.
But her hand is there, nearly touching. A muscle twitches in her pinky finger, and again, Jonah grinds his teeth against a smile that forces itself into his mouth. It would be so easy to sneak his hand farther up the pole, to let his knuckles graze hers, to connect physically with this woman, the way he knows they are already connected in some other, spiritual, meaningful, universally profound way. Everyone is connected this way, always, and Jonah feels the constant pull of these ropes weighing on him like shackles. Surely, the others must feel it, too. He can feel them feeling it, the tension of their bodies as they pass within inches of one another, day after day. He wonders why they do not simply allow themselves the release, why they are all so desperately afraid to touch someone.
His heart picks up again, and Jonah feels his shirt sticking to his back where the sweat has soaked through. The woman’s eyes linger on the pole, on her own hand, for a moment. She lets go for just one second, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and grabs hold again, this time a few inches higher. Jonah feels an ache in his chest, a slab of stone laid across his ribs. He wants to let his hand follow hers, let it travel up the grease-stained pole until it finds an inviting warmth and their fingers intertwine over the cold metal surface. He feels his pulse now, pounding through his thumb, and he is sure she can feel it too, a tiny earthquake sending its vibrations along the plane between them. His longing has become palpable, stronger than he should have allowed. He leans back on his heels, letting his shoulder blades bump into a man standing behind him, but he feels none of the usual satisfaction. Instead, something like pain shoots through his wrist, into his arms where it enters his bloodstream and circulates.
But the woman is so small, so quietly aware. Would he scare her? Would she say something? She looks like she might be the type, and that terrifies him. He wishes she would wear a glove, dull her edge somehow. He wants a barrier between the two of them, between himself and the ache in his arms. Yet all he needs is a touch. Just one moment of contact, hand to hand, would feel like aloe on blistered sunburn.
The train slows and Jonah knows his moment is coming, knows the brakes will send a shudder through the car and then he can fake a stumble forward, let his hand brush against hers as he lunges toward the pole. He might even stagger into her side, if he’s lucky. The scene plays in his mind, over and over, thoughts racing alongside his heartbeat, veins threatening to burst from the ache of it all. And the train stops, the doors open, and she’s gone before Jonah can remember where he is, what he’s holding onto. He feels a shiver escape his chest as he leans against the pole. His forehead presses against the metal, still warm from the memory of her skin.
Danielle E. Curtis holds an MFA from Wilkes University. She lives and works in New York City, and makes up ridiculous Twitter hashtags at @daniwriteswords. She once wrote a story about a dead squirrel, which can be found in the archives of Split Lip Magazine. All things considered, she’s a surprisingly functional human being.
Photo credit: People, Lots Of Them by Diego Torres Silvestre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.