On the B-train

My knapsack is full of the day's papers, lesson plans, books, my laptop, my parked and frustrated ambitions, the numbers I am crunching in my endless internal feasibility study: writing versus making a crust. The train to Providence is leaving in twenty minutes and, in the interest of the feasibility study, I must be on it, for my feasibility officer is waiting and our weekly appointment is something I cannot yet do without.

The subway train, when it arrives, is completely full. People shove and jostle, making space for themselves. In the midst of this dank exhausted gray competitive organism that stands for humanity on an ordinary day in Boston, there is an empty seat. Into which, unthinking, knowing better, I sink. And realize at once my mistake. A older woman stands before me, or more precisely leans, on her cane, which is wrapped all over with technicolor tape. I stand. "Please sit," I say.

She barks: "SIT YOURSELF!"

I obey.

The train heaves forward. The woman totters. She grabs the pole with one arm; with the other, she swings her cane, all the while pouring forth a stream of angry gibberish. All around me people are wild-eyed. My skin threatens to secede from the rest of my body; my skin, which has always been smarter than I am.

I can't move. All I can do is watch the cane as it comes closer. At a certain point, I know, she will make me flinch, and all hell will break lose. Her feet flap, nearly useless. They seem to be in revolt against the rest of her. Perhaps they have met my skin.

I search for, and find, her eyes. Hold the gaze briefly. Not too long, or she will grow even more afraid.

"I'm a little worried about you," I say.

Her eyes are my mother's, pale gray in this sad subway light. From a nearly unimaginable distance -- the distance between one galaxy and another, say -- I hear ... the beach! A sea breeze. The noise of children. An orange plastic shovel gutters in a green bucket. A real person is taking the subway, a person in pain, and no one will look her in the face.

The train lurches.

"Are you sure you don't want to sit?"

She ignores me. I don't press the point. If I do, she'll get angry. Angrier. Instead I think hard, as if out loud, in her direction: If you fall, I will catch you.

And I will. Every muscle on high alert.

"He took my wallet," she tells me. "Can you believe, an old woman like me, and he took my damned wallet. And I made damned sure to get it back. I beat the crap out of him, you can bet your life." She raps the cane on the floor. "He took my goddamned wallet."

The man beside me has not taken a breath in a while.

"That's quite a story," I say weakly.

"Huh!" She waves her cane at my face. I don't flinch. Perhaps I am too close to hit. What I mean to say: We are no longer exactly separate. She really won't hit me; in a certain sense, she no longer even sees me. She moves away, into the crowd that has stepped back to avoid her. She corners another rider -- another listener, a better audience, someone who will give her the fight she's looking for.

At Copley, I can hardly bring myself to leave the train. Who will look after her? Already she has alienated her new friend, whose face registers a combination of fear and disgust, a response with which she is certainly too familiar. I reach in my pocket for some loose change, a bill or two, something -- and then remember, whose wallet has been taken? It is just here, with this strange, ungenerous, yet somehow altogether necessary thought, that I break from the undertow and pull away, bounding up the subway stairs, tacking toward the shore.

What I remember is the light -- how her eyes held it, and let it go.

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