by Caleb Zimmerman
*This story was originally written as part of an SAT class that Zimmerman taught using short stories.
She was sitting determinedly in one of those strange seats that they mold perpendicularly to the wall on D trains, and her knees were stretching straight out so that they almost touched the empty yellow plastic that jutted out apathetically along the wall in front of her. The woman's gaze was hovering over this seat as she eyed the empty space above it with resolute clarity. A child of 1 or 1-and-a-half sat happily or unhappily (you couldn't tell which) just above her legs, and there was nothing about the scene to make it especially remarkable. This fact - that the woman and her child were sitting on a D train in a completely regular, average, everyday manner - made the way you were always looking at them and never getting their commonplace presence out of your head seem strange to you. The child was a slightly darker color than the woman's Indian or Pakistani brown, and you were persuading yourself that you kept watching the placid pair because you just couldn't quite place where in the world they might be from. Every 20 seconds or so, the child would say something to the woman and the woman would say something back. The woman's red and blue hijab was almost as beautiful as the calm way she held her head.
You were starting to scroll through your 314 Spotify playlists with the ridiculous, futile hope of finding something new. You were beginning to think about dinner (you had never not begun thinking about dinner). In other words, you were almost not thinking about the woman and her child when a man steps onto the train with a gigantic TV on a really crappy, clanking metal cart and begins to tug the cart past your feet.
The man is from North Africa. He boards the train next to you and crosses it to sit down next to the woman. His TV is probably 4 feet wide and it's in this big, obnoxious box right in front of him. If the woman and her child want to exit the train, they will need to ask the man to move his TV. There are maybe five other people on the train.
The woman does not move. Her eyes betray no recognition, and he does not act like he knows her either. You cannot imagine having the audacity to sit next to a woman you do not know on a train with five other people on it, and with a TV that hedges her into awkward, blatant captivity. You hope the woman is not uncomfortable, but you know that she is. You are uncomfortable.
The man is about to turn to the woman and say something to her in a language that, although you have been to thirty-seven countries on four continents, you will know you have never heard before. She will look at him and say something, and he will pull some things out of his pocket and then put them back in again (you will not be able to see the things without looking very much like you are seeing them). The man will begin to talk more loudly, and the woman will say very little, and the child will become completely silent. You will begin to hear the same sentences repeated, and you will wish very badly that you knew what the sentences meant, but you will not know this, and you will wonder if you should do something. This will all continue as the train continues past several subway stops. Then the man will get up with his TV and walk behind the bench where the woman is sitting to look for a little at the subway map, or maybe just at the wall, or maybe at nothing. Then he will stand and hesitate for a terrifying interval in the middle of the train car, and he will be looking at the woman, and he will say something very loudly -- so loudly and so forcefully that no one in the train will be able to ignore it. She will say something back, and he will walk to the doorway. At the next stop, he will make a final declaration, stare back at her, and then yank his ridiculous television off the train. You will look back at the woman, and she will look just as she always did: calm and somehow very beautiful - more beautiful than before. And she will sit like that for three strange seconds during which you will wonder if the story is over. Then she will spring up, squeeze her child to her chest, and run out of the train onto the platform, where she will stand very still and yell something after him. By this time, he will already have descended partway down the elevated platform steps. The train doors will then close, and she will stand hollering the same seven syllables after him again, and then again, and each time she will yell the last syllable will turn into even more of a scream that could be either desperation or rage – maybe both, but definitely not neither – and then the train will pull away. The woman will still be standing there and you will watch her as long as you can, and for all you will know, she might stand there forever with her child, looking and yelling after the man. When you turn back around, the people on the train will all be looking at a 45-degree downward angle toward the part of the speckled floor of the train car that is five feet in front of them, and actively persuading themselves and each other that nothing had happened.
You will think about this, and you will think about talking to other people about this. You will start to stare at the train's vinyl floor like everyone else is doing and always does, but it won't matter how normal you will look because this thing will be the only thing you think about for the next twenty-five minutes. You will get off the train and you will think about the woman and the man and the child almost as much as you will think about yourself for the rest of the day. You will hope that the woman is ok, you will pray that she is ok, and you will convince yourself that by now she is probably ok. But you will not forget the woman and her child. You will start to wonder if they really are ok. And soon you will admit to yourself that they probably are not as ok as you want them to be. This will unsettle you in a vague, small way, but many things do that, and soon it will get jumbled in with the rest of them so that you will think you might have finally forgotten about it.
But you also might not have forgotten about it. You might start speculating again about what might have been happening – what you might have missed. One day, you might even write a silly short story about it and give it to your SAT class. Your students might like it, or they might think it's dumb, but it won't really matter what they think, since what they think of your story will not change the way life is for the woman, and the child, and the man, wherever they are, right now.
Thumbnail photo by Emily Bingham