You’re at home after work, still unsure of how to spend these hours, they seem new to you now that they are your own, and you’re eating oily takeout that drips from the carton, leaving a spot on your tie that you know will never come out and it is a tie that you love because it’s one of your father’s, and you wish he’d given it to you, but he didn’t; there wasn’t much he’d ever given you that didn’t come in the form of a wire transfer and you curse yourself as you sit down and try to rub the stain out of the silky fabric that is not yours.
You are sitting in the apartment your ex-girlfriend helped you pick out three years ago when you first moved in, back when you used to have sex so often and, ostensibly, so loud, that the neighbor downstairs, a man who seemed to do little besides smoke weed in his apartment and listen to seminal albums of the late 80s/early 90s (this being the reason your ex-girlfriend referred to him as “Doolittle”), averted his eyes when you’d pass in the hallway. You and your ex-girlfriend would make up stories about him late at night (or she would do so and you would listen), and even after you stopped having sex he could hear, you felt sad for Doolittle, considering you had your girlfriend to spend nights with while he had no one to smoke joint after joint with but himself. Your girlfriend left you four weeks ago and you sometimes wonder if Doolittle has noticed that she is gone and this thought makes you feel sadder than anything else for reasons you can’t explain. Three years is a long time to spend with someone and you don’t know, really, why she ended it; you don’t understand what she meant when she said the relationship had just lost its life, that she needed something better, that she was leaving you to be with another guy, who was a guitarist, who was many things, mostly your opposite, a man whom she admired and had probably been seeing for weeks, while you spent your nights not doing a whole lot with your time, you never had any real passions, like other people, and that’s probably the reason why she left you, come to think of it. You hate yourself for not noticing sooner, for always being so underprepared; you’re sure she would still be with you had you been a person who paid attention, a person who lent meaning to such obvious things as her attempts to steal your attention away from the novel in which you were so engrossed rather than letting her go to bed alone, turning back to your book and silently promising that you’d make it up to her another time the same way that, once in a while, commuting home after a long day at work when you’re tired as hell and your neck and back are aching and the only saving grace is that you’ve found a seat on the crowded subway car, you are reluctant to stand up and offer it to a hunchbacked older man on the train and your conscience urges you to get up, get up but you stare at the floor and hush the voice back down, promising yourself that next time you’ll do the right thing, not realizing until later that virtue is not some distant and noble ideal toward which to aspire but that it can be reduced to a matter of seconds.
Now you smell Doolittle smoking weed in the apartment downstairs and you wonder how he became the kind of guy that smokes weed all the time and what kind of guy you are, if not that kind of guy. You will fall asleep thinking about this and then go to work the next day, like any other, and afterward fight your way to the A train and find a cramped spot near the end of the very last subway car, and somewhere between 59th Street/Columbus Circle and Jay St-Borough Hall, you will raise your gaze from the Stieg Larsson novel you’re reading and briefly catch a glimpse of Doolittle and the woman who accompanies him, a woman whose hair cascades over her angled cheekbones and young, Scandinavian skin, a woman whose ear in which he is whispering things that make her eyes flicker, and as the train jerks and finally stops and someone’s arm grabs the overhead bar and blocks his face from view, you will crane your neck to see them again, but they are already gone.
At first this random encounter will seem like no more than just that. It can’t be that uncommon, after all, to see your neighbor on the train. Everyone rides the subway to work. But, in a city of 8.2 million people, the number of different factors that had to work in tandem to allow for this sharing of a subway car with the one man who lives below you, to allow you to get a glimpse into his life, the life you had been pondering for hours every night for the past four weeks to help you while away the quiet hours of your own existence…factors like the number of minutes late you were to work that morning because your dress shirts were all crumpled on the floor of your bedroom, or the number of steps per second you and he would have to be walking to arrive in time to catch the same train, or the number of swipes the old man in front of you would take with his Metrocard before you decided to walk the length of the station to enter through the opposite end, and of how precisely all of these things must come together to create this one unique moment was…positively uncanny. That this is the kind of thing you would not normally notice, the kind of thing that other people who were doing well in life seemed to pay attention to and how finally, not wanting to fall prey to this pattern of losing again and again, that maybe this is the kind of thing you were supposed to be prepared for, to not let slip by unnoticed and unexamined. And, perhaps for the first time in your life, you will know what your 10th grade psychology teacher was talking about when he announced to your class in a slow and practised speech that: “a discovery – is when an accident meets a prepared mind.”
For days afterward, you will deliberately look at the faces of every person you pass on the street, wondering what else you had missed, being so caught up in your own boring life, and feeling excited that all of a sudden there is a world out there that sees you, that you are someone to be seen, and that, when you are stooped over on the train, reading that Stieg Larsson novel and trying to keep your eyelids from drooping closed after a ten-hour day at a job where people younger than you keep moving into bigger offices and you feel a mixture of sickness and relief every time Clarence, the Head of HR, files your review and renews your contract for another year with the same, measly 5% raise and no bonus, that you can be seen right then, too. And if that is the way people see you, then you are no longer allowed to think of yourself as someone else, someone handsome, charismatic, smart, and inherently good, someone who has maybe just deviated slightly from the path to greatness, maybe just let yourself go a little bit during a rough patch. You are forced to acknowledge yourself as the guy on the train with the bad posture and the saggy pants, the one who doesn’t stand up to offer his seat to an elderly man, there is no hiding from that any longer. You are not even half as interesting as Doolittle, your downstairs neighbor, who you assumed never did exciting things or felt proud of himself, and with whom you felt some sort of false allegiance in your own decision to sit at home and watch reality television every night, too depressed to even commit to one of the smart and witty HBO sitcoms you’ve heard your co-workers discussing on Monday mornings, too pathetic to even masturbate when other people’s sex on TV gave you a desire to, and you feel almost lied to, finding out that Doolittle is actually a normal-seeming guy with sturdy thighs and a girlfriend whose eyes flickered.
The next day you bring your dress shirts to the cleaners and buy a new pair of shoes, slick black leather ones that you polish every few days but you’re not sure if that’s too little or too much. You call your father, he was a New Yorker, too, until your mother passed away, and he knows about things like shoe polish. You talk for nearly an hour, longer than you have since college, about shoeshines and Stieg Larsson’s new book and, after he asks you how you’re doing with money, he says, “Well, it’s nice talking to you, son. Call me again sometime,” and when you hang up you bite your lower lip to stop it from quivering because he is dying and sometime is something you know you can’t count on.
Your train rides seem shorter now, too short, almost, but you are alert and ready for the next coincidence or twist of fate, convinced that they will help you make sense of this life a bit more, and your search extends to sidewalks now, both the two blocks downtown from 59th to 57th, and the one crosstown block east on 8th Avenue, which has innumerable food carts, building entryways, coffee shops, hotel lobbies and even a parking lot for your roving eyes to search, looking for someone you might recognize, hoping to trigger that feeling again, that something else was at work here…it was too good to let go of; your mind runs wild thinking of the unfathomable permutations of outcomes and how maybe you can even begin to control your life, control who you might encounter next, it could be the shop owner who sold you six-packs of Yuengling when you lived in that shitty walkup in Williamsburg, or a youth group counselor, the one who wore frumpy, wool sweaters with barnyard animals stitched onto them and waited with you in the parking lot on those days when your mom forgot to pick you up, or even an old frat brother you’d lost touch with but knew from Facebook that he was now gay and lived in Hell’s Kitchen with his partner of five years.
You’re not sure what it is you’re looking for, but that seems less important than the search itself; it heightens your awareness of the world to such a degree that by the time you get to work you are enervated and breathless. Over the next few weeks, Clarence in HR mistakes this for a newfound enthusiasm for your job and you, too, are moved to a bigger office where you have a rather large window, through which, from a certain point between your desk and the office’s eastern wall, you are able to see the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, the location of your very first date with a girl named Priscilla, someone you courted briefly while finishing business school at Rutgers. You liked Priscilla. She let her hand float in the air for you to grasp every time she stepped out of a taxi and the top of her head measured right under your chin whether she was wearing high heels or not, something that you remember now with a smile. Suddenly, you are sure that soon you will run into Priscilla. You feel like having sex for the first time in months and the thought of someone looking at your naked body makes you swallow hard and leave work early to inquire about a membership at the New York Sports Club on the corner of 57th and Lex. A morning workout becomes part of your daily routine and, as the months grow cold with the bite of winter, you begin transferring to the crosstown E train at 53rd street instead of walking the long avenues and one day while waiting an unusually long ten or twelve minutes for this train, you see a woman, on the slight side with a fur collar and dark, wrinkled eyes, filing her acrylic nails, scraping furiously and producing a noise like sandpaper on brick and the annoyance of this and the inordinate amount of time you’ve already been waiting underground combine to form your decision to exit the station, blow off the gym and maybe work, too, and instead walk into Central Park, despite, or maybe because of, the cold. A light snow begins to land on your jacket and tingles your face and you are excited because this is something you have not done before, this skipping work and feeling alive. Snow begins to settle on the frozen grass and while you lift your face to feel it land on your eyelids, the E train you were waiting for underground finally arrives, though you are not there to catch it. It opens its doors and a man holding a pistol, so short and so black that the crowd gathered on the platform initially mistakes it for a toy, yells something unintelligible and fires two shots before turning the weapon on himself and firing again, then falling in such a way that his body prevents the subway door from closing completely and the two-toned chime that the MTA has assigned to alert riders to an obstruction in the doorway will forever haunt those people who have not yet run away, either because they are frozen with shock or because, like one man, it is his wife who has been shot and he is knelt down applying pressure to her chest, and, as he would later tell his brother, wishing he had stepped in front of her, wondering if there had been time to step in front of her, how he would never know, and, how he’d always remember being aware of the mind’s remarkable ability to process thoughts in an impeccably clear and organized fashion when it is so steeped in adrenaline, because in that moment he was also thinking about how she always told him she’d rather die first, they had actually made a bet, one of those silly things people do to make dying feel like something only other people did, and that he had won the bet but couldn’t remember what the winner’s prize was anymore. You would have no idea, when you happened to see this man again, just in passing years later on Park Avenue, while hailing a taxi to a show because you had lingered over dessert with your own wife and were running a little behind schedule, noticing him for no other reason than the very faraway smile hiding underneath his white beard, that a little thing like seeing a couple hop into a taxi made this man consider how different his life might have been if they had just hailed a cab that morning, too.
Underground, on the platform, next to this man and his wife, the woman who was filing her nails so loudly you decided to leave, had dropped the nail file, and you would have no way of knowing that she is also a woman who had had an affair with your father when she was younger, one of many, safe to say, that your mother had discovered but never had the courage to confront, the result of which being that your model for a functional relationship was a loveless, affectionless marriage in which any time your father spent “at the office” or indulging in hobbies, of which he had many, was viciously reprimanded by your mother, as they suggested to her an act of infidelity and that perhaps this is one reason you yourself were never rewarded for showing an interest in painting or music or travel or anything except following orders.
While this woman is examining her arms and her torso, looking for a bullet hole but finding none, and the old man is knelt over his dying wife, and somewhere in Westchester your father is hunkered down in his closet, the cancer eating away at his stomach as he picks an old, monogrammed shoe brush out of a wooden box and sets it aside to send to you someday, you, having decided on a whim to leave the station and skip work, are catching snowflakes on your tongue in Central Park.
From somewhere else, you hear your name being called and you twirl around, half-expecting to see Priscilla, but instead you find your ex-girlfriend, standing near you in the snow with a look of surprise on her face and you will grin because you are now someone who can appreciate a coincidence like this, and also because it is good to see her but not too good, and as you stand there chatting, your collar pulled up around your cheeks, there will be a moment when you both realize there’s not much left to say and in the awkward pause she will look away and see a man walking past and say to you: “Hey, that guy looks just like your old neighbor, doesn’t he? Doolittle?” and the man you saw on the train that day, the man you thought was Doolittle, will stroll by with his girlfriend or wife and his briefcase tucked under his arm and in this light you can tell that he is definitely not Doolittle after all, but just some guy on the train with a pretty girl at his side, and as your ex-girlfriend shrugs and turns to leave and you sit down on a park bench, the way you are sitting, your back will be toward the ambulances that arrive to carry the victims away and the sirens will be something you won’t notice until they are gone.
Mary Barbour is a writer and photographer with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn.