At Penn Station, a man stepped onto the train and stood close to the doors, his left hand clenching the pole. A tan line of a missing wedding ring clung to his left ring finger and Jeremy immediately felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t look away. The man’s wispy, thinning hair was plastered to his forehead in a way that made it look like a cartoonist hastily drew it on in a few swipes of a pen. His clothing, a pale green, short-sleeved button down and pair of khaki slacks, were wrinkled and stained, but not so much to assume the man was homeless, maybe just messy.
As the train doors closed, Jeremy watched as he made the sign of the Cross with his hands, kissing a rosary bead necklace that he pulled out of his halfway-buttoned shirt. He exhaled onto the glass and kept his eyes closed for a moment before slowly looking around the car that had filled slightly. Jeremy caught his eyes enough to see the start of a smile creep across his sweat-shined face but quickly looked away. The last time he got caught in a conversation with a religious subway rider, he was condemned to an eternity in hell for being an atheist, although he didn’t necessarily call himself one, Jeremy was just unsure, like he was with so many things more important to him than a chosen deity. He didn’t mind the judgment, just the annoyance of being bothered to converse with a stranger.
After scanning the car once more, he locked eyes with his reflection and noticed a girl, not more than 8, had sat next to him and stared up at his unshaved chin. “You look like you were crying so I came to say hello,” she said, in that slightly twangy cadence of a young kid, just starting to correctly form words. Jeremy looked down at her from the corner of his eye.
Jeremy swallowed a gulp of air, his throat feeling like a bullfrog’s as he tried to quell the acidic churning under his rib cage. It wasn’t that talking to strangers made him sick, that wasn’t it. It was more that all he could think about during the exchange was about the expectation this person had of him. Jeremy hated when people expected things from him. It took too much effort, in his mind, to succeed in meeting someone’s expectations, so he wouldn’t allow anyone to make any of him.
The girl looked at him like a confused puppy, head slightly cocked, mouth ajar, eyes wide. Jeremy smiled, “Thank you.” The corners of her mouth spread apart into a large grin. Feeling incredibly accomplished of herself, she let the train come to a stop, hopped off the seat, and grasped her mother’s hand, who was standing at the doorway diagonally across from where the girl and Jeremy had been sitting with a look of slight disapproval on her face.
He looked around again, watching a melancholy woman in sheer panty hose and sneakers methodically eat popcorn. He could feel the sweat of the mid-July subway ride dripping down his shoulder blades and settle into the material of his waistband. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant feeling, he thought as he watched the woman brush kernels from her blouse. It reminded him that although these subway rides so often made him feel like he was a corpse, he was, in fact, a live human being with bodily functions and working sweat glands.
Jeremy leaned his head against the framed subway map he sat under and finally felt the car’s AC sink into his heat-thickened skin. His waves of nausea dissipated while his feelings of uncertainty and unsettledness remained. Those were not caused by the insatiable summer heat, so the cold of the subway air conditioning did little good to cure them. He swallowed hard and stared up at the ceiling. An exasperated sigh escaped his mouth like it was being dragged across his lips one molecule at a time.