by Russell Bittner

“The real truth is this: The whole world is joy. Heaven is a festival all year long. Of all lies, the greatest falsehood is melancholy.”

(From Androgynous, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.)

But there’s never only one truth for all people in all places and at all times. Maggie’s truth? That she lived in a city and at a time of noise – and that life was reduced to the barest essential: a competition for attention, which she was getting none of. One kind of attention, of course, could be had after dark and under covers. Her own fingers, however, were tired of paying that kind of attention. She wanted someone else’s fingers, someone else’s attention. When all is said and done – or, more precisely, when nothing is being said and nothing done – that’s all any of us really wants, really needs.

* * *

When she first saw him, it was, of all places, on the “R” line.

Morning after morning, once she’d completed her descent from street level to platform, she'd turn immediately left and look back through a tunnel of sticky haze at stations behind hers for a pair of bright headlights. Would then either settle for text if there were no such headlights, or grow quietly excited if she’d timed her arrival just right. At this point in her life, there was little else to compete with the excitement of a timely approach of headlights to her subway platform.

This morning, as on all others, she peered back down the track. Bright eyes met hers, and she felt the joy of timely arrival. No waiting, so sweating. Just on, off; transfer to express; travel forty minutes across Brooklyn and into Manhattan; get off again; ascend stairs back into daylight; walk a couple of blocks west; buy coffee and donut; enter the elevator; arrive at floor and exit; greet the receptionist; find her desk and settle in.

And then slowly, agonizingly, bone-numbingly try to find a way to pass the next dismal eight hours without hating everything about her job, about her life, about the world, about her houseplants. This was the glory of living on the cusp of the MTV generation in the most exciting über-metropolis in the world in the most exciting century in history. And what, in the name of Ecclesiastes, could beat that?

The MTA could beat it – could beat it down to a sticky pulp.

But not today. Today, she had it licked.

The train arrived, but no one got off. There's nothing to get off to, she thought as she entered the car in front of her, found a space, opened her book and began to read.

Richard Yates’s Collected Stories. Just a few weeks earlier, she’d read a rave review in the Times. The rave had made her feel, as raves often did, as if she’d been living in some kind of cocoon. How could she have ignored someone whom this editor considered to be “a writer’s writer?” She prided herself on knowing who figured among writers’ writers. And yet the name of Richard Yates had not once run across her literary landscape. She held the book with reverence – but also with shame and a kind of amateur’s pride. A small part of her hoped that someone would notice; the larger part of her knew no one would.

The story was good: Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern. One paragraph in, she was hooked. She suspected, in spite of the several bodies standing around her in shared, artificially intimate space, that she’d be fully engaged from the point of entrance to the point of exit. A bit like sex, really. But this was only a story. And yet, so much more engaging than anything sexual she could recall – having very little to recall on this particular Monday.

The story was moving well. It had been written by someone she wanted to like – not because the reviewer had said so, but because this someone’s world had said not. He and his work had been rejected, time and time again, but were now, finally, accepted. Vindicated. Yes – that was the word she wanted.

She was hooked by Yates’s story and she knew it. But she was also dimly aware of the approaching transfer point. This awareness would habitually find her making preparations to get close to the door so as to be first out, then first across to the express track and onto the “W” line.

She loved the “W” as no one should rightfully love a subway line. She loved it for its obscurity and for the sound of its name. Most of all, she loved it for its possibilities. The “W” was long-haul – like a Mack or a Maersk, cross-country or trans-oceanic. The long-hauls had the time and patience to get into a rhythm – to settle down onto the tracks or into the waves and go the distance. With time, patience and distance, there was always the possibility of romance, and she lived daily in that hope. Each time she descended from street to track, with perhaps forty-five minutes to change her life from drone to polyphony, she lived in that hope. As the train moved from Thirty-sixth to Pacific, then from Pacific across the East River to Canal Street, there was time and rhythm enough in its sway to provide ample opportunity – or so she firmly and daily believed.

As the “R” pulled into the station, she looked out the window to find the “W” waiting. She smiled, closed her Yates, and crossed the platform to find a seat – or at least a space of potential romance.

During her short stay on the “R,” she’d noticed someone out of the corner of her eye, had glanced over and given him a closer inspection. No. For her, he was much too pretty, much too tall-standing, entirely out of her league. And so, she’d gone back to her Yates – who, she figured, would instead make love to her with words.

She didn’t find a seat. Instead, she found a reasonably comfortable standing position and settled in for the read, the rhythm and the ride. She decided once again, moving on, that he was good, this Yates – even if his world had dismissed him. She felt – the expression occurred to her as if in something like a literary dream – the kindness of strangers. Felt even that this was someone she could’ve had a one-night stand with – and no feelings of remorse. His personal agony was right there on the page for any woman to see. A tiny bit of decoding, and you'd be in his gut. In his story-telling, you could read every chapter of his frustrated childhood, his never-realized adulthood, his screaming desire for recognition – or at least attention – and then of his premature death. It was all right there on the page and swimming in alcohol.

She, herself, didn’t drink. She didn’t really understand drinkers’ need for drink. She was almost ashamed to admit she loved the taste of water. Water – even when all around her the rave was for champagne, wine or rank bourbon. Occasionally, and as custom demanded, she’d take a nip. But she didn’t really like it. Her need lay elsewhere.

She longed for love, but settled for water – and rhythm. As the “W” moved in fits and starts across the Manhattan Bridge towards the island that paid her rent, she settled back into the story of a child who would never provide her with love – but who, she hoped, might be able to tell her how to find it.

She read easily to the end of the page. Reading Yates’s prose, she decided, was like skating on hard ice, her eyes a pair of perfectly honed and polished runners. Perhaps because the skating was too easy, too blue, she became aware of a competing tug for her attention and let her peripheral vision scout out. Standing directly alongside her in the subway car was the man she’d seen on the “R.” Maggie suddenly became aware of possibilities.

Her heart began to beat faster. She felt a flush creep up from her breast to her neck like a slow mink on the prowl. She saw Yates’s words and sentences clearly and understood every one; but none of them stuck. And so she found herself re-reading the same sentences over and over again.

As the train moved onto the bridge, it began repeatedly to slow down, then lurch forward again. Each time this happened, she felt his arm brush up against hers. He seemed to be making no effort to quit the occasional contact – but neither was she. Finally, after an almost magical succession of jolts and lurches, his arm came to rest against hers.

She no longer even pretended to read.

His skin against her skin, she could feel the warmth move like current from his body into hers. It was a power surge to her heart, to her head – and yes, to something down below.

He was leaning closer now, and she could feel the air from his nose – the steady respiration of it – on the back of her neck. He was also reading a book, and she wondered to herself whether the words on his page, to him, resembled the hieroglyphics on the page of her book, to her. Or was he rather concentrating so hard as to be oblivious of this accident of proximity? Would the arm that held his book leave her book-holding arm at the next turn of page? Worse, would he get off at Canal Street and leave her standing almost delirious with d—? Maggie dared not pronounce the word even in her own mind.

She tried to shut these thoughts out and simply concentrate on sensation. The first spark of recognition of his arm against hers had long since passed into something like a steady glow. At the same time, the rhythm of her breathing had grown shallow. She now became aware of a tingling sensation at the nape of her neck, in her nipples, in her ears – and yes, between her thighs. Then, of moisture accumulating – much like dew that after a long, cold night of abstinence might greet the sun of human contact. She shifted her standing position.

It seemed he hadn’t turned a page in his book in some time. She wondered whether any of this was occurring in his mind, or if it was all still just an accident of proximity and a packed subway car.

She turned her head slightly away from him and noticed there were no other bodies even remotely close to hers. She then slowly turned her head back to where Yates would’ve wanted it and let her eyes once again do the scouting for her. There was no other body. The car wasn’t packed – and hadn’t been since the transfer point at Thirty-sixth Street. He’d chosen this position and was now standing firm on it – standing, in fact, directly next to her in a way that no one else had stood in months. He was there, clearly, because he wanted to be.

A whimper escaped her throat.

Can love start with a whimper? What long series of tremblings and shifts must first occur in the earth’s core before the result is an earthquake or a volcano? How far would his arm have to move over hers to create the effect of shifting tectonic plates?

It didn’t take long for her to find out. With the next lurch of the subway car, his arm broke stride with hers, passed over it like a skein of geese flying in perfect “V” formation close to the ground, and came to rest against her breast. Their books, too, were touching.

His arm wasn’t moving away. Instead, it had planted itself in her garden. This time, it was no mere whimper, but a clearly audible intake of breath that startled her and the passengers in front of whom she was standing. At the same instant, Yates went tumbling from her hands. He stooped to retrieve it – a move that allowed them to look directly into each other’s eyes.

He smiled as he handed her the book after first carefully dusting off the cover, then looking at the title and the author’s name.

“Thank you,” she gasped.

“I believe Mr. Yates would be happier in these hands than on the floor,” he said, slowly slipping his own book under his arm and taking both of her hands in his. “As I recall, Mr. Yates spent far too much time on the floor in his day – and likely never had anything so lovely as these to lift him out of his despair.”

He was divine. Not only did he look like a god, he spoke like one. And he knew who Richard Yates was. No, not just knew of him, but about him.

Maggie’s mind began to race forward. He could instruct her. His manner was clearly neither pedantic nor condescending. He spoke to her as he would speak to an adult, to an equal, to someone who'd understand him and his wit. The ecstasy now began to bubble up inside her, she felt, like a lava lamp: they would make babies together; they would build a house on the hill and fill that house with babies; she would garden and cook; he would help her – because he was clearly the helping kind; they would read together, and to each other; he would declaim and she would recite; and then, she would declaim and he would recite. Always naked – he would insist. And, of course, they would talk literature over breakfast, over lunch, over gardening, over dinner, and after sex. Until the children came along, they would eat all of their meals naked – she would insist. It was going to be….

Maggie suddenly realized he was looking at her as if it were her turn to speak. She blushed. Put her hand to her mouth. Sputtered. “Oh, yes. Indeed. A drinker he was, wasn’t he though.” She couldn’t help it. Whenever she found herself in an awkward situation, her Irish sprang up out of the ground and attached itself to her syntax like a marmot.

Now his look changed from expectancy to curiosity. She felt her freckles sinking into the blush like pebbles into quicksand and pinched her quivering lower lip with a thumb and forefinger. At the same instant, her eyes – like a pair of drowning sailors sighting one lone lifesaver – found his book. She reached out and grabbed it. “And what might you be reading, good sir?” she asked – and immediately wanted to slap herself with the one free hand now within easy reach of a blushing Irish cheek.

He took his book out from under his arm, turned it face up, and was about to tell her when the subway lurched forward. The action put both of them off balance. He dropped one hand from his book and reached up quickly to grab a strap. In the same instant, he noticed that she was tilting backward and about to fall. He dropped his book and reached out to grab her around the waist. As he did so, the subway jerked to a stop, and she slammed into him.

It might’ve been the most delightful head-on collision ever witnessed by a subway car full of human eyes. This was no fender-bender. Had their bodies been made of metal, both would’ve been total wrecks. As it happened, their bodies were made of flesh – and his seemed to bend instantly into new shapes to accommodate the contours of hers. They discovered in the same instant that they were a perfect fit.

She’d never in her life felt so well-aligned. It was as if all of the preceding months of loneliness had prepared her for harsh acquaintance, this brute collision. She didn’t care that the other passengers were now staring at them. She didn’t care that she was embracing a total stranger. She didn’t care that they had exchanged no more than three sentences, and that every part of her anatomy was under full disclosure and on full alert. She just didn’t care.

As the train started up again and eased down from the bridge into the tunnel towards Canal Street, the lights went out. All previous awkwardness or self-censure was swallowed up in the darkness of the tunnel. Maggie held onto him as if he were a thing of steel, as if he’d been made for this moment, stationed at this juncture between an empty past and an equally vacuous future.

Somehow he sensed it. Jorg – his name, though she hadn’t yet asked it – was not a diffident man. Nor was he ignorant of the effect he produced on women. And yet, nothing in his demeanor, his attitude or his behavior projected haughtiness towards those who were drawn to him. He simply was who he was – and accepted his gift, neither in gratitude nor in indifference, for what it might bestow upon him.

Their train pulled up and prepared to stop at Canal Street. He made subtle motions to get off. As only those who are well-versed in the language of subway travel can understand, Maggie understood. She inhaled again – not an inhalation of passion, but of panic. She was still embracing an island. The island was about to sink. And until these last few moments on this particular “W," she’d known only ocean for as long as she cared to remember.

She cut short his subtle motions and grabbed him harder. She didn’t have an aphorism at hand, much less a plan. But by God she wasn’t going to let him go.

He looked at her without flinching and took a moment to contemplate the offering. She wasn’t by any means an unattractive woman, if also not precisely a beauty. Good color in her cheeks except where the freckles gave her a dappled look. Yes – that was it. She reminded him of a dappled mare: full and pleasant haunches; a robust breast; a thick mane. She’d be a good ride, he thought. And now was his time to put on the spurs.

“Where do you get off?” he asked.

She knew, of course, where she normally got off. But today wasn’t normal. She decided she’d have to find out first where he normally got off, then claim that as her exit.

“It depends,” she said, “on my mood and the weather. I mean, whether I want to stroll a bit, window shop,” she lied. She hadn’t strolled or shopped in years except for Maxi Pads and groceries. With no one at hand to stroll with, why bother? “How ‘bout you?” she asked.

He eyed her now with respect and not just idle curiosity. The bump in the dark was suddenly more to him than just a bump. “My exit’s Thirty-fourth Street, Penn Station,” he lied, now eager to see how fast she could run unbridled.

She didn’t pause. “What a coincidence! Also my stop,” she said looking quickly away from a reflection in the window whose bare-faced lie she felt unable to abide.

Now he was on fire. “You know? I’m really not up to working today.” He smirked as she looked up at him. “I feel a headache coming on.”

She looked him directly in the eye. “Funny. I do, too.”

At Fourteenth Street and, by some accident, now holding hands, they got out; descended a flight of stairs; walked under trestles; ascended another flight of stairs; then took their position on the express platform without a word to each other. From the Queens-bound “W,” they were about to make a U-turn on the same line – in the opposite direction of Brooklyn and home. To whose home, precisely, remained to be seen.

They didn’t have long to wait. This was why she so loved the “W.” It came quickly, dependably, and often. And once she was aboard, it moved smoothly, rhythmically, lovingly. Her “W.”

Maggie and Jorg took a seat, side by side, without the whisper of a space left between them. He kept an arm around her. Maggie was neither ample nor sparse, which is to say she was amply Irish, but sparsely Italian – her genetic cocktail. He was all Scandinavian muscle. They liked the feel of each other, and her charitable contours settled nicely into his tight spaces.

The car was practically empty. No one was watching them. He turned to her, looked into her eyes, lifted her chin as if it were a mere herring, and kissed her lips. Maggie’s heritage, though sternly Catholic, wouldn’t allow her to be treated like a herring. She grabbed his lower lip with her teeth and bit down. It was a mere yip. But he, a mere Norwegian, yelped. She laughed, but didn’t release her bite. Then she did a magical thing – as much for her, with this perfect stranger, as it was for him. She slid her tongue between his teeth.
It was as if the two of them had tumbled out of the train and onto the third rail. They were, in a word, electrifried. They adhered and slowly sizzled.

The train might now and again lurch or stop, or in some other unexpected way jostle them. It would, however, henceforth have no choice but to jostle them as an item.

They rode this way, arm in arm and lips to lips all the way from Canal Street to Thirty-sixth Street. He breathed her air, and she his. The perspiration on their separate hands became one giddy sweat.

At Thirty-sixth Street, they separated lips but not hands long enough to cross over from the express track to the local and there to await the “R.” They hadn’t yet discussed destination. Maggie, with a natural instinct for nest-building, had already decided. She could – if he cared to offer her a present of food or other enticement – be persuaded to fly off to another destination. But she didn’t need to be courted and wooed; she already belonged.

The “R” came and they walked on – didn’t bother to look for seats, as their exit was only a stop away. Instead, they stood and stared at each other for the length of track from Thirty-sixth Street to Forty-fifth Street, then walked out through the open doors of the subway car, up the stairs and out into sunlight to face traffic moving down Fourth Avenue in the direction of downtown Brooklyn and the bridges to Manhattan. They then walked two blocks against oncoming traffic; turned left; then started up the hill towards Maggie’s apartment.

Youth rendered the climb easy. The sun shone bright. The air lay brisk. The wind played in their hair like fast mallets on a crystal xylophone. Their hearts, meanwhile, beat hard and deep like the bass groans of a pair of kettle drums. Yet throughout, they were silent.

Jorg allowed himself to be led. Maggie, normally a flower upon most walls, charged forward with her eyes and full attention focused on an imagined vanishing point in a tableau which, but for this man beside her, remained a wash of unfixed lines. She concentrated – and kept all of the pent-up passion and anticipation of their love-making firmly inside. She was not about to let any of it be wasted on the spendthrift air.

When her building finally came into view, Maggie dropped Jorg’s hand and reached into her purse. Like a mare now let loose to run, she quickened her pace. Her discovery of keys coincided almost perfectly with her arrival at the cast-iron gate in front of her building. She pushed it open and walked indifferently past flowers in glorious end-of-summer bloom, reached the front door, inserted the key, turned and opened. Only then did she look up and realize that Jorg was still a house and a half away.

She noted, however, that he could see her – noted, too, how he smiled in apparent tribute. She, in return tribute to her dogged, if not so athletic suitor, threw her purse down and reached up to the top button of her dress. She’d won the race, but she would gladly give up the prize. By the time Jorg reached Maggie’s front gate, she’d loosened every button clear down to her waist.

When Jorg turned the corner inside the gate and came upon her at the front door, his smile evanesced. Maggie looked at him with mouth half open, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, and dress flying at half mast. She grabbed his hand and pulled him through, then turned the latch to lock it. She led him by the hand directly through the living room, the kitchen, and into her bedroom. Only then did she stop to face him. Jorg was dumbfounded, and it showed. Maggie, always ready to accommodate, looked up at him and let a half-smile cross her lips. It was a half-smile of surrender, but also of camaraderie with this, her fellow truant. Behind it, and ready to burst forth like sun on a clear day’s dawn, was the smile of every happy passion of which the human heart was capable, intended for him alone, if only he could now devise some god-like means to pull that sun up from the horizon.

“Maggie, merry Maggie,” he whispered in her ear. “My Maggie.”

He’d found it! The most glorious sound in the world to any pair of human ears, and he’d found it: her name. Moreover, he’d had repeated it three times in succession and then added possession to repetition.

She threw her arms around his neck and put her mouth to his in equal parts lust and joy. She’d already known with something like absolute certainty she was going to make love to a man – and to a handsome man – that very morning. The knowledge had been sufficient to propel her on a homeward journey in which all else would be lost in white noise. What she could not have known – could only have imagined in her wildest, most untamed and unbridled fantasies – was that this man would take possession of her mind even before he took possession of her body – a body she was now only too willing to give.

When they finished their first kiss several minutes later, she opened her eyes, still only inches from his. Once again, no words were necessary, and yet a language poured out: a language that amounted to a poetry of reciprocal adoration.

Maggie stepped back. With the knowledge peculiar to her sex – as surely transmitted from one generation to the next as any gene or chromosome – she allowed herself to savor this last moment of anticipation. It was, she knew, the highest shelf of any love affair: a higher ecstasy than ten minutes before; a higher ecstasy then ten minutes hence. Ten hours from now, and certainly ten years from now, love would wear an entirely different habit. Its garments might be threadbare and worn, in some places quite comfortable and familiar and better than any new fashion. But this moment – in which this man looked at this woman with the appetite of an army, in which she still remained, to him, a mystery almost as painful as it was exquisite – this was the moment, for her, of sweetest surrender.

As if slowly raising a white flag, Maggie lifted her dress over her head and let it fall to the ground, then stepped out of her shoes. She was not wearing stockings or pantyhose, and so had only two articles of clothing left to remove before her mystery would cease to be mystique. Until this instant, Jorg had stood transfixed. He took her pause, however, as cue to prepare for engagement and immediately began to unbutton his own shirt, starting with the topmost buttons. She started with the buttons at the bottom. Their fingers met just below his sternum – hers being far more dexterous. In no time, they had him out of his shirt, shoes, socks, pants and wristwatch.

They now stood before each other wearing only a Fruit-of-the-Loom facsimile of fig leaves. Her leaf still concealed the last vestiges of a mystery, as well as an extremely precise barometer of her excitement. His was rather less successful at concealing much of anything. Maggie’s proven peripheral vision could hardly ignore the clamor down below, and she smiled in gratitude at her personal good fortune – but also because it is a woman’s natural wish to seek visible acknowledgment from the man she desires. Jorg blushed.

Maggie’s smile merely served to turn the heat up on that blush. To restore his demeanor to room temperature, she pushed up on her toes, craned her neck and gave him a quick peck on the forehead. Then she lowered her head just far enough to be at eye-level and crinkled her nose. That did it: it, and he, were fully restored.

She put her fingers inside the elastic band of his shorts to either side of his pelvis and began to push down. Only seconds earlier, those shorts had been a perfect tent – held in place with an Eagle Scout’s attention to detail by the “trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, etc.,” perpendicularity of Jorg’s penis. Now, however, perpendicularity was about to concede to pandemonium. As for scout’s honor – to hell with it in a perfect hand basket.

Then, suddenly, a snag. Maggie recognized that without direct intervention of some kind, the elastic band of Jorg’s shorts would get hung up, and that she and Jorg might not get any further before winter. She didn’t hesitate. She reached into his shorts, took hold, and lovingly pushed the cause of the snag up against the wall of his belly. His shorts now dropped easily to the floor, and Jorg stepped out of them.

The conspicuousness of Jorg’s own excitement now made it seem as if there were three people in the room, one of them an impetuous child. This third party demanded attention and, rather than be put off by his demands, Maggie chose action. She reached around and unsnapped her bra. It slipped down off her arms and fell to the floor where both gravity and Jorg had long wanted it. She next reached into the elastic of her own panties and pushed them down over her thighs, knees and calves, at which point they dropped easily to the floor. She then raised herself again, slowly, to a vertical position and pulled Jorg onto the bed with her.

It might’ve been only a minute. It might’ve been an hour. To both Maggie and Jorg, time was suspended, and they took no more notice of its passing than they would the shifting of tectonic plates.

When they finished, however, one thing would’ve been clear to any of us: the sum created by the joining of these two individuals was infinitely greater than their formerly isolated parts. Their simple joy in one another was the stuff of super novas, the energy of Genesis, a left-over spark from the Big Bang. It was, in a word, divine.

As the laws of physics dictate, they continued the expansion of their universe all day long and well into the evening. It was only once their own, limited, human energies had been lovingly spent into exhaustion that Maggie suggested she would go and get something for dinner.

Jorg insisted he would go: the hunter-gatherer role was his. Maggie protested. This was, after all, her neighborhood. He needed rest. But she protested in vain. Jorg was up, clothed, and already halfway out of the bedroom when she, still naked, grabbed him from behind, spun him around, and put her lips to his with such force that he might’ve tumbled backwards to the floor had she not thought to grab the bedpost behind her with one hand and throw her other arm around his waist.

She did. He was saved. And the coincidence was not lost on either of them. The second-most delightful collision ever witnessed by human eyes became, in that instant, their personal heirloom.

This, clearly, was a couple bent on collisions.

When they recovered from their near debacle a minute later, Maggie gave Jorg quick instructions on where to find Keyfood. This time, they cautiously made do with a quick kiss from lips to fingertips. Jorg then flew out through the front door, leaving it ajar. Maggie put on a robe, only then realized how dark it had become in her apartment, and turned on lights and the radio.

She would, this evening, prepare the dinner of a lifetime. Depending upon what her hunter-gatherer was able to bring back from the urban wilds, she would lavish on it – and on him – all the love, attention and art of which she was capable. She hoped he’d think to bring back a bottle of wine. Although long used to drinking water with her meals, tonight was a night for wine, Maggie thought – the fullest, deepest, reddest, richest a heart and palate could desire.

As she set about preparing the dinner table with her best and only silver, china and crystal, and with a pair of simple sterling silver candle-holders and her only two remaining candles, which she promptly lit, she allowed herself to reminisce upon the hours just past – almost as if the memory were already something more appropriately consigned to a scrapbook, or even to a reliquary.

She couldn’t believe her luck. Adrift for months in an ocean of no human contact, she’d found this island, this paradise, in – of all places – the subway. In her “W.” Had it only been a dream? She sighed, thinking for a moment that maybe it had been. In that same instant, however, she suddenly felt something trickle down her leg. She giggled and ran to the bathroom. No, it had distinctly not been a dream, and she reached down between her legs with a wad of toilet paper to remove the lovely proof of it.

Jorg, in the meantime, was equally delirious in his own, quietly male way.

She was not exactly a beauty. Nor had he been adrift in the same sea of loneliness these many months. But there was something about this woman he couldn’t quite put a finger on. She was not just another woman to him. She embodied womanhood. She was everything he could’ve desired in a partner. And he’d found her – of all places – on the subway. What irony, he thought, that he should find his woman – he was already thinking of her as his woman – on the “W.”

As Jorg dwelt for a moment on this singular thought, another occurred to him. This, their first dinner together, would not be complete without wine. He suspected she was not much of a drinker – also that she wouldn’t appreciate or even know how to appreciate the difference between one bottle of wine and the next. But that didn’t matter. He would seek out the fullest, deepest, reddest, richest wine the neighborhood could offer – price be damned!

He was now at the intersection and about to turn left in the direction of Keyfood. Instead, he looked up and down the avenue for the bright neon of a wine and liquor store, saw one in the distance, and jumped headlong off the sidewalk in its direction.

At that precise instant, Maggie heard a once favorite love song start up on the radio. She ran to it and turned up the volume – and instantly wished she could hold the song tight until Jorg’s return. But this, after all, was radio. Instead, she danced to it alone – happy in the thought that she’d no longer have to dance to this or any music alone. From this night forward – she now thought with eyes closed and just the hint of a smile on her lips of her beloved O’Henry – the pumpkins had indeed turned to a coach and six. She leaned her head onto an imaginary shoulder, stepped up and placed her feet on imaginary feet, and let the music move her and her imaginary partner around the living room. She was oblivious to everything else in the universe as she concentrated on the rhythm and the melody – and on the sway of her own body with that of her partner, her lover, her Jorg. Her thoughts braked briefly as they moved from O’Henry to Stephen Crane. She was no girl of the streets, she snickered inwardly. But she might well be a girl of the subways.

The song came to an end, and Maggie returned to the kitchen to await her lover’s return.

For a solid hour, she continued to allow herself the illusion she’d really found a lover, a partner, a soul-mate for life. The first time they’d made love, the sounds from her own throat had been, to her, like a thing out of the wild: unrehearsed, unexpected, unfamiliar and unmanageable. They’d come from somewhere deep inside her, from the heart of some beast for too long behind bars, followed by tears that seemed to know no end. The tears were her release of a loneliness that had kept her bound and caged for years. In letting them flow, without inhibition or shame, she was showing the front door to loneliness and isolation, bidding them exit from her home, from her heart, and wishing them farewell – but never to return again.

Later, and after standing for an hour in the kitchen, when she heard a chuckle and a soft knocking at the front door, she knew it was neither Jorg’s chuckle nor his knock. She already knew his laugh – full-throated and hearty – and suspected, too, that his knock would be neither soft nor sly, but proud, boisterous, unruly even. No, she knew exactly who’d just stepped around the corner for a smoke and a joke, and who’d now be at her front door expecting to find her and be invited back into her same, dreary lodgings.

Maggie blew out the candles and took them out of their holders. She wrapped her silver back in its velvet pouch; put the pouch back in its own tiny hope chest; put the chest back in its place at the rear of her cupboard. She retired her only two crystal wine glasses back to their shelf, inverting them so as to keep the bowls dust-free over the coming months and years.

She then slipped out of her bathrobe, put on her nightgown, slid in under the covers and turned out her nightlight. The room and her apartment were in total darkness except for the reflected light of the moon that now shone in through her bedroom window. She put a wad of pillow into her mouth and bit down. Eventually, she fell asleep.

As the months wore on, days and nights began to resemble one another, and they all resembled the first. The only real variation in Maggie’s routine was a steadily declining appetite – and with it, a steady decline in her attention even to water. Her gradual loss of muscle tone was something she hardly noticed, as she rarely used muscles for anything but the short walk from bed to table and back again. Nor did she remark that her voice had lost its timber as she had long ceased talking to anyone – including herself. But no matter. Even if by some miracle she'd managed to retain her voice, the lips with which she might’ve formed her words had long since shriveled up.

Maggie had only one errand left, as she’d had only one real love in life – two maybe, but only one constant one. She resolved to pay a visit to the one constant love of her life – and for this, she knew, she’d have to conjure up strength from some extraordinary place.

A banana was the one item of food left in her cupboard, and she ate it. It was well past ripe, but the softness of the flesh on her dessicated, blackened gums was welcome relief from what might otherwise have been a chore. She took a glass down from the same cupboard, let the water run through the faucet until several days’ accumulated sediment had flushed through and the water had become clear. She filled the glass and forced herself to swallow three-quarters of its contents. Then she lay down and waited for night. The skin around her eyes had contracted to such a degree that blinking came only with difficulty -- never mind closing them for something as useless as sleep.

She didn’t know exactly how many hours of darkness had passed – nor was there any visible migration of the moon to tell her what time it might be – as she got out of bed, felt around on the floor for clothing, and dressed herself, willy-nilly. By the front door, she felt around again in the dark for an overcoat, gloves, and winter boots. She was thankful that all of her clothes and footwear now felt two or three sizes too large, and that she could slip into them with a minimal expenditure of energy. She would need that energy, she knew, for the walk.

She opened her front door, then closed and locked it again. As she turned around to make her way to the front gate, she noticed that snow had begun to fall – and shivered as occasional flakes fell upon her face, then melted and trickled down her chin and neck.

As she labored her way down the street, it occurred to her that she’d guessed right about the hour. Whatever activity there might otherwise have been at that hour had now been chased indoors by the arrival of the snow. She’d meet no resistance and no curious onlookers.

A block and a half down to Fourth Avenue, then two blocks over to the Forty-fifth Street entrance, and she was there. She descended the stairway to a bank of automats, paused in front of one of them, but then realized her vision had deteriorated to the point she could no longer make out the instructions. And so, she walked the few remaining feet to the attendant’s cage, reached into her pocket, withdrew the last two dollars in her possession, and slipped them through the small opening. Eyes inside the cage registered the cash and gave back, without comment, a fare card. The transaction took place without either party’s having registered the presence of the other – as neatly and cleanly as if two automats had conducted an indifferent electronic handshake.

She pushed through the turnstile, then walked slowly, deliberately down the steps to the subway platform and paused momentarily next to the tracks. There were no headlights to greet her – nor did she have any reading material. Instead, she used the predictable irregularity of the “R” to walk to the far end of the platform.

Upon her arrival at the other end a full five minutes later, she saw the first glimmer of headlights in the distance – probably three or maybe even four subway stops away – and took up the precise position at which she imagined the last door of the train would open.

Roughly fifteen seconds later, she felt the first chill winds blow against her face as the head car of the approaching train pushed the air through the subway tunnel ahead of it. Only seconds later did the train itself scream into the station. The sound to Maggie’s ears, which had known virtual silence for several months, was excruciating. But she didn’t bother to cover them.

When the “R” finally came to a halt, Maggie discovered she’d misjudged her position. This was a night train – and so, a couple of cars shorter than she’d once been used to. The last pair of doors of the last car now stood open, but at some fifteen yards’ distance. She knew she had only so much time to reach them before they’d close – making no allowance for misjudgments or slow-moving passengers foolish enough to be out at this most ungodly hour.

She did her best to run towards the car, and had cut the distance by almost three-quarters when she heard the once-familiar double chime suggesting that the train’s doors would close momentarily.

A sound of quiet desperation escaped her throat. She raced on and – as the doors began to close – reached out and stuck her arm through the rubber bumpers. The door jambs caught and held that arm in a lock-grip of wills: hers to enter; the conductor’s to move on. She stood her ground and stared at the part of her body that was already inside the car, as if by staring hard and long enough, she could will the rest of her body to follow. After a few seconds' impasse, the conductor seemed to consent and re-opened the doors long enough for Maggie to step inside.

She immediately grabbed a handrail so as not to be thrown to the floor when the train, as it surely would, started back up with a jolt.

It did. She held fast and didn’t fall.

As the train gained momentum towards the Thirty-sixth Street station, she walked the few steps across the car and positioned herself in front of the door, once again grabbing a handrail so as not to be thrown by too hard a brake.

At the transfer point, she stepped out, walked across the platform and immediately looked to her left for the arrival of an express train. When she spotted two indistinct headlights, her heart began to race. As those same headlights grew brighter, and as she felt the first suggestion of an ejection wind from the approaching train, she stared hard at the front window, still far in the distance. A black letter against a bright yellow background was just beginning to come into focus – a collection of lines. Her heart raced even faster in anticipation until she realized that the black letter consisted of the wrong collection of lines: two vertical and a single diagonal. Before long, she could confirm that it was the “N” line – the other express train – and so, bound for a different destination.

She stepped back as the “N,” like the “R” before it, entered the station. Apparently, no one in the MTA had yet devised a way to mollify the angry sound of steel riding upon steel, whether of wheels against tracks or of brakes against wheels. Or if they had, they weren’t just now taking pains to apply that knowledge.

At this point, Maggie frankly didn’t care. This was the “N” line. She just didn’t care.

She waited on the platform for the “N” to spit out and then re-ingest a few passengers; then watched as it released its brakes and departed. The station was practically deserted. And now, for one of the few times in her life, she would have to wait for the arrival of her beloved “W.”

She wouldn’t have to wait long, however – of that, she was certain. Nothing else in her life had ever been so steadfast and regular as her “W.” And now that the “N” had just pulled out, she could be almost certain that the next express train would be her "W."

As she waited, two additional “R” trains came through the station. No one got off the first. A single passenger exited the second – but at the opposite end of the platform. There’d be no jostling for position once her “W” arrived, no competition for attention. The “W” would be all hers.

She looked again to her left and saw two headlights. They were still weakly shimmering – suggesting that the train was definitely in motion, but gaining strength by the second. Then she saw the single black letter against the yellow background and waited a few seconds longer to confirm its identity. Gradually, two distinct sets of diagonal lines came into focus: the double Vs of her “W.”

There was no mistaking it now, and she smiled as she contemplated the train’s timely arrival. Her heart raced only slightly as her arms rose up spontaneously to greet her beloved. She stepped out of her boots and planted her feet on the edge of the platform. The train drew closer to the station, and Maggie felt the kiss of cold wind blow lovingly against her cheeks and through her hair. The rumble of the train’s hard steel wheels against equally hard steel track grew louder, louder, louder still – clamoring for her as it had once clamored for her private heroines, Anna and Emma.

The head car with its unmistakable pair of Vs was three seconds out of the station when Maggie leaned forward and left the platform. She now had the full attention of her one, constant lover – and they would not ever again be separated.

Enrique’s Wine & Liquors, in bright red, was the last thing he ever saw. “Cuidado!” was the last thing he ever heard. Maggie’s ruddy, freckled cheeks just after their lovemaking was the final frame in a rapid succession of mental images he took with him, as they say, to the grave. A car descending much too fast towards Fifth Avenue – “out of control” was how onlookers later described it to the police – slammed into him, lifting his body up into the air and hurling it across the intersection, through the plate-glass window of the storefront on the opposite side of the street and all the way to the back wall. There were few unbroken bones left in Jorg’s body when it came to rest and slumped to the tile floor like a bloody rag-doll. It didn’t matter. Jorg had been killed instantly, as the cerebral fluid inside his cranium was far from sufficient to absorb first the impact of his brain against his skull, then of the skull against the metal hood of the speeding car.

The car had continued on; had increased its speed; had disappeared into traffic; had never returned to the scene of what was now a crime. The drivers had never been found; the crime, never solved.

Maggie would never learn the details of Jorg’s disappearance. He was unknown in the neighborhood – and so, no one could possibly have put the two of them together. She wouldn’t have thought to go out looking for him until it was too late, until the ambulance had come and gone, until the police had concluded their report, until the crowds of gawkers had dispersed, until life on the street had returned to life on the street. There was the matter of the storefront, boarded up overnight, and which Maggie would see only the next morning. But it was not within her power of conjecture to assume anything between it and Jorg’s disappearance – at least not in the mental fog through which she’d already begun to drift by midnight of the night before.

By the end of the next day, the plate-glass window had been replaced – as if no accident had ever happened, as if Jorg had merely been a wisp of a memory. With no bones left behind, he was no longer even a relic.


Russell Bittner lives and scribbles on a small island off the East Coast of the United States. The island is called ‘Long’ and his borough is called ‘Brooklyn.’ Some of his work ends up on the ‘Net or on the printed page; most of it ends up in the trash. “Collisions” stayed for a long time in his head – but eventually came spilling out in an effort to be rid of itself, if not of him.

© 2008 by Russell Bittner





Home | Fiction | Illustrations | Epigrams | Romans
Liaisons for Laughs | Random Frivolity | Weblog
| Hightower's Antics | Reviews
Pawtawnee Chronicles
| Poetry | Fiction Archives

| About |
| Submissions | Links

Copyright 2001-2011 Sliptongue
unless otherwise noted. / All rights reserved. Reproduction
of material, in whole or in part, from any Sliptongue pages without
written permission is strictly prohibited.