real truth is this: The whole world is joy. Heaven is a festival
all year long. Of all lies, the greatest falsehood is melancholy.”
Androgynous, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.)
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,
When she first saw him, it was, of all places, on the “R”
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
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
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
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
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
He smiled as he handed her the book after first carefully dusting
off the cover, then looking at the title and the author’s
you,” she gasped.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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