The train barreled through the tunnel, knocking me off balance as my fingers gripped the aluminum pole. My legs sunk low from the night of marching.
“Will anyone remember you were here tonight?" the man with the microphone had asked.
The camera was inches away, my face awash in light. We’d walked across that massive bridge, thousands of us, traffic cheering us on from below and buildings projecting our slogans high above. The procession had been long and thick. It was warm and it glowed and it swept up even those who hadn’t intended to march that evening, but now that we’d come back to solid ground, our mass was dispersing into the cold, solitary night.
“I don’t know,” I answered into the camera’s relentless bulb, “I don’t know.” The train was in a hurry. They always are. I'd come to add my 'plus one' to the eight million souls in this, the biggest of cities, and the central question remained: will anyone remember you? Great, big, amazing, beastly New York; so many people you can’t help but feel alone.
The train tossed me forward as its brakes were applied. We came to a stop that was not my stop. A handful of people stepped out, a fresh set stepped in, and off we went, rushing away to make up for the time squandered at the station.
The train lurched and each car rattled in succession along the dark, surly track. I tightened my grip on the pole. My fingers held fast. I was marveling at these fingers, at their ability to hold me steady, when I saw another hand slightly below mine grasping onto the same aluminum pole. The fingers, long and sweet like dessert spoons, held tight too. The skin was paled from the cold and little clouds of pink rose from beneath the nails. Those fingers were perfect for holding on, perfect for holding onto, and I followed them up the coat sleeve, over the scarf, and beneath the hat’s paperboy brim to a face unlike any I’d seen while marching or singing or stamping my feet to be noticed. It was a face that said, “I know you, I’ve always known you.” It was a face not to be forgotten. The girl’s eyes were cast down to the squat woman at her side and her mouth was slightly open, either about to speak or about to smile.
The girl nodded, listened and nodded. She invited the old woman to continue her story. She smiled, raised her eyebrows, gasped with a loose jaw, and the woman, who was no doubt a stranger and likely rode train after train without an audience, delighted in her own tale as if she too were listening to it with rapt attention. I looked on, standing in the darkened periphery of their lit stage.
I continued to watch the girl’s lips as she spoke. The oversized buttons on her coat wrapped up a world of warmth and a wisp of hair wandered across one eye. My ears burned and my stomach clenched. It occurred to me that if I was wrong about this, wrong about her, then I likely had it all wrong. Her fingers were a single inch, one lousy, insurmountable inch from mine. I could stretch my pinky and hook it around her thumb. It was all there before us, more real than the smeared windows or the tunnel walls or the advertisements for addiction assistance. I could touch it. It was an inch away.
Suddenly, the girl’s fingers disappeared. I seized the pole as she leaned down, kissed the cheek of her new acquaintance, and exited the train. The turnstiles stood directly across the platform. I wheezed as if the water had rushed out of the tub and left me there naked and shivering. I leapt around the old woman, bumped her slightly and called out a fledgling apology through the closing doors, and stumbled onto the platform to push blindly through the turnstile. The girl’s coat trailed behind her as she climbed the stairs in twos. I scrambled onward and bounded up the steps, her coat just out of view despite my urgency, and at the top of the steps I threw myself into the cold, formless night. I stopped and squinted out into the darkness.
The streets were empty. A vendor was packing up his cart. The girl seemed to have vanished, to have been swallowed up into a city that grew stronger with each soul it consumed, and then I spotted her, on the corner, standing in the shadow of a slumbering streetlamp. Her neck was craned as she studied the intersecting signs above. She had left the station in a hurry and now she had stopped, unsure of her destination.
I hurried down the sidewalk. Even as I neared her, my mind was frozen. In this lowly landscape, how could I possibly approach her without inciting alarm? A proper beginning eluded me. I could think of no approach that hadn’t already been thought of and implemented by each of the city’s predators. How was she to know what I knew, that I was the face she hadn’t found walking through her crowds of thousands and that together we might avoid rambling onward so lost and so alone? Perhaps we could simply be lost together, embarking on an adventure that would thrill us for a long, long time. Again, I was so close I could touch it.
I stopped several paces behind her. I waited, hoping my presence would announce itself and she’d turn and ask for directions. She stepped off the curb and looked down the street to the right, got back on the sidewalk and stood on her tiptoes to peer to the left, and then spun in a complete circle. I inhaled as she turned. This was the beginning, this was how it started, but then the girl whirled right past me. Somehow, she hadn’t seen me. Do it again, for god’s sake spin around one more time, I’m right here. Instead, she took another look to the left, pulled her little cap low over her eyes, and darted across the street. On the far side a cab appeared like an apparition and the girl was gone.
“Hello,” I finally said to the emptiness, “You’re my one wondrous story. Please don’t leave me.”
I stood on the corner, my legs shrinking into themselves. I looked up at the street signs. I recognized neither. The wind gusted at me and I turned to the right, then to the left. I shivered. Alone once more, I slunk back down the stairs and into the station. Soon there would be another train. It would swoop me up and send me barreling away onto some new, distant destination. I would disappear from this place, go searching for pockets of warmth in other faceless crowds, walk until my boots wore through to the pavement, peek at faces scrunched between tiny-brimmed hats and bulky scarves, all the while unsure of whether anyone would ever remember I was there.
Ben Bellizzi works as a commercial fisherman in northern California. He has published works of fiction and nonfiction in a variety of magazines and is a graduate of the California College of the Arts MFA program.