The man sees the woman on his way to work. She labors across the street, weighed down by straining shopping bags, wavering on small heels against uneven cobblestones. She’s older, not old but not quite young enough to safely call middle-aged. The light is grey, cliched in this morning hour, forgiving some of the tiredness etched beneath her eyes. Her hair is unkempt. She looks miserable, simply, and the man has a fleeting moment where he considers lending a hand, helping her across the stones, perhaps lifting one of the bags threatening to break from her weathered hands and accompanying her to her destination.
He doesn’t. He passes her at the corner, each of them averting their eyes, each of them tired, each of them prisoner to the rules of these streets. The man thinks about the woman as he waits for the subway, as he stands limply in the wet heat, wanting but unwilling to loosen his tie, shifting his grip on his briefcase, his palm slipping against the soft leather, the fingertips of his other hand blackening from newspaper print never quite dried. He thinks about the woman as he counts cigarette butts on the rails, as he categorizes trash floating in the mud between the tracks, as he watches a rat climb the barrier opposite his platform. He thinks about the woman in his too-warm, slightly damp, half-awake stupor, and for no real reason beyond boredom he thinks about this woman and invents her story.
It is not a kind one. She is lonely, he imagines, and recollecting on her shoes (which were wedges, cork-bottomed, with some kind of not-leather, too-shiny white sandal upper), her pants (a dull khaki, and high-waisted, but not in the fashionable way), and her hair (which was really the saddest thing about her, somehow colorless without being grey), he imagines that she is poor, too, not from his neighborhood. He focuses his memory — or some version of it — and sees her shopping bags as old, their paper seams worn the way of a brown bag at lunchtime, packed in the pre-dawn. She is someone’s housekeeper, he decides, some caretaker of a loft or duplex anywhere in his hip and too-expensive neighborhood. But the hour was too early, he realizes, and she was white, wasn’t she? Tanned, leather almost, but certainly white. He imagines she has a name like Julia or Tracey — something old, something nobody names their children anymore. She isn’t someone’s housekeeper, because housekeepers here are not white with old Italian-American names and they don’t come to clean houses before he (this man, the one standing uncomfortably waiting for his train) goes to work, beating his boss in only to spend the early hours in unproductively. This man with the expensive briefcase loosens his tie, absentmindedly, almost pleasantly distracted by the puzzle of this sad-looking woman alone and struggling across the cared-after cobblestones. He wonders why he’s never seen her before, and he constructs a new narrative wherein she is just passing through, one of those kinds of people who takes a new route to or from work every other day. He’s heard about those types: the ones who realize the risks of monotony in routine. He is not that kind of man.
And the woman is not that kind of woman. Those people look up, he’s heard, they walk as though they’re looking forward to something they’re not quite sure of. Excited, almost, but intent. Searching. This woman looked down, her heels too much for the stones, her legs too old for the imbalance wrought by their combination with her heavy and straining bags. He has never seen this woman before. Perhaps she is a visitor, although not a friend of anyone on his block. Maybe, the man thinks, she has a new job somewhere near here, where he stands waiting for the subway. Maybe he’ll see her tomorrow.
His train comes with a thunder, as always, a hot and slightly suffocating breeze, and as he tightens his grip on his briefcase and re-rolls his wet newspaper in his palm he has the sense that he met someone new today, already. Because that is how this city is, he knows but does not think: one hears new stories every day, born in moments and glances, crafted half-consciously in endless minutes spent alone and waiting.
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