untitled by Rebecca Clingman
Kids always want to sit at the front of the first subway car, which has the big plate-glass window, so that they can watch the big dark tunnel rushing towards them. Stella liked doing that too. She even resented the happy toddlers who took those seats before she could get to them. She even resented the grandmothers accompanying the toddlers, who would take up yet more front-car seats (and even you get there first, you have to offer your seats to them). So, on that day she changed up her strategy. On the platform, she waited where the end of the train would pull up, cause the last car also had a plate-glass window like in the front, but less of a rush for seats. The new way worked out—she was able to take a seat right next to the window. Now, she could watch the dark tunnel rushing away from her instead towards her, and it was at least as good. It gave her the pleasant, powerless feeling of being sucked into a vacuum.
She could also, under pretext of enjoying the view, covertly look at her fellow passengers by way of their reflections. The window, which was slanted, distorted their faces into those of bandy, Goya-like saints. It transformed her own narrow eyes into great big gobs and her long nose became even longer. She looked so mournful. Her tight curls became soft waves. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. She was beautiful.
At the next stop, a woman sat down in the seat across from her. Everything about this woman was big. Just so big. Her forehead was broad, and was emphasized by the way her hair was gelled and scraped back into a tight ponytail. She had full fat fingers and thick, drawn-on eyebrows. Her tracksuit pants failed to cover the full length of her legs, which were spread far apart on the seat she occupied across from Stella. Stella allowed herself only a split-second glance, and then turned quickly to the window to see what magic trick it would perform on the big woman’s reflection. She wasn’t disappointed: the scraped-back forehead became a comically peaked, shiny dome superimposed onto the rushing dark tunnel. Egghead, thought Stella, and a grin slipped out involuntarily.
At that moment, the big woman also looked up into the plate-glass window, and through the triangulated glances and reflections, she looked straight into the reflected wicked eyes in Stella’s head. Egghead stared at Gob-Eyes, and for a moment neither was certain if the reflected eye contact counted for real. Stella came to first, and quickly stared at the floor. Just then, the train pulled into the most important station on the line, and in a rushing tide of human bodies, the car nearly emptied, and then filled again. Stella looked up furtively to see if Egghead’s reflection was still there with her. It was, looming as ever. And oops! They looked into each other’s eyes again.
Egghead scowled, and shoved her hands into her tracksuit pockets: white Adidas Classic. “You want something?” she said, speaking straight to the plate-glass window. Stella said nothing. Maybe reflected remarks didn’t count for real, she hoped, grabbing her knuckles with her thumbs. White knuckles. “Where are you going?” said Egghead. Don’t respond, Stella decided. But--“Hey, I said, where are you going?” There was something almost flirtatious in Egghead’s voice.
No avoiding the interaction now. The women looked at each other’s real faces. “I’m on my way to my boyfriend’s,” said Stella hurriedly. The lie was reflexive and pointless—she had the impression of having offered overly personal (if untrue—Stella had no boyfriend) information that wouldn’t interest Egghead. Stupid brat. Then again, it was Egghead who’d asked, so who was the intruder? The only thing Stella could think to do was to press forward, get this woman away from her. “He’s a software developer—or I mean, he’s in his last year of school, so that’s what he’s going to be. And like, he codes in his free time—all the time--so he sort of already is. I hardly ever see him, he’s always in his room with the door closed, tapping away on the keyboard. One time I found him wearing the same t-shirt four days in a row.” She paused to gauge the results.
Egghead leaned forward on her knees. The track pants inched even further up her thick ankles. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah.” Despite herself, Stella once again averted her eyes to the plate-glass window. There, her own beautiful gob-eyes and solemn forehead steadied her in her lie; she didn’t try to look back at Egghead. “Yeah.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s a real looker though, so. He could pull it off.” A real looker? Stella didn’t actually talk like this, did she? “Really hot. We met in a computer science class and I fell in love on the spot.” She hated Egghead for making her sound like a fool.
So Stella stared pointedly at the white tracksuit pants, because they were an ugly choice, but not something inherently ugly about Egghead. She wanted to cut, but not too deep. She needed out of this train. When the car pulled into the next station, Stella leaned forward and took a hold of the pole, even though this wasn’t her stop. Without saying goodbye to Egghead, she took a final glance into the plate-glass window at the two of them next to each other. She flinched at the final eye contact, and stood up. She’d walk the twenty minutes home.