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She and I

Like a bolt of lightning, our eyes lock for a fraction of a second. I shift my weight to the left and examine the filthy concrete. I sense the prickly heat crawling up my neck and clutch my purse against my chest, concealing the designer logo. I feel her eyes graze my skin, but I fix mine on the empty rails in front of me, stealing an occasional furtive glance. She crosses her legs and fingers the giant plastic ring in her right ear. My heart hammers inside my chest. I hear a faint rustle, and then the acrid smell of tobacco smoke invades my nostrils. I bend my yellow ticket between thumb and pointer, causing it to arch against the palm of my hand. Somehow, the mindless action soothes my jangling nerves.

My silver Rolex reads 4:09 AM. 360 seconds until salvation. She yawns audibly. A plastic click echoes against the cement walls. Then my attuned ears catch the faint, tinny sound of crashing, clanging, screaming, broadcast from minute speakers. The corner of my right eye glimpses a cracked iPod, clasped in vice-like black talons. The fluorescent lights overhead flicker ominously. A puff of smoke whispers through the air and I stifle a reflexive cough. For an instant, the silence crowds around my head and I realize the music has ended. My pulse throbs in my skull. Something creaks loudly, and I wheel around. She scrolls through her playlist, headphones all but engulfing the metal-encrusted lobes of cartilage. A jagged shock of jet-black hair forms a wall between us.

I sigh and rummage through my handbag, extracting my slim, silvery-smooth smartphone. It vibrates and an alarm appears on the glassy screen. Subway. 4:15am. The seconds float along, each one suspended in an ether of empty time. I can almost hear her individual breaths as she drags on her cigarette, and I can almost feel the tar invading my own lungs, leeching them of their vitality. Deep within the bowels of the city, a rushing wave of speed and light rumbles. She tosses her cigarette on the ground and crushes it beneath one faux leather platform heel. It dies amid a flurry of grey smoke.

The train whirls past, swishing to a graceful halt. The doors glide open and the automated voice begins to babble. I clutch my purse and step aboard. A grizzled man dozes at the back of the car, a trail of spittle winding its way down the front of his grey sweatshirt. A teenage boy with scruffy blond hair languidly sips a coke through lips studded with piercings. I scurry to a seat as far removed as possible, and prepare to sink into a blissful slumber. Thump. The seat shudders and a wave of tobacco-flavored air engulfs me. I glance to my right, straight into those dark-rimmed, electric blue eyes.

She reaches a hand into the left pocket of her torn, skin-tight jeans. In the process, her arm brushes against mine, sending tingles racing up my spine. She removes a small box and opens it, extracting a thin slip wrapped in paper. My heart nearly stops until I realize what it is. She unwraps the stick of gum and shoves it into her mouth with a small sigh of pleasure. I wonder, tangentially, whether the stuff ever gets stuck in her tongue piercing. Turning away, I brace myself as the train gains momentum, but then I feel a light tap on my shoulder, as though a bug has landed there. Without a word, she extends a hand towards me, opening her palm to reveal a piece of baby blue bubble gum. Her demeanor exudes a brash kind of screw-you confidence, yet her eyes are smiling. “You want a piece?”



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