It’s eight o’clock on a Monday morning as I stand outside on the subway platform. The sky is a dark gray and rain falls in bullets. The gust of wind that blows makes me shiver. It’s autumn and bipolar temperatures seem to be all the rage these days, ever since summer left. The weather just can’t decide if it wants to be hot or cold, but I know it wants to be winter already.
I close my eyes, wishing I were in bed asleep. I hear the clink of the tracks, a sign that the train is coming and I open my eyes. Someone stands near the platform edge, several feet to my right. Even though he wears a navy windbreaker over a white and blue button-down shirt with his hands shoved into his pockets, I could tell he feels cold and uncomfortable. I don’t want to be here any more than he does, but life is life. Sometimes we have to do things even if we don’t like it, like waking up so early for school.
He turns in my direction like he knows I’m watching him, and smiles at me. I smile back, but then someone steps in between us, blocking my view of him, and I turn away. The train rushes into the station, my skirt flutters around my legs, and I adjust my bag over my shoulder. The doors open and I step in after a large man with a red duffle bag. I scan the car for my favorite spot, a seat by the window, but the seat is taken, so I take the empty spot near it. The man that smiled at me sits across from me. He doesn’t look at me, but at the window over my left shoulder, maybe at the rain that’s pelting the glass.
The train fills up after two stops. A tall, balding man in a suit and tie stands in front of me. His newspaper is soaked, but he reads it anyway. The dark gray letters leak onto my hands. I stare at the constant dripping before the man walks to the other end of the train car for a seat.
I look up and see the man who sits across from me. He holds out a handkerchief.
“For your hand,” he says.
I take the handkerchief and wipe the wet, smudged letters away. I wonder why someone like him would have a handkerchief, but curiosity fades when I see the morning glories. They’re indigo sun-stars, growing out of the corners of the soft, white cloth. I regret ruining them as I hand back the handkerchief with an off-key “thank you.”
The man smiles and nods his head.
The train stops. My favorite seat is empty now. I switch seats and I look towards the man who gave me the handkerchief. His eyes are downcast as if he’s in mourning. Then he stands, giving his seat to a woman with a child that enters the train. I hear the rain tapping the glass. I close my eyes and lean my head against the window. I hear an old woman cough and someone sings, lost in their own world, and I’m lost in my own as well.
“You might miss your stop.”
I open my eyes, glancing at the station that speeds by through the window. I must’ve dozed off. Now, there’re only three stops before it’s my stop. How does time go by so fast? Then I turn to the person that spoke. The man with the morning glories handkerchief sits next to me and gives me a small smile.
I smile back. “It’s fine,” I say. “My professor doesn’t take attendance, so it’s okay if I’m late. And I wasn’t really sleeping, just closing my eyes. I’m…not a morning person.”
“Just checking,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. “And thank you for the handkerchief. I’m sorry I ruined it.”
“Don’t be,” he says. “It’s supposed to be used. And you needed it.”
“The morning glories are beautiful,” I say. “Like indigo sun-stars.”
He looks at me and grins.
“To be honest, I had no idea what morning glories looked like until I googled it,” I tell him. “And indigo sun-stars were the first thing that came to mind.”
He gives a laugh that makes me smile.
I watch him as he takes out the handkerchief and fingers the flowers. He looks young, probably in his mid-to-late twenties. His hair is dark golden and short, and some of it falls over his forehead as he leans back and closes his eyes. I don’t know what color his eyes are though. I wasn’t paying attention.
“This is Second Avenue,” the train’s conductor says as the train pulls into the station.
“My stop,” I say. “Hope you have a nice day.”
“Likewise,” he says.
He moves to a side to let me pass and I walk out of the train. As I make my way up the stairs, I look over my shoulder and see that he’s sitting by the window now. He sees me and grins. His eyes are green – my favorite color.
I glance down at my watch. It's eight – Monday morning. The sky is clear and the air is warm, unlike last week. I make my way to the subway platform when I see her. This time, she wears a long pink skirt, cream-colored long-sleeved top and a fringed light pink hijab, unlike the all-black she wore last week. She doesn't notice me, as she closes her eyes for a few seconds and stifles a yawn. Then I remember her saying that she's not a morning person.
The train comes and she turns in my direction. I smile. She smiles back.
"Good morning," I say as she walks towards me.
"Good morning," she greets back.
The train doors open. I stand off to the side and gestured for her to go in.
"Thank you," she says as she walks in. I nod and follow in after her.
The train is not as crowded as it was last week. She takes the seat by the window and I sit down next to her. She looks out the window and I wonder what she's thinking. But I bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from thinking any further. I can't afford to, even though I was the one that spoke to her in the first place.
"You can rest your eyes if you want," I say to her. "I'll let you know when it's your stop."
She turns to face me and I see her blush, shaking her head. "I can't now," she says. "You've made me self-conscious."
I smile, feeling my own face heat up under her gaze. I stare up at the ceiling of the train. I want to know more about her, but I can't. I'm not supposed to. It would hurt me. And I've never let myself care about others. I can't stop myself, "Were you late for class last week?"
"Nope," she says. "I was on time." I see her smile from the corner of my eye. "What about you? Were you late to wherever you were going?"
"Nope," I say.
"Do you go to school?" she asks. "Or work?"
I want to tell her, but I can't. I can't let myself get attached, or let anyone else get too close. It's hard keeping up my guard, but it's the only way I can live longer.
"I'm sorry," she says when I don't respond. "I'm being nosy."
No, you're not, I want to say, you have a right to ask – but I can't. I can't let anyone know me too well.
I see her turn away, her head leaning towards the window. The rising sun's low in the horizon, but it illuminates her face, making her brown eyes shine rose gold.
"I work at home," I say. "As an online accountant. I manage budgets and taxes. I go through tons of spreadsheets and charts. It's tedious and boring, but it's easy. I'm just good with numbers, I guess." I don't know why I'm telling her this. I shouldn't be telling her anything, but I have. I promised Mom I wouldn't. I'm sorry, Mom.
She turns and a small smile touches her lips. "You didn't have to tell me," she says.
"I wanted to," I say, looking down at my hands.
"You don't look like an accountant," she says.
I turn, curious. "What do I look like?"
She shrugs. "I don't want to be stereotypical or offensive, or maybe it's just me, but I thought you were a software engineer or someone who works in tech or something."
I laugh. "No offense taken," I say. "That's more of a compliment. Thank you."
She blushes and turns away. The train enters the tunnel and I see that she has closed her eyes. I glance at my watch. There are still about thirty minutes before the train reaches her stop. I think I'll let her sleep.
"You're a morning person, aren't you?"
I turn and see her gazing at me. I look somewhere over her head at the darkness of the tunnel and the streaks of light passing by. "Yes, I am," I say. "I rise with the sun."
"I can never do that," she says, looking down at her bag. "But I do wake up before the sun."
"To pray," I say.
She looks at me. "Yeah," she says as if surprised that I know. "But then I go back to sleep for a while."
I give her a nod and turn away. I want to tell her how I know. I want to tell her that I'm not just another racist white guy. I want to tell her that despite what the media and the people say, she isn't someone to be feared or hated. I don't know how she'll respond when I tell her, but...I can't. I can't tell her anything, because I'm afraid that I might put my health at risk.
I steal a glance at her. She leans her head against the window and turns the silver bracelet around her left wrist. On closer inspection, it's a watch. It's the only piece of jewelry she wears. She doesn't wear any makeup; there are fading acne scars around her cheekbones and chin. I close my eyes and smile to myself for no reason.
Time must've sped by because it's her stop now. She turns to me and gives me a small smile.
"It was nice seeing you again," she says. "I hope you have a nice day and a nice week."
"Likewise," I say.
I turn so she could pass, but when she does pass me, her skirt clings to my knee before it lets go. I slide to where she sat, leaning towards the window and looking for her among the crowd. I find her looking over her shoulder towards me as my train pulls away. I grin at her and she smiles back.
I close my eyes and lean back against the seat, exhaling. My heart starts to pound when it's not supposed to and I stare up at the ceiling and count backward from a hundred. When my heart rate has dropped, I find myself breathing aloud.
"Twenty-Third Street," the train's conductor says.
It's my stop and I get off.
I make my way down the street and I see Dr. Wake waiting for me in his office. His round frameless glasses are on the tip of his nose and he pushes them up when he sees me.
"Good morning," I say.
"Good morning," he greets back. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," I say before he ushers me towards the patient's room. He begins his usual checkup and frowns when he measures my heart rate.
"Has something happened?" he asks. "Your face is flushed." I'm surprised when he says this. I expected him to say something about my heart rate.
I pause for a moment. I can't lie to Dr. Wake. He's known me before I was born, and he knows whenever I'm lying. He's as good a cardiologist as he is a psychologist.
"I met a girl," I say, not meeting his eyes.
"Go on," he says.
I look up at him. I expected him to scold me, but I guess I'm too old for that now. There's disappointment in his gray eyes, his mouth is a tight thin line, and his eyebrows are knotted.
"I'm sorry," I say, looking down at my hands.
"You've lived far longer than I thought possible, young man," he says. "And you will if you keep your heart in check."
"I know," I say.
"This isn't the first time you've met a girl," he says. "How much does she know?"
"Hardly anything," I mutter.
"She won't leave me like that other girl," I snap. "I swear I haven't told her anything."
"Anger," he says with his usual calm.
I glare at the rising numbers on the monitor, feeling a pain in my chest before I sigh aloud, look up at the ceiling, and count down from one hundred. Then the pain is gone.
"Good," Dr. Wake says. "Good. So, you told me last week that you took a different route than your usual one. Do you still take that route?"
"Is the trip easier than your previous route?"
I nod again.
"Good, good. Now, would you like to tell me how your week went?"
Monday morning – it's 8:16. The sky is patched with clouds and the weather report said it might rain later. I know I'm late, but I've been waiting on this platform since 7:56. For him. I know he doesn't come on any other days except Monday. But he's late. I have a feeling that he used to take a different route before he changed to this one and that he switched back. Or maybe he's taking another route. Or maybe he's taking a cab. Or maybe he's sick. I hope he's not sick.
The train pulls up into the station and I don't see him anywhere. My heart sinks. I know I shouldn't see him on a regular basis, but it's nice to have someone to talk to. Otherwise, I'll just sleep on the train.
The train doors open and I linger for a few seconds, glancing towards the stairs, hoping he'll come. The doors begin to close and I step inside. Then the doors open back up and remain open as I make my way to my favorite spot. I stare out the window, but I still don't see him. I close my eyes, leaning my head against the window. I hope he's okay.
I hear someone run inside the train just as the doors close. Someone slams into the seat next to me, his leg colliding with mine. I open my eyes and turn to see him. His hair is tousled, his windbreaker is open, and he's wearing a black t-shirt underneath. He breathes aloud and he stares up at the ceiling. His eyes are teary and he grips the right side of his chest.
"Hey," I say. "Are you all right?"
His eyes flicker to me before he squeezes them shut. A tear rolls down the side of his face. Is he having a heart attack?
"Um, do you need help?" I ask. Obviously, he does, but I don't know what to do. I want to touch his arm and not touch him at the same time.
He opens his eyes. "I-I...I'm...fine."
After a minute, his breathing seems back to normal and he isn't cringing in pain anymore. His hands are on his thighs and he shakes his head.
"I...overslept," he whispers. "I never should've run here."
"It's okay," I say. "Everyone's late sometimes."
He looks at me. "But you're late, too."
I look away. "Yeah, but it's okay. I could always copy off the online PowerPoints."
He doesn't say anything. I just hear him breathing or trying to control his breathing. He couldn't be that out of shape. I glance at him. He looks neither thin nor fat. Maybe he has asthma?
He has his hand on the right side of his chest again, staring up at the ceiling. Is something wrong with his heart? If it is, then why is he touching his right side? Isn't everyone's hearts on their left?
I reach out to touch him. "If something's wrong, then –"
He turns away. "I'm...fine," he says through clenched teeth and exhales.
"Okay," I say, recoiling.
He doesn't say anything. He doesn't even look at me. But I know he's in pain.
"If it's serious," I whisper. "Please go to a hospital. I don't want you to suffer."
He doesn't look in my direction, so I turn away and lean my head against the window. I can't even seem to close my eyes now as I stare into the darkness of the subway tunnels. He's not breathing aloud anymore. I think he moves to face me because his knee brushes mine. I shrink back and force myself to close my eyes, turning my watch around my wrist.
"This is a Queens-bound F Train," the conductor says. "The next stop is Second Avenue. Step in and stand clear of the closing doors."
I bite my lip before I turn to face him. His eyes are closed with his head bent a bit back and he has his hands clasped over his lap. I'm not sure what to say to him. Maybe I should just let him come to his own conclusions.
"I waited for you," I tell him.
He turns to me and I look away. "I was...I was worried that something happened to you...because you didn't come."
The train slows to a stop. "This is Second Ave."
I stand. "Anyways, it was nice seeing you again. Hope you have a nice week. And please take care of yourself."
I turn away and walk out, hearing him say, "Likewise."
I make my way towards the stairs. I shouldn't see him anymore. It's not right. I think I'll go to class late from now on. Why should I even care about him? He probably has a girlfriend who cares more about him than I ever will. But I can't help myself.
I turn and see the train pull away. He's sitting by the window now, his head pressed against the glass. The moment he sees me look at him, he smiles and I can't stop myself from smiling back.