The Number 9 Train
Written by Brandon Getz
Art by Jelena Pešić
In the morning, he left before Yuki woke. She was still curled at the edge of the bed, her thin back like a wall. At the cloudy, brass-framed mirror she’d bolted to her dresser, Ethan put on yesterday’s clothes, Windsor-knotted the same blue tie. The room around him felt like a museum. Since her divorce, she’d been stocking it full of ancient furniture, each dilapidated piece bought for next to nothing at one of the bazaars in the worker districts. A phonograph, a plain birch bookshelf, a headboard made from an old door. Nothing with an advertising screen or built-in digitune stream. Not a microchip among them. And Yuki, breathing ribs barely moving: a wax statue to complete the anachronistic display. He did not leave a note or kiss her goodbye.
The city outside was utilitarian gray. Towers reached into the underbellies of clouds. It wasn’t raining yet. Too early for breakfast, too late to go back to his apartment to change, he walked to the train station. The only Downtown route running then was the Number 9. Even before descending to the platform, he knew this. Since he’d met Yuki—five months, almost six—he had started taking the commuter express, but after two years of riding the 9, its schedule was intuitive.
Ethan bought his ticket, milled among strangers and floating holographic billboards—ads for bachelorette cruises and lust gurus—thinking of nothing except Yuki. He should have left a note. Or stayed, woken her, made love half-asleep in the shower and shared a bagel on the walk to the Number 7 Express, its bright plastic capsule too sterile for grudges or lingering arguments, and Yuki’s head would rest on his shoulder as she talked about next weekend’s bazaar, the stained-glass lamp she hoped to find.
Except she wouldn’t have said a word. She would have shrugged him off in the shower, toasted her own bagel and thrown half away. She wouldn’t forgive him yet, not that easily. At dinner, she had insisted on paying the bill again. He thanked her in a low, spiteful tone, left the restaurant without waiting for her. On the train ride back to her apartment, they’d fought. She said he always kept one eye on the door, and she’d seen him flirting with the waitress again, did he think she wouldn’t notice? He kept a part of him secret, walled off from her, why wouldn’t he let her in? She made him feel useless. She seemed so complete, happy, unbroken. Back at her place, it wasn’t make-up sex. Just a tactile extension of the argument. When she fell asleep, too angry to even roll toward him in the uncertain consciousness of her dreams, he looked around at the dark shapes of strange furniture and wondered why he stayed.
Ethan looked around the station. Beside a holographic bottle of zero-calorie beer, two women stood with jackets folded over their arms, talking politely, their heavily shadowed eyes scanning the crowd of men near the ticket kiosk. One was brunette and mousy, close to his age, he guessed—late twenties. The other, platinum blonde and older, breasts straining against her blouse like warheads. Train regulars probably, spotting potential Meeting Room partners. Ethan flicked the ticket against his palm absently, checked his wrist for the time, finding only his bare forearm. He’d been in such a hurry to leave, he forgot his watch again on Yuki’s dresser; he’d even banged his knee against an open drawer in the half-light. Yuki liked to brag that the dresser was real wood, and the peeling mint-green paint showed grain as if to prove it. A four-sided digital clock hung from the station’s domed concrete ceiling: the train was two minutes late. The blonde was staring at him now, one eyebrow arched like a question mark. Yuki was asleep, or not, realizing he was gone, moving alone through her morning routine. Ethan blushed a little, did not smile back.
The train arrived with a hydraulic whisper. Women shuffled first into its wide airlock doorway, several men behind them, Ethan last. As the airlock hissed shut, he turned and touched the cold chrome door as if looking for a doorknob, an exit button. Through its round porthole, the brightness of the station blurred and disappeared, giving way to the black of the tunnel, then to the gray ellipse of morning.
He stuffed his jacket into a locker in the first car, took the numbered key from its lock. He could still smell Yuki in his shirt collar, sweet sweat and jasmine oil. The women had already moved into the dining car. Two men in suits, locking their briefcases in nearby lockers, compared the women’s breast sizes, determined the blonde more fuckable. They could have been Ethan and Pradeep two years ago, fresh out of design school, before Ethan started at the firm, before Pradeep’s marriage. When they began riding, they had made a pact—only six months, a few lays on the way to internships at mid-range urban-design centers, what could it hurt? Six months, then it would be time for real women, real jobs, real lives. Now in infrequent e-mails, Pradeep bragged about his family, sent artsy black-and-white photos of his two baby daughters. He ribbed Ethan about the train. He said no one ever found true love on their morning commute. When Pradeep met his wife and moved to one of the outer districts, Ethan continued to ride the train out of habit, most days only collecting business cards with cell-phone numbers scribbled on the backs—hearts in place of zeroes—promises of maybe-next-time. Sometimes, if he called, they’d meet in an off-train bar, go to her apartment and open another bottle, walk separately to the station the next morning, pretend not to recognize each other after that.
In the dining car, plush, high-backed booths lined each side of the walkway, creating private nooks for couples, for the odd troll here and there drinking alone. The red tint in the car’s recessed lighting made Ethan think of a speakeasy, what he imagined the basement bars of Downtown must be like. Maybe that weekend, their argument far behind them, he would take Yuki to one, whisper passwords to gold-toothed bouncers through unmarked steel doors. Dress up like an ancient mobster and his moll: rented zoot suit and flapper dress. They could call each other by old-fashioned names. Edward and Margaret. Albert and Francesca.
Six months. How had it been that long? He wanted to blame Yuki, but she was the one who wanted to take it slow from the beginning. Her first marriage had been rushed, just out of college, a four-year spat of violent fights and infidelity. She didn’t want to make another mistake. Her left ring finger still showed a thin, pale ring of skin. He’d noticed it the first time they’d had sex—in her bed, a month into the relationship, surrounded by the ghosts of old furniture. Each caress had been deliberate and measured, as if the universe had slowed itself in order not to rush that moment. Nothing like the frenetic desperation of the train. The skin on her finger reminded Ethan that she would never be only his, and in the weeks after, he had felt a desperate need for her, to enter her and own her. They fell into routines. He promised ridiculous things, a future together that made her embarrassed and silent. One week turned into two turned into twenty. The movement was so seamless, he didn’t notice. Now he slept at her place most of the week, kept a coffee pot on her counter, next to her basket of green tea. When she asked why they didn’t spend more time at his apartment, he kissed her, said her bed was more comfortable.
The train stopped and idled. Ethan watched commuters pass the windows as he waited for the train to resume its spiraling loop through the city and its endless districts. Yuki would be awake by now, his side of the bed cold. Only his watch on the dresser would prove he had been there. He checked his pockets for his phone, remembered it was in his jacket, in the locker. If she called, he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t call to apologize. Did he even want to? He stumbled past the booths, toward the back of the car. Men and women sat behind uneaten bagels and full mugs of coffee, gulping mimosas and bloody marys with too much pickle juice. They praised the virtue of private enterprise, the corporate efficiency of the transit system. One remarked on the economic viability of the civil union ban, another promoted commercial sponsorship of sexual communes. All of it, noise.
“Getting back your train legs?” said the man in the booth. He sat alone in the red shadow of the speakeasy lights. He was balding, more gray than black in his beard, and the bulk beneath his suit suggested a once-muscular form. Ethan pegged him for a troll, one of the lonely middle-aged men who’d wasted too many years on quick train fucks, counting the seconds with some too-young secretary in a Meeting Room. Always holding out for better until they’re too old to get good enough. Pradeep had coined the term. Trolls smelled desperate, like too much knockoff bazaar cologne. Something about him was familiar—Ethan had probably seen him on the train before. Most riders were regulars.
“Just riding,” Ethan said. “Nostalgia’s sake.”
“Escape’s sake is more like it,” the man said. “I’ve been there. Sleeping in, eating a balanced breakfast, taking the express. What’s her name?”
“She takes the 7,” Ethan said.
The man smiled, and his grip tensed on a sweating tumbler of dark alcohol. The glass was heaped with ice—one of the bartenders’ tricks.
“And how is your little geisha doll?” the man said. “Enjoying her new office?”
“Excuse me?” Ethan said.
“Don’t remember me, do you?” the man said. “I guess you wouldn’t. We barely met, at some function your geisha no doubt dragged you to.”
Now Ethan recognized him. Part of the firm’s upper-management. A name with a Viking sound. Eriksen. Svensen. Larsen. That was it: Larsen the Letch. He’d given the keynote at the firm’s fourth-quarter gala. Yuki had left the room. When Ethan found her outside, she told him Larsen had offered her a promotion in exchange for a week at a mistress resort in Barcelona. She confessed that she’d considered it. Instead, she was promoted to a different department, on merit, but according to office gossip, photos of Larsen and some other upwardly mobile executive at the resort’s spa had made it to his wife, along with pictures of him on the train. Apparently he had kept them away from the transit corporation. There were rules against affairs, fines and blacklisting for transgressors. Corporate law was clear: Singles Only. Affairs, swingers, marriage-seekers, please see the train in your category.
“She knows I’m here,” Ethan said. He wondered if she had eaten breakfast yet, whether her tea was heating as she showered off his sweat.
“Sure she does,” Larsen laughed, exposing a row of perfectly capped teeth. “Like I give a fuck.” He took another gulp from his glass. “You should keep moving on a train like this. One car to the next, till you’re in back, in a room. Eyes on the prize.” Larsen glanced at the couples in the other booths, lowered his voice. “I have my eye on this redhead from the Uptown stop. Had her screaming gibberish in a room last week. Hoping for a reprise. Skinny chick, tits like God’s angels. Not the prettiest, a little knobby, but the beautiful ones are always dead fish. If the face isn’t great, she feels like she needs to work for it.”
None of the women near them seemed to hear. Ethan mumbled a good luck, positioning himself near the door.
“The fucking absentee is incredulous,” Larsen said to no one in particular. “Doesn’t think I can bed the redhead. Off the train for a few months, he thinks he still knows how things work. What do you bet, a day’s wages? You can afford it, what with the geisha doll’s VP salary.” Larsen leaned back into the shadow. His glass was empty except for its collapsing structure of ice. He saluted with it anyway. “Hope you get the room next to us so you can hear her. Sounds like she’s speaking in tongues.” He thumped the glass on the table and called into the booth’s intercom for another scotch. Ethan took his cue to leave. With a half-smile and another good luck, Ethan pushed into the bar car.
The crowd was bad: shoulder-to-shoulder singles sweating through the sleeves of their work shirts. The air vibrated with conversation and air conditioning and digitized piano jazz. Ethan wedged into an open corner at the bar. The bartender snapped her fingers.
“Irish coffee,” Ethan said. “Extra Irish.”
“We don’t do that anymore,” she said. “Corporate restrictions.”
“Then whatever isn’t restricted. Please.”
She set a mug in front of him a moment later. He blew the steam, then sipped, mouth numbed by the initial burn. He tasted only French roast, but he hoped the coffee would calm his nerves anyway. Even if Larsen kept his mouth shut, one of Yuki’s friends or interns could be in the crowd. He imagined charming them into a Meeting Room, making them complicit. Trusting them to feel the right amount of guilt to keep quiet. Except that was ridiculous. He didn’t want them or a room. He wanted—he didn’t know what he wanted. To punish Yuki? To prove something? Maybe only to feel a familiar motion. Things moved—trains, elevators, clock hands. He knew they moved, but they moved imperceptibly, as if teleporting from one point to the next.
Digital numbers ticked down time on the mirror behind the bar. Still half an hour to Downtown Station. The gradient of gray-black-white beyond the window signaled another stop. Ethan braced himself against the handrail, anticipating the brakes. He surveyed the crowd for the women he’d seen in the station. The mousy brunette twitched her face at a short man with a fire-red beard. The blonde wasn’t there. He looked for Larsen’s redhead, examined bodies for model proportions. The opposite of small, soft Yuki. An old feeling lurched inside his chest. One that told him these women, pretending to be drunk on cocktails that were nine-tenths orange juice and wearing too much makeup for a day at the office, were second-rate. Temporary. Not real. The day he met Yuki, he had bored himself all morning with an online-librarian, didn’t even bother to go to a Meeting Room when she offered. They traded cards, but he de-boarded Downtown feeling defeated. As he pushed the button for floor 20 in the firm’s lobby elevator, Yuki hobbled toward him dragging a canvas bag of blueprints, a broken sandal hanging from her teeth by its strap. Ethan held the door. She talked for twenty floors about nothing he could remember as she unsuccessfully tried to rethread the sandal. He watched the floor numbers light in sequence, absently cataloguing her faults—her chatter, her expensive broken heel (clumsy and bourgeois), her chic wire-rim glasses, the slight space behind her left canine tooth, thin lips, obvious eyebrows, small breasts. She was still beautiful despite all of this. For the rest of the morning, he ignored blueprint deadlines and conference calls. The next day, the train felt like a set piece in a black-and-white movie, the city a projection on a screen outside its windows. He sat alone at one of the booths, waving off women’s drink offers. At the firm, he loitered in the lobby until he saw her approach the elevator, waiting all twenty floors before he asked her to dinner.
He leaned against the bar and drank the coffee down to the dregs. If he had any buzz, it was only caffeine. The whiskey’s proof was too low to matter. He looked for the redhead again, spotting a possible candidate at the other end of the bar. Her unnatural fire-red waves were held in a tight bun with a pair of chopsticks. If she was Larsen’s gibberish girl, he had her wrong. Skinny suggested triangles—a body of jutting bones and apexes, like all architects’ wives. This redhead was tall and slender, sinewy, probably a runner, her hipbones barely straining the fabric below the beltloops of her pencil skirt. Ethan began to wonder whether she really sounded like a rapturous born-again or whether the gibberish were a language Larsen was just too ignorant to recognize.
The red numbers on the mirror counted down. Conversations adopted subtle urgency. The rhythm of the crowd pulsed. Even the jazz sped up. Men and women huddled together, smiling too hard, milking the last of their two-drink limit. Ethan edged through them until he was arm-to-arm with the redhead.
“Buy you a drink?”
Her glass was half empty.
“At my limit,” she said. She was pretty enough. Her teeth gapped in the front, conspicuously if not unattractively. He searched her voice for any trace of accent. He wanted to guess she was Norwegian, but he knew he was inventing that. Still, he could hear her gasping prayers to Thor as they hammered pelvises on the train’s stain-resistant sheets. His stomach somersaulted. He had left Yuki’s without showering, still had her on him from the night before. He was worse than Larsen. Larsen, at least, had nothing but the train and a broken marriage and fleeting tongue-speaking redheads.
“Tahitian martini,” said the redhead. She turned, as if talking to someone else, and her breast brushed his arm. The gesture could have seemed accidental in a different context. She added, with another smile, “If you can get one.”
At that, he fell into the familiar script. He raised his hand for the bartender and ordered the drink. The redhead held out a long-fingered hand. “I’m Alyssa.”
He noticed the pale skin around her left ring finger.
“What do you do, Alyssa?”
“I don’t do small talk,” she said.
The bartender set the drink in front of him before sliding his cash from the bar top. He waited for her to leave before handing the highball to Alyssa. Raising an imaginary glass, he said, “Here’s to no small talk.”
She laughed and tapped his finger with the rim of the glass. A note in the pitch of her laugh was sad, or mocking, or both. He was suddenly aware of the dull pain in his knee where he’d hit Yuki’s dresser and the naked space on his watchless wrist. He was aware of the sharp elbows of the crowd, the spiraling miles of city, the silent magnetic rails beneath their feet. Of Yuki walking to the station alone and Pradeep kissing his daughters good morning and Larsen waiting for a second scotch. Of the weight in his chest, his lungs shrinking and ballooning against his ribcage, more rapidly than towers whipped past the windows, everything and everyone moving all at once, not even buildings standing still.
“Are you okay?” she said. She sounded nothing like Yuki.
“Yeah,” he said. He loosened his tie and shifted his shoulders for elbow room.
“You’re spilling my drink.”
He looked: a puddle of pink alcohol was dripping from her hand onto his shoes.
“Come on,” she said.
When she took hold of his arm, he didn’t pull away. She led him through the dwindling bar crowd, through the door at the back of the car, into two empty bar cars before the first Meeting Room section. They followed stumbling couples who twisted door handles until one opened. The redhead led him into a room and locked the door. Inside, she wrestled his tie over his head. She slid out of her skirt and folded it on the microfridge. He sat on the bed in his socks and boxers, watching her body perform mechanical motions. Unbuttoning. Unfastening. Unfamiliar. The room was windowless. Without the passing city, it felt disconnected, immovable.
“Relax, okay? We only have fifteen minutes.”
She pushed him onto the bed and plucked the complimentary condom from beside the pillow mints. While she rolled it on, he stared at the digital countdown on the ceiling mirrors, numbers shaded with naked reflections of the redhead and himself. Shadows cut seams around his eyes and mouth. Maybe a trick of the lighting—it was hard to see. She ground herself on him, back and forth, never speaking anything but English. Short grunts of Uh-huh and Ohyeah. He didn’t move. The numbers sped them closer to Downtown, to offices and deadlines and the rest of their lives. He closed his eyes and remembered the afternoon Yuki bought the dresser. Its bulk between them, they stumbled away from the bazaar through one of the project districts, passing the cracked mirror windows of an Uptown apartment tower. Yuki watched their broken reflections for the entire block and, without irony, said she wouldn’t mind living there. They carried the dresser another seventeen blocks, breaking halfway for beer at a sidewalk café. As her bottle sweat a ring onto its surface, Yuki ran her fingertip along the contours of the drawers. She wiggled her fingernail in the splintered holes where handles were missing. They had only been dating a month. “I wish I had a house full of old junk like this,” she said. “Any time you come into a room, it’s like traveling back in time.” That night, after they made love for the first time, he imagined a house built of broken-down furniture, a lean-to of warped dressers and hope chests, the two of them together in Yuki’s knobby post bed, under a canopy of rags.
“Did you come?”
The redhead was kneeling on the bed, off of him, examining the shrunken condom. The countdown beeped above them—five minutes to Downtown.
“Hey, did you come? Do you want me to finish you off?”
The top floor of that Uptown tower could be theirs. Each room furnished in a different era: ancient claw-footed chairs, orange shag loveseats, redundant sets of card-catalogue drawers. He could sign the lease today, surprise her, the act itself enough of an apology, he wouldn’t have to say the words. Watch the orange sun sink behind the skyline every afternoon, raise two sons to Pradeep’s two daughters, make love in the morning before their commute together. Wasn’t that what love was? What else could it be? Yuki would be at the station now, alone on the platform with her bag of blueprints. The express would arrive any minute, a perfect white bullet, and she would board separate from the crowd, sit in an empty section, without him, because she did not need him. She was too whole.
“You should get dressed,” she said. “We’re almost there.” The redhead slipped back into her skirt, wedged her feet into matching red heels. “Thanks for that. It wasn’t much, but thanks. Maybe some other morning.”
The door locked automatically behind her, and Ethan snapped off the condom. He checked the microfridge for a bottle of anything, but looking at the rows of tiny, overpriced bottles, he took a cube from the ice tray instead. It tasted of latex and cold, the taste of nothing. As he lay back, he felt the brakes squeeze the train to a stop, and the time on the mirrors rushed toward zero.
Brandon Getz used to ride a commuter train. He doesn’t anymore. And anyway, there wasn’t any sex on it. His fiction has appeared in Versal, The Ampersand Review, and is forthcoming in The Delmarva Review. He holds an MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Creative Writing in Spokane, WA. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with his dog, Marlo, and is writing a novel set on Mars.
(Updated Oct. 2014)
Jelena Pešić was born in Belgrade, Serbia. She graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence with a degree in Sculpture, and from the same school with an MFA in Visual Art and Multimedia Techniques. She is an engraver, sculptor, video artist, and illustrator. She has illustrated children’s books, scientific texts, and graphic novels. Her works can be found here.
(Updated Oct. 2014)