Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part Four

12:50 AM

Friday

The N train barreled through the tunnels, heading back to Queens. Kayden had found herself so affected by Zaria’s musings that the best thing she could do, as near as she could figure, was to return to her apartment. She had gotten more out of the night than she had expected, and it was unlikely that the 20 stops between 14th Street/Union Square and Coney Island would follow suit. Indeed, Zaria’s public breakdown had outweighed even the best goings-on of  prior weeks.

The train had just disembarked from the platform at 49th Street, and was midway through the tunnel when it came to a screeching halt. Drunks grabbed for the stabilizing rails as their booze-logged bodies swayed toward the front of the car. Strangers merged with one another, dislodging the shopping bags and purses that separated one from the other. An old woman tumbled to the floor, landing perfectly on her rear end. For the next two minutes, as the lights of the train flickered and went soft, the woman’s moaning was all that broke the silence.

Once the passengers had regained their composure, a young woman rose from her seat and helped the old woman to it. The others on the bench spaced themselves out so as to provide ample room. It would have been a touching scene, were it not for the careless release of chuckles and chortles from a group of drunk men clustered near the front of the car. No one took them to task for their behavior, possibly because the scene had been quite humorous.

Before any one could ask aloud what the matter was, the overhead speaker chimed gingerly.

“Attention, passengers,” the voice of the conductor came calmly, made tinny by loose wires in need of replacing. “There has been an incident at the 5th Avenue station, and we are now in holding pattern indefinitely.”

The conductor’s boiler-plate platitudes thanking the passengers for their patience and understanding went almost unheard, buried under the countless lamentations. The choir of “fuck me” and “can you believe that shit” subsided after a moment, giving way to a cadence of perturbed sighs and agitated muttering as the wait extended into the yawning morning. Even Kayden, who would normally relish the chance to observe to her heart’s content, found the train’s immobility to be quite an inconvenience.

The subway was not her favorite place to explore her habits. Inside their cramped cars, people were more willing to wear their personas which won them their poor reputations. It wasn’t strictly a New York thing — not hardly. Indeed, it was a very human condition to break under the stress of being confined to closed quarters, not knowing how long it would be until your scheduled life could commence.

Compounding the issue was the relative unpleasantness that was trademark of all public transportation. Vagrants left their odors behind. Even if a homeless person had not been in a particular car for 20 minutes, still it would linger. What should have served as a reminder that there were men and women in dire need of help in the city, instead, served only to remind more prosperous members of society why it was they avoided contact with them.

When the smell of vagrants wasn’t burning the nostrils of impatient riders, the general woes of daily life would begin to gnaw at them. These concerns — often times petty, some times quite great — had nowhere to go, you see. There were no bars to dispense distracting tonics, no trails to be jogged, and certainly no pillow into which a person might bury his or her face and scream. They would rattle around in their synaptic cages, chewing and chewing until, at last, they could emerge.

Emerge they would, brilliantly and violently. A New Yorker trapped in a subway car was capable of terrible fury, and like antelope grazing listlessly in some prairie who can feel a predator approaching — feel it in their bones, in the very fiber of their muscles… such tension could be felt by all others on the train.

But man’s ability to discern from where, exactly, such danger might arrive was scattershot. Centuries of living in mostly controlled societies had dulled their instincts. As a survival mechanism, homo sapiens had learned to hang their heads and hope that the trouble would simply pass them by. Woe be upon the poor bastard who stood in its way.

It troubled Kayden that she could sense the tension rising, and yet the train showed no sign of moving. She kept her eyes to the ground, yet could not keep them from anxiously inspecting each passenger. Who would it be?, she thought. Who is going to make this worse? Who is going to cross that line?

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Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part 3

12:40 AM

Friday

Kayden hid her observant gaze behind the brim of her collar. To make her seeming indifference more convincing, she pulled a book from her satchel. It was The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman. She opened it to a page somewhere past the halfway point, kept her head down so as to give the illusion that she was lost in its words, but she kept her eyes trained on the crying woman to her left.

This kind of activity — spying, if one was to be so blunt — was simpler at night. The sun’s absence, furthered by scant streetlights in the right spot, made it difficult for untrained eyes to notice when someone was observing them. Perhaps this was what drew Kayden so strongly to the night. That enriched anonymity. That, as well as the more robust provision of interesting subjects.

The crying woman was certainly worthy of such a superlative. Her clothes mismatched, her hair a gaudy mess of curls that seemed to bunch in groups without any rhyme or reason. Her tears sent streaks of azure eye liner down along her cheeks. But there was something more in her tears. A vulnerability that the woman felt no shame in displaying to those who might care to take notice.

Kayden had grown up in the midwest, in a little town called Muncie. She had moved several times during her childhood, yet seemed always to remain in the affectionately dubbed “fly-over states”, and such human behavior was rare in public. In fact, given the rampant repression that is paramount of the midwest, Kayden had been trained to hide her emotions from “decent” eyes.

For all the talk of New Yorkers being out of touch, or emotionally distant, they were willing to do what those back home never would. They were willing to exist in public. They would dismantle their delicately conceived exteriors and step outside, naked and wounded, from time to time. They would do so as if it were perfectly natural — opinions about their behaviors be damned! But the crying woman was different.

The crying woman took notice of Kayden, and began to stifle her tears. She stared at Kayden sheepishly, as if she, too, had forgotten the wisdom of her own childhood; to exercise restraint at all times, and to never let the other people see you as you really were. She attempted a smile then, which Kayden could not help but acknowledge. She looked over to the crying woman, and smiled back.

“I am sorry…” the crying woman said weakly, her accent similar to the man’s.

Kayden’s heart raced. She never spoke to people, let alone crying strangers. She much preferred to keep her distance and to go unnoticed, but in that instant she could not help what happened next.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “I mean, is everything okay?”

The crying woman perked up, feeling every bit as surprised as Kayden that she had, in fact, responded.

“No,” the crying woman replied, somewhat cheerfully. “But in the morning all will be well.”

Kayden smiled once more, then took control of herself. She went back to pretending to read.

“Zaria.” The woman held out her hand, and waited patiently for Kayden to accept it.

“I’m sorry?” Kayden looked out at Zaria’s outstretched hand.

“It is my name.” Zaria smiled once more.

Kayden set down her book, shaking Zaria’s hand. “Kayden.”

“Is lovely name, ‘Kayden’.” Zaria repeated the name slowly, as if to study it, “Kaaaayden,” and then nodded her approval.

“T-thanks,” Kayden replied, her nerves causing the word to falter as it left her lips. “Is, uh… is everything okay? With that guy?”

“That pig?” Zaria sent her scorn into the night air, letting it echoe in the streets. “He thinks this is Kiev, that he owns me — but no one owns Zaria!”

Zaria posed confidently, holding her arms up as if to flex. A grin stretched from ear-to-ear. She relaxed herself then removed a Kleenex from her purse, and began wiping the cosmetics from her face.

“So Kiev? That’s where you’re from?”

Zaria nodded. “Yes, and good riddance to that hell hole.”

“And that man is, too?”

“Correct.” Zaria removed her eyeliner from her purse, and began reapplying it. “I was sex worker there — not by choice, mind you, and I was far too young. But, it is what it is.”

Kayden was taken aback by Zaria’s ease of admission. Zaria must have noticed, as she quickly clarified her station.

“No, no, Darling — no longer. This is why he thinks I am his, thinks I am a ‘tease’.”

Kayden nodded, though she still didn’t feel any more at ease.

“I was a little girl. It is common back there. Many families cannot afford necessities, and it is regular for daughters to sell themselves.”

“There’s no other option?” Kayden said, unable to hide her distaste with the idea.

“There is always an option, but… well…” Zaria shrugged. “Who will stand up for us? The money is too good.”

Silence fell for a moment, Zaria seeming to get lost in memories of those days. She stared into the distance, as if viewing her childhood with equal parts nostalgia and disgust. She remained that way for some time, until, at last, the crashing of a skateboard behind her drew her back from Kiev to New York City.

“My aunt lived here for many years, and she told my parents that I would come to live with her.”

“And they were okay with that?”

Zaria scoffed. “Didn’t want me in the first place. They were happy to let me go.”

“Oh…”

“It’s okay,” Zaria reassured Kayden. “Without me there was one less mouth to feed. They could, uh…” Zaria searched for the words. ” ‘Scrape by’, yes?”

Kayden smiled.

“I come to New York, and my aunt tells me, ‘Aglaya, life will be better now’. And it has been.”

“Aglaya?” Kayden repeated.

“My name — or, old name. It means ‘beautiful’. I didn’t want to be beautiful any more. I knew what that meant for a young girl. To be viewed like some precious item, like not being human.”

“Like being a commodity,” Kayden added. “I guess I never thought about that. I always assumed being beautiful was something to aspire to.”

“You think about that now, yes? Not so great to be beautiful?” Zaria grinned conspiratorially.

“So what does Zaria mean?”

Zaria took a deep breath, then answered with great admiration, ” ‘Sunrise’.”

“I like that,” Kayden responded. “Why did you choose it?”

Zaria thought for a moment, organizing her thoughts. “It gave me hope, like the sunrise gave me hope back home. I would work at night, of course. I hated the night, because I was not free. But I would see the sunrise and would think, today could be the day everything changes. Last night there was no hope, but today… today there is a chance for hope to spring.”

And, of course, that thought carried Zaria through until her aunt could give her that chance. It found her sitting on the steps of Union Square Park, instilling in Kayden why the spot held so much acclaim in her own mind. Were the podium still planted in front of her, she knew exactly what she would say into its microphone.

As abruptly as the conversation began, it had ended. Zaria went her way, and Kayden wandered back into the subway terminal.

Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part Two

12:30 AM

Friday

The N train pulled into the station at 14th Street and Union Square, and Kayden had already relegated the scene at Times and 42nd to the bowels of her subconscious. While it had been entertaining, it had largely under-fulfilled her appetite for Voyeurism. Drunks vomiting in subway stations was relatively par-for-the-course in New York. The only thing that had made it stand out was the man’s brief tirade regarding the Glockenspiel.

He might as well have decried ice cream sundaes, Kayden thought as she disembarked the train.

The wind met Kayden as she returned to the city’s surface, its anxious approach striving to knock her off of her feet. She faltered slightly, but remained planted to the steps of the station. She lifted the collar of her coat so as to shield her face, pulled down on her charcoal cloche, and stepped out to greet the yawning night.

Union Square was bustling, despite the late hour. Kayden had always been drawn to the park. It was even one of the few places she frequented during the day, as it was always home to interesting goings-on. Two days after she moved to the city she had come out to set up her bank account, and across from the park sat a podium. There was a small sign on the front of it that read: Take a moment to say something nice.

Kayden hadn’t the nerve to participate, but she was taken aback by the countless men and women who opted to follow the sign’s direction. One after another, the men and women leaned into the microphone mounted on the podium. They thanked friends and loved ones for past kindnesses, professed their love for significant others, and so on. Their voices carried across the small park, and echoed off of the buildings that surrounded it.

The sight had surprised Kayden, as every one back home told her to be wary of the cold indifference that was trademark of those living in New York. The way those back home spoke about New Yorkers, one would think that they were constitutionally incapable of observing the good in life — let alone take a moment to acknowledge it. And in public of all places!

Granted, this was an unusual occurrence in the city. Union Square was susceptible to such situations, a fact that Kayden charged to the neighborhood’s more relaxed dwellers. It certainly wouldn’t happen on 5th Avenue. Nor would it happen in Times Square, where city residents were more likely to spend their time dodging gawking tourists who watched themselves gawk on the one story tall LCD screen plastered atop the Disney Store.

Even at night Union Square seemed to keep its unique company from the rest of the city. Teens skateboarded along the steps, hardly drawing notice from the old timers who played chess at city-supplied tables. There were a few bar-hopping stragglers who would wander through the area, but they were typically stopping off at the T.G.I.Friday’s across the street. They would imbibe chicken poppers and Blue Moons, and then promptly hop back on their trains in order to continue their care-free quests.

Kayden took a seat on the steps leading down from the park. For a moment she found herself lost in the hypnotic cadence of skateboard wheels and trucks as they glided and scraped along the concrete. She closed her eyes and listened: The tapping of skateboards met the gentle howl of the wind, and they came together with the quiet conversations taking place at the chess tables. In the distance, faint and hollow, the echoed chorus of car horns.

The city shared its symphony for those who took the time to notice — a gift to those who dared to abandon their hurried routines. If Kayden’s beloved podium had still remained, she was convinced she would call upon all of her courage to thank the city for that much. But there came a tense moment — the symphony was rising to a crescendo!

Amidst the zen-like harmony of the subtle sounds, two voices rose to the forefront. One belonged to a woman, the other a man, and both were impassioned cries. Kayden clenched her eyes, trying hard to accept the ruckus as part of her song, but could maintain for only so long. The shouting became too great.

“You freegid bee-itch!” The man hollered, his words burdened by his accent. Eastern European, perhaps?

Kayden’s eyes opened to the sound of the woman, his target, stifling the coming tears. She had no words of retort.

The vulgar man continued. “You tease me, you filthy slut! You waste my time, and you waste my money!”

Kayden watched with disgust as the Man threw out his hand in an effort to grab his partner. She recoiled, upsetting the Man. He spit at her feet, rubbed his hands together and threw his arms into the air before departing.

The woman remained frozen in place as she watched man disappear into the night. She was not struck still by sorrow over his leaving. Rather, she seemed stuck in place at the fear that he might turn back and approach her with more fervor.

Kayden shared the woman’s intense discomfort, but she had to admit: This development went further in feeding her need to observe. She wallowed in anxious delight as the woman finally stumbled from her spot, taking a seat next to Kayden, and began to cry.

Nyctophilia and The N Line: Part One

12:15 AM

Friday

Kayden blew into her cupped hands, warming them before pressing them to her numbed cheeks. The crispness and the chill of October, bolstered by the wind’s funneling between the monoliths of steel and glass that made a maze of midtown Manhattan, was a welcome arrival. The Sun’s setting had meant that the myriad men and women in the city could not rely upon its warmth, and had to supplement their persons with woolen coats, caps, and scarves.

Kayden was overly fond of cold-weather fashions. At least in Manhattan every one walked around looking as though they had been transported from a more classical era, adorned with pea coats and newsie caps, mink (or faux mink, as was the responsible alternative) and cloches. “Old Hollywood” was the grand term, if Kayden recalled correctly. Whatever the term, it was a more pleasing look than skinny jeans and vintage tees.

Kayden descended the stairs that took her from the corner of Times Square and 42nd Street into a temporary shelter from the wind. The terminal of brick and marble was every bit as cold, but without the wind’s tyranny she found a moment to compose herself. During the day the trains would be more frequent, ushering with them that same schilling breeze. It was past midnight now, and the trains (especially the Q and N trains, which she relied upon) were as rare as could be.

She sat on a wooden bench near the turnstiles, one that looked to have been cleaned more recently than the others. She watched the people pour in from the cold, enjoying their reprieves from a night of drinking. Some were heading home, while others were looking to continue their liver-pounding tours of the finest bars the city had to offer. Kayden hadn’t the slightest inkling how they could afford such a pastime, but it didn’t take away from her enjoyment in watching them as they came and went.

One fellow had been leaning against the brick wall, seemingly isolated from his friends who huddled close together while they debated the merits of Glockenspiels in popular music. Kayden watched as the young man looked to slip further and further into a coma, his weight shifting as he lackadaisically swayed his shoulders from left to right. His friends had ended their debate, concluding that they approved of the instrument’s presence in contemporary melodies, when the fellow jolted to attention.

“The g-glockenspiel!” He barked, wagging his finger as if to scorn. “I… I don’t like it.” The fellow went quiet for a moment. His friends, who weren’t nearly as drunk, humored the man with thoughtful nods.

“IT MAKES MUSIC TOO…” He paused, his face warping to a portrait of disgust as he muttered his final thought, “cute!”  He punctuated his thesis by vomiting, after which he almost immediately fell to the floor. His friends scattered. They stood speechless, examining the man with the curious suspicion that he might very well be dead.

Before the situation had time to develop further, the N train came barreling into the station. Kayden hopped inside, seating herself so that she could look out of one of the many windows and watch the friends. The train pulled out of the station, and the man’s friends had simply relocated their circle a few meters from their friend.

Be Brave, Little Bear: Prologue

The following is a work-in-progress prologue to my novella, Be Brave, Little BearThe story is inspired by the song “Little Bear”, written by my friend Scott Cumpston and performed on the regular by his band R.I.O. I first heard it in 2005 (maybe 2006), and was struck so by its loving message from a parent to his child. It is a message of hope, of unconditional love; an urging to tolerate the often terrible circumstances of life so that we can appreciate the good in it. Most of all, it is a plea to fill the world with positivity — something that seems is always in short supply. Enjoy.

 

Beatrice Kostas lived in Queens, New York, about ten minutes from LaGuardia Airport. The farthest she had ever ventured from home was Midtown Manhattan, and only once. Her neighborhood was teeming with children her same age, yet she spent her days alone. She was, for all intents and purposes, an unfortunate child.

Beatrice was overweight. More accurately, Beatrice was chubby — certainly in no danger of being “fat”, were it not for the society into which she had been born. Posters in her gym class flaunted a lean, respectable figure to which she was told she should aspire. Television had bred in the public conscious the meme that svelte was superior, and anything less (or, rather, more) was to be abhorred. And Beatrice was abhorred by her fellow students. They would mimic the sound of earthquakes wherever she walked, and oink like pigs whenever she answered questions in class. She had been made a pariah by pure virtue of her DNA simply doing as it was told. Her feelings were not spared at the end of each school day, when the other children ran home with glee.

Very little good could be said of Beatrice’s home life. Her father left when she was still sleeping in her mother’s womb, and the man who came to take his place was far from noble. He was, Beatrice’s suspected, a monster who had disguised himself so well that even her mother — a very bright, yet overly trusting, soul — failed to see through the guise. His fits were excused by a strict upbringing, and his violent tendencies pardoned by his being “misunderstood”. Beatrice didn’t believe a word of it. The man who begrudgingly took Beatrice and her mother under his roof was, more likely, an ogre lying in wait.

His name was Vernon Rehnquist, and he was a drinker. He didn’t have a trade like so many of the other fathers in the burrow. At one time he had been a construction worker with the city, but one day Vernon lost his footing while traversing an I-Beam. There were suspicions that he had intended to fall, but the insurance agents could find no proof of misconduct — save for the fall, which one co-worker described as being “unconvincingly clumsy”. The money from his disability claim allowed Vernon to sit in his recliner all day, watching local news and drunkenly lamenting the state of the modern working class.

“Bunch of entitled, self-righteous pansies!” Vernon would slur, looking at the television through his beer bottle hoping to find one last drop waiting to be lapped up. His favorite group to condemn were public school teachers, who had taken to protesting their unfair wages. “If I could walk, I’d stroll in there and do their jobs for half the money they already get. Let ‘em see how good they have it!”

With that, Vernon stumbled from his recliner and carried his beer-logged body into the kitchen for another drink.

Beatrice had sequestered herself in her modest room where she read during her free time, a habit she had long enjoyed but was “a sure sign that she would grow up misanthropic and ill-adjusted”. This was according to the other parents in the neighborhood, at least, all of whom learned their parental duties from books they were sold on TV. They saw her reclusion as a developing social impairment, a toxic behavior that would limit her options for a good life down the road.

Beatrice knew otherwise, though she would remain silent whenever her mother and Vernon took her to task. It pained her to keep her motivation a secret, but what else could she do? How could she tell her mother the horrible things that Vernon would do after he had been drinking? How could she bare her soul and describe the terrible things her classmates would say to her on a nearly daily basis? How could she do any of it without upsetting the “natural order of things”, as Vernon would rationalize?

Books were Beatrice’s only friends, her only source of bliss. It hadn’t always been that way, of course. There was a time when her mother had been very close to her. They would walk three blocks to the public playground, and they would re-enact some of Beatrice’s favorite fairy tales. Beatrice’s mother would stand atop the wooden playhouse and pretend to be a damsel in distress, and Beatrice would battle fearsome dragons or wily witches in order to save the day. The two would hop into a pair of swings, which they imagined to be horses, and would ride off into the sunset. After returning home and taking a bath, Beatrice would fall asleep as her mother read to her from a hand-me-down copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Some times her mother would sleep in the bed with her, her fingers running along Beatrice’s scalp and along her back. But those days had ended.

To make ends meet after Vernon’s “accident”, Beatrice’s mother had to find work in the city. She hadn’t any education outside of high school, and could never afford classes at the Adult Education Center of Astoria. These factors limited her options — damn near cut them off at the knee. She had managed to find secretarial work with NaviQuest Globaltronics, a powerhouse corporation located in the Financial District. The pay was lousy, and the hours criminally long. She would return every night to find Vernon struck catatonic in his recliner with the TV still on, and Beatrice long-since asleep in her room.

This was Beatrice’s life, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Tomorrow was her birthday, and a new friend would come kicking and screaming into her home.

Every Day, The Same

Morris allowed himself a moment to relax, to let the warmth of his flushed face subside to the coolness of indifference as the blood flowed back to where it had originated. He wiped the cocktail of Jameson and coke from his eyes, trying in vain to sequester what little dignity he had left. He had performed similar rituals every time his mood had gotten the best of him.

He sat back in his chair, and embraced the realization that they were all right to leave.