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… Idon’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.
* * * *
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.
* * * *
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.”
“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?”
“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.
* * * *
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?
* * * *
The last half hour had seemed to stretch on at the pace of two full hours, and the passengers languished in time’s apparent halting. Though several windows had been opened not long after the conductor’s announcement, the men and women were beginning to strain from their collected heat. They had removed overcoats and hats, unbuttoned shirts and blouses, but no amount of reasonable shedding seemed to help alleviate the stifling warmth.
The passengers anxiously eyed one another. Had they, like Kayden, tuned in to the tension which hung like steam in their communal, subterranean sauna? Perhaps they were watching one another out of sheer boredom? In actuality they were sizing one another up; looking for faults or quirks that could be used to justify any number of impending explosions. No one likes the asshole who yells at an old woman, but maybe they would be more forgiving of the socially conscious civilian who yelled at an old woman who wouldn’t stop hacking phlegm into bunched-up tissue paper… Such rationalizations ran rampant.
At the front of the car, having sweated their way to sobriety, the rowdy group of young men were beginning to lose their patience. While the wait had been lighthearted for them in the beginning, their begrudging sobriety had given them very little to be amused by.
“Fuck, me,” one of the men lamented as he looked at his watch. “We’ve already missed last call at Bohemian Hall.”
“Emmy will have left by now.” His goateed friend chimed in, throwing his head back. “I was totally going to tap that tonight, man.”
The passengers shook off the Goateed Man’s crass lack of discretion, which must have displeased the man. He began knocking on the door of the conductor’s compartment.
“Hey! Asshole!” The Goateed Man pressed his face to the door. “You owe me a lay. Your sister free?”
Several passenger’s vocalized their disapproval of the Goateed Man’s insistance on continuing his lazy routine, and so loudly. Others, the Goateed Man’s friends included, snickered and jeered.
“Shit, I’ll take your mother if you don’t have a sister.”
“Would you shut up?” Demanded a Middle Aged Man sitting next to Kayden, taking ahold of his Wife’s hand. “We don’t care for that kind of talk.”
The Goateed Man looked to the Middle Aged Man, his nostrils flaring. “Excuse me? You don’t talk to me like that.”
“And who are you?” The Wife shot back.
The Middle Aged Man, feeling vulnerable, attempted to recall his Wife by squeezing her hand. His looked to the floor, hoping trouble would pass him by.
The Goateed Man did what was customary in such situations. He straightened up, puffing his chest and huffing as he strode over to the Middle Aged Man and his Wife. It was a behavior that was engrained in many men’s DNA — an archaic reaction to having been called upon to be reasonable. It was one of the many flaws that haunted male members of homo sapiens — especially the young. It was a physical instinct that was called upon when a person hadn’t the mental fortitude to react otherwise.
“And who the fuck are you?” The question, purely hypothetical, seethed from the Goateed Man’s frothing, clenched teeth.
“I…” the Middle Aged Man began, stumbling over his nerves. “I’m just some one who wants to wait patiently in quiet. It’s been a long day.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t asking you.” retorted the Goateed Man. “I was asking the bitch.”
Nearly every one of the passenger’s winced at the Goateed Man’s words, but none of them said a word. This wasn’t their fight, they rationalized.
“Now listen,” the Middle Aged Man said with an ounce of courage. “You can’t call my wife something so hurtful.”
“Listen: I’m sorry I’ve upset you for using foul language,” the Goateed Man condescended. “But just because you don’t get laid any more doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t talk about ‘making love’ in front of you.”
“Now hold on…”
“Oh, what? Do you still tap that shit? Let me guess, she let’s you in every couple of months right? When you’ve been good?”
The Goateed Man looked back at his friends. They all shared a laugh.
“I’ve had just about enough of you, you… frickin’ punk.” The Middle Aged Man’s attempt at vulgarity came as naturally as his timid attempt at bravery. The awkwardness of it all traveled through each passenger, all of whom secretly hoped that the Goateed Man would just up and punch the poor fellow. After that release things could go back to normal. Maybe the train would even start up, and the night could commence.
Instead, the Goateed Man just laughed a hearty guffaw. He confronted his friends, mocking the Middle Aged Man’s nervous chivalry.
“Hold the gosh darn phone,” he parroted in a nasally voice. “You can’t say the f-word. It’s offensive.”
He went on like that for some time, taking the car hostage with his excruciating brand of entertainment. The Middle Aged Man and his Wife had since looked back at the floor, trying to simply ignore the strutting moron. Kayden, however, had decided that the brute had gone on long enough. If even for only her own sanity, she would have to do something.
She waited for the Goateed Man to wander closer to her, and when he was within arm’s reach she made her move. Bolting from her seat, piloted purely by her own confused instinct, Kayden took the Goateed Man by his jeans. With one forceful motion she yanked them down, revealing a secret the Goateed Man had been hiding with all of his posturing:
Instead of boxers or briefs was a pair of women’s underwear. They were silk, adorned with a frilly, laced bow on the front. A thong ran along the backside.
The Goateed Man froze in place, basking in the dropped jaws of every one in the compartment. His friends recoiled, their expressions caught in a limbo between abject horror and pure bafflement. No one said a word.
The on-board intercom chimed, and came the conductor’s voice. It was sullen, but remained professional. “We will be moving in just a moment, ladies and gentlemen. There was an incident on the tracks, and it has only now been handled.”
An incident… The riders all knew what that meant, and the conductor’s tone only verified. At some point during the night, one of the city’s forgotten had stumbled onto the tracks. Even in the coming days, no information would be released that might reveal the person’s identity. No motivation would be gleaned.
“Thank you again for your patience and understanding. Thank you for riding MTA, and get home safely.” The intercom cut off.
The Goateed Man pulled his pants back up, rejoined his friends at the front of the train, and refused to make a peep for the remainder of the ride. The Middle Aged Man and his Wife huddled closer together, sharing small, quiet chuckles with one another.
The next few stops came and went, and Kayden found herself alone in the car by the time the train reached Lexington Avenue. After the events of the night, she relished the solitude. The city had given her more than she had bargained for when she stepped out of her apartment hours earlier. And this was the city’s charm.
True, there were misanthropes at every turn. Kayden was one such example. Her affinity for exploring the night had always made her an outcast back home. But these broken, vulnerable people were what made the city live up to its grand aspirations. She didn’t belong back in the midwest, where everything closed down with the sun’s setting, and every one scrambled back into their homes so that they could fill their evenings with television programs that safely revealed the world that existed outside their doors.
Kayden was still a part of that mentality deep down. All of her observing and skulking in the shadows — this behavior was in keeping with the repressed nature of her upbringing. But she had moved beyond that. The minute she lept from her seat and pulled on the Goateed Man’s pants, revealing his own repressed nature that shamed him so… she had not merely been watching the city she loved. She had written her own chapter to be read.