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.