I ride the subway twice daily, to and from work. My journey is from Kipling Station in the west to York Mills in north centre Toronto. On good days it may take me forty minutes; on bad days, only the god of the TTC can tell.
It's a long way to go to be a clerk but the money's not too bad and besides, it's how I get out and about in the world. At forty-two I know I'll never be a big name corporate lawyer, or a famous t.v. star. I yam what I yam, as Popeye used to say.
I bring with me the latest by Stephen King today; I like to read. And maybe that's why I travel so far for such a generic occupation as mine - it gives me precious time to read my books, to look around at my fellow passengers.
It's not that I don't read at home; I do. It's simply that on the subway I can be in two worlds at once. Say for instance, the book I'm reading is particularly gory; that's a good moment to check what station I'm at, isn't it? So I look up, see what colour the bathroom-tile walls are, see who's taking this train, and move on.
In Stephen's world people are dropping like flies from the flu. In mine, a decrepid old man hacks wetly into the air. I turn away, hoping this man is no escaped scientist from some genetic engineering lab in Atlanta. Back to my book.
At Dundas West he shambles off, to be replaced by a sleepy teenager, ears plugged into her walkman. Across from me I notice, by surreptitious glances in the reflection on my window, a man sitting kitty-corner to me; he's absorbed in a novel. Attractive he is, so I sneak another few glances before he, like most of my train, gets off at Yonge and Bloor.
I glimpse him walking towards the northbound escalators and then, in a swarm of crowd he is gone.
My days are almost always just the same. My life's immersed in paper. I fill in blocks on paper forms, by pen or by typewriter as the case may be. I answer the phone and write names and numbers on thin little sheets that flutter as the bosses go by, clutching them in their busy, well manicured hands. And so the time goes, eight to four, five days a week, every week.
Tonight, immersed in my story, the world goes by station by station. I barely made it off to transfer, so engrossing is my Stephen. And nighttime, as always, is the routine making of dinner, and the news and sitcoms with my illegal apartment cat perched nicely on my lap, purring, glad that I'm there to warm him. But cats are fickle creatures and I know if, perchance, I gave him to my mother, he'd be perched and purring for her also. A cat purrs for the one who cares. No more, no less. Not such a bad way to be, eh? Maybe if I'd felt like that, I wouldn't be single now. Then again, maybe not. I never was a looker.
My man he gets on at High Park, another wealthy enclave I shall never know. To date he has read Mitchener, and Uris, and Barker just for fun; all those books I don't dare to try on my subway rides. I've noticed him now for two months; summer's faded into fall and yet, he is still so much a part of my daily ride I think I'd miss him if he stopped coming. Sound almost like a smitten girl, don't I?
I'm reading Lincoln by Gore Vidal, have been for three weeks now. Snow falling outside my window, and still I can't get into it. I make no aspersions against dear Mr. Vidal; his words are golden twists of history, and yet, I don't know. It just doesn't move me, you know what I mean? I wish I had something else to read; so close to Christmas I need anything I can sink my mental teeth into . . . did I say I'm from the Maritimes and come Christmas, I dream of angry grey seas and bitter cold winds blowing down . . . it isn't like that here.
Times such as this I get a yearning to go home. Last year I read a piece in the paper, a man attacked in broad daylight said it never was like this in Newfoundland and he was packing his bags to go home. All the more power to him. I wish I had the courage. But I'm here now aren't I, clutching a book I can't be bothered with and watching a stranger who intrigues the very heart of me.
My man is writing notes, his briefcase balanced carefully on his lap. His black curly hair is peppered with silver, his face freshly shaven. His hands are not my father's hands, no, these are the hands of a businessman - smooth, no callouses or chipped fingernails on him. I just know his touch would be gentle and soft, and his voice, would it not be deep and sonorous? Every day, he boards my train and sits kitty-corner to my window, and yet I have never heard him speak, nor do I know his name. Tomorrow I think I'll sit right beside him and see, does he wear cologne?
It's a bitch of a morning, all bitter with sleet and the cruel wind that blows off Lake Ontario. I got up a little earlier so's I could put a dab of makeup on - a little help never hurt a woman's image once in a while. My mother lips haven't ever been touched by lipstick she says no need to look like a tart; a man wants a good girl. What does she know? I sit in the seat my man always sits; will he sit down beside me, I wonder. The stops between Kipling and High Park are taking forever today, I'm so anxious my hands are shaking, my stomach feels sick. What am I thinking about, for heaven's sake, he'll sit somewhere far down the train and not even know that I'm here.
Wait! There he is. Oh Lord he's so handsome, he's wearing a suede leather coat and a ruby red scarf tucked in the collar. His eyes are deep brown, how nice. He's sitting beside me, thank you Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I have him right there, now's my chance. And he does wear cologne, bless his heart.
I count heartbeats till the next stop . . . I'll just say a word if my knees will stop knocking, oh hell, just get on with it!
"Excuse me," I say to him, "may I ask what book you are reading?"
"The weather's just awful today, isn't it?"
Nothing. He hasn't even looked up. And worse, the woman sitting in front of me is giving me funny looks. As if she's never heard anyone talk to themselves on the train before! I have to get his attention.
I tap him lightly on the shoulder. "What?" he grumps at me. Oh God, I've made a complete fool of myself. "Uhmm, I was just wondering what you're reading."
"A book. What does it look like?"
Hold on girl. I feel like crying, but I can't now, I can't! This is my only chance. He'll never sit near me again if I don't interest him now. "I, I like to read too. Every day, I bring one, except today, I forgot."
"So buy a newspaper."
"That's a lovely coat you've got on. Looks warm. I've been thinking of buying one like that myself. Is it?"
"Is it what?"
"Yes. Now if you don't mind, I'm busy here, alright?"
"Yes, uhm," I stammer, "it's just that, well, I've noticed you before and, ah, my name's Mary. What's yours?"
"None of your business. Now leave me alone."
Bitter tears couldn't be stopped, and weeping, I don't know why I ever thought this man would take a shine to me. Me! Ugly, boring Mary, the farm girl build like a horse, Christ in bucket I'll never be able to show my face on this train again. What an idiot I am. My nose is running, oh where is my kleenex, where is it, where is it . . . my purse slides from my lap to the soupy floor, wallet and chequebook, hairbrush and hairpins, all of it, all of it fallen and swimming in mud by his feet, and I'm scrambling down to pick it all up and dear God, there's tampon stuck to his shoe, I can't pick it up now and he's staring in horror at the mess on floor . . . Suddenly, I start giggling, then laughing, all the while I'm still crying and he looks at me . . .
"Say, Mary, are you okay?" And at that I'm laughing all the harder. "Could you get that, that thing off my shoe?" And Lord, I would if I could stop laughing, tears dripping down off my nose.
"You wouldn't have a kleenex would you mister? I'm sorry," I giggle, "I, I've made an absolute ass of myself, and to think I thought I could ask you for coffee!" The idiocy of the idea strikes me as hilarious, and the sight of him flicking the tampon away is something I'll keep with me the rest of my life.
I cover my face with my hands, while valiantly I try to recover and sure as the day is a slut of a thing, I know I've missed my stop.
I don't know how long I sat like that, time didn't matter somehow. But then when I'd nearly forgotten the fact that this stranger was still there, I feel a soft touch on my arm. As I peek through my fingers, I see a white handkerchief, nicely pressed and monogrammed. I stare at his hand, and by the grace of our Lord, he said to me, "Here, take it. It's yours." And with that, my dear Mr. J.D. is gone, late for work no doubt, seeing as we're at Kennedy station.
The Grey Coach bus whisks me off from Islington Station, my bags carefully stowed down below. It's April and the sun is promising summer to come, green grass is starting to poke through the mud. I bought a new dress and a nice leather handbag, my raincoat, still good from last year, is blue.
In my pocket I carry some tums and dentyne, and a freshly pressed white linen handkerchief. In my purse is my plane ticket to take me back home, back to the Maritimes and my family.
I don't know why I stayed here so long; but I'm 43, no longer a nubile young thing, and you know I think Toronto aged me more than the days that went by.
My cat is living with Jennifer now, my friend from down the hall. He'll be happy with her, I'm certain.
Mr. J.D., wherever you are, you may never have known me, but you'll never forget me, nor shall I ever forget about you. And that is why it is time, time to go home.
3/8/90 C.M. Harris Davies